Haven‘t heard of Elena Ferrante? Then you‘re definitely not much of a reader. Because recently her so called the Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of The Lost Child) has infiltrated bookshelves and kindles all over the globe.
The phenomenon of this simple story in four volumes telling about the life of two female friends in Naples from their childhood in post-war Italy to their elderly years almost nowadays has engaged millions of readers, still leaving the key question unanswered: what makes Ferrante novels stand out in the ocean of similar family sagas?
First of all, the writer herself. All marketing speculations left aside, nobody knows who Elena Ferrante really is. Yes, last year there was an attempt by one Italian journalist Claudio Gatti to uncover a true person behind this pseudonym claiming that she actually was Anita Raja, a translator living in Rome. However, perhaps to his surprise, his unmasking was met with a severe consternation from Ferrante‘s fans.
Maybe Gatti‘s investigation led him to the right person but who could deny that Ferrante is just a cover for a project of a group of the writers working on the same story? Haven‘t you felt the difference in style and in pace while reading separate volumes or even separate parts of the same one? All those pages in the last book, The Story of The Lost Child (Storia Della Bambina Perduta), dedicated to a thorough guide around Naples towards the end of the story seem rather from outer space filled in by a devoted historian who just happened to spot a vacant chair with an unlocked computer screen right in front of him.
Nevertheless, the style itself is one of the advantages, which probably is the reason the Neapolitan Quartet is so popular among the readers. During my News Writing course at university a former American news anchor taught us to formulate the news in a way they would be comprehensible for a sixth grader. It looks like Ferrante has heard the same advice, too. Her sentences bear no complicated structure, follow a simple storytelling pattern, avoiding ambiguous meanings or multi-layer contemplation. I reckon even book translators didn‘t have to sweat a bucket to come up with an adequate translation. Instead of using a distinctive Neapolitan dialect, with some exceptions, most often Ferrante just explained the character was talking in dialect but used traditional Italian.
Don‘t get me wrong. This simple plain Italian transformed the story into a down-to-earth one, meaning it was more credible, sensitive and acceptable. Meanwhile those who search for authenticity, should better turn to Roberto Saviano and his latest La Paranza Dei Bambini where the Neapolitan dialect is usually used for dialogues. Only under one condition – you should be capable of reading in original language.
Finally, the plot also counts. The first volume, My Brilliant Friend (L‘Amica Geniale) starts with the fact that Elena receives a phone call from her friend Lila‘s son who can‘t fine his mother – she‘s simply disappeared. It‘s like a stimulus for Elena to remember her past from the very first days when she and Lila became friends. Living in a poor neighborhood (rione) on the outskirts of Naples both girls start going to elementary school. They both are brilliant students, only Elena is diligent and has to make an effort to be the best while Lila has great potential in herself but her intelligence is mixed with wickedness.
Friendship between girls reveals much more: post-war evolution of social classes in southern Italy, defective education system and sexist family relations . One rione walks you through the whole history period in Italy explaining formation of camorra, strong background for socialists and communists and institutional corruption. It‘s unbelievable that five elementary grades were enough for life education – despite Lila‘s capabilities and strong teacher recommendations her parents were against her studies at a secondary school. Meanwhile domestic violence against women, vividly demonstrated on the pages of the story, is still deeply rooted in Italy and unfortunately recent statistics just confirms the fact (in 2015 almost 7 million women in Italy experienced physical or sexual violence).
Two friends navigate through their lives and that of rione separating from each other and coming back together again . While Elena succeeds to get higher education and run away from rione and Naples, Lila gets married at 16 and stays in the same place for the rest of her life… until finally she disappears forever. Towards the end of the fourth volume storytelling starts towing away. There‘s not much left to say or perhaps the storyteller adapts to the elderly pace of her protagonists.
No doubt, majority of Ferrante‘s audience are women. The story portrays female emancipation and gradual liberation from traditional inferior status of being a woman. It starts with somewhat medieval society‘s attitude towards woman‘s role in a family when Lila has to obey her parents wish to stay at home and help with domestic choirs and subsequently marry a rich guy to sustain her family. But step by step norms and standards start to change, and both Elena and Lila demonstrate the shift in values and what is the cost of such a transformation.
Ferrante makes it four to tell the whole story. I was lucky to be able to read the volumes one by one without a pause – it seemed like watching all seasons of your favorite TV series in one sit. Thinking of which – they‘re saying this Ferrantemania is going to move from pages to the screens in 2018.