What Elena Ferrante Reveals About Us


I was at an independent bookstore in San Francisco, browsing through the “staff picks,” when I saw the sign: “#Ferrantefever – just give in.” It was taped underneath Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, which has received an overwhelming outpouring of critical and popular praise.

What’s behind Ferrante fever? Many fans have essentially said, “It’s the most honest portrayal of close, female friendship that I’ve ever read.” The Neapolitan series, starting in Naples during the 1950s, centers on the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo. Amidst a rotating cast of lovers, husbands, and friends, they are the only constants in each other’s lives—that is, a constant source of both loving support and competitive sabotage.

It is true that Elena Ferrante—a pseudonym, by the way—confronts us with the complex truths about intimate (female) friendship that we rarely talk about and prefer to ignore. But the spellbinding power of the series goes deeper: She forces us to confront not just the truths and lies we tell about our friendships, but also our very selves.

The first novel of the series, My Brilliant Friend, introduces us to Lila and Elena (called “Lenu” in the book) as children. Lila is the “terrible, dazzling” wunderkind who teaches herself to read at the age of three, and whom Lenu, smart but not brilliant, is always shadowing. Lila is no less sharp and ruthless on the streets—boys are afraid of her stone-throwing—and is the clear ringleader in the girls’ adventures. But their paths diverge when Lila’s father decides not to pay for extra classes that would prepare Lila for the admission test to middle school; he demands instead that she help with the family shoemaking business. When Lila protests, her father throws her out the window, breaking her arm and ending the dispute.

Lenu’s parents, on the other hand, choose to pay for those extra lessons. Lenu may not be as naturally talented as Lila, but her self-discipline and work ethic enable her to escape their hometown and achieve no small amount of success. As the second book, The Story of a New Name, tells us, she attends a very good university, meets her future husband, marries into an influential family, and becomes a published author. Lila Cerullo, on the other hand, is now Lila Caracci, wife of a grocer who is threatened by her and regularly rapes her in bed. (As you can see, the series is imbued by male violence—physical and otherwise.)

Despite her apparent success, Lenu is constantly nagged by Lila’s unrealized potential, always comparing herself to “who Lila could have been.” The very fact that Lila does not apply her intelligence to any great purpose allows Lenu to perpetuate Lila’s mythic advantage from childhood over her. Even when she does succeed with her writing, she credits her success to Lila’s invisible presence, to the spark that conversations with Lila induce in her brain. Lenu is competing against none other but her self-created fantasy of Lila.

But it is clear that Lenu is not the only envious one. Lila sees in her friend’s path a life that she could have lived. She demands at her wedding that Lenu keep up her studies, telling her, “You’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls,” twisting the meaning of the title of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend. But when Lenu does accomplish something, Lila never lets her have any satisfaction.

In the second book, when Lenu returns to Naples to show Lila, who is working at a meat factory, her first published novel, Lila acts as if Lenu accomplished nothing much, and boasts instead of the programming languages that she is learning at night. Lenu goes on, in the third book, Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave, to become a more prominent author while Lila stays in Naples, starting a computer business. Despite Lenu’s success, Lila does not care much for her writing, but she does ask Lenu, much later on, to tutor her precocious daughter Tina, so that she would have the education that Lila never had. Throughout the series, both women parasitically rely on the other—Lila using Lenu to enable a life for her daughter that she could not live, Lenu using Lila as a benchmark that she will never reach—and thus both deeply love and hate the other.

This is not a series about women tearing each other apart. Part of what keeps their friendship so tightly wound is the undeniable magic that occurs when they are together. For instance, when Lenu reflects on her conversations with Nino, a rising academic and a man whom she has loved since childhood, she feels like she had “to pay attention to say what he wanted me to say, hiding from him both my ignorance and the few things that I knew and he didn’t.” There is “no comparison” with her exchanges with Lila, “which ignited my brain, and in the course of which we tore the words from each other’s mouth, creating an excitement that seemed like a storm of electrical charges.” Indeed, much of the series reveals the ways in which men, even the most sophisticated of them, subtly and indirectly use women to elevate their own ego, and the ways in which women carve out their own separate, hidden worlds—though to be sure, they are unsentimental worlds, riddled with a different kind of violence, not honey-sweet portrayals of “sisterhood.” Unsurprisingly, Elena Ferrante, in an interview with Vanity Fair, describes herself a (non-militant) “passionate reader of feminist thought.”

The question of how feminism plays out in her writing deserves a whole other essay. For now, I want instead to focus on another point that she mentions in her interview. She says that she tells stories about middle-class women whose “self-governing ability” prevents them “from falling into depression, into self-degeneration, or into dangerous feelings of revenge, aimed at themselves or at others.” But then “something breaks and these women’s boundaries dissolve, and the language with which they are attempting to say something about themselves also is loosed, unbounded.” (italics added)

For Lenu, her friend is the force with which she struggles to maintain boundaries, as she vacillates between both desire for and repulsion from Lila. “Inside was the struggle to leave her, the old conviction that nothing truly important would ever happen to me, and yet I felt the need to get away,” Lenu thinks to herself, upon reuniting with Lila in the meat factory. An extended period of contact with Lila always ends with Lenu declaring that she will cut off contact with Lila, tired of the power that she seems to exert over her. But her efforts always fail, and sooner or later, the boundaries dissolve—even if just in her own mind. Towards the end of the last book, Lenu, by now a fairly accomplished novelist and writer, is haunted by the idea that Lila is secretly writing a book (she is not). Every day, she braces herself for a phone call from Lila in which she announces that she plans on publishing a book (of course, Lenu would help her publish it), which would, of course, be far better than all of Lenu’s work combined, and confirm once and of all Lenu’s worst fear, that although she is the accomplished and published intellectual, the truth is that she is only pretending, while Lila is the real daring genius. Try as she might to place boundaries between Lila and her, she never succeeds.

Lila has her own fear of “dissolving boundaries.” In the fourth and final book, The Story of a Lost Child, an earthquake breaks loose while Lenu and Lina, both pregnant, are together in Naples. Lenu is calm, trying to reassure Lila who, surprisingly, is terrified and is unraveling in a way that we have never seen before. Lila reveals to Lenu that she is experiencing a violent episode of “dissolving boundaries,” where the physical outlines of objects break and melt into one another, where flesh meets metal, where sound meets sight meets smell, and so on. Since childhood, she cries to Lenu, she has struggled “to believe that life had firm boundaries.”

We realize then why Lila, for the most part, distrusts the world outside of her concrete neighborhood—the sophisticated world of ideologies and words with which Lenu surrounds herself. To Lila, the only true reality is a physical one, one where people are no more than flesh-and-blood outlines which can, at any moment, break apart. And so she labors to suppress the looming disorder through calculating strategies and manipulative schemes in order to maintain the upper hand of control over everyone around her, including Lenu. Both Lenu and Lila fear “dissolving boundaries,” except Lila’s boundaries are physical, whereas Lenu’s are mental.

At the end of the final book, Lila experiences a great tragedy. She chooses to dissolve herself, disappearing from Naples without a trace, even cutting herself out of photographs left at home. Lenu decides to write a book about Lila and their friendship (against Lila’s explicit wishes) in order to inscribe her friend’s presence in physical form, so that her boundaries will never dissolve.

The reader now discovers that this book of hers is the very book—the whole series—that the reader is reading. Lenu is speaking directly to us. And so Ferrante reiterates the point that in fact that we are not so much reading about a friendship between two people, as much as one person’s view of her friendship. We are introduced less to two people and more to two voices within Lenu: her voice and the voice of “Lila” in her mind. In a way, there is no boundary between Lenu and Lila in the book.

This is not so unusual. In intimate relationships, we become so enmeshed and entangled that we start to internalize the other within us. The best version of this is when both parties move beyond internalization and start to integrate each other; they hone and shape one other, becoming something more than what each person is by herself. The critical problem is that Lenu never integrates Lila; she remains a ghost in Lenu’s mind who absorbs all of her idealized projections and insecurities. In other words, Lila does not rub off on her; she merely says, “Lila is like that, thus I am not that.”

Lenu and Lila are so primordial in their drives—one hungering for approval, the other for control and stability—and so unchanging throughout the series that, over time, they come off less like two characters and begin to sound more like two warring voices within ourselves. Lenu is the voice that we hear when we wonder, “Was that enough? Am I enough?” while Lila is the voice that hisses back, “What do I care? Fuck them all.”

In the email-exchange interview with Vanity Fair, Ferrante writes, “I pay attention to every system of conventions and expectations, above all literary conventions and the expectations they generate in readers. But that law-abiding side of me, sooner or later, has to face my disobedient side.” She could have easily said, without losing much accuracy, “But the Elena-side of me, sooner or later, has to face my Lila-side.”

When asked why there aren’t more books that depict “intense relationships honestly,” Ferrante responds, “Often that which we are unable to tell ourselves coincides with that which we do not tell.” Therein lies the power of her stories. They expose the parts of our friendships and relationships that we would rather hide. But they also tell us, brutally and incisively, who we are.


[Image: “Napoli 2010-by-RaBoe-56” by Ra Boe / Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Commons]

Sarah Ngu

Sarah grew up in Malaysia and California, and is now a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York. She is an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University.