In Italy, I have decided to read Italian things. In 2018 that means Elena Ferrante.
I don’t need to tell you who she is, because if you’re the sort of person who reads a blog like mine, you know who she is. Years ago, I started My Brilliant Friend — the first volume of a quartet that is really one long novel — but I stopped reading. I’m anti-hype, by temperament not conviction. This prejudice has ruined as many opportunities as it has saved me botherations, it’s not admirable or contemptible, it’s just the way I am. The volume of the conversation around Ferrante scared me away like some nocturnal animal frightened by the din of garbage cans at his scavenging ground. But now I’ve come nosing back, and this time I made it to the end.
The books exacted an intensity of concentration from me — when I should have been sleeping, eating, working — that only a certain type of novel can. Narrative tension alone doesn’t hold my attention like that. But when narrative tension is married to a certain kind of raw psychological drama concerning death, isolation, meaning, or freedom — as in Dostoevsky, Simenon’s “romans durs,” or the Neapolitan Quartet — I’m helpless. I’d like to write books like that. I think of them as existential thrillers.
Ferrante’s existential thriller is the story of a lifelong friendship, begun in the 1950s, in a violent, impoverished neighborhood in Naples, and carried on through acts of love and betrayal until the early 2000s. The inner occasion for the first-person writing of the novel is that when one of the friends, Lila, disappears, the other, Elena, sits down to capture in writing all she can remember about her friend. Their friendship is agonistic but true. Elena has always admired Lila, whose intelligence and effortless excellence in all pursuits, but especially in writing, represents an ideal that both electrifies Elena’s ambitions and remorselessly devalues her accomplishments. The ideal is mostly virtual: Elena’s imagination of what Lila could have done, in slightly different circumstances, often makes her suspect that what she, Elena, has in fact done is worthless. But of the two, Elena is the one who appears — outwardly — successful. She has used education, marriage, and writing to escape the deadly gravity of Naples.
The novel hews closely to its subject, to the friendship itself, which defines the book’s structure and limits rather than any conventions of narrative pattern. Within that structure, the novel takes up and puts down a variety of genres, the romance, the crime story, the bildungsroman, and others, contextualizing them all within the friendship itself, a structure more tenacious and complex than any individual plot. In Frantumaglia, a volume of letters and interviews, Ferrante writes (italics mine):
Verisimilitude is the real that has long since found a reassuring symbolism. The writer, on the other hand, has the job of describing what escapes the story, what escapes the narrative order. We have to get as far away as possible from verisimilitude and instead shrink the distance to the true heart of our experience.
The Neapolitan Quartet escapes “the narrative order” by repeatedly not ending where you think it might. I read in another interview somewhere (I can’t find it: maybe I made it up, but it’s true anyway) an observation by Ferrante that the book could have a “happy ending” if she had chosen to end it at any number of points. More, it could have had a cadenced resolution — happy or unhappy — at numerous points, because it folds the complete structure of other story-types into something larger than story, because it continually sublates narrative order into something which narrative can, at best, articulate — the shape of a human relationship seen as a whole, in the richness that defies the simplifications of judgment and the poverty that preserves ambiguity.
What I love about this book, about all existential thrillers, is the way their frame of narrative tension — the reversals and revelations, betrayals and recognitions, fights and seductions — function like the frame of a picture, to emphasize all they do not contain, to open onto an unsettling view, bottomless and dark. The “thriller” aspect is an intentionally inadequate container for the “existential” aspect. They are 3am books: books you stay up to 3am reading, that also leave you with the kind of thoughts you would have if you woke up at 3am.