I was blind, she a falcon

Joanna Biggs

Are Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels even books? I began to doubt it when I talked about them with other people – mostly women. We returned to life too quickly as we spoke: who was your Lila, the childhood friend who effortlessly dazzled everyone? Or – a question not happily answered – were you Lila? S. said she had got back in touch with an estranged friend to give her the first volume in the series; K. felt that, impossibly, embarrassingly even, the books captured how she’d gone about finding an intellectual identity for herself. And we couldn’t stop talking about the experience of reading them: S. read under sodium-orange streetlight while smoking a cigarette outside a pub, unable to break off to go in to the friends waiting inside; E. had a week of violent dreams after she finished the first volume; A. had sleepless night after sleepless night to finish them, and walked to work the next morning her head still full of Naples; B. – a man – couldn’t go on reading as he started to feel bad about being a man. I got so confused about what was real and what was not while reading Ferrante on a train that I kept on forgetting that I hadn’t missed my station. The usual distance between fiction and life collapses when you read Ferrante. She knows it too: writing the Neapolitan quartet, she has said, was like ‘having the chance to live my life over again’.

Ferrante’s writing seems to say something that hasn’t been said before – it isn’t easy to specify what this is – in a way so compelling its readers forget where they are, abandon friends and disdain sleep. It would be enough to have books in which we recognise the truth of women’s lives in all its darkness, but the Neapolitan quartet also has an almost deranging narrative pleasure, delivered in a style that’s more of an admission that the author cares too much about the truth to bother with style. The publication of the fourth and final volume is a terrible moment. M. compared it to having sex with someone after you realise you’re in love with them: it almost can’t not be bad. For 1200 pages we have followed the lives of Lila and Lenù from academic dominance at school in their native, rough neighbourhood of Naples to dynastic marriages of one sort or another, political engagement, career-making, childbearing and now ageing; all the while, as Lenù, who tells their story, puts it, ‘continuously forming, deforming, reforming’ each other. ‘I was blind, she a falcon,’ Lenù has it in the first book, as if she didn’t know this to be the starting point for many reversals.

Before the Neapolitan quartet, Ferrante allowed three novels into print, each just over a hundred pages long yet with the dense expansiveness of a dream, or a nightmare, about them. These short books, Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter and The Days of Abandonment, told of periods in a woman’s life – the death of a mother, the loss of a child, the departure of a husband – when things seem to slip. Her protagonists are women who expect more from life than their mothers did, and are disappointed when they come up against much the same: ‘The difference is that these women don’t submit,’ Ferrante said in 2006. ‘Instead they fight, and they cope. They don’t win, but they simply come to an agreement with their own expectations and find new equilibriums.’ They try but don’t manage not to go crazy when their mother is found drowned wearing only an improbably expensive bra; or their husband leaves them for the twentysomething daughter of an acquaintance; or they’re befriended on holiday by the type of family they’ve spent their life trying to escape. They fuck the neighbour and kill the dog, or spend days tracking their mother’s ex-lover, or steal a toddler’s doll. ‘Something in my senses wasn’t working. An interruption of feeling, of feelings,’ as Olga, whose husband has left her, tries to describe it in The Days of Abandonment. ‘Sometimes I abandoned myself to it, at times I was frightened.’ There is also a Dido-like beauty in their madness. At one point Olga is stuck in the house with her two small children, and one of them is sick. She is in the sort of state where calling a doctor is intolerable, even if there wasn’t a disturbance on the landline and her mobile could be found, but so is looking after her son herself. She therefore recruits the boy’s older sister, who comes up with her own scheme for keeping his fever down:

The child had on his forehead three coins and in fact he was sleeping, breathing heavily.

‘The coins are cool,’ Ilaria explained. ‘They make the headache and fever go away.’

Every so often she removed one and put it in a glass of water, then dried it and placed it again on her brother’s forehead.

‘When he wakes up he has to take an aspirin,’ I said.

Ferrante writes us into a place where the idea of taming a fever with three coins dipped periodically into a glass of water – recalling the coins the Greeks used to place on a corpse’s eyes to pay for the passage across the Styx – seems sensible, indeed useful. And who’s to say it isn’t? Olga seems to accept the care shown in the gesture, even pins her hope on it, as an imaginative response to the impossible situation wife and children, abandoned by their husband and father, are in. The surface of things threatens to split; the hopeful placing of a coin both gives in to and holds back the darkness. Olga’s calm comment about the aspirin admits that when this is over, when the waking dream ends, medicine will be available and equilibrium will be found.

Ferrante’s first three novels finish when the crisis is over. The extent and so the mood of the Neapolitan quartet is different: since the moments of crisis are seen in the context of a life, there is a darker suggestion that recovery might only be temporary. The surface is always liable to rupture, and some people know this and others don’t. Rafaella Cerullo, or Lila, the narrator’s foil or alter ego in the quartet, is someone who knows this. In a Paris Review interview Ferrante described Lila as suffering from a ‘lack of boundaries’, which is evident from the first childhood scene of the first book, My Brilliant Friend, when she lures the narrator, her friend Elena Greco, or Lenù, ‘up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment’. He’s the person in the neighbourhood the children are told not to go near. Lila and Lenù ‘climbed slowly towards the greatest of our terrors of that time, we went to expose ourselves to fear and interrogate it’. Lila throws stones back at the boys; Lila teaches herself to read; Lila outpaces her classmates academically; Lila goes from scrawny to Jackie Kennedy-esque; Lila is loved by the neighbourhood boys without any of that love being sought. For Lenù, life without Lila is drab: ‘I soon had to admit that what I did by myself couldn’t excite me, only what Lila touched became important.’ Lila’s lack of boundaries is first discernible as a disdain for proprieties and a youthful ignorance of the way things are done but it moves into something else at adolescence, when she begins having episodes of what she comes to call ‘dissolving margins’.

Like the refreshing coins on the sick child’s forehead, the fact that ‘outlines of people and things’ can ‘suddenly dissolve, disappear’ for Lila is another acknowledgment of what’s below the surface. She is at a party on New Year’s Eve on a roof terrace surrounded by everyone in the neighbourhood; she looks around at the laughing, dancing, talking figures with a ‘sense of repulsion’ and suddenly can’t not see ‘how poorly made we are … how insufficient’. The simple horrors of living in a mafia-dominated neighbourhood (the next things Lila hears are gunshots) are as nothing compared to the terror of normal life. Lila sees people as constantly on the edge of breaking, of bursting their boundaries. A copper pot explodes while she is washing up; she tells Lenù that it scares her more than anything. The ‘cracked and crumpled’ copper – like the ‘cracked tin kettle’ in Madame Bovary that exemplifies Rodolphe’s weariness at hearing Emma say ‘I love you’ – comes to stand for worn-out forms. ‘I knew – perhaps I hoped – that no form could ever contain Lila,’ Lenù writes, ‘and that sooner or later she would break everything again.’ In the first three novels, a specific event disrupts things; in the Neapolitan quartet, Lila is the kindling force.

‘While I’m slicing salami I think how much blood there is in a person’s body. If you put too much stuff in things, they break. Or they catch fire and burn,’ she tells Lenù later on, after marrying the neighbourhood grocer. She goes on to hope her marriage will burn. The shapes that patriarchy, capitalism, tradition have forced our lives into are too readily accepted; when we see clearly, we understand that they can’t be tolerated. Lila feels that life is taking a shape which accords with her sense of things only when she leaves her husband for her lover, Nino, and even then only for a moment: ‘She had the impression that she had left a soft space, inhabited by forms without definition, and was finally heading towards a structure that was capable of containing her fully, all of her, without her cracking or the figures around her cracking.’ All Ferrante’s women and men are struggling with the old forms. Even the husband who beat Lila, whom she is leaving, sees that his time-honoured way of showing her he loves her doesn’t work, but doesn’t know what else to do: ‘To see her in the morning, in the evening, to sleep next to her and not be able to make her feel how much I love her, with the strength I’m capable of, is a terrible thing,’ he tells Lenù.

The sense Lenù has of life when Lila is close by – their relationship is like a love affair, like sisterhood, like two people living a single life – is that everything intensifies. ‘Lila was too much for anyone,’ she says early on and it is never not true. Nino and Lila met on Ischia, an island a ferry-ride away from Naples, where Lenù had summered, and where she had fallen in love with Nino herself the year before. Watching the two people she loves fall for each other is intolerable, yet intellectually she tries hard to make it bearable, relying on the strategies she developed at school to keep up with Lila: studying, writing, reading. ‘I called on poems and novels as tranquillisers,’ Lenù remembers. ‘Maybe, I thought, studying has been useful to me just for this: to calm myself.’ She goes to university in Pisa and achieves their joint childhood dream of writing a novel when she finds herself setting down the summer on Ischia as a way to avoid finishing her thesis. When the book is published Lenù realises its origin had actually been in a story Lila had written at school called ‘The Blue Fairy’. At this point the two are estranged, but Lenù wants Lila to share her book, which was ‘different, adult, mine, and yet inseparable from hers’. Writing becomes a way to bring together two women’s experiences, to defy time, to bridge distances.

*

Ferrante has said that she wants a sentence, especially an opening one, to have ‘a cold surface and, visible underneath it, a magma of unbearable heat’. It’s a style that doesn’t seem like one. The coldness comes from a concern with what is being said – the magma, perhaps – as opposed to how it is being said. Ferrante told the Paris Review of the polishing that went into the short, earlier novels; by contrast, she says that she often didn’t even reread the novels in the quartet as she wrote them. ‘The greater the attention to the sentence,’ she said, ‘the more laboriously the story flows.’ There is a gossipy ease in the style of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, a transparency, an aliveness above all. That first summer on Ischia, Lenù writes letter after letter to Lila, and gets only one back, at the end of August. It may as well be the platonic letter. ‘The voice set in the writing overwhelmed me, enthralled me even more than when we talked face to face: it was completely cleansed of the dross of speech, of the confusion of the oral; it had the vivid orderliness that I imagined would belong to conversation if one were so fortunate as to be born from the head of Zeus and not from the Grecos, the Cerullos.’ (Lenù later finds out that Lila had drafted the letter many times before sending it.) Ferrante’s tone, too, is a sort of cleansed conversational one, capable of ragged flights of excitement as well as striking, aphoristic moments, often in the same passage.

After Lenù’s marriage into a well-known intellectual family, she finds even the subject of her second book, let alone the style, hard to settle on. Lila, abandoned by Nino, goes to work in a factory that produces cured meats, and spends the evenings helping her new partner study computers. The friends are rarely in touch; Lenù can’t draw on Lila. But Lenù is given several works of second-wave feminist writing by her sister-in-law, which restores her to her own thoughts – she wants to argue in her next book that women have so far been little more than ‘female automatons created by men’ – as well as to Lila:

I sometimes imagined what my life and Lila’s would have been if we had both taken the test for admission to middle school and then high school, if together we had studied to get our degree, elbow to elbow, allied, a perfect couple, the sum of intellectual energies, of the pleasures of understanding and the imagination. We would have written together, we would have been authors together, we would have drawn power from each other, we would have fought shoulder to shoulder because what was ours was inimitably ours. The solitude of women’s minds is regrettable, I said to myself, it’s a waste to be separated from each other, without procedures, without tradition. Then I felt as if my thoughts were cut off in the middle, absorbing and yet defective, with an urgent need for verification, for development, yet without conviction, without faith in themselves.

In the first long sentence Ferrante places thoughts and images side by side, one after another: at first concretely physical – those elbows! – and then the joy of a meeting of minds. The second sentence – ‘we would … we would … we would’ – uses repetition to create a sort of ironic momentum to this exemplary intellectual life they never could have had, and then cedes to the next, a quasi-perfect aphorism that could stand on its own for the whole quartet. And then the last sentence is unlovely, with its rough prepositional phrases, with more than one ‘yet’: writing unpolished enough to be life-like. The speed of the changes in register mimics fizzing, provisional thought.

Speed is one of the defining qualities of reading Ferrante. Over the four books, she has made certain episodes (like the second summer of love on Ischia) agonisingly slow, while others (like Nino and Lila’s 23 days together) have been unbearably quick. The reader races along regardless. Ferrante is like a writer of genre rather than literary fiction in her handling of time; she has said she employs ‘all the strategies I know to capture the reader’s attention, stimulate curiosity’ – acknowledging rather than excusing the soapy twists of the last volume of the quartet. Nino, who has become a political writer, is drawn back into Lenù’s orbit on the publication of her feminist volume, and as they spend more time together, their intimacy is re-established to the point that without each other ‘nothing will make sense.’ Lenù leaves her husband and two daughters in order to be with Nino with the same sense of surpassing an old form that Lila had: ‘Something great is happening that will dissolve the old way of living entirely and I’m part of that dissolution.’ The fourth volume tells of the consequences of that decision: Lila’s disapproval, Lenù’s disputes with her husband over the children and the moment where Nino’s faithlessness is finally proved. Or perhaps something more damning is proved: that Nino was only ever a transitional object for Lila and Lenù. The affair brings Lenù back to where Lila is living in the old Neapolitan neighbourhood, where they get pregnant at the same time, then both give birth to girls and live in the same block of flats, one below the other. They live and work together in an approximation of Lenù’s dream for them both.

How is it that a book written by Lenù can so entirely capture Lila’s experience? Ferrante’s direct, almost naive style is greedy, willing to adopt the habits of other genres – the thriller’s cliffhangers, the romance’s love triangles, the mystery’s plot twists – and to absorb voices other than its narrator’s. Lenù realises in the final volume of the quartet that she may even be writing just to beckon Lila in, to capture her, to be near her. ‘I wish for this intrusion,’ Lenù writes. ‘I’ve hoped for it ever since I began to write our story.’ The narration often slips from the third person – Lenù narrating Lila’s life – into the first person, as if Lila herself were speaking, and this even when Lenù reminds us she isn’t:

It was the first and last time she tried to explain to me the feeling of the world she moved in. Up to now, she said – and here I summarise in my own words, of the present – I thought it was a matter of bad moments that came and then passed, like a childhood illness. Do you remember New Year’s Eve of 1958, when the Solaras shot at us? … The only problem has always been the disquiet of my mind, I can’t stop it, I always have to do, redo, cover, uncover, reinforce and then suddenly undo, break.

‘She’ irresistibly becomes ‘I’, a confessional ‘I’. And in letting Lila’s voice in – as Lenù let the violent husband’s voice in, as she lets her mother’s voice in, as she lets her children, her sister-in-law, her husband speak – she admits that the boundaries between people can never be maintained, that porousness is one of the conditions of life. And that it might not be one of the saddest parts of the human condition: that even, or especially, you might gain more by letting in a voice you find dazzling than you lose. Lenù goes on to write, in a brief frenzy reminiscent of the writing of her first book, a short novelistic memoir about her relationship with Lila, called Friendship. It becomes a bestseller, and a fixture of school syllabi. But it’s not what we’re reading. What we’re reading is Lenù’s attempt, over months of writing, to give Lila ‘a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve, and defeat her, and calm her, and so in turn calm myself’. In novels, art always wins over life: ‘I loved Lila. I wanted her to last. But I wanted it to be I who made her last.’ As Ferrante shows, the battle is never cleanly won.