The Story of a New name—Elena Ferrante

[I chose to read this 2012 novel, second in the quartet that began with My Brilliant Friend, in four sections. I wrote about what I had read in each section before reading further. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]

31 July 2021
Chapters 1-25
It’s six years since I read My Brilliant Friend, which I loved. So far, I’m not sure I’m loving this second novel so much, although I suppose it’s early days. Perhaps it just feels so headlong, the story of Lila and her ‘new name’ rushing into fierce battles with almost everybody, while Elena wants to do some rushing of her own, away from a life of study that seems drab compared to her friend’s. There are some extraordinary things, mostly to do with how sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girls deal with the realities of sex. And the most memorable of these, for me, is the description of Lila’s powerlessness on her wedding night when she thinks she will be able to stop her new husband Stefano doing what he is definitely going to do.

At the wedding, having seen how easily Stefano had compromised in allowing the hated Marcello Solara to wear the special shoes she designed, the marriage is over for her. All through their evening alone, right up to when they both prepare for bed, she is determined. But he is stronger and just as determined. Holding her down, ‘he took out of his pyjamas his stubby sex that, extended over her, seemed like a puppet without arms or legs, congested by mute stirrings, in a frenzy to uproot itself from that other, bigger puppet that was saying, hoarsely, Now I’ll make you feel it, Lina…. And since she was still writhing, he hit her twice, first with the palm of his hand, then with the back, and so hard that she understood that if she continued to resist he would certainly kill her.’ This follows pages of description, as detailed as in any third-person, omniscient author narrative…

… which Elena, the actual narrator, can supposedly do not only because her childhood friend has confessed it all to an almost worryingly disinhibited degree but also because, in a prologue, we are told that some years later she would give Elena a sheaf of diary pages and other personal writings. The details about the wedding night come early on, and perhaps this self-revelation is the confirmation of a side to Lila hinted at in the first novel. She is possessed by an unshakeable certainty of what is right for her, and if things don’t go her way she bides her time while she regroups her forces. To outsiders—including, sometimes, Elena—it might not be at all clear what is going through her head. It sometimes seems to be a kind of wilful self-destructiveness, as she gambles on some future development she has in mind. Sometimes it seems that not even her own long-term survival matters as much as her determination not to be forced into whatever place other people want her to be.

This includes her husband, a man she realises before the end of the wedding celebration is both set on make money at any cost, and as conservative as every other man she knows in his expectation of how wives should behave. She has made the commonest of mistakes—assumed, against all her experience of the men she knows, that a man who loves her will allow her to be herself. Now her husband thinks he has won, and so does everybody else. This is Naples in the mid-1960s, and after the struggles of the honeymoon Lila passes off her black eye and swollen lip as injuries from a fall: ‘they had all sarcastically believed her, especially the women, who knew what had to be said when the men who loved them and whom they loved beat them severely. Besides, there was no one in the neighbourhood, especially of the female sex, who did not think that she had needed a good thrashing for a long time.’ In this world, real men show their wives what’s what: ‘sympathy and respect for Stefano increased—there was someone who knew how to be a man.’

These attitudes, which meanwhile come out in all sorts of other ways, are immovable. But Lila’s determination not to give in to them, as we are continuing to see, is an unstoppable force. I mentioned when I read My Brilliant Friend all those years ago that Lila lives her life with the volume turned up high, and things are already becoming noisy in this next part of her story. For months, Lila carries on, behaving publicly as though all is well, while enjoying spending the money that Stefano’s retail projects are bringing in. Her lifestyle, compared to that of everyone they grew up with, is lavish and… and what? Elena knows Lila has not forgiven Stefano, and is never going to go along with the expectation that she will be a good wife. It’s impossible to imagine her settling down to a life of childbearing and everything else that women have to put up with.

But enough of Lila for now. This is also Elena’s story, and we wonder what direction the Bildungsroman aspect of her narrative will take. At first, it seems to be on hold. She can see as well as Lila can just how horrendously limited the lives of women are… but she also feels, at a visceral level, the attractions of sex. She decides that Antonio, the strongly-built boyfriend she is with because the intellectual Nino seems never to notice her, is capable of providing what she needs. Somewhere inside her, Elena knows she’s fooling herself. But it’s a powerful urge, and we see it at work as she thinks about Lila on her wedding night. She’s doing what she often does with Antonio and, for the first time, wants him to take their accustomed heavy petting much further than usual. But she can’t help contrasting her own squalid situation with Lila’s:

‘What was I, here with Antonio, secretly, in this rusting ruin, with the scurrying rats, my skirt raised over my hips, my underpants lowered, yearning and anguished and guilty, while she lay naked, with languid detachment, on linen sheets, in a hotel that looked out on the sea, and let Stefano violate her, enter her completely, give her his seed, impregnate her legitimately and without fear?’ Envy, confusion, wishful thinking…. Ferrante has her alter-ego experience all of these, with that extraordinary added frisson, the idea that what men do to women is violate them. Any less, at this moment, would not satisfy her.

Antonio has other ideas, just as strongly founded in the culture they grew up in as hers of violation. ‘I … felt the effort he was making to stop, to keep from pushing with all the violence that had been smouldering for an entire afternoon and surely was still. He was about to stop, I realized, and I pressed against him to persuade him to continue. But with a deep breath Antonio pushed me away and said in dialect, “No, Lenù, I want to do it the way it’s done with a wife, not like this.”’ On their wedding night, which both of them hope is not too far away, he wants her to be untouched.

Not long after, the relationship with Antonio ends. It doesn’t happen immediately, and not as a straightforward result of Elena’s desperate confusion over what future might await a girl from her class who doesn’t tread the usual path. In fact, it has a lot to do with his suspicions that it’s Nino she would really like to be with and, although her yearning for the other seems quite hopeless—she has seen him with another girl, and he is off to college soon—Antonio’s suspicions are right. But her confused non-decision, hoping to do the same as Lila and stop looking beyond the confines of the neighbourhood and settle into marriage and motherhood, has left her with nothing. She has let a whole summer pass with only the minimum of study, and she has no idea what to do.

This is where the story of the two girls comes back together. When Lila finds out that Elena seems to be throwing it all away, she is appalled. She invites her to her new apartment, ostensibly to catch up on what Lila has to say about married life—very little that’s good, of course—but really to make her study in a spare room. Somehow, it isn’t enough. Elena’s old enthusiasm has left her, and she finds studying hard. Her grades are the lowest she’s ever achieved, and she can see little point in carrying on. So… Lila makes a bet with her. It’s complicated, because it’s tied up with a battle that Lila is fighting with her husband over the long-awaited shoe shop her family is finally opening, with the help of Stefano and the hated Solara brothers….

To rewind a little. There had been expensive photographs of the wedding, and Stefano had proudly shown one to the maker of the dress. She asked for a copy, and Stefano definitely didn’t mind when the picture became part of a display in the dress-shop window. But Lila minds, and makes him get it back—only for the suggestion to be made (I forget by whom) that the picture be displayed in the new shoe store. Lila, and her shoes, look wonderful in it. Stefano agrees to the display of a huge enlargement of it, and the bet comes about when Lila says she knows Stefano won’t back down if she objects, while Elena says he will. If Elena loses, Lila says, ‘you mut never again pass with anything less than the best grades.’

All Elena’s insecurities rise to the surface, as does her confusion about her own place in the neighbourhood. ‘She expected from me what she would have done in my place. She really wanted me fixed in the role of someone who spends her life with books, while she had money, nice clothes, a house, television, a car, took everything, granted everything.’ This is a real irony. Lila hates her life, despite the money, hates the fact that, after many months, she has finally become pregnant, and envies the chance that Elena has. When Elena asks what Lila will do if she loses the bet, there’s something both defiant and sad about the clear sense of loss she feels about the turn her life has taken. ‘I’ll enrol in a private school, start studying again, and I swear I’ll get my diploma along with you and do better than you.’ Which, inevitably, brings Elena’s insecurities bubbling up all over again. She knows Lila could do it if she wanted to.

In fact, Lila wins the bet, because Stefano and the others won’t let her remove the photograph from the store’s new display. But she needs to win the battle with Stefano somehow, and she does it by making them agree to her modifications to it. At the point I’ve reached, she has spent some minutes covering parts of it with cut-out strips of black paper. Everybody seems to hate it, but Elena says it’s beautiful, like the modern art in some high-status local man’s house. This galvanises Lila: ‘I had only to glance at Lila to realize that, if when we arrived at the shop she had really felt willing to give in should the attempt prove fruitless, now that the attempt had been made and had produced that image of disfigurement she wouldn’t yield an inch.’

A change has come over the dynamic in the shop. The Solaras are there, and Marcello hates what Lila has done. But Michele doesn’t: ‘I like it, signò. You’ve erased yourself deliberately and I see why: to show the thigh, to show how well a woman’s thigh goes with those shoes. Excellent. You’re a pain in the ass, but when you do a thing you do it right.’ Stefano doesn’t like the way Michele is suddenly making the decisions, and tries to take charge by reminding them that he will be needing Lila in the new grocery he’s opening. Michele is dismissive: ‘Figure it out. We have more interesting things to do here.’

The battles for status and power in this little world never end.

2 September
Chapters 26-58…
…which takes us to about half-way through the novel. It must also be about half-way through the young women’s long summer holiday on Ischia. For Elena, of course, the island holds a mixture of memories from the previous time she was there. One way and another, all of them come back to haunt her this time. She’s persuaded Lila to alter her holiday plans so that there will be a chance to see Nino, who is staying at a flat in a different town from the rest of his family. In other words, he is well away from the hated father. As well as Lila, who has been urged by her doctor to get some exercise and sea air to strengthen her up—specifically, to increase her chances of bringing a pregnancy to term—there is her mother Nunzia and Pinuccia, now Lila’s sister-in-law. The husbands, Stefano and Rino, spend a hectic 24 hours with them each weekend, until things become complicated, and Pinuccia leaves with Rino on the third Sunday. Pinuccia reads photo-romances, and I wonder if this is a sly nod by our author-narrator to the melodramatic pitch of events and emotions.

But I need to rewind to the previous September. Lila’s life becomes focused on the grocery store, Stefano having insisted on it. In fact, she transforms the running of the place, not only because she’s brilliant with both the management of it and with the customers, but because she’s so quick to learn how to cheat. Being Lila, she can do it whilst leaving the customers starry-eyed about the wonderful service…. Meanwhile studious, bespectacled Elena surprises herself almost from the start by excelling in her studies. She becomes the favourite of Professor Galiani, one of those teachers who loves to induct a promising student into what she sees as an utterly fulfilling life of the intellect. Elena is the chosen one, and her introduction what she sees as a sophisticated world of educated debate becomes the driver of a huge rift with Lila. It doesn’t last, but it has repercussions. Lila isn’t happy to feel left behind, even though she pretends to be content with her chosen life. Her mockery of the intellectual world she’s turned her back on is what causes the rift, but her mockery is hiding something deep.

In both the girls’ lives—they are still only seventeen years old—Ferrante moves things on through set-piece scenes, often containing one decisive moment. There’s one in the shoe store, where the jockeying for supremacy continues as before. Lila’s art piece which, with Elena’s help, she brings to a kind of completion over several days, continues to be the embodiment of different ways of seeing the world. Elena reads a positive review of it in a local newspaper, and is thrilled—until she is given a lesson in how the press works in Naples. It all depends who is paying for the article, and she is shown damning articles in other papers. Whatever, the set-piece moment comes when it goes up in flames, and the hapless reader is left wondering at the possible symbolism. Or is it just down to carelessness or spite on the part of Gigliola, fiancée of one of the Solaras? She has to live with the picture every day, hates everything about it, and doesn’t always show the right amount of caution when she smokes….

Newspapers are a big thing for Elena this year. Professor Galiani lends her the left-leaning broadsheets she’s never come across before, and reading them becomes part of her nightly schedule. It’s a strain, and little of what she reads means anything to her. But something must be sticking, and it stands her in good stead for the set piece that causes the rift with Lila. Ferrante makes the episode do a lot of work, starting with Elena’s confusion as to why the professor has invited only her, of all the class, to a party at her house. She doesn’t know whether to go at all, or what to wear if she does. Her anxieties about her education are always tied up with her self-consciousness about her poor background, and she seeks reassurance from Lila. By now, Lila is buying Elena all her books, and so has an interest. Eventually, Lila says she should go, and asks if she can go as her guest. She’ll behave herself, honest—but, meanwhile, cue more class anxiety for Elena….

It’s a triumph. Only when they get there do the professor’s son and daughter tell Elena how they’ve been looking forward to meeting the student they’ve heard so much about. And during a conversation about world peace, in which boys jostle for the professor’s approval, she discovers—to her own astonishment—that she has the confidence to make a point of her own. And, Reader, Nino is there to witness it, and nod his head approvingly. Of course, it helps that what she’s saying is an extension of Nino’s own point, and that she has read the magazine he’s now been published in…. I guess it’s a big part of the Bildungsroman process that she tries out voices that aren’t quite her own, and she considers it to be the biggest moment in her life, ever.

Meanwhile, Lila has been almost invisible at the party. Elena literally forgets she’s there most of the time and, when she finds Lila looking at the shelves of books in another room, she asks her if everything’s OK. Sure, says Lila. But fading into the background isn’t what Lila does. When Stefano picks them both up to go home in the car, she lets rip about everyone at the party, including Elena. We can only guess that it’s really about her own deep insecurities about the education her father would never allow her to have. She can pretend all she likes about having chosen her life for herself, but the way her resentment comes out is palpable: ‘they all talk just so, so they dress and eat and move just so. They do it because they were born there. But in their heads they don’t have a thought that’s their own, that they struggled to think. They know everything and they don’t know a thing.’ After kissing her husband on the neck, and lovingly smoothing his hair, she continues. ‘If you were up there, Ste’, all you’d see is parrots going cocorico, cocorico.’

Is she right? Once, she used to have a lot of thoughts of her own, that she had ‘struggled to think.’ And it’s easy to recognise the kind of conversation Elena was having with the boys, recycling and re-purposing what they have read or heard in order to make a good impression. The level of debate is not high, but they aren’t just parrots—Lila’s sarcastic take on it misses the simple truth that is how we learn. The irony in what she says, not just in this quotation, is that she resorts to parroting different attitudes herself. She knows Stefano will agree with all she says about them and their antiques: ‘those disgusting people. There’s not a thing there, an object, a painting, that was acquired by them directly. The furniture is from a hundred years ago….’ Not, in other words, like the furniture and pictures she and Stefano have chosen, all new and expensive. With Lila it isn’t class anxiety, it’s class war.

Other things happen. Rino asks Lila to help him with some shoe designs, but her belief in herself is all gone, and she is certain she can’t do it any more. More and more, Elena finds herself wondering what happened to the Lila she used to know. Rino, in fact, is very positive about the small modifications Lila occasionally suggests to his designs, but she is dismissive. She speaks and acts as though that old self is irrelevant. She’s Signora Carracci now, a title and name that is used all the time as a mark of who she is. She behaves as though by taking on this new name she has genuinely shuffled off her old self…. We know it can’t possibly be true, especially following her disgust with Stefano during and after the wedding, and we look on as events either confirm or undermine her new identity.

On Ischia, when Stefano is on his weekend visits, she seems more determined than ever to confirm it. Elena and the others are surprised how loving she is to Stefano, behaving exactly like the wife her husband would want to welcome him after a hard week at work. As I’ve said before, we can be pretty sure that she doesn’t respect him and his show-off lifestyle any more than she ever did, so we’ll just have to wait and see what she‘s up to… which includes gradually making herself more noticeable to Nino which, for all kinds of reasons, seriously messes with Elena’s head.

I’ll come back to Lila, because we need to talk about Nino. Elena always pretends to everyone that she dislikes him, but that’s just a part of her muddled late-adolescent attempt to hide from her own insecurities. In fact, he represents a kind of ideal for her, an embodiment of the intellectual life she aspires to and the opposite of the swaggering machismo of the other neighbourhood boys. In the first week on the island, Elena had persuaded the others to walk over to where Nino would be spending time with his family. In fact, he isn’t around, and it’s his father who charms Lila and Pinuccia. He shows them the rudiments of swimming, which becomes important later, in connection with Nino.

In fact, it’s soon confirmed for the reader that while Nino’s swagger might be different from that of the other boys, he’s no less arrogant and sure of himself among the girls. Once Elena makes contact with him, he gets into the habit of walking over in the afternoon to spend a few hours with the girls on the beach. He comes with Bruno, the shy friend who has enough money to put Nino up for the summer. Nino’s endless talking bores the conventional Pinuccia, and she seeks refuge in Bruno’s company. Despite having earlier been rude about his unremarkable looks, she spends most of her time on the beach with him while Lila stays with Nino and Elena. She, Elena, is prepared to tolerate the fact that Nino clearly thinks only his own views matter. When she offers something from her own reading, he is annoyed and changes the subject. She tolerates his arrogance because she’s starry-eyed about his cleverness—and anyway, what other choice does she have? He might stop coming if she isn’t careful.

Lila seems not to mind being around as Nino endlessly talks about the things she had been so dismissive of after the party. We might guess that she isn’t simply biding her time before Stefano’s next flying visit. For a start, there’s something very Elena Farrante-ish about the way Lila is able to use the swimming lesson the hated father gave her in order to make a connection with the son. And through another typical irony, Lila had been able to improve her basic skills in further lessons from Elena. After only a couple of weeks, it’s Lila who is swimming with Nino, their easy strokes easily taking both of them away from the ungainly Elena. She sees them ahead, and has to force back her own panic when she swims far out of her depth….

Is the symbolism crude? It isn’t subtle, and soon Elena is unknowingly helping what is starting to look like a project on Lila’s part to make herself interesting to Nino. She asks Elena to lend her a book, and it’s the plays of Samuel Beckett because Elena isn’t thinking of reading it. But Lila does, and she soon drops the name into one of Nino’s beach conversations. He is nonplussed, has to admit he hasn’t read Beckett, and asks Elena if he can borrow it. Of course he can, and Ferrante makes these encounters do a lot of work. There’s more symbolism in there, in the form of Happy Days, the Beckett play in which the main character is first half-buried, then buried up to the neck in sand…. Never mind their comments on what Beckett might be saying about the human condition. I’m just wondering who is getting stuck in the sand, and who’s finding ways out of it. Just how far is Lila going to take things with Nino?

Meanwhile, Pinuccia has been spending all their beach time with Bruno. He is endlessly considerate of her condition—I didn’t mention that she, unlike Lila, fell pregnant very quickly, which is why she and Rino are now married—and his self-effacing manner is the opposite of Nino’s. He’s neither as tall nor as good-looking as his friend, and she had been scornful when they first saw the pair in the distance. She had made a joke about ‘the long and short of it,’ but time spent with him changes all that. After a couple of weeks of daily meetings, something has got to her. She seems lethargic and apathetic before Rino’s arrival on the Saturday, and the others are willing to blame it on her pregnancy. But, when he does arrive, she insists that he must take her home with him. She says she wants to spend more time with him, but Nunzio knows. She’s doing it to keep herself from temptation. I might be wrong, but I don’t think anybody has pointed out the contrast with Lila—perhaps because she is being so uncharacteristically loving towards her own husband.

As the ironic take on the photo-romance continues, Ferrante makes sure we never forget that all this is in the context of where they are from and the people they grew up with. Nino’s father, we are reminded, did a terrible thing to the widow, almost sending her out of her mind. Other women, like Nunzia, are doggedly accepting of their lives, while younger ones like Gigliola seek a way out through marrying into money. This is the life Lila is pretending to accept, while all along she sees it for what it is, mercenary and reliant on the city’s everyday corruption. Had she ever imagined the comforts brought by her new life would make it bearable? The question seems almost irrelevant. The bitterness of the wedding night and the knowledge that she could easily outstrip Elena’s success seem to be sending her in a different direction. I just don’t know if she’s serious, or if she’s just spending these holiday weeks letting Elena and her new friend know who’s the best.

Chapters 59-84
I’ve read some way beyond the point at which Elena realises that it was always Lila’s plan to have Nino for herself. From the moment she saw him at Professor Galiani’s party, Lila knew that her life as a store manager, grudgingly playing the part of dutiful wife, was intolerable. She had realised the mistake she had made in pretending that she could simply turn her back on the life of the mind, a life represented, however imperfectly, by Nino. And there was the sex thing, too, or whatever it is that makes somebody instantly attracted to another person across a room. Ferrante often reminds us that Elena, Lila and Nino go back as far as elementary school. Maybe this is what makes Lila take it for granted that this young man making his way in the exclusive world of book-learning—books are almost fetishised by all of them in these chapters—is there for the taking. Or, knowing Lila, maybe she needs no encouragement. She always goes for what she wants.

This isn’t how Ferrante presents it. Lila—who, in a different telling, could be portrayed as a calculating, terminally disloyal narcissist—never lets on what her project is. A part of her, Elena continues to insist as the 60-something narrator of all this, was never quite sure that this was the project at all, or that she ever really thought she could get out of the dead-end life she had chosen for herself. But that’s Elena for you, always giving the friend who is in so many ways her soul-mate the benefit of the doubt. And Ferrante, at the point I’ve reached, has decided to foreground the partiality of Elena’s narrative. She gets Elena herself to do this, stopping for a chapter to reflect on how she’s telling it, and how much this relies on the sense of self that only developed in the way it did because Lila was always there.

I’ll come back to all that later. Do I need to fill in the detail of how Lila goes about diverting absolutely all Nino’s attention on to herself? We’ve already seen how it starts, with the swimming lesson from Nino’s father and her new-found interest in books—or in how she can use anything she reads to throw Nino off-balance. When the narrator is as partial as Elena, it’s hard to tell whether Lila really does have a superhuman gift for choosing absolutely the perfect seduction methods. Whatever, it works. Soon, Elena keeps finding herself stuck with the stolid, uninteresting Bruno—inevitably, she is forced to turn down his earnest efforts to propose to her—while Lila spends literally whole days almost out of sight with Nino. It’s easy to dislike her when she pretends to blame Elena for leaving her alone with ‘Sarratore’s son,’ but Elena seems too bewildered to make anything but the most perfunctory protest.

Within days, Lila is being far more brazen. She invents the routine of needing to telephone Stefano each evening, but really it’s a way for her to spend time alone with Nino in secluded parts of the town while Elena tries to be polite to Bruno. Around now, I was becoming bored by what seemed to be a too-simple story arc. There is nothing surprising about it, I was thinking, and when Lila and Nino are seen together by people they know from Naples—tell you later—it seemed to me that Ferrante is resorting to tropes from melodrama. Now, I’m wondering if she is playing a kind of game, defying the reader to dismiss the hoops she is making her characters jump through while having a longer-term aim in her sights.

It’s when the inevitable happens, and Stefano hears about what seems to be going on, that Ferrante works very hard indeed to turn a scene that she had set up as the lead-up to a possible murder—I’m not joking—back into something more literary and considered. The set-up for this had been that sighting of Lila and Nino. They had been holding hands and leaning towards each other lovingly as they emerge from the sea after one of their long swims. The people who witness it are Gigliola and Michele—with Elena both to confirm to the reader that what they see is damning, and to remind us that Stefano will definitely get to know about it. Meanwhile, Lila and Nino are so mutually obsessed by this time they pretend nothing will come of it, and carry on with their plans to spend 24 passionate hours alone together, with Elena scurrying around to help the necessary subterfuge along.

While it’s happening, Elena has some free time away from the apartment, where they have left Nunzia overnight. And what we get seems almost like a variation on that long-ago moment with Antonio, when she had wanted sex with him while Lila, as she put it then, ‘let Stefano violate her, enter her completely….’ What’s a young virgin to do? Well, she decides, why not pick up with Sarratore where they left off two years before? No, really. She calls at where he is staying with the family, finds him alone and lets him take her to the beach and do that thing he does with the sexy talk. And this time, she lets him do what he wanted to do the first time. As he withdraws in time and lets out ‘a sort of strangled roar,’ she feels entirely detached. He starts talking again, but she’s had what she wanted from him. ‘I managed to tolerate at most a couple of phrases,’ then she gets up abruptly and tells him, ‘in Italian,’ that he mustn’t ever try to see her again. She’s discovering a lot about how she can manipulate her two modes of speech, and it’s gratifying to her. ‘I was amazed at how the tone of threat, which since I was a child I had used only in dialect, came just as easily to me also in the Italian language.’

Stefano arrives after their return, with no luggage, and following a stilted hour or two of awkwardness he and Lila irritate each other enough for the truth to start coming out. He: ‘You go swimming with Sarratore’s son?’ She: ‘Sometimes. Why?’ And so on, until this: ‘Gigliola saw you, bitch.’ In the furious exchange that follows, Lila spells out the truth about their marriage—‘How stupid I was to marry you, you’re worthless’—followed by her carefully calculated denial: ‘You know Michele Solara wants me in his shop, you know for that reason Gigliola would kill me if she could, and what do you do, you believe her? I don’t want to listen to you anymore, you let yourself be manipulated like a puppet.’ In other words, she is able to pretend that her contempt is for his gullibility in believing Gigliola’s lie, whilst telling him exactly what she really thinks of him.

She carries on until, shouting back at her, he yanks her toward the bedroom while she ‘grossly’ insults him. They nearly pull over the crockery cupboard she’s grabbed hold of, then ‘Lila almost flew through the kitchen and hit the wall.’ Stefano grabs her again, pushes her into the bedroom, closes the door and turns the key in the lock. ‘That sound terrified me. I had seen with my own eyes, in those long moments, that Stefano really was inhabited by the ghost of his father, that the shadow of Don Achille could swell the veins of his neck.’ Don Achille, of course, is a convicted murderer, and both Elena and Nunzia fear the worst.

They hear enough to know that Lila doesn’t even come close to backing down. She risks absolutely everything by doing the opposite: ‘You want the truth? Yes, the son of Sarratore and I go swimming and we hold hands. Yes, we go into the deep sea and kiss each other and touch each other. Yes, I’ve been fucked by him a hundred times and so I discovered that you’re a shit, that you’re worthless, that you only demand disgusting things that make me throw up.’ Without missing a beat, she throws it all on to him, as though it’s his choice to believe Gigniola’s fantasy: ‘Is that what you want? Are you happy?’

Melodrama doesn’t come any higher than this. We know what the stakes are and, Elena later discovers alongside those writings of Lila’s she later receives, so does Lila. She had been keeping local news cuttings about exactly the kind of murder this sort of admission can lead to. And the upshot? ‘Silence. After those words Stefano didn’t take a breath, I stopped pounding on the door, Nunzia stopped crying.’ How can Ferrante get Lila out of this one?

She does it by having Elena present to us the workings of Stefano’s mind, like the omniscient author she sometimes comes close to being in this novel. ‘I realised that he was looking for a way to calm down: short, disconnected phrases—show me that you’re done, be good, stop it. Lila’s confession must have seemed so unbearable that he had ended by taking it as a lie. He had seen in it something she resorted to in order to hurt him, an exaggeration equivalent to a solid punch to bring his feet back to the ground, words that in short meant: if you still don’t realize what groundless things you’re accusing me of, now I’m going to make it clear to you, you just listen.’ If this isn’t an author telling us what to think, I don’t know what is.

Whatever. Lila has won, as she always seems to win. And it’s at this point that Ferrante chooses to remind us again that this is a novel about Elena too: ‘to me Lila’s words seemed as terrible as Stefano’s blows. I felt that if the excessive violence he repressed behind his polite manners and his meek face terrified me, I now couldn’t bear her courage, that audacious impudence that allowed her to cry out the truth as if it were a lie.’ We have witnessed her growing realisation, over perhaps two weeks, that Lila has entirely blown away whatever she thought her own chances with Nino might have been. And every single thing that happens seems to confirm to her that Lila is unstoppable. The ways she has outmanoeuvred Stefano is just the latest victory, and Elena has had enough of it: ‘I decided that from that moment on I would live for myself only. … I imposed on myself an attitude of absolute detachment.’ She sees nothing of Lila for the next year.

It’s what happens next that leads on to that chapter of reflection. It’s Elena’s final year at school and, in contrast to the dozens of chapters it takes to describe the three or four weeks of the vacation, it is covered in less than five. This includes the chance encounter with an old professoressa, who encourages her to apply for the free university in Pisa. Naturally, into the hallowed precincts of the Scuola Normale, to her surprise but not ours—you can imagine the disaster of the interview process as she describes it—she is accepted.

It’s in a very short chapter, coming after her preparations to leave—her mother, especially, tries to make her feel terrible about it—that Elena sees Lila again. She goes to the shop, which looks more closed than open with the shutters nearly down, to say goodbye. Nino is there, and Lila tells Elena both that she’s two months pregnant, and that they are going to go and live outside the city. She’s going to leave Stefano. I’m guessing that Ferrante wants to demonstrate that Elena is becoming more independent—she’s got through her year at school without any help from her, after all—and both Lila and Nino are surprised by the sarcasm of her tone. ‘What need is there to leave Stefano? You’re good at telling lies, you’ve told him so many, you can perfectly well continue.’ Lila is careful now. ‘Lying was useful to avoid being killed….’ When Elena leaves, she muses: ‘I hoped for my sake that I wouldn’t see them again.’

Elena might be her own person now, but Ferrante has her describe two years at the university in just one chapter. She has her explain why she’s done it like this at the beginning of the next chapter, and it becomes the introduction to her reflection on how she is telling all of this. ‘This is more or less what happened to me between the end of 1963 and the end of 1965. How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done.’ We have to forgive the simile she uses—why on earth use an idea that has nothing to do with their lives at this time?—because she comes back to add to it in the next paragraph. She wants to prepare us for how different Lila’s life is.

‘It’s more complicated to recount what happened to her in those years. The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly, goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open, their contents scatter here and there.’ Yep, got it. But Ferrante is also going to have Elena muse on the strange osmosis that seems to have Lila’s influence becoming something almost like a merging of Elena’s identity into her own. I remember when I read My Brilliant Friend wondering to what extent we might see Lila and Elena as alternative versions of the same person, and Ferrante plays with a similar idea now. She’s still with the luggage carousel as she continues: ‘Her things end up among mine: to accommodate them, I am compelled to return to the narrative concerning me. … For example, if Lila had gone to the Normale in my place would she ever have decided simply to make the best of things?’

The reflectiveness is about the entangled nature of their lives. In fact, this chapter seems to come as a warning, to both the reader and herself, that a few years of separation doesn’t count for anything. At this point, Elena is almost denying her own autonomy: ‘How did she manage—even at a distance—to sweep away my artificial meekness? How much of the requisite determination did she give me, how much did she dictate even the insults?’ Elena had described these to us in the university chapter, and they had seemed like an extension of that new independent spirit she had shown towards Lila and Nino in the shop. Now she seems to be disowning it as part of her own identity: ‘her life continuously appears in mine, in the words that I’ve uttered, in which there’s often an echo of hers, in a particular gesture that is an adaptation of a gesture of hers, in my less which is such because of her more, in my more which is the yielding to the force of her less.’

We’re less than half-way through the quartet of novels, and I’m guessing that this lack of confidence is a stage in her development as a woman. I’m also guessing that Ferrante is also going to have to rely heavily on those writings of Lila’s which, we are told at the beginning of the novel, Elena will receive as a package a few years hence. She has Elena remind us, almost as an aside—she’s describing how she had, at the time, romanticised Lila’s life of taboo-breaking and risk—about ‘what I didn’t know and read later in her notebooks.’ It’s as though Ferrante is persuading us in advance that her narrator really would be able to describe the three years of Lila’s life when she had nothing to do with her. We go along with it, because we have to.

Before the end of the chapter, the account begins. And ‘I know for certain,’ as Lila catches the ferry back to Naples with Stefano and with little hope of seeing Nino again to ‘kiss and caress and love … she was violently scarred by suffering.’ Elena had been satirical about the way she had romanticised Lila—and now she’s presenting her almost as a tragic heroine. It seems she just can’t help it.

5 December
Chapters 85-125—to the end
I’m glad that’s over. From the start, I haven’t been anything like as convinced by this second novel as I had been by the first, and these chapters often had me feeling exasperated. From about halfway through the Ischia chapters, it seems to me that Ferrante gets the balance wrong between the interesting thread and the background to it. The interest always lies in the relationship between the two girls, now growing into young women, and it was never going to be easy for Ferrante to keep holding on to it when the main subject of the novel is their estrangement and separation. This starts more or less from the moment it becomes clear that Nino’s attention has moved entirely on to Lila, and that feels like a long time ago now. And after Ischia, Ferrante concentrates a lot on Lila’s increasingly complicated relationships with all the characters except Elena and, like a long afterthought, Elena’s uneasy social progress in a different world.

The other problem is that neither character becomes more fully rounded as they grow older, but more like thumbnail versions of themselves. Lila is the narcissist with the superpower of being able to excel at everything she turns her hand to. She wins Nino because he’s a narcissist too, and she’s good at everything he admires—intellectual originality, outdoor pursuits and sex. Elena, meanwhile, is the one who deprecates her own ‘brilliant student’ status because of a growing problem with impostor syndrome. Whatever she does, it’s never really her achieving it—her ‘pretended’ middle-class status is the least of her insecurities—to the point that when she finally does manage to write a novel and have it published she’s convinced that at its core it’s really Lila’s.

She might, or might not come to a point where she realises this is a nonsensical view of her own work—I’m sure there’s a quote somewhere—but, by the time she’s attending the book’s belated launch presentation she’s a wreck. Luckily, an unkempt-looking man who rescues her from her mortification—and just guess who it is. The last words of the novel arrive with a lumbering inevitability: ‘he went on to praise the modernising force of my novel. I recognised him most by his voice, it was Nino Sarratore.’

It has long ago transpired that when, just before going to Pisa, Elena had visited Lila at the shop and discovered Nino there in secret, she had not been witnessing the beginning of their long life together. They were going to move somewhere else, Lila had said, and they did. Nino lasted 23 days before, monster that he is, he couldn’t bear the reality of it and left her forever. He was always going to come back into the novel somehow or another, had gone to the same city as the book launch, Milan—which is why the outlandish coincidence of his attendance at Elena’s book launch comes as no surprise at all. It’s how Ferrante likes to twist it.

She’d been twisting it before this point. Elena’s career as a published novelist comes about through a series of happy coincidences, starting with her writing it in a 20-day binge as a displacement activity when she should have been working on her graduation thesis. She is sort-of—i.e. not really—dating Pietro, an unprepossessing, ultra-studious scion of the academic establishment. He’s the son of a well-known professor father and a mother who knows people. Elena gives him the only copy, hand-written, and… and nothing. Except that some months after graduation, when he’s still in Pisa climbing towards academic heights he knows are waiting for him, and she is back home in Naples feeling completely out of place, he mentions it in a letter. He’s only gone and shown it his mother, who’s only gone and had it typed and read and, astonishingly—i.e., again, not really—she’s found a publisher for it.

Cue the first of at least three fish-out-of-water journeys that Elena makes in the final few chapters of the novel. (The last few chapters are all about her.) She makes a journey to visit the publisher in Milan, trying and occasionally managing not to feel too much of a fraud. She’s 23 now, and it’s hard to listen to her still banging on about her outsider status after so many years. Shouldn’t she be at least starting to get the hang of it? Silly question, when this is one of her USPs…. The second fish-out-of-water trip feels even more implausible to me. She’s been back in her old neighbourhood for months when she decides she needs to reconnect with Lila because… tell you later. The journey to see her is a descent into hell, as though she’s spent every moment since arriving back in Naples quarantined from its realities. I find it difficult to swallow this—if she feels such an impostor, why is her perception of the working Neapolitans so full of middle-class disgust? The third of these journeys is the one to Milan for the book launch, towards a different kind of hell.

This is partly what I mean about her not seeming any more rounded as a character than before. Perhaps I’m wrong to object to the implausibility of her plight, because social mobility was less fraught with difficulty for someone like me, who was not a young Neapolitan woman in the 1960s. But it doesn’t stop me feeling more than a little exasperated by the way, for instance, her desperate attempts to make a good impression when she first meets Pietro’s parents are almost identical to those she made when she was five years younger at Professor Galiani’s party. She still, after all these years, writes as though what they talk about easily is an almost entirely closed book to her, so she only dares to speak by way of a headlong determination to bluff her way through it. Has she read nothing of contemporary politics in all that time? Really, in the late 1960s?

Whatever, Ferrante is not wrong to mark the difference between those born into particular expectations and those who neither have those expectations nor any real chance to break into the magical place where so many things are taken for granted. When Pietro refers to his thesis as a book he expects to publish, Elena thinks this means that hers will become a book, too. When a professor advises her that becoming a teacher would be a good thing for her she assumes, naively, that he means a university teacher. This is the other big issue, still with us many decades later: those who are not of the privileged classes, whatever form the privilege takes, often have no idea of how the system works for those who are. Elena is bright enough to know that it isn’t all about the right accent and the right clothes—Pietro’s mother does not dress expensively—but about things far less easy to pick up. At first, she had no idea that she was gaining kudos from speaking to Pietro because of who his father was.

Enough. Before all of this, we have mainly been following Lila, and the soap opera of her life while Elena is away. It starts with the arrival home from Ischia, and from the start she is determined not to return to the old life. She continues treading a dangerous line with Stefano, speaking to him contemptuously but in such a way that he can take it as little more than a manifestation of her usual, disinhibited contempt for the usual boundaries. (Ferrante lets us know that Stefano has spent his life treading carefully around dangerous people, starting with his terrifying father.) In fact, she’s determined to leave him one day—and until then, she will see Nino as often as she can. First it’s in the marital apartment, then it’s during the afternoon closure in the shop, and then, finally….

I don’t feel the need to go into all the details. But it transpires that Stefano had been having an affair with Ada since before Ischia, which has its own repercussions. In the list of characters printed at the beginning of the book, Ada first appears, almost inevitably, as somebody’s fiancée. He is ‘Pasquale Peluso, older son of Alfredo and Giuseppina, construction worker, militant Communist,’ and this section of his details shows how convoluted it can get: ‘He was the first to become aware of Lila’s beauty and to declare his love for her. He detests the Solaras. He is engaged to Ada Cappuccio. / Carmela Peluso, also called Carmen, sister of Pasquale. She is a sales clerk in a notions store. She is engaged to Enzo Scanno.’

The declaration of love for Lila came way back in the first novel. The Solaras, and Stefano’s growing indebtedness to them, is a big part of this section of the second—and now he, Stefano, is seeing Ada. You can imagine how, in this world of viscerally jealous partnerships, Pasquale feels about that. And meanwhile, his sister Carmen becomes more and more furious with Lila, first because she becomes more and more absent from her duties in the shop where they both work, and later when it becomes clear that her fiancé Enzo is far more interested in Lila than he is in her. When things later go really wrong for Lila, he is the one who rescues her. E seeBut before that, w how quick to fight almost all the men in this group are, and Ferrante shows us some of their battles…

…starting with one that accelerates Nino out of his short-lived cohabitation with Lila. Her desire to be with Nino all the time had already started to make him feel claustrophobic. He loves it for a short while, but within a couple of weeks he’s feeling cramped at home and embarrassed by her uninhibited contributions to the political and other meetings he takes her to. He stops taking her, stays out late… and then he gets beaten up. By Stefano, right? Nope, it’s Antonio, now a fascist bully-boy and a fixer for the Solaras. But he’s driven not so much by his loyalty to the Solaras after she’s stopped showing up to work in any of the enterprises they own or control, as by an intoxicating, testosterone-laced mixture of envy and fantasy: ‘What hurt him most was that Lila and I both liked the skinny, ugly bastard.… He was gripped by a kind of morbid obsession that affected his nerves, … Finally he had decided that he had to free Lila, even if at that moment, perhaps, she had no desire to be freed.’

The problem for me is that I’m not interested in this crude, macho world that the women play their own part in conspiring to perpetuate. At one stage Lila’s brother Rino—he’s always on the periphery now, unable or unwilling to dance his way back into favour with the hated Solaras—decides to show his sister some solidarity. If Stefano can cheat on his sister, he, Rino, can cheat on Stefano’s sister. She is Pinuccia, his fiancée—or are they married by now?—and he starts to see somebody else. I can’t remember who, and I really can’t be bothered to check just now—which, inevitably, leads to more posturing in the weird human zoo Ferrante presents to us. Do Stefano and Rino fight? Do we care?

This is what I mean about the important thread getting lost. It’s important for us to know that Lila is even more trapped than Elena is in her glass-ceilinged academic bubble. But the endless detail, the shifts in loyalties, the jockeying for position as top dog just gets in the way. The important things are that a) Lila, pregnant with Nino’s child—he knows about it, but buggers off anyway—goes back to live with Stefano for a while. He is willing to pretend the child is his, despite her constantly reminding him it isn’t, and she decides she isn’t going to work any more. The thing for her now—I guess this must be b) in the list—is to make a home for the child and, as it grows, c) to give it the best possible education she can in his early years. She’s good at it, and the boy, also called Rino, flourishes so much that another mother—Pinuccia?—gets her to let her boy join in.

But d) Ada, eventually, can’t stand it. Stefano is completely open by now that they are essentially a couple, and that only his die-hard loyalty to some idea of the sanctity of marriage is stopping him kicking Lila out. But Ada has no such qualms, keeps visiting the apartment to clean it up, make dinner and so on—all while Lla is still living there—and she encourages Stefano to get the Solaras to pull the necessary strings to get a divorce.

Meanwhile, how am I feeling about the tragic figure Elena had wanted to present as she remembers her sailing from Ischia all those years ago? Does Lila actually work as a tragic figure when, in so many ways, she is so unattractively narcissistic? It doesn’t work for me, even when, now living on her own with the child, Lila is reduced to working in the most hellish of meat factories for the family of Bruno Soccavo, Nino’s unprepossessing friend on Ischia. She had met him by chance on the street, is desperate for work, and he offers her the job. In the intervening years he has become monstrous, taking his pick of any of the women employees prepared to do him sexual favours. And this is the hell at the end of Elena’s journey down through the circles. She certainly piles on the agony as she describes it.

Elena fails to find her where the grinding machines produce their ‘mush of soft, ground, mixed matter,’ or where workers were ‘stuffing skins with the rosy pink paste mixed with bits of fat, or where, with sharp knives, they skinned, gutted, cut, using the blades with a dangerous frenzy.’ No, she’s leaving a walk-in refrigerator, ‘carrying a reddish block of frozen meat on her back. She placed it on a cart, she started to go back into the cold. I immediately saw that one hand was bandaged. “Lila.” She turned cautiously, stared at me uncertainly. “What are you doing here?” she said. Her eyes were feverish, her cheeks more hollow than usual … and on her feet she wore army boots. I wanted to embrace her but I didn’t dare: I was afraid, I don’t know why, that she would crumble in my arms.’

Elena had sought her out because after their old elementary school teacher had died recently, she had left Lila’s story ‘The Blue Fairy’ among Elena’s school books. Reading it had been a bad idea for Elena: ‘already at the first page I began to feel sick to my stomach and soon I was covered with sweat. Only at the end, however, did I admit what I had understood after a few lines. Lila’s childish pages were the secret heart of my book.’ She takes it to show Lila, although she isn’t really clear as to her own motives. To celebrate Lila’s precocious genius? Or to grieve for the life she hadn’t been able to live? Whatever, Lila doesn’t even recognise it and, with the kind of metaphorical flourish I had admired in the first book but not so much now, Ferrante has Elena look back on her friend as ‘she leafed through the pages…. Suddenly she threw it on the fire.’ Which is the last time Elena sees her in this book.

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