Elena Ferrante didn’t write the Neopolitan Quartet. We don’t actually know who did. It is the subject of great speculation. One super sleuth, Claudio Gatti in 2016 followed the money and h concluded she is actually Anita Raja, a translator of German novels and until her retirement, head of a library. Her husband is a novelist, and according to Gatti could not afford the real estate they own. Like many of Ferrante’s readers, I am on her side. I know who she is in her heart and soul. I don’t need a name and picture or speculation that her husband actually does the writing.
The writer who calls herself Elena Ferrante believes that, having written a book, she has done her part. She doesn’t have to follow it out into the world and sell it. A good book will sell itself. She does depict Elenu Greco the narrator of the series going on book tours to whip up interest and using what reputation she can gain to establish herself in the literary world. Ferrante prefers like Lila Cerulli to stay hidden.
Ferrante begins the cycle when Elenu and Lila are in their sixties, which she calls ‘old’. Rino, LIla’s forty-year-old, ne’er-do-well son phones Elenu to tell her that Lila has vanished. Two weeks ago. Well, he thought she was just walking around Naples as she often did. Even at night? Well, yes. Elenu knows that Lila’s fondest wish throughout the ups and downs, whether poor or rich, Lila has always wanted to erase herself, to vanish without a trace. Eventually, Elenu gets Rino to look in Lila’s closet and dresser and desk to see what she has taken. Everything. Every last possession. Elenu advises Rino to pull himself together and look after himself. Then she sets out to write this four volume history of Lila’s life, which necessarily includes Elenu’s own.
In her earlier two books A Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment, she spoke of the old as young people often do, with scant respect and a reluctant growing understanding that they are actually just people. It is her more grownup self writing the Quartet.
In the game of Find the Lady, people assert that surely Ferrante has been married, had children, been divorced, lived in Naples, etc. because she writes about this things with insight. To that I could add she has also had psychotic episodes, which helped her write her earlier book Days of Abandonment, in which the deserted wife has unwittingly locked herself in her apartment with a dying dog and a very sick child. Some of that wavering of the edges of reality shows up as Delia in A Troubling Love tries to understand why her mother drowned. And Lila in My Brilliant Friend experiences times when reality loses its edges and she begins to lose herself.
I don’t necessarily believe she has been psychotic. Observing that condition is good enough. Having observed it, I could write about it. I certainly think that one way or another she has experienced abandonment.
Remember in my first reflection on the Neopolitan Quartet, the little family in the red Fiat that roamed around Europe for weeks. Four summers later, I found myself alone in the house under the hill, dipping frogs out of the pool filter basket. After all, my husband preferred a younger, blonder companion. It was a hide-the-knives situation. The teenagers transferred to an alternative school, dropped out and went to live with arty friends, worked in donut shops and back stage or enrolled in art school. I lost my mind, as well as a lot of weight, dyed my hair auburn and went on teaching next door to the cad who had left me. Tell me about abandonment.
I do grant children to Ferrante and abandonment.
As far as I’m concerned, she got me through November and early December in a Covid red zone. Whatever she wants in return! I will not try to hunt her down. Even if I could. I’m 84. She’s younger. I think. I think so because I already had children when oral contraceptives became available in the early 60’s. Elenu’s decision to use them at the beginning of her marriage strikes me as realistic and true for the writer. I would say Ferrante is a decade younger than I am. I say that not to track her down but as a way to understand her era.
So the main theme of the book is the friendship of these two women -Lila and Elenu, which starts in early childhood and ends with a wordless final act.
Who was the brilliant one, who was the leader, who moulded whom?
Initially, Elenu competed with Lila in elementary school. Not that she wanted to beat her scholastically or even tie. She was content to come #2. That was all she could aspire to. Then LIia’s shoemaker father took her out of school at the end of grade 5. Both girls had the same teacher, but despite Lila’s brilliance – she even wrote a story called The Blue Fairy, which later informed and inspired Elenu’s first novel – the teacher ignored her and campaigned instead for Elenu to go to middle school, even providing her text books. Eventually with such help, Elenu went to high school and then to university. As we saw in my previous response, Lila was able to tutor Elenu in Latin just by borrowing her text book briefly.
Lila masters shoemaker skills and designs a unique pair that play more than a symbolic role, pivoting the plot at a crucial moment. At 16, Lila is engaged to a wealthy shopkeeper and becomes the beautiful, well-dressed envy of the neighborhood. All the young men are in love with her.
Elenu, at university in Pisa, continues on her ambitious path to get out of Naples, attaching herself to an academic family, as well as to social activists, one of whom teaches her to dress stylishly and takes her to Paris.
Lila is the first to have a child – Rino, who calls Elenu years later to say Lila is missing. Pregnant Lila has a very hard time sharing her body with this alien creature. In her Lila way, she immediately sets out to improve her new baby’s intelligence by inventing games to play with him. At this point, she has no need to work. Elenu’s first baby arrives far too early in her marriage for her liking. Pregnancy for her is no big deal but her daughter is a ‘difficult’ infant. She can’t latch on and she’s either hungry or colicky.
The best thing about my first pregnancy was that I was teaching next door to a girl’s rest room. The not best thing was that I was nauseated the entire time. Then my daughter proved to have the same problem as Elenu’s Dede, but less obliging grandmothers. Just before my mother died, she asked me if I remembered she had spent 5 weeks with me and the baby. I agreed and thanked her. In reality, she had spent 5 days and had to rush home to take delivery of a new freezer.
Because my family moved so much, I was never able to have such a long term friendship. When I started at McMaster University, I shared a single dorm room with a room-mate. My upper bunk was so high that I had to climb a five-step ladder and over a sturdy railing. There was so little space, we had to take turns getting dressed. We were totally unalike. She quit after first year. She had succeeded in getting her MRS. She was engaged to the head boy who graduated that year. I had a boyfriend from high school, the Italian-looking chap, but both of us were there to get degrees and escape our own poverty. The room-mate had nothing to teach me.
In the unbelievably bleak common room of West Wallingford – alias an old military barrack -I met a totally different sort of girl. It was only later I realized she had actually dropped down from 1968 into 1955. She was an orphan, the ward of her uncle, a Baptist minister as her father had been. We were there at a Baptist university and we had to study all about Paul and his letters: It is better to marry than to burn. My new friend Felicity preferred to burn, preferably with a good brandy. I attracted a serious young man studying for the ministry. He took me for dinner at a local greasy spoon and saved me from Refectory food. I thought at least I should look around when boyfriend had gone home as he did each day. But Felicity.. all the grad students were in love with Felicity. Thus we got lifts out to the Annex in Dundas where the science grads lived in squalor and intellectual ferment. It was fun to have a beer and argue about McCarthy and Communism, but to listen to Felicity laugh was pure joy. I can hear her still, running up the scale, and starting hilariously all over again. Her life had been shaped by tragedy and yet she was delighted by life and avid for experience. Once we got snowed in at the Annex and had to stay the night much to the horror of the prefect on night duty at the residence. But it wasn’t that kind of sleep over. Worn out by conversation, we all fell asleep where we were sitting. Well, the boys could cook spaghetti and talk nuclear physics but they smelled of pipe tobacco and wet wool. Some of Felicity’s other swains were more acceptable, the honorable this or that by now. There were weekends where she vanished, ostensibly to my home, for what were boozy, pleasure-filled escapes at a conveniently empty house or cottage. Felicity herself lives here in my city. As it turned out we both had one divorce, one girl and one boy. She established herself in her own specialty and edited a magazine. When I hear her being interviewed, she sounds very serious and respectable. I hear her laugh only in my head.
My Italian-looking boyfriend was very earnest. Elspeth taught me not to be.
As young mothers, Elenu and Lila could count on each other to take in their children and mother them for months on end if necessary
Felicity and I haven’t kept in touch. Elenu and Lila do and call upon each other when in difficulty. They shape each other through both their similarities and their differences. Lila never leaves the neighborhood and Elenu, who does, actually goes back there to live. They were intertwined until almost the end. By writing this long story, Elenu is trying to figure out how much of her is actually Lila.