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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…

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