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Making Order of the Breakdown

Illustration by Anders Nilsen

Elena Ferrante’s novels, whatever else they’re about, are always describing the distance between two points: working-class Naples and the putatively better neighborhoods and cities and social worlds in which her narrators now move. It’s not simply that Ferrante has written about Naples, but that over the course of her work—now eight novels—she has so often sent her characters back and forth along the route between the impoverished old neighborhood and the new life that we know the landmarks well: the raucous and violent family of birth, the childhood wish for a way out, the scholarships, the flight, the studied assumption of middle-class manners. Here is a sampling of lines from Ferrante’s first three novels and from her Neapolitan Quartet:

Starting from the age of thirteen or fourteen I had aspired to a bourgeois decorum, proper Italian, a good life, cultured and reflective. Naples had seemed a wave that would drown me.

I had left the city with the intention of never returning.

For the first time, I left Naples, left Campania. I discovered that I was afraid of everything: afraid of taking the wrong train, afraid of having to pee and not knowing where to do it, afraid that it would be night and I wouldn’t be able to orient myself in an unfamiliar city.

I knew almost nothing about etiquette, I spoke in a loud voice, I chewed noisily; I became aware of other people’s embarrassment and tried to restrain myself.

I learned to subdue my voice and gestures.

I kept my Neapolitan accent as much under control as possible.

I had…taught myself to wait patiently until every emotion imploded and could come out in a tone of calm, my voice held back in my throat so that I would not make a spectacle of myself.

It’s crucial that the movement runs in both directions. Even after having left, Ferrante’s characters are inevitably pulled back, whether in actuality or in memory, to the old neighborhood—by a funeral or a sick relative, by the extreme stress of a husband’s abandonment, or by the sounds of the Neapolitan dialect spoken by a noisy family on a nearby stretch of beach:

They were just like the relations from whom I had fled as a girl. I couldn’t bear them and yet they held me tight, I had them all inside me.

I remember the dialect on my mother’s lips when she lost that gentle cadence and yelled at us, poisoned by her unhappiness.

I walked along the burning-hot wall of the Botanic Garden to Piazza Cavour, in air made heavier by the exhaust from the cars and the buzz of dialect sounds that I deciphered unwillingly.

It was the language of my mother, which I had vainly tried to forget, along with many other things about her.

Upon every return to my own city I feared that some unexpected event would prevent me from escaping.

The best known of Ferrante’s narrators, who barely needs introduction, is Elena Greco, pilot of the immense and immensely popular Neapolitan Quartet, a series about her lifelong, intensely rivalrous friendship with another girl from the old neighborhood. In English there has been no shortage of books depicting friendship among women; it has been a major subject of the last hundred years (with older antecedents in fiction and lyric poetry), taken up in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls trilogy, Toni Morrison’s Sula, Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, to name a few. Ferrante, for her part, has given it macho scope at 1,600 pages, expanding the stories of two poor girls—one of whom escapes the old neighborhood while the other stays behind—into a historical epic that encompasses six decades of postwar Italy.

Ferrante’s early, short books—Troubling Love, Days of Abandonment, and The Lost Daughter—are compressed, pressurized accounts of events that flare into crises: Delia’s mother dies under mysterious circumstances; Olga’s husband tells her he’s leaving; on a seaside holiday Leda becomes obsessed with a young Neapolitan mother who reminds her—treacherously—of herself and the daughters she left behind for three years of their childhood to pursue academic work abroad. All three characters are sent reeling, unable to maintain their hard-won surface calm.

The ever-present subtext of these crises is that the narrators’ successful flights from Naples had a cost, and now the payment has come due. The strain of speaking gently and chewing quietly and living on their guard all those years surely has something to do with the startling intensity of their emotional extremes, their obscene outbursts and streaks of eccentricity. The question of just who or what is really driving them crazy—the gendered expectations of family life? the better-born men they married? their native Neapolitan impatience? their own self-betrayals? the class system that necessitated them?—has no simple answer, but they settle scores with people they’re closest to. Olga physically attacks her estranged, cheating husband, bloodying his nose and ripping his shirt. Leda steals a child’s doll, buys it new clothes, talks to it, lies to the frantic child’s mother. Delia wears her dead mother’s underwear. Elena—most perfidious of all—turns her best friend’s life into a best-selling novel.

In a 2015 interview in The Paris Review, Ferrante described a breakthrough on her first novel, Troubling Love, a manuscript she had been working on fruitlessly until one day she experienced “a small miracle that came only after years of practice. It seemed to me I had achieved a style that was solid, lucid, very controlled, and yet open to sudden breakdowns.” That controlled description of loss of control is distinctive in Ferrante. Usually where we find first-person fictional accounts of breakdowns, we also find elision, hyperbole, lyrical phrasing, stream of consciousness, and episodes presented out of chronological order—techniques that heighten the sense of the narrator’s disorientation.

Ferrante’s narrators instead sound more like essayists or memoirists sifting through their experience in order to get it all down correctly. She never thinks of her narrator as “a voice giving a monologue,” she says in the interview, but as “a woman writing, and this writer always struggles to organize, in a text, what she knows but doesn’t have clear in her mind.” Her narrators are fictional nonfiction writers, writing their way out of confusion, and through their narration we can perceive two Delias, two Olgas, two Ledas, two Elenas—the one living the experience and the one writing.

The strong sense of duality in Ferrante’s writing is not one of warring—or even contrapuntal—selves, but of an earlier and later self, the latter lending a hand to the former. Which is why Ferrante’s novels can feel reassuring despite the turmoil recounted. In Days of Abandonment and in some stretches of the quartet, the older narrator’s recollections form a kind of protective vessel around the earlier, temporarily deranged self. Sentence by sentence, Ferrante’s narrators unfold one kind of story—about falling apart—while the narration itself tells another kind of story, about the possibility of putting the pieces back together.

The Lying Life of Adults, Ferrante’s first novel since the Neapolitan Quartet, is a return to the shorter, more concentrated forms of her earlier novels. The crisis this time is adolescence, recalled by an adult narrator who is unusually, insistently recessive: “I am nothing,” Giovanna tells us in the book’s first paragraph,

nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion: only a tangled knot, and nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story.

She reveals nothing about her adult identity, but swiftly establishes the facts of her childhood, notably that she grew up knowing very little about the rougher neighborhoods of her hometown.

Giovanna is twelve when her story begins. She lives with her parents, both high school teachers, in the comfortable Naples neighborhood of Rione Alto, at the highest elevations of the city. Only on a few vaguely remembered occasions in early childhood has Giovanna been to the Industrial Zone neighborhood where her father, Andrea, grew up. It is he who traveled the familiar route from poverty to middle-class intelligentsia through scholarships and education; Giovanna’s story is a child’s-eye view of one of Ferrante’s socially ascendant characters. She knows only that descending into the poorer neighborhoods of Naples makes her parents, especially her father, tense. Apparently for that reason, they hardly ever visit his relatives.

Her orderly, reasonable, bien-pensant parents never scold, answer all questions factually, and explain sex and bodily functions with age-appropriate books. They don’t pray or go to church, though they encourage her to read the Gospels as a work of literature. They put a lot of store in her doing well in school. Giovanna has always been a good student but lately has started slipping. Her mother calmly attributes the bad grades to Giovanna’s having reached a difficult age, but her father becomes cold and mean, clearly frightened beyond reason by the possibility of her not succeeding in school. Giovanna overhears him say to her mother, in the harsh tone and Neapolitan dialect that is normally banned in their house, “Adolescence has nothing to do with it: she’s getting the face of Vittoria.”

Giovanna reels. Vittoria’s name is a curse in the household, though the girl doesn’t really know why. Vittoria is one of her father’s sisters. They haven’t spoken in years and her father refuses to discuss her. Among the few things Giovanna knows about her aunt, whom she hasn’t seen since she was very small, is that Vittoria lives alone in her grandparents’ old apartment in the Industrial Zone and works as a maid.

Her father’s remark abruptly deranges Giovanna’s sense of herself, for she takes the statement literally. Is Vittoria ugly? Am I? Giovanna feels betrayed by her normally affectionate father, just at the time when her changing body and face make her status in the world seem uncertain. Half literal-minded child, half enterprising young adult, Giovanna decides that she must see Vittoria for herself in order to figure out what terrible fate is in store for her as the bearer of Vittoria’s face. She asks her parents if she could pay a visit.

Her parents hesitate, agonize, reluctantly agree. Andrea drives her to Vittoria’s building, the same one in which he grew up, and waits in the car while she goes upstairs.

Vittoria’s presence, her manners, her appearance, her way of moving and speaking immediately cause a small explosion in Giovanna’s sense of things. Her aunt’s sentences are brusque and rough. Upon seeing Giovanna for the first time in years, she scolds her (for ringing the bell more than once). She invites her in simply by telling her to close the door behind her. Vittoria’s main mode of communication is the clipped command. “In Vittoria’s voice, or perhaps in her whole body,” Giovanna recalls, “there was an impatience without filters that hit me in a flash.” It’s a way of being and a form of femininity that Giovanna has never encountered in her middle-class world.

Ferrante is often glossed and promoted as a novelist who gives voice to anger, specifically to female anger or to anger at the female condition, to the extent that female anger or the female condition can be said to exist in some discrete yet generalizable sense. The Europa Editions English translations of the novels prominently quote Janet Maslin’s admiring description of Ferrante’s “raging, torrential voice,” Alice Sebold’s somewhat menacing promise that Ferrante “will blow you away,” John Waters’s declaration that Ferrante is “the best angry woman writer ever!,” and John Freeman’s suggestion to “imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea how explosive these books are.”

Given her narrators’ memorable acts of malice, these characterizations are not surprising. But the idea of Ferrante’s books overflowing or exploding with anger belies the calm of her narrators as they describe earlier selves overtaken by rage. You could better say that Ferrante is a specialist in composure: the drama of achieving, losing, feigning, and regaining composure is central to her work. More importantly, the role of anger in her characters’ lives is complex and ambiguous; even in a time of interest in politically powerful feminist anger, Ferrante’s books can quickly still any simple impulse to celebrate women’s fury. Leda throws her daughter’s doll off a balcony. Olga not only attacks her cheating husband, but also beats her dog.

Ferrante’s narrators regret their anger more often than they exult in it, and not only because it can hurt the people around them. It’s the one emotion whose expression inevitably marks them as having been poor Neapolitans. They’ve found gentler ways to express other feelings, and they have learned as much as possible not to express hostility, irritation, or indignation. When they are unable to suppress their anger, they are in danger of being revealed as lower-class outsiders in their adopted northern cities or literary circles: anger, as an emotion as well as a mien, is closely entwined with working-class Naples itself.

Ferrante’s characters come from a world in which women rage freely, facing little social pressure to be sweet or mild. That’s one of the reasons they want to get the hell out of the old neighborhood: both men and women express their anger loudly and often violently, and from early childhood the narrators experience all this free expression as an oppressive, bullying clamor. In cultures where there are strong social constraints on women’s public expression (or even private experience) of anger, the emotion might seem liberating, a dormant, suppressed force in need of recognition as a precondition for either social change or self-improvement. Not so in Ferrante’s poor Naples, where women’s angry displays are socially acceptable without being politically or personally liberating. They are merely necessary: the aggressive front they have to wear in preemptive self-defense.

Vittoria, a spinster maid, has no social or marital or professional status to elevate her, no institutional power on her side, no particular neighborhood influence or leverage except for her emotive force, which is considerable: to Giovanna her seething is majestic. Vittoria starts trashing Giovanna’s father only a few minutes into their meeting; Giovanna gets an earful of thrilling, obscenity-laced commentary on how Andrea spoiled Vittoria’s dreams of being a dancer and broke up her affair with the one lover she’d ever had, a married police officer named Enzo who died not long afterward.

Since then, Vittoria has cherished Enzo’s memory—or at least she offers Giovanna a showy performance of cherishing his memory, playing the first song they danced to and insisting that Giovanna learn the dance by standing on Vittoria’s feet as she whirls the girl around. The affair was so short and so long ago that Vittoria’s laments seem more insisted upon than felt, her celibacy a stubborn and self-destructive display of will; it might be more accurate to say that she cherishes her anger over the destruction of her affair more than the affair itself.

As for Vittoria’s maligned face, Giovanna’s first impression is that her aunt had “a beauty so unbearable that to consider her ugly became a necessity.” In this peculiar formulation, Vittoria’s face holds a Medusa-like danger for anyone who, like Giovanna, longs to look and keep looking. “I don’t want to see her again,” Giovanna tells her father when she leaves Vittoria’s apartment.

But already as I uttered that sentence I knew on what day, at what hour, in what place I would see her again…. I had her every word in my head, every gesture, every expression of her face, and they didn’t seem things that had just happened, it all seemed to be still happening.

They begin to see each other on Sundays. Through Vittoria’s gruffness it becomes apparent that she is ready to like Giovanna, or in any case to make a last-ditch attempt to reeducate Giovanna in the old-neighborhood sensibility that her father has refused to pass down. Vittoria picks up Giovanna in her small green Fiat 500, and together they trace her father’s journey in reverse, down from Rione Alto into the working-class parts of the city the girl has never seen. Vittoria takes Giovanna to meet the rest of her father’s estranged siblings, demystified now as ordinary, friendly uncles and aunts who work for the railroad or the postal service, scattered in modest neighborhoods in apartments that were

small, drab, furnished with objects that I had been brought up to judge crude if not vulgar…. They all spoke to me in a cordial dialect mixed with Italian, and I made an effort to do the same, or at least I made room in my hypercorrect Italian for some Neapolitan cadences.

She goes to church with Vittoria and meets Enzo’s widow and teenage children. To Giovanna, nothing about this world seems as dark or threatening as her father’s terse comments have always suggested. Only Vittoria herself radiates a thrilling mixture of possessiveness and spite.

Once Vittoria is back in contact with her brother’s family, a disaster of just the sort that Giovanna’s parents feared unfolds. A casual (or was it calculated?) comment of Vittoria’s precipitates a revelation about Andrea’s ongoing affair with another woman, Costanza, a close family friend and the mother of Giovanna’s two oldest friends.

Although an affair could come to light in any number of ways, it’s notably Vittoria, the emissary of the Industrial Zone, who reveals it. Ferrante must labor to get Vittoria up to Costanza’s affluent neighborhood to meet this woman and spot a bracelet on her wrist that happens to be the one Vittoria gave to Giovanna when she was born. Giovanna never received it because, it emerges, her father had given it to his lover instead. This plot twist has a fairy-tale quality: Vittoria is a jealous fairy godmother whose legacy was spurned. Given the contrivance involved, it’s hard not to see still another layer of symbolism in Vittoria’s revenge.

With the publication of the first volume of the Neapolitan Quartet, Ferrante became an international literary celebrity very closely—and authoritatively—associated with her native city. Naples, in the quartet, is not just a part of Elena Greco’s past, it’s a high-intensity backdrop to the many complex subplots of the quartet involving family feuds, murder, criminal commercial enterprises, violent political activism, extramarital affairs, and out-of-wedlock births. The stakes are higher in poor Naples: the violence, domestic abuse, corruption, and poverty give ordinary decisions a life-and-death urgency. “I renounce nothing that can give pleasure to the reader,” Ferrante said in The Paris Review, “not even what is considered old, trite, vulgar, not even the devices of genre fiction.” But what if the pleasures are, potentially, voyeuristic interest in a poor and violent world? Could there be a moral hazard lurking for the author?

We don’t know what E. Ferrante’s answer would be, but E. Greco certainly seems to fear that there is. All of Elena Greco’s many books are set in or around the city; the one that makes her famous is a page-turner about “poorest and most violent Naples.” Her obsession with her friend Lila’s influence and opinions, which grows more acute the more successful Elena becomes, seems like guilt turned inside out, an encrypted confession: she doesn’t deserve credit for what she’s written because she has used her friend’s and her neighbors’ stories in the service of a literary stardom that never changed anything for the neighborhood itself. Whether this is accurate or reasonable is of course beside the point. In Ferrante’s books most charismatic female characters of the old neighborhood—Lila, Vittoria—are phantasms haunting those who escape. Naples herself might turn out to be a vengeful fairy godmother, angry that her gifts are first spurned, then exploited from a safe distance by writers who run away from home.

Their marriage shattered, Giovanna’s parents decide to separate. Her father moves in with his lover and her daughters, Angela and Ida. Her mother pines for him. Both preoccupied parents expect Giovanna to muddle through these hideous developments on her own.

Under Vittoria’s influence, Giovanna begins to question her old assumptions about her parents’ goodness and truthfulness. One of the delights of the book is Giovanna’s growing awareness that her parents’ command of words and “those controlled tones of theirs” can be a form of deception, meant to throw their child off the trail of their actual emotions and experiences, “as if truly every word concealed others, truer, from which they excluded me.” Their responsible-parent frankness gives them cover, a set of calm phrases behind which to hide themselves.

Giovanna’s anger settles on the insult of her father’s new family arrangement. Ferrante captures, from Giovanna’s wounded perspective, the grotesquerie of stepfamilies and the implied interchangeability of daughters and spouses and houses. Waiting in Costanza’s house one afternoon for her father to come home from work so they can celebrate Ida’s birthday, Giovanna reflects that

what I most dreaded—I realized—was the moment my father returned with his bag full of books and kissed that wife on the lips as he had always done with the other and said that he was very tired and yet would joke around with the three of us, would pretend to love us, would take Ida on his lap and help her blow out the candles and sing happy birthday and then, suddenly cool, as he knew how to be, would withdraw into another room, into his new study, whose function was the same as the old one on Via San Giacomo dei Capri, and shut himself in, and Costanza would say, just as my mother always had, keep your voices down, please, don’t disturb Andrea, he has to work.

How can these adults pretend there is any solidity to their household when they were just recently married to other people? In the mess of the family separation, adults, including Vittoria herself, cease to loom mythically over Giovanna. Her father is a needy social climber, she decides, and her mother mopes pathetically. Giovanna becomes the first in her immediate family to be able to perceive this fact about Vittoria: that she is lonely. Her haranguing style is a way of expressing disappointment and need. “Vittoria simply wanted me to admit that I loved her,” Giovanna realizes as Vittoria berates her one day. With this insight, Giovanna is able to assuage Vittoria by telling her exactly what she hopes to hear, in the emotive style that Vittoria best understands: “I was amazed at how good I was at speaking to her in a falsely heartfelt way, at how carefully and effectively I chose words, at how I wasn’t like her, but worse.”

Where Vittoria expresses her pain sincerely, in the aggressive tone that is the only one she knows, Giovanna learns passionate expression as a second language. She uses it insincerely, to manipulate Vittoria and increase her own power in their relationship—not to any nefarious ends but simply to dabble and try things out on her way to an adulthood that seems likely to be even more cosmopolitan than that of her parents. Her careless good fortune in not really belonging to the Industrial Zone seems almost unfair, and oblique questions about benefit and guilt play across the novel. We don’t know what course Giovanna’s life does take—the narrator, like her elusive author, is barely there, offering an occasional abstract comment about the blur of memory, just present enough for us to feel her absence. The teenage Giovanna has plenty of wherewithal and hardly seems to need the shelter of her narration. What then, does the older Giovanna want with her younger self, with Vittoria? What has sent her back to pore over this material?

The Lying Life of Adults feels like a novel about Ferrante’s novels, a mixture of familiar elements in new and unexpected arrangements that invites a self-referential reading. Not unlike an offspring, actually, which is appropriate for a novel that is essentially about being second generation. Giovanna is free, as her father never was, to make use of poor Naples as it suits her, and to leave the rest behind.