Ferrante’s acclaimed Neapolitan series, pieced together through four portions, is a true literary masterpiece; a wholesome tale journeying through the lifetime of Elena Greco. More than just a ‘coming-of-age’ story, the narrative is intertwined with commentaries on class, location, education, language, feminism, and family, and is thought-provoking and relatable in a way that only few novelists succeed. To me, Ferrante’s work sometimes feels more like a sociological exploration than a piece of fiction. A grand narrative is rejected, and in its place a rich undulation of interlinking personalities, events, and relationships emerges.
One noteworthy attribute of the novels is the remarkable character development: each personality Ferrante writes comes alive brilliantly in all their entirety. Instead of the simplified binary of hero/villain that many authors ascribe to, the Neapolitan novels showcase several multidimensional identities, whom the readers relationship to fluctuates over the course of the story. Although Elena Greco initially appeared a fictional heroine to be sympathised with, by the time the story comes to an end she is incontestably human, flaws and all. Ferrante’s characters do not seem fictitious: they are relatable mortal beings, rising and falling, growing and shrinking like the rest of us.
Another theme that was of particular intrigue to me was that of language. For Greco, language symbolised a social standing, personality and education. The combat between the Neapolitan dialect of her upbringing, and the cultivated Italian she seeks to harness appears as site of conflict throughout the novels, and is emotionally charged with social class, and sentiments of belonging and resistance. Ferrante presents mastering the art of language as a powerful, almost magical feat, for which Greco is constantly battling towards. Noting that the novels are translated is important when considering this dynamic. Can Ferrante’s linguistic style and motives be captured – are we indeed reading Ferrante – for whom the nature of language and its usage is so important.
By the time I had finished the fourth book, attempting to recollect and piece together events in Greco’s youth felt like assembling a mismatch of distant, foggy memories. By averting a ‘beginning, middle, end’ structure, Ferrante truly captures the essence of life, and all the entangled relationships and episodes that it ensues. The narrative is both episodic and continuous, resembling the ebbs and flows, ups and downs of a lifetime. This meticulous portrait of life gives the reader a true feeling of time passing, and an excellent penetration into the lives of ordinary people, as well as their history and sociology.