There is No True Life, If Not in the False One: On Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

Tano D’Amico

“There is no true life, if not in the false one,” is a dic­tum from Fran­co For­ti­ni, Ital­ian poet and com­mu­nist intel­lec­tu­al, of the same gen­er­a­tion of Pier Pao­lo Pasoli­ni, and yet unlike him (by choice and des­tiny) not as well known inter­na­tion­al­ly1 With these words For­ti­ni turned upside down Adorno’s famous line from Min­i­ma Moralia, “Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im Falschen,” usu­al­ly trans­lat­ed into Ital­ian as “Non si dà vita vera nel­la fal­sa”: there is no true life in the false one.2 In that line Adorno seems to argue that it is not pos­si­ble to con­duct an eth­i­cal, moral­ly just and true life with­in an unjust social order. The aspi­ra­tion to truth and jus­tice, the very pos­si­bil­i­ty of enjoy­ing life ful­ly, requires us to change that social order. Fortini’s claim was no less rad­i­cal. By turn­ing Adorno’s line into its oppo­site, For­ti­ni point­ed to the fact that what we call truth and authen­tic­i­ty, or eth­i­cal life, can and does emerge even in the midst of the false­hood and injus­tice cap­i­tal­ism brings about. The true life, framed in any purist sense as “stain­less,” and authen­tic expe­ri­ence of one­self and oth­ers does not exist. Life, as well as polit­i­cal work, is always a mish­mash of true and false, authen­tic and inau­then­tic, ratio­nal and irra­tional, rev­o­lu­tion and reform. Our “cap­i­tal­ist” life is enmeshed in con­tra­dic­tions; we need to work through them if we wish to attain a more just social order, not as some sort of utopi­an, hap­py island, but as the con­crete unfold­ing of our strug­gles for jus­tice, includ­ing the strug­gles with our­selves. The prob­lem with Adorno’s the­sis, For­ti­ni seems to sug­gest, is that his true life does not appear to leave room for the murky, unset­tled, uncan­ny zone that char­ac­ter­izes our expe­ri­ence in this world – a zone that will not be erased by a more just soci­ety.

When I read Ele­na Ferrante’s just­ly cel­e­brat­ed works, I could not help but think about Fortini’s words. Ferrante’s quar­tet, enti­tled My Bril­liant Friend but known in Eng­lish as the Neapoli­tan nov­els, has become a true lit­er­ary event in both Italy (her home coun­try) and the Eng­lish-speak­ing world.3 In Italy the fourth vol­ume has been recent­ly nom­i­nat­ed for the most pres­ti­gious lit­er­ary prize – the Pre­mio Stre­ga – and the entire quar­tet will soon be turned into a TV series. In the Unit­ed States, par­ties were orga­nized to cel­e­brate the release of the Eng­lish trans­la­tion of the fourth and last install­ment of the series. All major lit­er­ary jour­nals and news­pa­pers have host­ed enthu­si­as­tic reviews of her books, prais­ing the clar­i­ty of her style and the pre­ci­sion of her descrip­tions of com­plex emo­tions. In spite of the dif­fer­ent angles from which her work has been judged, the major­i­ty of review­ers stress the psy­cho­log­i­cal motives to which Fer­rante has been able to give voice, to the extent that she has been nom­i­nat­ed as the “mas­ter of the unsayable.”

For any­one who has read these nov­els, it is impos­si­ble not to acknowl­edge that so much of their pow­er lies in the dis­arm­ing frank­ness with which Ele­na Gre­co – the nar­rat­ing voice and one of the two main char­ac­ters – forces the read­er to con­front the pro­found inner dri­ves, desires and fears no one has the courage to tell oth­ers, or one­self, let alone to phrase in such acute and accu­rate prose. Ferrante’s cho­sen reg­is­ter, how­ev­er, is not lim­it­ed to the psy­cho­log­i­cal realm. Her nov­els are not only superb fres­coes of the pas­sions, but also win­dows onto his­to­ry, con­den­sa­tions of the per­son­al and the social con­text in which the char­ac­ters move. His­to­ry, in this sense, is not inert back­ground, but part and par­cel of the biogra­phies of the drama­tis per­son­ae; all of them are pow­er­ful­ly affect­ed by its unfold­ing, while also try­ing them­selves to affect his­to­ry, or what appears to be their seem­ing­ly ascribed des­tiny.

In this essay I will try to con­vey some of the com­plex­i­ties of Ferrante’s nov­els by think­ing of them as impas­sioned jour­neys towards the dis­cov­ery of the many archives of Italy, as well as of the self. In doing so, I will draw in par­tic­u­lar upon one cen­tral theme in Ferrante’s works: that of “dis­solv­ing mar­gins.” It is this theme, I argue, and the many ways in which Fer­rante grap­ples with it, that makes the Neapoli­tan nov­els a tes­ta­ment to the bor­der­line expe­ri­ence between true and false, as cat­e­gories of both the per­son­al and the polit­i­cal.

A Tale of Two Women

The quar­tet that begins with L’amica geniale – the title of the first install­ment as well as of the entire series in Ital­ian – nar­rates the friend­ship between two women, Lila and Ele­na (called “Lenù”). They both grow up in a poor rione (neigh­bor­hood) of Naples in the after­math of World War II. Lila is an appar­ent­ly fear­less, errat­ic child who scares even old­er male chil­dren with her tem­per and deter­mi­na­tion. Lenù is instead a more docile girl and per­haps for this rea­son, she is dis­turbed and yet seduced by Lila’s wild man­ners. Their friend­ship begins the day Lenù retal­i­ates against Lila’s bul­ly­ing behav­ior by throw­ing Lila’s doll in a dark under­ground cel­lar, as Lila had done the same to Lenù’s doll. When the two girls go to find their dolls, they have dis­ap­peared; accord­ing to Lila, they have been tak­en by Don Achille, the rione’s boogey-man:

My friend­ship with Lila began the day we decid­ed to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, to the door of Don Achille’s apart­ment.… Don Achille was the ogre of fairy tales, I was absolute­ly for­bid­den to go near him, speak to him, look at him, spy on him, I was to act as if nei­ther he nor his fam­i­ly exist­ed (Vol. 1, p. 27).

This appar­ent­ly triv­ial episode is key to mak­ing sense of Lenù and Lila’s rela­tion­ship, up until the very last lines of the fourth and final vol­ume. From the loss of the two dolls and the vis­it to Don Achille onwards, a strong bond of love and hate, depen­dence and need for auton­o­my, faith and mis­trust will be forged between the two girls. Lenù’s attach­ment to Lila deep­ens once she dis­cov­ers some­thing that trou­bles and yet excites her. Lila is not only the unruly and unpre­dictably brave daugh­ter of a shoe­mak­er; she is also extreme­ly intel­lec­tu­al­ly gift­ed. Lila can read before all oth­er chil­dren in her class can; she has an incred­i­bly pre­co­cious mind that allows her effort­less­ly to teach her­self any­thing she is inter­est­ed in. She is as sharp as a knife, includ­ing in her judg­ments about people’s char­ac­ter, some­thing that seems to alien­ate her from her peers. Lenù is fas­ci­nat­ed and chal­lenged by Lila’s gift­ed per­sona to the extent that she will spend the rest of her life attempt­ing to find out the secret of, and try­ing to emu­late, what she regards as Lila’s supe­ri­or mind. The aca­d­e­m­ic com­pe­ti­tion between the two girls is inter­rupt­ed, how­ev­er, by a sto­ry all too com­mon in South­ern Italy in the ear­ly 1950s. They are both work­ing-class daugh­ters; nei­ther of them is des­tined to con­tin­ue her stud­ies after their manda­to­ry five years at the pri­ma­ry school. Their fam­i­lies don’t have the resources to send them to the more demand­ing sec­ondary school, nor can they afford to lose their labor-pow­er, which is essen­tial for the sus­te­nance of the work­ing-class South­ern Ital­ian house­hold. How­ev­er, while Lila’s fam­i­ly obeys this rule, despite much cry­ing and anger from Lila who wants noth­ing but to con­tin­ue her stud­ies, Lenù’s fam­i­ly final­ly decides to allow their daugh­ter to go to sec­ondary school (thanks to the insis­tence of her teacher). This event marks the begin­ning of the many moments of separation/incommunicability/return between the two. Lenù can con­tin­ue to cul­ti­vate her intel­li­gence, to dream of that social mobil­i­ty they both well under­stand can be achieved in two ways: either through edu­ca­tion, or through mar­riage with a high­er-ranked man. Lenù is allowed to turn down the first path by attend­ing a liceo clas­si­co (clas­si­cal lyceum) and then being award­ed a schol­ar­ship at the pres­ti­gious Scuo­la Nor­male di Pisa to study Clas­sics. Lila, on the oth­er hand, will under­take the sec­ond road by mar­ry­ing a well-off shop­keep­er from the rione. Lenù will thus man­age slow­ly to sub­tract her­self from the small-mind­ed, poor, and vio­lent envi­ron­ment of the rione, where­as Lila will nev­er be able to do so (Lila will sel­dom leave the rione for most of her life). And yet, the more suc­cess­ful Lenù – who will end up becom­ing a famous writer and mar­ry­ing a respect­ed aca­d­e­m­ic from a well-known Ital­ian Left­ist fam­i­ly – will always feel infe­ri­or to the une­d­u­cat­ed Lila, who instead will leave her hus­band to become a work­er in a meat fac­to­ry first and then the own­er of an account­ing com­pa­ny.

Lenù’s per­son­al tale of her friend­ship with Lila span­ning six decades is the sto­ry of her com­ing to terms with the emo­tion­al and intel­lec­tu­al debts – both fic­ti­tious and real – she feels towards the extrav­a­gant, bril­liant Lila. But Lenù’s con­fes­sion­al sto­ry is also a tes­ti­mo­ny of post-WWII Italy: a full immer­sion into its his­to­ry, pol­i­tics, muta­tions and more recent decay. By pre­sent­ing in front of our eyes the world of unset­tled feel­ings and mem­o­ries she has built up against, and shared with, Lila, Lenù also takes us through the years of recon­struc­tion from the ruins of war, the gold­en years of indus­tri­al­iza­tion and social changes, the years of the stu­dent move­ment, the sex­u­al rev­o­lu­tion, fem­i­nism and the rise of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty, but also through the years of red ter­ror­ism and the slow decay­ing phase of the 1980s and 1990s, with ram­pant ex-rad­i­cal stu­dents becom­ing cor­rupt pow­er play­ers in the inter­stices of the state appa­ra­tus­es and Camor­ra fam­i­lies con­trol­ling the pub­lic and pri­vate bod­ies of the coun­try.

“Dissolving Margins”: On the Italian Anthropological Mutation

One of the most recur­rent, intrigu­ing and yet obscure con­cepts to be found in the Neapoli­tan nov­els is that of “dis­solv­ing mar­gins” [smar­ginatu­ra]. This is the con­cept through which Lila describes the expe­ri­ence of her own body – as well as objects and peo­ple sur­round­ing her – expand­ing to  break its own bound­aries and fall vio­lent­ly to pieces. The first time we encounter this expe­ri­ence is in the first vol­ume, when she is still a young teenag­er, soon to be mar­ried to a wealth­i­er shop­keep­er from the rione. It is the 31st of Decem­ber and every­one is prepar­ing for the New Year’s Eve fes­tiv­i­ties. Rino (Lila’s broth­er), Ste­fano (her future hus­band), and the oth­er boys who grav­i­tate around Lila and Lenù are par­tic­u­lar­ly excit­ed as they plan to com­pete with the antag­o­nis­tic gang of Camor­ra boys (the Solara fam­i­ly) over who can fire the biggest crack­ers. Lila watch­es the spec­ta­cle in silence and qua­si-dis­gust:

The thing was hap­pen­ing to her that I men­tioned and that she lat­er called dis­solv­ing mar­gins. It was – she told me – as if, on the night of a full moon over the sea, the intense black mass of a storm advanced across the sky, swal­low­ing every light, erod­ing the cir­cum­fer­ence of the moon’s cir­cle, and dis­fig­ur­ing the shin­ing disk, reduc­ing it to its true nature of rough insen­sate mate­r­i­al. Lila imag­ined, she saw, she felt – as if it were true – her broth­er break. Rino, before her eyes, lost the fea­tures he had had as long as she could remem­ber, the fea­tures of the gen­er­ous, can­did boy, the pleas­ing fea­tures of the reli­able young man, the beloved out­line of one who, as far back she had mem­o­ry, had amused, helped, pro­tect­ed her (Vol. 1, p. 176).

Lila’s first encounter with the expe­ri­ence of the dis­solv­ing of bound­aries occurs when she believes her broth­er begins to behave like the wealthy and arro­gant Camor­ra boys from the rione. This episode occurs just when Rino, thanks to both Lila’s cre­ative mind as a shoe-design­er and Stefano’s promise of invest­ment, final­ly sees the pos­si­bil­i­ty of mak­ing mon­ey by begin­ning an entre­pre­neur­ial activ­i­ty as a shoe-fac­to­ry own­er. In Lila’s eyes, how­ev­er, the dream of mon­ey­mak­ing has turned her broth­er into an unrea­son­able indi­vid­ual in a hur­ry to get rich. As they both come from very poor fam­i­lies, both Lenù and Lila had always cul­ti­vat­ed the dream of becom­ing wealthy, but now Lila begins to see mon­ey dif­fer­ent­ly: “Now it seemed that mon­ey, in her mind, had become a cement: it con­sol­i­dat­ed, rein­forced, fixed, this and that.… She no longer spoke of mon­ey with any excite­ment, it was just a means of keep­ing her broth­er out of trou­ble” (179).

Lila will resort to the image of “dis­solv­ing mar­gins” on oth­er occa­sions. But the expe­ri­ence becomes dev­as­tat­ing when lat­er in life, after sep­a­rat­ing from her hus­band, Ste­fano, and break­ing with her lover, Nino, she ends up work­ing in a meat fac­to­ry in order to sus­tain her­self and her new­born son. In the fac­to­ry Lila expe­ri­ences exploita­tion, sex­u­al harass­ment, humil­i­a­tion, fatigue, and the loss of con­tact with, and time for, her child’s edu­ca­tion. But more than the fatigue of shifts and the impos­si­bil­i­ty of com­bin­ing work and care for her son, it is the encounter with politi­ciza­tion in the midst of the stu­dent and work­ers move­ment of 1968-69 that almost caus­es her to have a ner­vous break­down. One morn­ing, as soon as she arrives at work, she finds out that her account at a polit­i­cal meet­ing of the many instances of bru­tal­i­ty she had wit­nessed in the fac­to­ry has been used, with­out her con­sent, for a polit­i­cal leaflet by rad­i­cal­ized stu­dents in order to tar­get her fac­to­ry and to urge the work­ers to revolt. Every­one in the work­place under­stands Lila is behind the sto­ry recount­ed in that leaflet; her boss threat­ens to fire her and her co-work­ers despise her for mak­ing their lives more mis­er­able. That night, she is so furi­ous with the stu­dents for not inform­ing her of their actions and for get­ting her into trou­ble that she feels her body is on the edge of blow­ing up.

She was get­ting back in bed when sud­den­ly, for no obvi­ous rea­son, her heart was in her throat and began pound­ing so hard that it seemed like some­one else’s. She already knew those symp­toms, they went along with the thing that lat­er – eleven years lat­er, in 1980 – she called dis­solv­ing bound­aries. But the signs had nev­er man­i­fest­ed them­selves so vio­lent­ly, and this was the first time it had hap­pened when she was alone, with­out peo­ple around who for one rea­son or anoth­er set off that effect (Vol. 3, p. 180).

Dis­solv­ing mar­gins is the expe­ri­ence of the known that becomes unknown, of the truth­ful that becomes false, of the beau­ti­ful that becomes ugly, of the famil­iar that becomes unfa­mil­iar and dan­ger­ous. It is the fear of a world that breaks and morphs into mon­strous forms. One way to read the notion of dis­solv­ing mar­gins is in terms of Lila’s resis­tance to, and fear of, a world that is chang­ing in front of her eyes. It is Lila’s refusal to accept or to com­ply with the path to indus­tri­al­iza­tion and pho­ny mod­ern­iza­tion that Italy is under­tak­ing. In a way, Lila’s hor­ror at the dis­solv­ing of mar­gins is her pan­ic in front of what Pier Pao­lo Pasoli­ni called the “anthro­po­log­i­cal muta­tion” occur­ring in the coun­try in the 1960s.4 With this term, Pasoli­ni referred to what he saw as the tran­si­tion from tra­di­tion­al to mod­ern val­ues in Italy. For Pasoli­ni, this was not a pos­i­tive change, for it meant the homog­e­niza­tion of everyone’s ideas, tastes, desires and appear­ances brought about by mass con­sump­tion. Lila first sees the ugly face of that anthro­po­log­i­cal muta­tion when she wit­ness­es how the greed for mon­ey trans­formed her broth­er from a mod­est arti­san into a greedy indi­vid­ual. But above all, she sees the ugly face of the anthro­po­log­i­cal muta­tion and expe­ri­ences the scat­ter­ing of her own body when she feels that the polit­i­cal tur­moil at her work­ing place is not the result of her col­leagues’ own mak­ing, but rather of the insin­cer­i­ty and naivety of mid­dle-class stu­dents who want to “res­cue” the work­ers:

The stu­dents made speech­es that seemed to her hyp­o­crit­i­cal; they had a mod­est man­ner that clashed with their pedan­tic phras­es. The refrain, besides, was always the same: We’re here to learn from you, mean­ing from the work­ers, but in real­i­ty they were show­ing off ideas that were almost too obvi­ous about cap­i­tal, about exploita­tion, about the betray­al of social democ­ra­cy, about the modal­i­ties of the class strug­gles (Vol. 3, p. 110).

Here again a Pasolin­ian motif emerges: the “arti­fi­cial­i­ty” and pre­car­i­ous­ness of the coali­tion between work­ers and stu­dents. Famous­ly, in 1968 when the police attacked protest­ing stu­dents, Pasoli­ni provoca­tive­ly took sides with the for­mer. The police­men were the real rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the work­ing class­es, Pasoli­ni argued, and not the stu­dents, whom he labeled petit-bour­geois kids born with a sil­ver spoon in their mouths. Lila looks at the stu­dents with that class-inflect­ed Pasolin­ian eye, and yet she takes sides with them. In spite of her anger at their imma­tu­ri­ty, she believes what they say is right. She agrees with their denun­ci­a­tion of cap­i­tal­ism as a source of injus­tice, even if she is con­vinced they do not have real first-hand expe­ri­ence of that very injus­tice. She will thus become a union activist and, through Lenù’s pen, pub­licly denounces the work­ing con­di­tions in the fac­to­ry in the pages of the most impor­tant left­ist news­pa­per in the coun­try.

When every­thing is break­ing with­in and around her, when silence and assent would be much eas­i­er choic­es, Lila nonethe­less takes sides with the weak and the mar­gin­al­ized. Despite her lack of bound­aries, she trans­mits solid­i­ty and embod­ies an integri­ty that is the truest mark of her per­son­al­i­ty. It is to these fea­tures of Lila’s per­son­al­i­ty, to her authen­tic­i­ty and hon­esty, even in their unpleas­ant man­i­fes­ta­tions, that Lenù – who feels fake, inau­then­tic and “opaque” – is drawn.

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Tano D’Amico

Dissolving the Margins of Class and Gender

The theme of dis­solv­ing mar­gins tra­vers­es the four books in less explic­it and more metaphor­i­cal ways when we are con­front­ed with gen­der and class bound­aries. Both Lenù and Lila grew up in work­ing-class patri­ar­chal fam­i­lies where it was not uncom­mon to see their fathers beat­ing their moth­ers, or men beat­ing women. These episodes assume qua­si-nat­ur­al and inef­fa­ble con­tours in front of their eyes, belong­ing to the rubric of cus­tom­ary facts. And yet both girls, from very ear­ly on, each in her own way, strive for their inde­pen­dence and eman­ci­pa­tion from an envi­ron­ment that oppress­es them and that they feel is unfair to women. Lila is the first to rec­og­nize and to name the codes of men’s dom­i­na­tion over women. She does so in her own non-book­ish, but instinc­tive and rad­i­cal way: after the dis­ap­point­ment of an intense clan­des­tine love affair with a young intel­lec­tu­al, Nino, she sep­a­rates from her author­i­tar­i­an and small-mind­ed hus­band and decides to live in a part­ner­ship with Enzo, a man who does not give her lux­u­ry but trans­mits integri­ty and polit­i­cal pas­sion, and above all, who respects her. As a fac­to­ry work­er she rec­og­nizes espe­cial­ly the sex­ism and oth­er prob­lems to which work­ing women and moth­ers are sub­ject­ed. She describes them in a speech that resem­bles the pow­er­ful and mem­o­rable mono­logue by Gian Maria Volon­tè in La Classe Opera­ia va in Par­adiso (The Work­ing Class Goes to Heav­en):

She said jok­ing­ly that she knew noth­ing about the work­ing class. She said she knew only the work­ers, men and women, in the fac­to­ry where she worked, peo­ple from whom there was absolute­ly noth­ing to learn except wretched­ness. Can you imag­ine, she asked, what it means to spend eight hours a day stand­ing up to your waist in the mor­tadel­la cook­ing water? Can you imag­ine what it means to have your fin­gers cov­ered with cuts from slic­ing the meat off ani­mal bones? Can you imag­ine what it means to go in and out of refrig­er­at­ed rooms at twen­ty degrees below zero, and get ten lire more an hour – ten lire – for cold com­pen­sa­tion? If you imag­ine this, do you think you can learn from peo­ple who are forced to live like that? The women have to let their ass­es be groped by super­vi­sors and col­leagues with­out say­ing a word. If the own­er feels the need, some­one has to fol­low him into the sea­son­ing room; his father used to ask for the same thing, maybe also his grand­fa­ther; and there, before he jumps all over you, that same own­er makes you a tired lit­tle speech on how the odor of sala­mi excites him (Vol. 3, p. 110).

Lila is also the first to under­stand the pow­er and yet fragili­ty of gen­der bound­aries when she encour­ages her broth­er in-law, Alfon­so, to feel com­fort­able in his non-con­form­ing, gay skin.

Lenù, on the oth­er hand, dis­cov­ers and chal­lenges gen­der bound­aries in a book­ish but no less trans­for­ma­tive way. Her sis­ter-in-law, Mari­arosa, intro­duces her to fem­i­nism and to a con­scious­ness-rais­ing group. Lenù is struck in par­tic­u­lar by Car­la Lonzi’s famous text “Let’s spit on Hegel.” In this text, Lonzi ques­tioned the pos­si­bil­i­ty of apply­ing Hegel’s mas­ter-slave dialec­tic to the man-woman rela­tion­ship. For Lonzi, women need to become sub­jects of a renewed his­to­ry, there­by putting an end to that con­di­tion in which they are mere­ly an hypoth­e­sis for­mu­lat­ed by oth­ers.

How is it pos­si­ble, I won­dered, that a woman knows how to think like that. I worked so hard on books, but I endured them, I nev­er actu­al­ly used them, I nev­er turned them against them­selves. This is think­ing. This is think­ing against. I – after so much exer­tion – don’t know how to think. Nor does Mari­arosa: she’s read pages and pages, and she rearranges them with flair, putting on a show, That’s it. Lila, on the oth­er hand, knows. It’s her nature, If she had stud­ied, she would know how to think like this. That idea became insis­tent. Every­thing I read in that peri­od ulti­mate­ly drew Lila in, one way or anoth­er (Vol. 3, p. 260).

Lenù’s dis­cov­ery of the trans­for­ma­tive poten­tial of fem­i­nist think­ing and gen­der-break­ing is life-chang­ing; and yet it is beset by deep con­tra­dic­tions. What fas­ci­nates her in fem­i­nist the­o­ries and the con­scious­ness-rais­ing group is not their polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions and activism, but how this fem­i­nine mod­el of thought caus­es in her the same admi­ra­tion and sub­al­ter­ni­ty she had always felt towards Lila. Lenù does not use this new­ly found fem­i­nist con­scious­ness to become clos­er to oth­er women, but to get clos­er to Lila. Unlike the lat­ter – who uses her pri­vate expe­ri­ence of gen­dered inequal­i­ty and abuse in the fac­to­ry for pub­lic denun­ci­a­tion – Lenù ini­tial­ly exploits the pub­lic expe­ri­ence in the fem­i­nist group for her per­son­al strug­gle with Lila and her­self. Even lat­er, when she decides to write an essay-style book on the his­to­ry of West­ern cul­ture as one in which “men fab­ri­cate women,” Lenù tells us about this deci­sion by empha­siz­ing her ques­tion­able pri­vate motives and ambi­gu­i­ties. She writes about women and flirts with fem­i­nists because she wants to impress and seduce a man, Nino. She advo­cates women’s empow­er­ment and yet lets her lover deceive and dis­re­spect her with his many lies. All pas­sages in the third and fourth vol­ume about Lenù’s rela­tion­ship with fem­i­nism and fem­i­nists are tra­versed by anx­i­ety and the symp­toms of the impos­tor syn­drome. As a suc­cess­ful writer, she can make her read­ers think she has suc­cess­ful­ly crossed the bound­aries of the male-dom­i­nat­ed lit­er­ary canon – her first book was avant-gardist in its explic­it sex­u­al con­tent, right on the eve of the sex­u­al rev­o­lu­tion – but she can’t trick her­self. Lenù’s feel­ings of inse­cu­ri­ty and lack of authen­tic­i­ty con­cern­ing her fem­i­nist and intel­lec­tu­al cre­den­tials, how­ev­er, can­not be dis­so­ci­at­ed from her con­fi­dence crises relat­ed to her class. By cross­ing the bound­aries of gen­der orders, lit­er­ary canons and even bour­geois domes­tic respectabil­i­ty – she leaves her hus­band and daugh­ters for Nino, a love from her child­hood – Lenù gives expres­sion to her anx­i­ety about the uncer­tain bound­aries of her class iden­ti­ty. Edu­ca­tion and mar­riage have allowed her to climb the social lad­der and to leave behind the work­ing class envi­ron­ment into which she was born and to embrace a com­fort­able mid­dle-class milieu. Yet, she always feels a stranger in both class­es. While Lila dis­solves the mar­gins of her own body and fears the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the world around her, Lenù dis­solves the mar­gins of her gen­der and class iden­ti­ty. While Lila seem­ing­ly faces the earth­quake with­in and around her with stur­di­ness in the des­per­ate attempt to keep her­self and her son unharmed, Lenù lets every­thing with­in and around her fall to pieces: her mar­riage, her rela­tion­ship with her daugh­ters and her own self.

And yet, Fer­rante dis­or­ders this bina­ry pic­ture of Lila the authen­tic and Lenù the inau­then­tic with the pow­er of her own nar­ra­tive choic­es. Isn’t in fact the appar­ent­ly fake, self-dep­re­cat­ing Lenù also the one who tells us about her strug­gles for authen­tic­i­ty with impas­sioned hon­esty? If the solid­i­ty of unfal­ter­ing con­vic­tions and irrep­re­hen­si­ble behav­ior is denied to her as a woman who lives at the bor­der­line of class and gen­der hier­ar­chies, what she is left with as a nar­ra­tor is sin­cer­i­ty: the striv­ing for truth despite the knowl­edge of its impos­si­ble attain­ment.

The Double and the Uncanny

It has been sug­gest­ed that Ferrante’s quar­tet are nov­els of the cou­ple, of the mem­o­rable pair. Like Prince Hal and Fal­staff, Set­tem­bri­ni and Naph­ta, Ferrante’s Lenù and Lila seem to stay impressed in our mem­o­ry because of the force of their qua­si-sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship.

To make full sense of these nov­els, how­ev­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly of their enig­mat­ic end­ing, I sug­gest that we look at Lenù and Lila as two faces of the same per­son; that we think of Lila as a sym­bol­ic pro­jec­tion of Lenù’s fan­ta­sy. In this sense, the Neapoli­tan nov­els could be also seen as nov­els of the dou­ble and the uncan­ny, like Poe’s William Wil­son, or Wilde’s Dori­an Gray. Freud famous­ly linked the theme of the dou­ble that was present in Ger­man lit­er­a­ture of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry to the theme of the uncan­ny.5 The pres­ence of a pat­tern of rep­e­ti­tion of the same des­tinies, mis­deeds and even names involv­ing two indi­vid­u­als (i.e., the main char­ac­ter and his/her sig­nif­i­cant Oth­er), is what cre­ates the dis­qui­et­ing feel­ing of some­thing being unfa­mil­iar, uncan­ny. In oth­er words, what enables a series of dis­parate and yet rep­e­ti­tious events in a nar­ra­tion to be expe­ri­enced as uncan­ny, accord­ing to Freud, is the sen­sa­tion that they are not coin­ci­den­tal con­tin­gen­cies, but pieces of a puz­zle hid­ing a fate­ful mean­ing. More impor­tant­ly here, for Freud the uncan­ny emerges from the inti­ma­tion that the sig­nif­i­cant oth­er in the nov­el is not a real per­son but an automa­ton, or a shad­ow of the imag­i­na­tion, onto which the main char­ac­ter mir­rors, or projects, his/her own fan­tasies. From this per­spec­tive, it is hard not to see all the ingre­di­ents of the uncan­ny in Ferrante’s quar­tet.

The lover of Lila the ado­les­cent, Nino, lat­er becomes the lover and then part­ner of Lenù as an adult. The dream of Lila as a child to become a writer becomes Lenù’s real­i­ty lat­er on in life. Both Lenù and Lila give birth to two daugh­ters at rough­ly the same time and Lila names her daugh­ter after Lenù’s doll, Tina. The two lit­tle daugh­ters in turn seem to repeat the paths of their moth­ers: Lila’s Tina is pre­co­cious and extreme­ly intel­li­gent; Lenù’s Imma is instead rather unex­cep­tion­al. And more impor­tant­ly, Lila’s daugh­ter dis­ap­pears into the void, just like Lenù’s doll with the same name had van­ished years before and was nev­er found again (until the very end). Yet, this series of momen­tous coin­ci­dences is nev­er mere­ly rep­e­ti­tion of the same. All occur at dif­fer­ent stages of Lila and Lenù’s life. More pre­cise­ly, Lenù “real­izes” the dreams of her child­hood and ado­les­cence –  to become Nino’s lover, to be a famous nov­el­ist – in her adult­hood. And it is at the apex of her suc­cess as a writer and of her new­found fem­i­nist con­scious­ness that Lenù, this time vic­ar­i­ous­ly, re-lives her childhood’s infe­ri­or­i­ty com­plex towards Lila through her daughter’s dai­ly encounter with the more gift­ed Tina. That is pre­sum­ably why Tina must go – twice! First as a doll and last­ly as Lila’s beloved daugh­ter. Her pres­ence as the rein­car­na­tion of Lenù’s unset­tling dou­ble stands in the way of Lenù’s rebirth as her own self.

Step by step, Fer­rante takes us through Lenù’s encounter with, and desire for, Lila as her dou­ble. It is a painful and dis­tress­ing encounter, yet she needs it in order to find her­self. Ferrante’s Lenù does not in fact nar­rate the jour­ney towards the dis­cov­ery of her own per­sona as a sort of monadic devel­op­ment of her inner poten­tial­i­ty. Lenù the adult is not an expand­ed, ful­ly unfold­ed ver­sion of Lenù the child. Rather, Ferrante’s Lenù needs to face and con­front Lila, as well as to rec­og­nize Lila as her dou­ble (whether Lila is fic­ti­tious or real is unim­por­tant here) in order to find her own skin. It is per­haps for this rea­son that only at the end of the fourth nov­el, in the very last lines, after she mys­te­ri­ous­ly finds the two miss­ing dolls from her child­hood in her apart­ment build­ing (pre­sum­ably left by Lila), that Lenù express­es the doubt that she might have lived her own life as the pro­jec­tion, or per­haps even the embod­i­ment of the life of Lila as her Oth­er.

[Lila] had deceived me, she had dragged me wher­ev­er she want­ed, from the begin­ning of our friend­ship. All our lives she had told a sto­ry of redemp­tion that was hers, using my liv­ing body and my exis­tence (Vol. 4, p. 356).

The bewil­der­ing dis­cov­ery of the two dolls Lenù had always believed to be for­ev­er lost sheds light on the dark­ness of Lila’s dis­ap­pear­ance. “Now that Lila has let her­self be seen so plain­ly, I must resign myself to not see­ing her any­more,” (357) writes Lenù in a touch­ing final sen­tence. Now that Lenù can final­ly see Lila’s orig­i­nal lie, which was piv­otal to their life-long friend­ship, she also under­stands that Lila can­not come back. Or per­haps, the two dolls are only metaphors for Lenù’s rela­tion­ship with Lila as her sym­bol­ic pro­jec­tion. Reveal­ing­ly indeed, Lenù tells us that she arranges the dolls “against the spines of her books” while exam­in­ing them with care and real­iz­ing how cheap and ugly they are. Now that she can final­ly live in her own skin, Lenù is ready to see the two old dolls togeth­er as the two con­flict­ing sides of her own per­son­al­i­ty. She is ready to look at them as relics of that past in which she was a poor girl from the hell of the Ital­ian South. Opposed to that past, she can now affirm her present as a suc­cess­ful writer.

What­ev­er the mean­ing the unex­pect­ed reap­pear­ance of the dolls might have, we are left with a strong feel­ing of nos­tal­gia and con­fu­sion. We under­stand there are no sim­ple or one-sided truths to be final­ly dis­closed: “real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscu­ri­ty, not clar­i­ty,” as Fer­rante tells us in these last dense lines of the book. Find­ing one­self through the encounter with the dou­ble – and los­ing the pow­er­ful pro­jec­tion of the self that the dou­ble rep­re­sents once her pres­ence is no longer need­ed – does not mean that one finds any set­tling truth upon which to rest.

  1. For an overview of Fortini’s life and work in Eng­lish, see Fran­co For­ti­ni, The Dogs of the Sinai, trans. Alber­to Toscano (Lon­don: Seag­ull Books, 2013) and A Test of Pow­ers. Writ­ings on Crit­i­cisms and lit­er­ary Insti­tu­tions, trans. Alber­to Toscano (Lon­don: Seag­ull Books, 2016). 

  2. Adorno’s line has been trans­lat­ed in Eng­lish in many dif­fer­ent ways. One of the most often quot­ed ones, how­ev­er, is: “There is no right life in the wrong one.” See Theodor Adorno, Min­i­ma Moralia: Reflec­tions on a Dam­aged Life, trans. Edmund F. N. Jeph­cott (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2005). 

  3. Ele­na Fer­rante is the pseu­do­nym of the author of these nov­els whose iden­ti­ty is unknown. 

  4. Pasolini’s notion of anthro­po­log­i­cal muta­tion was elab­o­rat­ed in a series of arti­cles appeared between 1974 and 1975 in the news­pa­per Il Cor­riere del­la Sera and in Il Mon­do. They are: “Gli ital­iani non sono più quel­li,” Cor­riere del­la Sera 10/06/1974;  “Il potere sen­za volto,” Cor­riere del­la Sera il 24/06/1974; Ampli­a­men­to del “bozzet­to” sul­la riv­o­luzione antropo­log­i­ca in Italia, “Il Mon­do,” l’11/07/1974; “Il vuo­to del potere in Italia, Cor­riere del­la Sera, 1/02/1975, “Abiu­ra dal­la Trilo­gia del­la vita,” Cor­riere del­la Sera, 9/11/1975. 

  5. Sig­mund Freud, “The Uncan­ny,” 1919, in The Stan­dard Edi­tion of the Com­plete Psy­cho­log­i­cal Works of Sig­mund Freud, Vol­ume XVII (1917-1919): An Infan­tile Neu­ro­sis and Oth­er Works (Lon­don: Vin­tage Clas­sics, 2001), 217-56. 

Author of the article

is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She works on sociological and political theory, ‘race’/racism and feminism, migration and gender, with a particular focus on migrant women and their role within social reproduction. She is the author of , with a particular focus on migrant women and their role within social reproduction. She is the author of Max Weber's Theory of Personality. Individuation, Politics and Orientalism in the Sociology of Religion (Haymarket, 2015), and In the Name of Women's Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism (Duke University Press, forthcoming in April 2017).