By Grazia Ietto Gillies
‘Oh! Le aste, le aste’. My reaction is immediate. The show brought it all back. On screen is a page of the school workbook of six-year old Elena Greco – Lenú. It is full of little vertical strokes: le aste. Pencilled in at regular intervals and within the borders set by the lined paper, they are praised by the teacher, not something that could have been said of mine, some five years before Lenù’s, further south, in under-developed Calabria. I have just started primary school and I too am required to draw aste, page after page of them until, months later, I can show the near perfection of Lenù’s workbook. A quick survey among my London and Italian family and friends tells me that the practice was phased out in Italian primary schools a few years after Lenú’s class. Turkish children were also drawing aste but not, I gather, American and British ones.
My memory is triggered again when onto the screen come the girls in high school, wearing il grembiule, a black pinafore with long sleeves and fronted by a full line of buttons. Only the girls, of course; they were the ones who had to hide signs of sexuality. The boys wore their normal clothes. By this time, my family had moved from Calabria to Rome, and most of the girls in my school undid one or two buttons at the top and some at the bottom. The more daring ones left the whole pinafore unbuttoned till they got a strong reprimand from our teachers.
I did not resent the strict school rules. Roman schools offered compensations: the joys of learning Latin, for instance, which gave me the desire to decipher the scripts on the facades of Rome’s buildings and monuments. Even greater were the joys of learning about the adventures of Homeric heroes, the sad stories in the Aeneid, or the mixture of comic and tragic in La Divina Commedia.
The first eight episodes of Saverio Costanzo’s television adaption of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend are very good at recreating the atmosphere of a poor suburb – rione – of Naples after WWII. Both the physical and the social environment of the times and their representation in neo-realist films are evoked to good effect. The use of local dialect and non-professional actors are nods to neo-realism. The strongest influence may have come from Rossellini. When a carabinieri van takes away Alfredo, the alleged assassin of Don Achille, from the rear of the van we see Giuseppina running towards it and calling out to her husband. She trips and falls. It is a clear echo of Roma Città Aperta (Rome, Open City) where sora Pina – played by Anna Magnani – runs after the Nazi lorry carrying away the lover she was about to marry. Pina falls under the deadly fire of the Gestapo.
Some minor characters are memorable. The slight limp of Lenù’s mother chimes well with her stunted emotions. She addresses her daughter roughly, yet she is protective and secretly proud of her. When Lenù starts menstruating, she gives her canvas sanitary pads and explains how to secure them to the underwear with safety pins (yes, another memory for me). Then, rather brusquely, she tells her to make sure the pads are thoroughly washed after use. Following Lenù’s brilliant school results she presents her daughter with her own bracelet. Lenù is baffled and asks why. ‘And haven’t you done very well at school!’ she sternly replies while leaving the room and shutting the door behind her. A different mother figure is Nella, the owner of the pensione in Ischia. She shows openly her kindness and affection towards young Lenù, using food to build an emotional connection with her just like my own mother used to when faced with adolescents and children.
I found the TV adaptation easier to follow than the books. The visual element helps to identify and remember who is who of the large number of characters that populate the novel. Both adaptation and novel are too long and often repetitive. The adaptation has not dispelled my doubts about the novel.
I read L’amica geniale, the first of Elena Ferrante’s four volumes, in the spring of 2015 during a two-week visit to Pisa. We went up from Rome to spend time with our son and his family while he was on a sabbatical term at the Scuola Normale di Pisa. I had bought the book swayed by the publicity and the reviews I read while in Rome.
I could see it was engagingly written and that the narrative drew the reader in. On balance, though, it left me cold. I was particularly bothered by the character of Raffaella (Lila), Lenù’s best friend, and by the relationship between the two little girls. Lenù felt real to me but not Lila. I did not buy the other volumes and left the first one in Rome. Back in London, I would meet female friends or acquaintances who liked all four volumes very much. I also read reviews and articles on its great success in the USA, and of “Ferrante fever” spreading among the American cultured classes. I began to wonder why I had been left cold and decided to give it another go. I wanted to avoid being unfair but also to try and understand why the novel was appealing to so many in the English-speaking world.
The story starts in the poor and dangerous rione immediately after WWII. Lenù – daughter of a council janitor – has many friends, all attending the same primary school. The one she likes best is Lila, daughter of a shoemaker. Lila’s exceptional intellectual abilities show from very early on: while Lenù is drawing aste, Lila can already read and write. “How did you learn? Who taught you?’ asks the teacher. “I did.”
Both girls are encouraged by their devoted teacher to go to high school. Their efforts succeed with Lenù but not with Lila whose violent father does not see the point of an education. However, in the years to come, Lila, while working in shoemaking and coming up with brilliant designs, manages also to teach herself Latin and Greek, keeping up with and surpassing Lenù’s education. Lila even helps Lenù with her Latin. Lenù moves on to high school while Lila secretly writes a brilliant novel. The girls become entangled with local boys; Lila gets into an unhappy marriage. At one point they are both in love with Nino who had moved out of the rione.
Lenù then leaves to study at La Normale. Thus begins her move towards intellectual and middle-class friendships and eventually marriage. This is also the beginning of her career as a writer. Meanwhile Lila teaches herself programming and sets up a very successful computing business. While this and much more goes on, Lenù is, all along, drawn back to Lila and their poor, violent rione: it is as if Lila has a hold on her. Eventually, after separating from her husband – a highly successful academic from a prominent, intellectual northern family – to follow Nino with whom she has a daughter, Lenù moves with her three daughters to a flat above Lila’s in the original rione. Her eldest daughters attend the local school and mix with local children including those from camorristi (Neapolitan mafiosi). The last two volumes become almost surrealist as first Lila’s daughter and then Lila herself disappear. The missing little girl is named Tina like the first doll owned – and much loved – by Lenù. The doll had also disappeared, pushed into a dark basement by Lila when she was a child. After the last disappearance – Lila’s – the story comes to a close with Lenù’s daughters moving to the USA to join their father at Harvard. Lenù moves to the north of Italy to her successful – though lonely and loveless – life.
The narrative is well set in the context of Italian economic, political and social history from the 1950s to the 1990s and early 2000s. The earlier decades are characterized by the miracolo economico and the transformation it brings about is felt in the fictional rione and in the lives of the novel’s characters. Increased opportunities in education allow a bright, hard-working girl from the Neapolitan slums to study at one of the top Italian institutions and then go on to a brilliant career as a writer.
I warmed up much more on the full reading. I still felt, however, that the character of Lila was not believable and her disappearance seemed far too contrived and artificial. Then suddenly I had a thought: ‘Why is Lila not a plausible character in a novel in which most of the characters are? It cannot be due to the author’s lack of skill. Am I looking at it in the wrong way? Might Lila and her relationship with Lenù not be a metaphor for something else?’ This questioning led me to look at the plot in a different way by going back to aspects of my own life.
I now think that Lenù’s story is about a girl who makes it up the social ladder and, in the process, becomes displaced, geographically, culturally, and socially; from the Neapolitan slums to Pisa, Milano, and Torino; from a barely literate background to be a successful graduate and then writer; from being part of the poor working class to mixing with and marrying into the well-off and intellectual middle classes. Such displacement often causes people to go back, in their minds and memories, to their childhood environment where they feel more at ease; an experience I know at first hand. Lenù does this by creating an imaginary friend-cum-alter ego: Lila is not only fictional because part of the novel but also fictional in the sense that Lenù makes her up. “That I had a sort of double identity is true,” Ferrante writes, and elsewhere she describes how Lenù and Lila’s “heads collided … one against the other, and merged until they were one.”
In her interview with Deborah Orr in The Gentlewoman, Ferrante, on the issue of relationship between the two friends, explains that:
Lila can only be Elena [Lenù]’s tale: outside that tale she would probably be unable to define herself. It’s people who love us or hate us – or both – who hold together the thousands of fragments we are made of.
I think Lila is there to remind Lenù – and tell us – what might have happened to her had she not been able to continue her studies, leave the rione and climb the social ladder. Indeed, Lila is always portrayed as reluctant to leave the rione. When still in primary school, fearless Lila talks Lenù into walking away from home to reach the sea, an episode beautifully told in the TV show. Though they live in a suburb of Naples, they have never seen the sea. They walk and walk and, at a certain point, Lila decides she wants to go back. Overwhelmed and scared, she gives up going the sea.
As for Lenù, it is only in her mature years that she finds herself and can start living her own life fully, albeit in loneliness. This can only happen when she detaches herself from her childhood life and its characters. To this end Lila has to go and she is made to disappear from Lenù’s life and from the story.
When I interpret Elena Ferrante’s work in this way, the novel makes sense to me. Being cut off from one’s childhood context and thrown into a different geographical, socio/economic and cultural environment often generates conflicting feelings: from satisfaction at having achieved economic security to guilt about those left behind, to nostalgia for the positives of one’s childhood. Italy of the post-WWII decades was full of people who moved to a different place and social milieu as high economic growth contributed to upward social mobility.
Making sense of the novel’s success
I have been thinking of why Ferrante’s novel has become such a literary phenomenon: its success all over the world – and particularly in the Western world – needs explanations over and above those supplied by the fact that the novel is very readable and has interesting characters.
Many women I have talked to refer to the appeal of the novel in terms of the down-to-earth relationship between two girls. Their strong and loving friendship is punctuated by conflicts and disagreements, an experience many of us have had. If we interpret Lila as an imaginary friend/alter ego – as I do – then the relationship between Lenù and Lila expresses a conflicting relationship with ourselves, particularly the person we are now and what we could have been had things turned out differently.
These reasons are good but, in my view, not enough to explain the tremendous success of the novel. To attempt an explanation that makes sense to me, I here have to wear a different hat: my economist’s hat with an interest in social problems. The main theme of the book is, in my view, upward social mobility – particularly for women – through intellectual achievement. As Lenù puts it: “how much work I’ve done and what a long road I have travelled. At every step I could have given in and yet I didn’t.”
Lenù was able to move out of the slum because she was bright and hard-working. This is a view that appeals to progressives, social reformers and feminists. We are presented with a meritocratic system, one that generates social mobility for young people, one that allows a woman from the slums to rise above the position of all her contemporaries, both men and women: “My daughters…attribute their well-being and their success to their father. But I – I who did not have privileges – am the foundation of their privileges.” Intelligence and hard work allow also those without qualifications to make it up. Lila, the child genius – a concept that appeals to many middle-class parents – continues to be brilliant as an adult and makes money by using her intelligence to develop her business. The novel gives us a view of the social system and a positive message: if you are bright and prepared to work hard, you will make it. All you brilliant, young people in America or Europe who – in the second decade of the 21st century – are still queuing up for a good, secure job or decent wages do not despair: you will climb the social ladder.
There is a caveat. Ferrante’s meritocratic story applies to Italy during the miracolo economico, when the country was undergoing very considerable economic growth that facilitated social mobility. I hate to spoil other readers’ pleasure but I fear the conditions of Italy in the 1950s and 1960s are no longer applicable to Italy or to most other Western countries in the twenty-first century. Persistent increase in inequality of income and wealth in the last few decades have undermined – and reversed trends in – social mobility in many countries. Were Lenù to be living today in contemporary America, Britain or Italy, she would be less likely to make it up. The American Dream has become largely that: a dream, and not only in America.
 I am grateful to Caroline Brothers, Etta Carnelli De Benedetti, Miriam David, Silvia Fiaccavento, Donald Gillies, Alix Kirsta, Louise London, Chris Mohr for useful comments on earlier drafts and to Mark West for sensitive editing.