Dissolving the boundaries of friendship: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

While the identity of pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante remains unknown, her Neapolitan novels have achieved worldwide fame and success. The four books: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child document the half-century long friendship between main characters Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo. According to BBC Culture, over 15 million copies of the books have been sold, and have been published in over 45 languages. The Neapolitan novels have also been adapted into a television series by HBO, currently in its third season. There are many reasons why Ferrante’s books are successful: flowing prose, memorable characters, social commentary, but it is the friendship between Elena and Lila that lies at the heart of the novels and makes them truly remarkable.

The story begins with Elena Greco as an elderly woman, who, on hearing that her friend Lila has disappeared, decides to write about their decades of friendship. She begins with their 1950s childhood in an impoverished neighbourhood in Naples. Lila excels in elementary school, learning to read seemingly all by herself and writing a story which gives her and Elena a dream of publishing a book of their own one day. However, this plan is soon quashed when Lila’s parents take her out of school because of the expense. It is then left to Elena to carry out her and Lila’s dream. Defying poverty and the barriers of education for women, she graduates high school and leaves Naples to attend university, becoming a successful author soon afterwards. Lila, on the other hand, never leaves Naples. She marries at sixteen to a wealthy but abusive man, and despite succeeding at any work she undertakes, her true genius is held back by the constraints of the neighbourhood. As their lives diverge down different paths, Elena and Lila are no longer as close as they were in childhood. However, their friendship never completely fades because each cannot help having an interest in the other’s life. When Elena decides to move back to Naples, the power of their friendship leads to unimaginable consequences.

(Image: Victor Malyushev via Unsplash) Naples, Italy, where the novels are set

The Neapolitan novels boast a wealth of characters, but Nino Sarratore is the only one to capture the hearts of both Elena and Lila. A gifted student at Elena’s high school, she falls in love with him because of his academic and emotional intelligence, as well as his disregard for the chaotic life of the neighbourhood. But Nino is instead drawn to Lila’s beauty and genius, even though she is already married by the time they get to know each other. Lila is also admired by Marcello and Michele Solara, whose prosperous businesses give them a mafia-like influence over the neighbourhood. Their love for Lila makes them want to control her, meaning she spends much of her life trying to escape from their spheres of power. Although Elena feels that she has freed herself from the Solara brothers by leaving Naples, later revelations will show this is far from the case. Marcello and Michele are the shadow counterparts to Elena and Lila’s friendship, doing everything they can to quell its power.

But what makes Elena and Lila’s friendship so unique? And how does it manage to last so long? Firstly, Elena recognises that her success would be impossible without Lila. It is Lila who encourages Elena to stay in school, using the money from her marriage to provide her with a quiet place to study and textbooks she cannot afford. Later on, events that happen in Lila’s life and conversations the friends have will form the basis of Elena’s successful novels. Although Lila understandably gets jealous of Elena, which causes a rift in their friendship, it is this jealousy which seems to motivate Lila to become successful in her own life and employment in Naples; she continues to read books and educate herself long after leaving school, allowing her to create two successful businesses. Elena also gets jealous of Lila, because despite her own public success, she knows that Lila is the one with real intelligence. When Lila entrusts her with a box of secret notebooks, she throws it into a river when she realises how good her friend’s writing is. Ferrante gives a realistic portrayal of friendship, showing how despite their envy, Elena and Lila are ultimately there for each other. Lila pushes Elena to be as successful as she can be, while Elena does everything in her power to protect Lila from the Solaras in Naples.

An outstanding aspect of Ferrante’s writing is her ‘dissolving boundaries.’ The term is used by Lila to describe how she experiences life, which seems to be as complex as herself. During an earthquake in the fourth book, Lila becomes extremely distressed and talks to Elena about how she views the world:

            She said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing.

These ‘dissolving boundaries’ appear in Ferrante’s prose as well as Lila’s mind. In long paragraphs where Elena describes what other characters say to her, Ferrante will insert pieces of dialogue, but not define them with quotation marks:

            A tactile emotion would melt into a visual one, a visual one would melt into an olfactory one, ah, what is the real world, Lenù, nothing, nothing, nothing with which one can say conclusively: it’s like that.

Ferrante gives a post-modern take on writing, showing how the speaking voice does not always need to be restricted by quotation marks. But the best way she uses ‘dissolving boundaries’ is in the plots of the novels themselves. Although Elena and Lila end up going down different paths, their lives are dissolved into one breathtaking story.

Featured image: Briana Tozour via Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Our YouTube Channel