There is a devastating exchange in The Story of a New Name, the second of three—soon to be four—books in Elena Ferrante’s masterful Naples novels, in which Lila, one of the two main characters, runs into her former schoolteacher, Maestra Oliviero, on the street. To the teacher’s dismay, Lila, now in her late teens, did not continue her education after elementary school, in spite of her fierce intellectual promise, and is now married and has a small son. The maestra ignores the child, Rino, and looks only at the book Lila is carrying. Lila is nervous. “The title is Ulysses,” she says. “Is it about the Odyssey?” the teacher asks.
“No, it’s about how prosaic life is today.”
“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.”
The maestra chides Lila for her bad language, tells her that anyone can have a family, but that she had been destined for greater things. “Don’t read books that you can’t understand, it’s bad for you,” the teacher says. “A lot of things are bad for you,” Lila answers.
This small exchange cuts to the heart of much that animates these remarkable books and their author—the most powerful and enigmatic writer to emerge from contemporary Italy. For one, Ferrante, who hides behind a pseudonym and has never made a public appearance—does not disguise the fact that, like Ulysses, her Naples novels, in their own way, are epic in their scope and ambitions. The narrator of these books—My Brilliant Friend (2012; English translation 2012), The Story of a New Name (2012; English translation 2013), and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013; English translation 2014)—is Elena Greco, literally Helen the Greek.
Her journey does not take place by sea; it is far more interior, revealed in a kind of Neapolitan bildungsroman that traverses the long afternoons of childhood, girlhood, adolescence, motherhood. Stretching out over more than 1,200 pages, the three books have as many characters and subplots as a nineteenth-century novel. But at their heart, they follow the intense friendship and rivalry between Elena and Raffaella Cerullo, known to others as Lina and to Elena as Lila, from the miserable outskirts of Naples after World War II, through the economic boom of the 1960s and political turmoil of the 1970s, to the present day. By turns, both Lila and Elena are seen to be the brilliant friend of the other; their lives, inextricably connected, dovetail and diverge over decades.
The tale opens in 2010, when Rino, Lila’s now-adult son, calls Elena to say that Lila, now aged sixty-six, has disappeared. Elena, an accomplished writer, begins to look backward, to her Neapolitan youth, when…
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