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Elena Ferrante’s Naples: Friendship, Feminism and the Feeling of Home

“This city is not any place, it is an extension of your body, a matrix of perception; it is the basis for the comparison of every experience. All that has been significant for me over time has Naples as its scenery and sounds in its dialect.”

Elena Ferrante (translated by Anne Goldstein)

Unless you’ve been living on the moon, you must have heard of My Brilliant Friend, the series of four books by the utterly talented–and mysterious!–Italian writer Elena Ferrante. I still recall the moment I bumped into the first volume of the quartet a few years ago. I was looking for a present for my mother, and the book cover caught my attention. Further intrigued by the synopsis, I read a few pages from My Brilliant Friend in the local bookstore.  

At the time, I did not know anything about the book, and I only vaguely knew the writer from the movie adaptation, by the Italian director Mario Martone, of her first novel L’amore molesto (Troubling Love). The incipit of the novel was so powerful, so hypnotic that I felt mesmerised. Could have it been the plot? Or perhaps the words the writer used to express sophisticated emotions? Or the characters themselves? 

I had it wrapped, wrote a little birthday note, and went home. But moments after my mom opened her gift, I was back in my room devouring the book. Although my mom complained that it was her birthday and not mine, in my defence, I had travelled 10 hours to be home and felt like I deserved it (a terrible excuse, I know). That afternoon, reading the first book of the quartet, I was transported back to high school when I used to spend hours reading novels behind the old oak desk in my tiny room. Elena Ferrante’s novel carries the same power as the classics of literature, the same rigorous bildungsroman craftsmanship only great literature contains. It wasn’t just reading a novel: it was more like crawling inside the author’s mind, where words followed more words, rolling organically into sentences, portraying characters so vividly I thought I knew them, conveying thoughts so intimate that I believed they were mine. 

For those who don’t know, and without spoiling too much of the wonderfully crafted plot of these novels, My Brilliant Friend follows the lives of two friends, Lenù and Lila, from post-WWII Italy until the present: their relationship, the constantly evolving friendship, their fierce jealousies, unspoken rivalries, personal solitudes, the many problems they have to face during their lives in the rione (“neighbourhood”) on the outskirts of Naples. 

Elena Ferrante wonderfully depicts emotions and feelings, portraying friendship among women, mother/daughter relationships, and powerful, independent female figures from teachers to publishers. From a political perspective, My Brilliant Friend shows a sharp criticism of Italian patriarchal society, and describes the feminist movements of the 70s and their understanding of female bodies and spaces in Italian society. From a sociological point of view, the book addresses the dichotomies between North of Italy and South of Italy, between the vernacular language of the Neapolitan dialect and the institutional Italian language. History is also a protagonist in the Neapolitan quartet, defying behaviours and contexts, from post-WWII Italian poverty to the economical growth of 60s to the turbulent so-called Years of Lead, a traumatic chapter in the history of the country. 

But at the core, My Brilliant Friend is a tale about Naples. Campania’s biggest city is the setting in which all of the characters’ lives happen; Naples is the dynamic force that attracts and repels all the characters of the novels. Even when Naples is not the actual setting for the tale, the city radiates magnetic energy that makes it the real protagonist of the novel, charming the characters who keep coming back. 

Throughout the four books of the Neapolitan tale, we see Lila and Lenù fighting for their independence, fighting to become successful and free from the life they were assigned by Italian society of the time. Lenù finds herself leaving the rione, heading off to Pisa, Florence and Milan, hoping for a better quality of life, but eventually discovers that the world outside Naples is not very different from what she experienced in the rione growing up. She faces similar power dynamics and finds herself in familiar situations. Meanwhile, the fierce Lila is living on her own terms, chaotically achieving the freedom she aspires to without leaving Naples.

My Brilliant Friend beautifully shows how any microcosm contains the whole world in itself and how the rione/the city that Lenù thought was too narrow for her is just a smaller scale of the world. Lila, on the other hand, discovers that Naples is a theatre where the dynamics of our world happen and that she can find freedom even within these confined walls: the outside world is no different than Naples. 

In a similar fashion, Elena Ferrante powerfully, almost psychoanalytically, holds up a mirror for the reader. The greatness of these books lies in Ferrante’s ability to make the series universal, speaking to everybody no matter where one is from. One can relate to the relationships and the entangled emotions. In some ways, Ferrante and My Brilliant Friend make Naples a familiar and universal home.

Within the safe walls of my own room like the kid I once was, reading the Elena Ferrante novels, I realised that My Brilliant Friend is ultimately a tale of nostalgia. In life, however tumultuous, we try (physically or mentally) to go back to our roots, to those places where we grew up and experienced life in its primordial energy. Lenù and Lila eventually end up in different places in life: the former becomes a famous writer and the latter disappears after a horrible event (no spoilers!). I believe, however, they were both driven by a certain desire of unity that only childhood can provide, juxtaposed with the scattered severance of adulthood.