The Story of the Lost Author: Reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

Joan Mitchell, Grand Carrieres, 1961 photo via The Joan Mitchell Foundation

In her “Art of Fiction” interview with the Paris Review, Italian novelist Elena Ferrante mentions a very good essay in The Guardian by Meghan O’Rourke about, well, Elena Ferrante. And why wouldn’t Ferrante (or any author) read essays about herself? They must—I imagine—be especially amusing for all their speculation surrounding her identity; “Ferrante” after all is a pen name. Reading several of them at once is like watching a futile game of twenty questions: Ferrante has the answer, and her critics have wasted all their turns asking the wrong questions. (Victory, of a kind.) But when I read this particular aside in the Paris Review I froze, and I’ve been frozen for quite a while since.

Writers read their reviews, and every critic has to come to some kind of terms with this fact. (Those terms can be easy and unapologetic, but I suspect just as often they aren’t.) Telling a person what you really think of their work can be pretty scary, and, especially as a woman, the pressure to be nice is real. (See: the works of Elena Ferrante.) I thought I had settled my terms with this work, but that was before I read this snippet from Ferrante’s Paris Review interview, which was when I realized that Elena Ferrante might (might) read this.

Both Jenny Turner in Harper’s and Dayna Tortorici in n+1 have written about this problem. A love or admiration or honest humility, as Tortorici puts it, so overwhelming that it rises in the throat and silences us, at least for a moment, at least in the beginning. There’s nothing surprising about this in some ways—how does anyone write about greatness?—but in other ways I am perplexed by the difficulties I encounter talking about books that seem to talk so perfectly to and seemingly—this is the magic of art—about me; Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (four volumes that make up a single 1,693-page story) voice something incredibly true and essential about my experience as a person, a woman, a daughter, a friend, a citizen. They seem as real and as close to me as breathing. But, also, how does anyone write about breathing?

Elena Ferrante has published nine books since 1992, the same year, with the publication of her first novel, Troubling Love, she assumed the pseudonym readers know her by. Who knows what her real name is? This is not entirely rhetorical: Ferrante knows, as do her publishers. I remember wishing desperately to know the real identity of Sugar, The Rumpus’s advice columnist, in the years before she revealed herself to be novelist and memoirist Cheryl Strayed. I remember too, after the big unveiling, so many people coming forward and confessing they knew all along: either they had spotted the similarities in Strayed’s nonfiction and Sugar’s columns, or they knew from personal experience the details of Strayed’s life, details which she shaped, as Sugar, into something beautiful and useful and devastating. I imagine—more speculation—there must be many people in Ferrante’s life who have made similar deductions. Even if fractured, refracted, the lived experience of the author suffuses these books. But I don’t think her novels, even the Neapolitan ones, are necessarily autobiographical. I think they press so deep that her fingerprints must be visible to those who can read their whorls and loops.

This is what Ferrante loved about O’Rourke’s essay. O’Rourke wrote that Ferrante, as a person, feels real to readers in the same way that characters in a novel feel real. “We think we know her,” O’Rourke writes, “but what we know are her sentences, the patterns of her mind, the path of her imagination.” Ferrante insists that without the banality of an author’s body, her verifiable identity, “we discover that the text contains more than we imagine. It has taken possession of the person who writes. If we want to find that person, she’s right there, revealing a self that even she may not truly know.”

Some people think that Ferrante is also a writer who also actively publishes under her real, legal name. Some people—people whose poverty of imagination when it comes to women writers is at once ludicrous and heartbreaking, fools and failed readers all—think that Ferrante is a man. I find it difficult to imagine that Ferrante is both a public writer of fiction and a secret one. It’s not just that she has said in interviews that her day job is not writing-related, but that nine books are so many! Even the four novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Childwhich are in fact one bona fide masterpiece) are so many—a lifetime’s worth of work. Ferrante has revealed precious little in interviews—that she is from Naples, that she has had a classical education, that she is a mother, that she admires the Rothko painting “Black on Gray,” that Portnoy’s Complaint makes her laugh. We, her readers, are just not going to be able to guess her identity. Elena Ferrante’s face, the sound of her voice, the details of her life, they are not for us. We just have her fingerprint, the patterns and paths of her art, to make out. It’s enough.

Sometimes I wish all authors would disappear: Jonathan Franzen doing or saying most anything; Jeffrey Eugenides in his open and flapping vest; the noxiousness of Orson Scott Card. But I also more often am grateful for the physical presence of writers: Toni Morrison, her voice like quicksilver; every photo I’ve ever seen of Kathy Acker; James Baldwin, on national television, hanging William F. Buckley out to dry.

In Italy, authors don’t always have a choice about their presence or absence. 35-year-old writer Roberto Saviano was 24 when his bestseller Gomorrah, a nonfiction account of Naples’s Camorra crime organization, was published. He has lived in hiding since then, losing years to rooms without windows. Italy’s Ministry of the Interior granted Saviano permanent armed protection; even in the United States his movements are supervised by local police and the FBI. Though it wasn’t until the Neapolitan novels that Ferrante came to write—albeit fictionally—about the Camorra’s ingrained, insidious presence in the life of Naples, her pseudonym in hindsight appears to be a wise move. At least, the name is a circle of protection wherein Ferrante the person (whoever she is) can be Ferrante the writer. Everything in the books feels so real, after all. So many of her critics (me too apparently), suspect Ferrante uses her pseudonym to protect her real life from the consequences of her fiction. Ferrante, instead, insists it is to protect her fiction from the consequences of her real life.

“I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors,” Ferrante (now famously) wrote in a 1991 letter to her publisher, explaining her decision to absent herself from in-person publicity for Troubling Love. In the Paris Review interview, published in their Spring 2015 issue, Ferrante updates her original credo. “This demand for self-promotion diminishes the actual work of art, whatever that art may be, and it has become universal.” Though an individual person is necessary for the production of art, readers will never have access to that person, all they’ll have—via the media—is “a manufactured image.” But she also admits that her pseudonym has changed the way she writes. “Once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume… it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.”

It was terrible to begin reading the last of the Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child, for all the same reasons I once dreaded reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, because this story I loved was over, because these characters that had filled up every available space in my imagination were about to become—with the book’s end—unavailable to me. It is a kind of death. If you haven’t read the books (I congratulate you for making it so far in this essay but also warn you that what follows is full of spoilers), they are the story of a writer (Elena Greco, Lenuccia, Lenù) writing a story about her friend (Raffaella Cerullo, Lina, Lila). Lenù and Lila have known each other for over 60 years and, at age 66, Lila has suddenly and purposefully disappeared, erasing along with herself any trace of her existence. “We’ll see who wins this time,” Elena says to herself in the prologue. “I turned on the computer and began to write—all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.”

So begins My Brilliant Friend, and the three subsequent books are all part of this long reminiscence, bookended at front and back by this framing story, themselves organized into prologue and epilogue. “I can’t believe it myself,” Elena admits at the end of The Story of the Lost Child. “I’ve finished this story that I thought would never end.” When she finds that no one in the old neighborhood remembers Lila, Elena asks: “What is the point of all these pages, then?” But she’s already supplied the answers. In part the novels exist to defeat Lila, as in a contest, but their purpose is also to win her, as a prize. “I intend to capture her, to have her beside me again,” Elena says, though she “will die without knowing if I succeeded.”

Lenù takes months to write the manuscript that recounts their friendship. When she is finished, as if by magic, an unmarked package appears on top of her mailbox in Turin. Inside are her and Lila’s old dolls, whose loss first cemented their friendship and whose image opens the story Elena has just completed. They prompt Lenù to draw a line through her life: the dolls’ disappearance paid for a book (Little Women), the book lead Lila to write a luminescent story (“The Blue Fairy”), the story inspired and haunted Lenù in equal measure in her career as an author. Two interpretations present themselves to Elena: that Lila had deceived her—“All our lives she had told a story of redemption that was hers, using my living body and my existence”—or that Lila “meant only that she was well and loved me.” Elena Ferrante, for we are no longer in Elena Greco’s carefully crafted narrative, allows each version equal weight. In one, Lenù is author, telling and retelling the story of their double-helixed lives. In the other, Lila writes, using bodies rather than language to construct a story of her making. Both, perhaps, are true. “Unlike stories,” Elena reflects, “real life, when it has passed, inclines towards obscurity, not clarity.”

I find the complexity of these frames (a novel about a novelist writing a novel/memoir that is itself the novel) and the competing but equally valid truths they present (authorship, albeit of different sorts, can be claimed by the person who goes by Elena Ferrante, the persona of Elena Ferrante, the characters of Elena Greco and Raffaella Cerullo) deeply satisfying. I’m reminded of how critic Hugh Kenner once described James Joyce’s similarly long and complex novel:

On nothing is Ulysses more insistent that on the fact that there is no Bloom there, no Stephen there, no Molly there, no Dublin there, simply language. To say this is by no means to surrender to the artificer’s whimsical virtuosity. We and he are co-creators; characters and city have their existence in our minds. We may later visit the geographic Dublin, and note much coincidence with what our minds contain; even discover that Bloom’s library book never came back.

This is not to say… that our reading of any book is essentially our doing. Words are prior to us, communal, entangled in human experience, registered in other books and in dictionaries. In most books they are brushed on to the pages, a thin wash. But Ulysses is the first book to be a kind of hologram of language, creating a three-dimensional illusion out of the controlled interference between our experience of language and its arrangements of language.

The Neapolitan Novels

In The Story of a New Name, the second book in the quartet, Lila—then a mother and wife in her late teens—runs into the teacher who once celebrated, and then rejected, her prodigious intellectual talents. Lila’s parents would not pay for her to go beyond elementary school, and the teacher cannot forgive her former student for it. Maestra Oliviero looks at not the young son she ferries with her, but at the book Lila carries: Ulysses. Oliviero is unfamiliar with it.

“It’s about how prosaic life is today.”

“And so?”

“That’s all. It says that our heads are full of nonsense. That we are flesh, blood, and bone. That one person has the same value as another. That we want only to eat, drink, fuck.”

Though Ulysses spans only a single day and the Neapolitan novels, six decades, the books share this attention to flesh and blood and bone, eating and drinking and fucking. And while Joyce estranges his readers—makes them aware of the language-ness of his language—with stylistic acrobatics, Ferrante achieves a similar effect with the doubling and quadrupling of authorships, with stories that nest one inside the other. It is our uncertainty about which truth is true, about which story is the story, that forces us to acknowledge the artifice simultaneous to our experience of that artifice’s reality. To extend Kenner’s metaphor of dimensionality—it is like watching a 3D movie without the complementary glasses. (“Naples is a city in which many worlds coexist,” Ferrante told the New York Times in December 2014.) A hologram that insists it is a hologram.

Of course for the effect to really work, the story has to bear the weight. Many books with structures far more complex, or narrators more elusive or unreliable, just aren’t worth it. (Many books without these stylistic flourishes are equally tepid.) “Beautiful, magnificent, very carefully crafted pages abound” in Italian fiction, Ferrante told the Times, “but not the flow of storytelling that despite its density manages to sweep you away.”

“I publish to be read.” This is Ferrante again in her Paris Review interview. “It’s the only thing that interests me about publication.” Because her books are her only entrée into her public’s lives, she finds it that much more important to catch and hold them there. “I employ all the strategies I know to capture the reader’s attention, stimulate curiosity, make the page as dense as possible”—here again is density!—“and as easy as possible to turn.”

I loved My Brilliant Friend: The miracle of Lila’s self-taught literacy. Lenù’s longing letters from Ischia. Lila’s story, “The Blue Fairy,” “which left no trace of effort, [no] artifice of the written word.” Lenù’s fastidious, reverent, and mournful care for Lila’s body (washing, drying, dressing) in preparation for her friend’s wedding. Lila’s promise to fund Lenù’s studies, which makes me cry each time I read it. “You’re my brilliant friend,” Lila tells her, “you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.” The novel would easily be one of my all-time-favorites even if none followed it. But the addition of three more volumes (and over 1,300 pages)—and with them the hours, the weeks, the months, the years it may take to consume them—changed the scope and scale of the story. When a narrative gets longer, it also gets bigger. It’s not a matter of more of the same but of the same becoming different.

The Neapolitan novels are about Lenù and Lila, incontrovertibly, but they are also about Naples, about Italy and the postwar period and the Years of Lead, about the advent of computers (yes, even this!), about class, about violence, about feminism, about writing for a living, about leaving and returning home, about parenthood and partnership, about betrayal and stagnation, about the relationship of the past to the present, about growth and loss and survival, about not surviving too. Ferrante’s quartet is about, to put it rather blandly, what it is like to live a whole life. And while fiction is necessarily a simplification, a flattening of life as we actually live it, these books—so attentive to bodies and minds and time itself—feel extraordinarily rich.

It is the accrual of experience, the long passage of time, the layers of coincidence and pleasing repetition, but also the jarring juxtapositions when things (or people or places) do change, sometimes unrecognizably, that create this effect. I think of Bruno, who in the second book, The Story of a New Name, is a slow but sweet student, taking the pregnant Pinuccia (Lila’s sister-in-law) for a beach-side treat on Ischia. At this moment in time he has a special kind of grace: “small but well proportioned, his chest powerful, his thighs strong, he moved over the sand at a steady pace, as if the sun had neglected to burn the grains he walked on.” This same Bruno, in the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, is someone altogether different:

Soccavo’s face was bloated, his eyes shrouded by dissipation, his chest heavy, and his flushed complexion clashed like magma against his black hair and the white of his wolfish teeth. [Lila] wondered: what does this man have to do with the young man, the friend of Nino who was studying law? And she felt there was no continuity between the time on Ischia and the sausage factory: between them stretched a voice, and in the leap from one space to the other Bruno…had change for the worse.

Lina, “that small dark-haired, dark-eyed child, in a dark smock with a red ribbon at the neck” who taught herself to read at three, transforms into “Lila the shoemaker, Lila who imitated Kennedy’s wife, Lila the artist and designer, Lila the worker, Lila the programmer, Lila always in the same place and always out of place.” When Elena, childhood dolls in her hand, desperately wishes for her friend to reappear, she pictures a Lila “thin, gray, her back bent.”

Nino, introduced as a well-liked boy from the neighborhood, is by high school “a student with a shambling gait, who was very thin, with disheveled brown hair and a face that seemed… handsome.” He goes to university, into academia, into politics. His hair kept longer and then shorter; he grows a beard, he shaves it. By the quartet’s end, Nino—who has been in relationships with both Elena and Lila—is “large, bloated, a big ruddy man with thinning hair who was constantly celebrating himself.” (Nearly all of Ferrante’s men grow redder and more swollen with time, like terrible boils.) Like Lila did with Bruno, Elena struggles to create continuity between all the Ninos she has known in her life.

I distinguished the love for the neighborhood boy, the high-school student… from the passion that had overwhelmed me for the young man in the bookstore in Milan, the person who had appeared in my house in Florence. I had always maintained a connection between those two emotional blocks, and that morning instead it seemed to me that there was no connection, that the continuity was a trick of logic… To whom, then, was I bound, and whom did I still love today?

Ultimately, driving around Naples with her bare-bottomed infant daughter on her lap, Elena decides that all her Ninos are one Nino, and that man—who she has just caught having sex with their cleaning woman, Silvana—is his (truly disgusting) father’s son.

There was no split between that man who came after Lila and the boy with whom—before Lila—I had been in love since childhood. Nino was only one and the expression he had on his face while he was inside Silvana was the proof. It was the expression assumed by his father, Donato, not when he had deflowered me on the Maronti but when he had touched me between the legs, under the sheet, in Nella’s kitchen.

“Nothing alien then,” she thinks, “but much that was ugly.” As if in confirmation, the baby pees in her lap.

In interviews, Ferrante uses the term “oscillation” to describe both the relationship between Lila and Elena—like a tag-team, one and then the other’s story dominates the Neapolitan novels’ narrative—but also the inner lives of her female characters. In the New York Times, Ferrante describes how all her characters share this experience of oscillation: “My women are strong, educated, self-aware and aware of their rights, just, but at the same time subject to unexpected breakdowns, to subservience of every kind, to mean feelings.” It’s an experience she says she knows well: It “affects the way I write.” Elena and Lila are not Manichean opposites, though many people (even Lila) in the novels describe them along those terms: There is far too much exchange between the two, and too much both of selfishness and generosity, of intelligence and shortsightedness, in each woman. But they differ in important ways: in formal education, in class, in worldliness, in confidence. Most striking, I think, is how they reconcile their experiences of the world with their understanding of it. Where Lila is left bewildered by the changes in Bruno Socavvo’s body and character, Elena finds (or forces) a kind of continuity onto not only Nino but Nino and his father. Lenù, like any good author, makes things make sense.

This difference is heightened by what Lila calls “dissolving margins,” episodes in which she experiences the world breaking down into disparate and newly strange parts. It horrifies her. In The Story of the Lost Child, Elena and Lila are caught in a car when the 1980 Irpinia earthquake (which killed nearly 3,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless) hits: a literal upset of their world. For the first time Elena experiences the existential uncertainty and terror that has accompanied Lila since her youth.

Everything was moving: the sea of fire under the crust of the earth, and the furnaces of the stars, and the planets, and the universes, and the light within the darkness and the silence in the cold. But, even now as I pondered the wave of Lila’s distraught words, I felt that in me fear could not put down roots, and even the lava, the fiery stream of melting matter that I imagined inside the earthly globe, and the fear it provoked in me, settled in my mind in orderly sentences, in harmonious images, became a pavement of black stones like the streets of Naples, a pavement where I was always and no matter what the center. I gave myself weight, in other words, I knew how to do that, whatever happened. Everything that struck me—my studies, books, Franco, Pietro, the children, Nino, the earthquake— would pass, and I, whatever I among those I was accumulating, I would remain firm, I was the arm of the compass that stays fixed while the lead traces circles around it. Lila on the other hand—it seemed clear to me now, and it made me proud, it calmed me, touched me—struggled to feel stable. She couldn’t, she didn’t believe it. However much she had always dominated all of us and had imposed and was still imposing a way of being, on pain of her resentment and her fury, she perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself. When, in spite of her defensive manipulation of persons and things, the liquid prevailed, Lila lost Lila, chaos seemed the only truth, and she—so active, so courageous—erased herself and, terrified, became nothing.

After she publishes an autobiographical novella, A Friendship, based on her relationship with Lila, Elena finds that her friend will no longer see or speak to her. Lila never explicitly communicates this intention, she is just no longer there when Elena calls, emails, visits. It’s not long afterward that Lila disappears all together. “In fact I don’t know what offended her,” Elena admits, “a detail, or the whole story. A Friendship had the quality, in my opinion, of being linear.” Perhaps this, the orderly linearity of Elena’s story, upset Lila, whose own experience of the same events was so different. In her second attempt at telling her and Lila’s story, the project that is the Neapolitan novels themselves, Elena tries to write for Lila “a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve, and defeat her, and calm her, and so in turn calm myself.”

Hannah Wilke, Triple Black Swan (Irises), 1973 photo via ArtNews

All of her novels, Ferrante says to Vanity Fair, focus on moments in the lives of cultivated middle-class women where “something breaks and these women’s boundaries dissolve.” But these stories are equally about “how to re-discover, step by step, the measured language they started with and, with it, the kind of self-governing ability that stops my characters from falling into depression, into self-degeneration, or into dangerous feelings of revenge, aimed at themselves or at others.” Elena perhaps has more anchors, or tools of self-governance, than Lila does: her education, her class, her mobility. (It’s telling, I think, that Lila’s episodes of “dissolving margins” did not begin until the tenuous years of her adolescences.) Poverty, really any sort of powerlessness, is its own kind of senseless and bewildering and existential terror.

In a very short interview with the Financial Times, Ferrante confesses her fear of “losing control of my body” and the freedom she feels “when I am alone and no one expects anything from me.” Her writing happens “in a little corner somewhere. That is to say, a very small space.” (The interview also has moments of great charm. When asked who she’d like to be stuck in an elevator with, Ferrante confesses “I find the possibility too scary to even contemplate. If it were possible, I would always take a lift in the company of a lift technician.”) She talks too, in Vanity Fair, of the influence of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, which wants to transgress the boundaries of gender, species, and machine. It’s possible to see in Ferrante’s answers a kind of reflection (a fingerprint) of the themes in her novels: an interest in dismantling systems but also a fear of losing control, an awareness of the safety and danger that both accompany isolation.

Ferrante says the materials for her stories come from “frantumaglia,” a word often translated into “fragments,” but which is in Italian an invented synonym favored by Ferrante’s mother. Italian is a language rich with suffixes that elaborate on the meanings of nouns: Lenù is one of Elena’s nicknames, Lenuccia is a further diminutive—Little Elena. The common Italian word for “fragments” is frammenti. Frantumaglia, instead, comes from the verb frantumare (to crunch, shatter, splinter) and the suffix aglia. But where uccia is an affectionate addition, aglia is pejorative. Ferrante’s mother’s word means literally something like bad splinters or bad shards. Ferrante elaborates on the meaning in her Paris Review interview: frantumaglia “are bits and pieces of uncertain origin which rattle around in your head, not always comfortably.” Her one collection of nonfiction, published in English as Fragments, in Italy goes by the title La Frantumaglia.

In Ferrante’s descriptions of her books, and in the books themselves, readers can trace an overarching attention to the work of reality. That is to say, so much of what Ferrante writes about in the Neapolitan novels—friendship, politics, romance, violence—serves the purpose of demonstrating (with the thoroughness that only a work of their size can provide) how conflicting, confusing, overwhelming human lives are. This is story but it is also data. And what does it all mean? Nothing obvious. In her books, the insensibility of the world (insensible because of injustice, insensible also because being alive is really weird) is made bearable (sensible) only through sheer willpower. Her characters, even the most dense, must arm themselves against the world’s tendency to dissolve or shatter into pieces that never seem to fit together again: they learn or build for themselves codes of conduct, political outlooks, means of navigation. These sense-making structures must be maintained against the senseless weight of lived experience. And under extraordinary strain, they break and require replacement. People die for these frameworks; they are lost without them.

Raised in the shadow of Vesuvius, Ferrante’s metaphors occasionally turn volcanic when she talks about her work. “A good story—or to put it better, the kind of story I like best—” Ferrante says in Vanity Fair, “narrates an experience…following specific conventions that render it recognizable and riveting; on the other hand, it sporadically reveals the magma running beneath the pillars of convention.” She also uses this metaphor—of the intolerable, destructive, and chaotic truth at the heart of her work, as represented by molten rock, framed by safe, inviting, and cool convention—in her Paris Review interview. Her ideal first line is “an expansive sentence that has a cold surface and, visible underneath it, a magma of unbearable heat.” She uses all the tools, and celebrates all the pleasures, of conventional storytelling to get her readers to a place of narrative peril: there’s nothing to do with lava once you are amid it but be immersed and find yourself burned away. But at least we’ve been warned: “I want readers to know from the first lines,” Ferrante says, “what they will have to deal with.”

The first thing I ever read by Elena Ferrante was a 2008 editorial in the New York Times, though I wouldn’t remember it or her until I found it again these seven years later. I was just moving to Italy—my first ever trip with a passport—for a semester abroad in Rome. Nearly everyone I talked to before I left talked about the trash in Naples: a garbage workers’ strike combined with a decades-old problem of overfull landfills left the city with mountains of rotting, uncollected refuse. I read everything I could find about it, including Ferrante’s editorial. Her report from her home city is not hopeful; it does not even supply a recommendation of what to do. And while I don’t mean to downplay the very real organizational and environmental challenges of where any of our trash goes (few places good), keeping a city’s streets free of garbage is not an insurmountably difficult task. But the people of Naples live without functioning civic institutions, which is to say in a city without institutions at all. This is “a resigned loss, by people who no longer believe even in the cleanliness of other places in the world.”

“In Naples the mountains of garbage seem the symbol of a cosmic rot,” she writes. “Here the rot is not only visible; it has the power of portent.”

Naples has long been a place of prophecy. Virgil, who is (maybe) buried within the city, sends the hero of his epic Aeneid to Cumae (a Greek colony once located just outside present-day Naples) to consult with an Apollonian priestess on route to founding the dynasty that would found Rome. This prophet, the Cumaean Sibyl, is one of the most famous of her profession: according to Virgil, she aids Aeneas in his journey to the underworld; according to the Romans, she authored the sacred Sibylline Books, official and sacred tools of divination; according to medieval Christians, she (along with Virgil) predicted the birth of Christ. Ferrante describes, in her 2014 New York Times interview, imagining as a girl “the Bay of Naples filled with sirens who spoke in Greek as in a lovely story by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Naples is a city in which many worlds coexist. The Greek, Latin and Eastern worlds; medieval, modern and contemporary Europe; even the United States, are all side by side, neighbors.” But where she once understood, as a girl, her home in terms of ancient Homeric sirens or 19th-century Risorgimento luxury, Ferrante now sees in Naples a terrifying future. “If you know how to look,” Ferrante writes in her 2008 editorial, “it’s easy to understand that [Naples’] stinking, polluted filth, generator of profits both legal and illegal, is not some ancient relic but very modern, and that it underlines the precariousness of every sort of order, in every part of the planet.”

Ferrante spoke a little bit about her grim but clear-eyed worldview in her recent Vanity Fair interview. “The problem is not what other people do to you,” she says:

The problem is to stand impotent before the horror that afflicts the majority of people, the most precarious of our fellow human beings. Every day we find ourselves faced with the intolerable, and no promise of utopia—whether it be political, religious, or scientific—is capable of calming us. Each generation is obliged to verify this horror anew for itself, and to discover that it is impotent. So either you take a step forward or you take one back. I’m not talking about suicide. I’m talking about refusing to engage, about removing oneself from the picture. The sentence, “No, I will not,” when it comes from the depths of the intolerable, seems to me to be weighty, full of meaning, with everything to recount, always.

The world is indeed intolerable, so much of it. And as individual actors there isn’t a lot we can do to enact structural changes. But, Ferrante says, we can make this one small decision—to step forward or to step back—that is “weighty, full of meaning.” A decision worth, at least, a story. I want so much more information here: is a step forward a step towards complicity with the intolerable? Is a step backward a step away from engagement, a kind of giving up? Is refusal the most powerful form of resistance, the most effect conduit of change? Is the gesture’s power or usefulness beside the point? Is it always impossible to begin with? But maybe expecting, or looking to extract, hope from any native Neapolitan is a fool’s game. “I advise everyone to come and live here even just for a few weeks,” Ferrante says of her hometown to the New York Times. “It’s an apprenticeship, in all the most stupefying ways.”

In the same 2014 interview, she instructs her readers on the lesson they should learn from her work. It is—unsurprisingly—severe. “Even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard—out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness—” she says, “we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved.”

What do we do, we readers now bereft of the Neapolitan novels? Never lower our guards. Step forward or backward, depending on how we parse Ferrante’s advice. Read more: her previous novels, the work of authors who have influenced her—Elsa Morante, Virginia Woolf, Adriana Cavarero, Donna Haraway. Look forward to the release of a new translation, The Beach at Night, which revisits Ferrante’s core themes and images. (A doll narrates a terrifying night spent on a beach after her “mother,” the girl she belongs to, forgets her when presented with a new kitten. The doll must face down a lifeguard and his cruel, personified rake, who nightly gather and burn the day’s refuse. It is pitched as a children’s book, but there is horror here too.) We can hope that the miniseries adaptation of the Neapolitan novels now in production in Italy makes its way across the Atlantic. We can urge her, the woman who is Ferrante, wherever she is, to write more. I will be here to read it.

Follow Molly McArdle on twitter @mollitudo

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