This is the 4th reflection on Elena Ferrante’s 4 books including My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who leave and Those Who stay and The story of the Lost Child. See 115journals.com. The previous post was https://115journals.com/2020/12/30/ferrantes-neopolitan-quartet-femalecrazy-1/
Like the word ‘Covid’, the word ‘woke’ is a new word that came to my attention only in 2020. Initially, it seemed to apply to those enlightened people who knew that systemic racism existed. Being woke about racism involved interacting with someone who was experiencing it. Well-to-do, older, white, male columnists who asserted that their country -say Canada – had no systemic racism weren’t in any position to make that judgement. In the 60s and 70s this process was called ‘consciousness raising’ and involved racism but also feminism. Elenu and Lila in Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet discuss women’s rights at evening gatherings of college students and faculty. It was new to Elenu as it was to me at that time. I began to recognize that it wasn’t my neurosis that made me unhappy, but real difficulties I was encountering as a woman.
In the 1950s, domineering fathers, who told you what you would do and beat you if you didn’t were not unusual in working classes. I had made it clear to my father that it was unacceptable. We were not that sort. We had risen above it. By definition, middle-classed men were more rational and less volatile. Please don’t think that worked.
Elenu and Lila had, from childhood, intended to climb out of their Naples’ neighborhood by writing a book and becoming wealthy like Louisa May Alcott. Lila was deprived of that route when her father took her out of school after grade 5 to help in his shoe repair shop. Elenu seemed doomed to the same fate, but a teacher interfered and more or less forced her parents to let her go on.
My father also felt that a girl didn’t need an education, but he waited until I was in grade 12 to begin nagging me to quit and become a secretary. Unfortunately, he had neglected to abuse me sufficiently to make me stupid, not that he was averse to abuse. My teachers, like Elenu’s, had regarded me as special and it never occurred to me that just being male made one more special. I didn’t run onto any significant male rival for first place until I was in grade 11. Not that I was terrifically smart, I just had a great study method.
Elenu was much the same, a grind, good at memorizing. The brilliant one was Lila.
When my early experience of childcare, with the isolation, drudgery and lack of mental stimulation drove me ‘whirly’, (https://115journals.com/2020/12/30/ferrantes-neopolitan-quartet-femalecrazy-1/) I had no problem finding a teaching job. In 1962, all you needed was a pulse. I was trained and qualified to teach English, history and Latin. I was hired to teach history, commercial geography, and English in a different classroom for every single class. I pushed a chrome cart on wheels with my teaching materials on it through the crowded halls racing to get to the next class before the kids. After my toddlers were bathed and put to bed, I hunkered down to learn about Russia and its industrial opportunities. Eventually, one of the football players, late for class, took me down and the v.p., who had assigned my teaching spaces, failed to call me a taxi and otherwise treat my separated shoulder as serious. He got a new job in North Bay.
Elenu’s husband is a university professor like his father. He vanishes into his study once the girls are down where he is writing book. This composition actually outlasts the marriage. He sleeps there rather than wake up Elenu. When she turns ‘whirly’ her mother-in-law or her mother turns up to help out and admonish her for not supporting her man. Elenu finds a different way out.
I could never have taken Elenu’s way out. I was terribly in love. I bored fellow teachers by reciting my husband’s merits until one of them kindly advised me to stop. In fact, I had always outshone him scholastically and otherwise. I played the lead in yearly productions. He played the executioner and moved scenery. He got promoted before I did, but I got an assistant headship. True at one point, I went to ask why a flashy male outsider had been made head of department and I had not. I was told that I had small children and aging, ill parents. That principal went to teach in the Lakehead, far, far north. It was true that I amused staff lunch rooms with tales of this chap, creating gales of laughter. So at that point, I seemed to be somewhat ‘woke’.
By now my husband and I were teaching at the same school. Not getting promoted gave me a license to question policy in staff meetings. I was also ‘shop steward’. I was fearless and loud. My husband didn’t speak out much. He just very quietly subverted policies he disagreed with. He was the guy who did the timetable, so he had ‘power’. And he was a him. He never got called on the carpet. Eventually, I became department head. I could have held that position for the rest of my career, another 20 years, but 4 years later, I discovered my husband’s secret life and resigned my headship to go half-time and heal my soul.
Lila’s first marriage at 16 works out badly, so she leaves with her son and, ironically, takes Elenu’s route. When she ends up having to support herself and her child, she works at a sausage factory in brutal and exploitative conditions. Now it is the boss, not father or husband that keeps her in line. She finds the burgeoning union movement both useful and troubling. For a while, it’s hard to know who is beating her up, the antii-unionists or the brotherhood itself. Her genius breaks through more than once in the series and she is able to make herself wealthy and to manipulate the cammora bosses, her old enemies in the neighborhood.
Elenu becomes a writer of fiction and essays and as such takes on the same criminals, who are either in love with Lila or trying to destroy her. When Elenu leaves her husband her in-laws step in to ruin her publishing career. Her mother-in-law is the leader in this campaign. She has not evidently, joined the sisterhood. They fail.
There are decent men in the novels. Elenu’s husband reforms himself and becomes a helpful father although at some distance, for Elenu is back from the north and living in Naples. At university in Pisa, Elenu meets Franco, a wealthy, more worldly student who teaches her to dress fashionably and takes her to Paris. Some of the boys the girls grow up are also capable of empathy. Alfonso Caracci is notable as a friend of Elena’s in high school. He later works with Lila but despite their mutual affection, she uses him for revenge. His brother Stefano is Lila’s first husband. Enzo Scanno betrays his own brilliance during a classroom mathematics face-off with Lila, but, he too has to quit school to support his family. Later during Lila’s sausage factory days, he becomes her protector. A number of others don’t quite make the grade. Pasquale Peluso becomes an activist for a more just society, but runs afoul of the law. Antonio Cappucci, once Elena’s boyfriend, has a breakdown while serving his military stint and, unable to work for a living, becomes an enforcer for the cammara. Still he is someone Elena and Lila can rely on in a pinch. Others like Lila’s brother Rino follow their father’s generation educating their wives by fist.
There is a subset of male characters in Ferrante’s books who have secret lives. One of them is the cause of Olga’s breakdown in Days of Abandonment, published prior to the Neopolitan Quartet. He has been keeping a close secret for many years. Nino Sarratori, the son of train conductor/poet, and the love of both Lila and Elenu at different times, is one of these. Elenu suspects that he has never really broken off with his wife, but she does not end their love affair until Lila sends Antonio to enumerate his encylopedic transgressions.
Nino has had women running after him his whole life and uses his charm and their affection to raise himself in society. My math teacher husband was considered a very boring person by my family. He frequently actually fell asleep when he was with them. He pioneered the use of computers in schools, teaching the first programing courses when punch cards were used in a room-sized computer. Then personal computers began to show up, just not small enough yet to be easily transported. So evenings he went back to the school to work on the Wang computer. My family said he was working with Miss Wang and laughed merrily. Well, her name was not Wang. She was Ms Daughter-of-the-people-next door, young, blonde, living in her own place at the beach. Her brother was my son’s friend and went to our school. My husband was driving the Dodge RT home from her place one night when he got t-boned.
He hit me once early in our marriage. The kids were still small, so I figured okay, one free throw. After that he hit walls but he always repaired them. For two years before his secret life was revealed, I had become more and more anxious. Something was deeply wrong. I convinced him to go to a marriage counsellor. No nothing was wrong from his point of view, except perhaps I needed something stronger than Librium.
As news of his affair spread through the high school, older, ‘wiser’ male staff took me aside, talked about European men and wives with discretion. I shook my head. ‘He’s English,’ I said, ‘and I’m not one of those. I’m more the knife-sharpening kind.’ The children were 16 and 17. After he left, I didn’t commit suicide as they expected.
I got involved In his final illness, in March 2019, because I was his executor. Everything was a mess and he was past making rational decisions. He couldn’t understand that this was the end. To him the elephant in the room was whether he would be able to drive when he got out of hospital. I was sincerely glad that I was not and had never been as crazy as he said. I needed all my sanity to get through that ordeal.
In the end, Elanu has written a very long book -published in 4 parts- describing her brilliant friend and has a firm grip on reality. Lila has vanished, disappeared as she had longed to all her life, but, wherever she is, I am convinced that she is quietly leading a sane and contented life.