On Three-Quarters of the Neapolitan Novels

I have some thoughts I want to put down quickly, mostly out of fear that I will forget. I am still reading the Neapolitan novels—I am nearly finished with book three, and slightly giddy at the prospect of book four—I am even considering an immediate re-read although I don’t think that is an indulgence suited for the moment. The Neapolitan quartet is, broadly, about the lives of two women, Lenù, or Elena, and Lila, or Lina to everyone but Lenù, from the age of eight to, I don’t know, sixty perhaps, and how they unfold in the city of Naples. It’s a saga, in the primary sense of the word, and Ferrante’s technical skill and the politics of her anonymity are more intricately noted here, and here.

I am not interested in that. But I hardly know where to begin. There is too much to say, with a great deal of both anguish and intrigue at the quartet prompting this impulse. Mostly, what I want to say is about care, I think, on this whole business of neoliberal self-care, which is an industry that I am increasingly viewing as serving to alienate various feminisms from each other to the point that after the kale, selfie and lipstick jokes are out of the way, we probably really should still be standing there in killjoy mode with our battered Lemys to ask what self-care means when it isn’t being co-opted by capitalism. I have no answers, but I suspect Ferrante does.

First of all—and I would like to extend what Dayna Tortorici has written about this with respect to Ferrante’s other novels here, to the Neapolitan novels—it is the premise of the place of work in the lives of both women, Lila and Lenù, and in the lives of the women they grow up around and engage with. Work is what saves them, even from themselves. “Work — routine — is a detergent for the mind, lifting the stain of another person’s unwelcome encroachment,” writes Tortorici. You see this over and over again with Lenù and Lila.

This work isn’t necessarily well-paid or skilled work, it is sometimes zero-hours-minimum-wage that may make rent. If for Lenù–and this is a reading I am reluctant to camp with–work is a manner of getting ahead of Lila, and it isn’t although she will have us believe so then for Lila it is the thing that keeps her alive, moving ahead, almost against life in order to feel it when she attempts to violate her everyday, if not with it.

This is not noteworthy in itself; others are better positioned to write about Italian feminist politics of the time; the changing nature of housework, feminism with, against or within fascism, etc. What is remarkable at least in as much as these are novels, works of fiction, is that this work is positioned to “lift” what Tortorici calls the “stain” of another person; these people are frequently men, men who treat women like scum, liberal educated men and illiterate gangsters and late-blooming communists and economic geographers who get away with all that violence: intellectual, physical, emotional. The men v/s work divide is pure genius in as much as the latter becomes essential by the middle of book two in a way that the former never has been to both women; if this wasn’t clear before in the diverging paths that Lenù and Lila took, it is clear as fucking daylight now, and we’d do well as readers to give in to it. Ferrante is clear: the work we do will save us from men, whom we are tricked into needing but don’t need, by the way.

This is the second fantastic aspect of her novels; from the very beginning, we are taught to eye these men warily. All of them. No exceptions, not even nice boy Enzo. This is some terrifyingly efficacious coaching in re-reading fiction, where the rug is pulled from under your little feminist feet because Ferrante quietly cultivates this storm inside you as a reader, so by the time you’ve finished My Brilliant Friend, and The Story of a New Name a few days later, and have nearly read all of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay in one sitting the day after that, you are not reading against the novel, as Eve Sedgwick would caution you about, but, against all odds, with it. In other words, these are feminist novels, the protagonists are women, and a happy ending, should there even be one, will be about the women. And it may well be about them escaping men, and we would do well do know that.

It’s been a while since I trusted fiction so productively, held it close to my heart so keenly.

I want to acknowledge too that it is more complex than I seem to be allowing for here; Lila’s work at the sausage factory is literally a crash course in how patriarchy controls, sexualises and dehumanises labour, particularly women’s labour. You work for the men who will oppress you in order to escape the men who will oppress you, etc. Here is Silvia Federici on the intersections: “Though women’s waged work, housework, and (paid) sexual work are still studied often in isolation from each other, we are now in a better position to see that the discrimination that women have suffered in the waged work-force has been directly rooted in their function as unpaid laborers in the home” (2004: 94). But you root for Lenù and Lila, you worry about the men in their lives, as Ferrante has trained you to, because she is writing unabashedly with that very agenda. It is not an accident that these men emerge as cultivated monsters, it is Ferrante’s deliberate, ringing voice from page one of My Brilliant Friend asking that you recognise this, in the novels, in your friendships, around you, asking that you respect the value and place of work and female friendships in your life because they will—or can—save you when men cannot, or at least they will kill you in ways you prefer. Here is Lila on Michele Solara, a man who has pursued her since they were children (which is putting it mildly):

Once, she thought, he asked me to become his lover, But that’s not what he really wants, there’s something else, something that doesn’t have to do with sex and that not even he can explain. He’s obsessed, it’s like a superstition. Maybe he thinks that I have a power and that that power is indispensable to him. He wants it but he can’t get it, and it makes him suffer, it’s a thing he can’t take from me by force.

The question I found myself asking constantly, even as the days went by in the novel: what does it mean to be treated well by a man? That he doesn’t hit us, or abuse us in any form; yes, all that. But also perhaps that he doesn’t patronise us, that the emotional walls that he builds as a man for us to scale—this is literally a line from book 2—explode, like Lila’s boundaries, as soon as they are built? If I give him sex will he let me be, but equally, will he let me be, live, write, if I don’t? Are we all replaceable simulacra in the lives of a man, like the women are in Nino Sarratore’s life? Does abstaining from abuse mean we are being treated well, or that we are being treated as merely human? When our standards are so low, both in professional patriarchy and in our private lives, is there a difference?

Lenù and Lila don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why: it’s because they see, however dimly, how they can be valued, they see the magnificent potential that grows within them to realise their best self in treating a beloved with self-reflexive love, because they both treat each other like that. Solara is not alone in recognising that power in Lila, Lenù—and most of Naples, let’s be honest—knows it too. The difference is that Solara wants to harness it, like Lila were some kind of animal whose genetic and social properties are a cure for his eternal inadequacy. Lila and Lenù are the worst for each other, because they see through each other–or so Lenù writes–but they also treat each other better than any man could. Lenù knows this, Lila doesn’t, or she doesn’t explicitly according to Lenù as of book 3, a real fucking tragedy if you happen to be looking for one. Is self-care also about acknowledging care that arrives, bruised, having jerked itself out of patriarchy’s bloody hands? Is self-care about recognising how the power in a woman so beloved to you can be a safeguard for your own struggles with womanhood? I don’t say this as a logical extension of mere care, but without wanting to give away anymore, there is an essay waiting to happen on Lenù and Lila as lesbian lovers, naturally.

Which is possibly why, even as I devoured them, the novels have been so hard to read. It is easy to recognise some form of man or another in the books from literature, culture, the world around you—the names read off an endless scroll, I should think—but more importantly, it is easier to recognise the women friends, whom one has inevitably lost to men. Lila’s disappearance—which opens the series and almost justifies the telling of the story, oddly reminiscent of the disappearance at the end in Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart—is much more than a metaphor, it is a validation and reclaiming of the constant disappearing of women through history. I had to put the books down then, and think: What has Ferrante put her finger on that is unsettling me in this moment? And then, if I had the energy: How does she do it?

A third, brief point: most of Ferrante’s women in the Neapolitan quartet struggle with mental health issues. This isn’t surprising. What is surprising is how deftly and openly Ferrante works with this reality. No glamorising, no shame. Just the unnerving reality of having to endure, god, endure, will the triumph of having endured ever diminish? That it is frequently complicated by its intersections with patriarchy and sexual politics is not a coincidence, thank god. The novels are “realist” in as much as they aren’t fantasy, but Lila’s “dissolving boundaries”—which I have chosen to read as a kind of breakdown, especially by book three—mess with the question of autobiography and world-building, if not genre itself. Lila has breakdowns, then, but Lenù’s struggle against emptiness and her continuous anxiety are performative of this struggle too. The deceptive first-person that dictates the quartet: once you get past the guise of autobiography, you are left with the voice of a woman you cannot trust, even as you trust the stories being told by her.

A last, related, perhaps inadequate point to conclude this, to return to the neoliberal politics of care. Artist Hannah Black is spot on when she muses aloud, in an interview about self-care: “Don’t you think that is like, pure capitalist reification though, in the sense of like, making a thing of a thing that is just a thing?” Yes, indeed. We arrive at writing, particularly in the realm of women’s writing, as a form of self-care, matrixed within the neoliberal project of patriarchy but also slipping out of it ever so often. The Neapolitan novels are fundamentally about women who write. I would stack them up there right with Joanna Russ, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf, Kate Zambreno and Gayatri Spivak. Ferrante is part of that legacy; the books are about lots of things, but they are also mostly about what it means to be a woman who makes sense of the world through writing, for herself, for capitalist consumption, and how both can be redeeming and forms of complex, unrelenting care in their own ways.

I welcome this, and I hold it at an arm’s length because, well, no, it’s too much. Some of us are women who write for a living, it’s easier to deal with that when we pretend it’s happening to Lenù and Lila, not us. Lenù expands her world by making her way uncertainly through it; her writing enables her to stay on the supposedly ethnographic outside. For Lila, writing is a way through the world; writing the world out in her diaries and letters so that her disappearance is not just the absence of herself and every trace of her, but also everything that could have been known about her. The potential of it, because we cannot stop thinking of writing as holding the keys to understanding the (w)hole of someone. Lili Loofburrow, in a gut-wrenching essay about her sister’s suicide and how the Neapolitan novels helped her make sense of her sister’s absence: “Within the affective system Ferrante sketches out in the Neapolitan novels, erasure is an aesthetic as well as an intimate act.” Here is Lenù the narrator, in book three:

This may be the last time I’ll talk about Lila with a wealth of detail. Later on she became more evasive, and the material at my disposal was diminished. It’s the fault of our lives diverging, the fault of distance. And yet even when I lived in other cities and we almost never met, and she as usual didn’t give me any news and I made an effort not to ask for it, her shadow goaded me, depressed me, filled me with pride, deflated me, giving me no rest.

Today, as I’m writing, that goad is even more essential. I wish she were here, that’s why I’m writing. I want her to erase, add, collaborate in our story by spilling into it, according to her whim, the things she knows, what she said or thought […]

Perhaps it is testament to Ferrante’s writing that we forget that but isn’t this how we live our lives? I don’t know what book four will bring but Lenù’s desperate and skillful narration of chosen details of her friendship with Lila so the latter can be embalmed, in a manner of speaking, is self-care in the most basic sense; not the kind where a thing is made of a thing that is just a thing, but the thing that we have to remind ourselves is a thing so we can carry on doing it. And the difference is important. Lili is right, Lenù’s narration could be viewed as a kind of retrospective violence in so far as it is the opposite of what Lila so fiercely desired; it stops Lila from disappearing completely. A story narrated once, twice, eight times, to ourselves, to others: at what point does it stop being “true” and start being real? There are stories we tell ourselves in order to enable survival, which we sometimes call care, self or otherwise. Lenù’s story of their lives is one that is consistently generous and, at its best, demonstrates the ugly politics of care—and its utterly tender failures.