The Seemingly Reliable Narrator

This post is about the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante. There will be spoilers. If you haven’t read those books, go and read them right now! And do not read this post.

— spoiler alert —-

I tore through those four books over the past three weeks, avidly and anxiously absorbing every line, every incident, every detail – and the books are overwhelming in their minutiae. They tell the story of a lifelong friendship between two girls from the postwar slums of Naples, Italy, as one (the narrator, name Elena) goes on to higher education and literary success, while the other – a manic genius named Lina – remains in the ghetto to experience a turbulent and troubled life.

Elena is always insecure in her relationship to Lina, always feels inferior, always strives to overcompensate. She studies diligently, she works hard, she reaps the rewards of her efforts with an integration into higher society by means of marriage and other connections. Lina also works hard and succeeds by dint of an uncanny intelligence in unusual endeavors, exhibiting a genius for retail, an early adoption of computer technology, while at the same time struggling mightily with abusive relationships, neighborhood gangsters, family and community squabbles.

As in any life there are ups and downs, periods of tranquility, periods of hardship, and the narrator sets about depicting these heroines and the life and times they inhabit – a turbulent period in Italian history, especially int he late sixties and into the seventies when radicals and reactionaries fought openly and viciously throughout the highly unstable political climate.

Elena tells us of so many relationships, so many events, so many twists and turns in the lives of these protagonists that we become so buried under the elaborate exposition and the beautiful prose and the extraordinary language and insight of this gifted writer that we (or at least I) often fail to notice that the narrator is astonishingly blind to the reality that she is simultaneously describing. Over and over again she is stunned and shocked by turns of events that should have been obvious, that seem to have been known to everyone but herself – the lies and deceits, the crimes and coverups, the manipulations and the myriad affairs swirling all around her while she continually mistakes the surface of things for the depths, the appearance for the reality.

Whether it is the fact that the man she loves is a serial philanderer, or it is her other daughter who runs off with the best friend’s son, or that her best friend’s daughter is mistaken for her own, and that terribly tragic loss was due to her own shameless publicity-seeking. She is a narrator who talks and talks and all the while is telling the story all wrong, and it is the story of her own life!

Elena Ferrante is a brilliant writer. I felt like I was reading something on the level of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, something that magnificent, that worthwhile, that enduring.

Highly recommended.

If there is anyone reading this little post who has also read those books, I would be glad to hear what you think – am I totally off base with this interpretation? Am I the utterly clueless one?




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