Dedicated to the women who have shaped me…
The Neapolitan Novels may change my life.
I say “may” because I’m perfectly aware of the countless variables that I’ve omitted in making that predictive causal link. Not least of all, the fact that devouring the four novels in Elena Ferrante’s pseudonymous series in ten days has very likely put me in a temporary bubble where nothing else seems significant. (Seriously, even reading the blurbs of other books is making me feel like a guilty ex-lover who’s rebounding too quickly.)
I can’t remember the last time I read fiction that forced me to examine so many aspects of my inner self in such an enthralling, frenzied way. Through her detailed, intricate, unabashed, lifetime-spanning musings about herself, her best friend Lila Cerullo, the men that traipse in and out of their beds, their working-class families, their city Naples, and Italian politics, the narrator Elena Greco has made me put – sometimes consciously, often subtly, and always uncomfortably – my own thoughts and feelings under the scanner. For lack of a better structure, I’ve organised these under two buckets – “feminism” and “friendship”, but alas, no one will be fooled by this consultant’s sleight of hand. My musings are as non-MECE (mutually exclusive collectively exhaustive) as it gets.
So, here goes…
Feminism (Or, My Continuing Singledom and Bourgeois Guilt)
In the first few pages of every edition are quotes from established reviewers, lauding the novels as “feminist” fiction. Here, Ferrante, is described as “the best angry woman writer ever” or an “angry Jane Austen”. At first glance, these seem to refer to the several passages in which Elena and Lila take patriarchal, discriminatory, violent matters into their own hands by threatening to stab adolescent male assailants, or throwing philandering lovers out of their houses, or confronting abusive bosses. However, while I do feel personally vindicated by this retaliatory violence, their rage is even more potent to me when it is less radical (To explore in a later paragraph: what does this say about my personal brand of privileged feminism?) No, the passages that really hit me at the core are contemplations such as these:
“Of course, the explanation was simple: we had seen our fathers beat our mothers from childhood. We had grown up thinking that a stranger must not even touch us, but that our father, our boyfriend, and our husband could hit us when they liked, out of love, to educate us, to reeducate us.”
The Story of a New Name, Book 2
“That day, instead, I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighborhood…They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labors or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?”
The Story of a New Name, Book 2
“The waste of intelligence. A community that finds it natural to suffocate with the care of home and children so many women’s intellectual energies is its own enemy and doesn’t realize it.”
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Book 3
That her women characters often make self-destructive choices – limiting marriages, foolish affairs, unprotected sex – despite their ex-ante, self-aware, incisive critique of the patriarchy is what makes Ferrante’s brand of feminism so utterly devastating. There’s a particularly heart-breaking and seemingly minor scene in which an Elena, who is about as old as I am, is going out to meet a man she wants to impress. As she applies her make-up, she is embarrassed that for all her credibility as a feminist intellectual, she is submitting herself to the male gaze in an effort to best the other woman who will be present.
“.All that struggle, all that time spent camouflaging myself when I could be doing something else. The colors that suited me, the ones that didn’t, the styles that made me look thinner, those that made me fatter, the cut that flattered me, the one that didn’t. A lengthy, costly preparation. Reducing myself to a table set for the sexual appetite of the male, to a well-cooked dish to make his mouth water.”
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Book 3
But, very simply, the clothes and make-up make her feel good and she is loath to take it off. This small, almost-prosaic dilemma is a reflection of a much larger and cruelly interlinked struggle between the personal and the systemic, one that I (and countless other women probably) can relate to.
Just scrolling up and down a Facebook page of wedding announcements by scores of women from school, college, working life, university, I wonder — how many would have preferred to wait a few years but said yes because that’s the only way their parents would allow a live-in relationship? Did some say no to a different lifestyle because they were held back by the Game of Life (first designed in 1860) which insists that they first have a spouse and then little blue and pink stick figures at the back of their car?
I sound condescending about this bundle of “conventional choices” because, for once, I haven’t edited my first instinct. Over time, I have learnt to more and more effectively paint over this base instinct with the empathetic nuance I’ve picked up. But, in the last few months – and even more now thanks to Ferrante – what has truly begun to erode that base instinct is the growing understanding that the struggle between personal and systemic applies, perhaps just as powerfully, to the converse bundle of “unconventional choices”. How much of my inability to commit to a stable romantic relationship comes from repeatedly ranking systemic visions of future career compromises above current, what-the-cool-people-call-cliched considerations of “does he make me happy?” Do I think the “boyfriend” label has cooties because of an age-old “Malini doesn’t have time for boyfriends” identity that I have created? What pulls and pushes from parents, friends, family, teachers, pop-lit, memes and hashtag movements have cemented that identity? I’ve spent so long priding myself for going against one perceived tide of social expectation that I haven’t bothered to question what new systemic tides I’ve floated with or what personal tides I’ve ignored.
While I can deeply connect with this struggle between the personal and systemic, the part of Ferrante’s feminist exploration that I cannot intrinsically relate to, owing solely to our respective accidents of birth, is the gender-class intersectionality that she sears into the narrative. Her women are born into families without the luxury of bookshelves, esoteric political conversation, or university connections. They not only have to contend with the patriarchy, but also with a lack of opportunity, surfeit of bourgeois condescension/pity, and a resulting dose of self-doubt.
“I would always be afraid: afraid of saying the wrong thing, of using an exaggerated tone, of dressing unsuitably, of revealing petty feelings, of not having interesting thoughts.”
The Story of a New Name, Book 2
“I said to myself every day: I am what I am and I have to accept myself; I was born like this, in this city, with this dialect, without money; I will give what I can give, I will take what I can take, I will endure what has to be endured.”
The Story of a New Name, Book 2
Their struggle is real. Ferrante reminds me that although my sex may occasionally put me at a disadvantage, the magnitude of that disadvantage pales in comparison to what a woman without an inherited membership into the bourgeoisie would face in that same situation. I am implicitly reminded of white feminism in America or savarna upper-caste feminism in India when she describes the self-serving, assumption-riddled traps that catch most of Ferrante’s cameo (upper) middle-class women as they swoop down to “rescue” the main characters.
Unfortunately, the novels are less clear about what women born with such advantages should be doing to ensure that the demands of the feminist movement are equitable. But I sheepishly realize as I write that it isn’t fair for me to expect that. It isn’t the job of working-class Elena to educate her elite well-meaning female professors and peers; instead they themselves should ask questions and test their hypotheses about what they can do. For example, of the several questions I need to get to the bottom of, this is top-of-mind: how and when do I start moving along the spectrum between moderate, incrementalist feminism (which my Bengali, centre-left, privileged origins afford me) and radical, resistant feminist?
Friendship (Or, Will She Stop Being So Darned Superficial?)
It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t read the books why Ferrante’s account of the relationship between Elena and Lila from childhood to old age is so unique. For women like me, who feasted in teenagehood on bildungsromans like the Anne of Green Gables series or Little Women series, but have excluded from their millennial diet more contemporary examinations of fictional female relationships (for that unfortunate reason of “I just didn’t have the time”), the Neapolitan Quartet may be a revelation.
“Not for you,” Lila replies ardently, “you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”
My Brilliant Friend, Book 1
“She did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life.”
My Brilliant Friend, Book 1
“Now that I’m close to the most painful part of our story, I want to seek on the page a balance between her and me that in life I couldn’t find even between myself and me.”
The Story of the Lost Child, Book 4
This, above, is just a small sample of the kindness and meanness that the narrator Elena believes her friend oscillates between. And it is this chiaroscuro that makes The Economist call the fourth book “a great novel of female friendship, one that reveals admiration and envy, competition and self-sabotage, emotions that many women experience but do not discuss.” My conflicting reactions to this quote might encapsulate how the nuanced, psychological exploration of the darkness within the friendship has left me feeling.
For some reason, even though as usual I know nothing about the Economist writer’s identity, it feels vaguely “mansplainy” to me. Who is this person (or “he”) to suggest that women hide these negative feelings? Just because the Elena-Lila dynamic is messed up, doesn’t mean “many women experience but do not discuss” the darkness in their relationships!
But, why have I been triggered by this hypothesis? What is making me so defensive? Thinking about my discomfort has made me realize that there are two factors at play in my psyche – one personal, and one systemic (though of course the lines blur between the two.)
Here’s the personal stuff (and I apologise for the even ramblier rambling). My background and origins, in some ways, couldn’t be more different from Elena’s and Lila’s. For most of my life, I have been in female-dominated settings, in numbers and spirit. The part of my extended family I’m close to is numerically skewed towards women by a 3:1 ratio, and all the cousins I speak with are women. For thirteen years, I studied in an all-girls’ school. My class in college had 42 women and 8 men (a ratio that gives me great pleasure because it’s a fairly quantitative economics program in a premier institution that only started admitting women in the 1970s, almost a century after it was established.) My team at my only job had roughly one man for every three women at the junior level (albeit one woman and four men at the senior level). For this reason (among others), I have always found it easier to forge friendships with women than with men. Although my outer circles of friends have plenty of men, of the twelve “best friends” with whom I share deeper secrets, thoughts and feelings (in varying degrees), only two are men. And since my family, school, college, workplace and university are privileged ivory towers, most of the Whatsapp groups on which I share political views are either women-only or majority-women, and all are dominated by liberals/neo-liberals/snowflakes such as yours truly.
Therefore, unlike Elena who had to carve her feminism out of a proximately patriarchal environment, I have been fed and willingly swallowed large doses of liberal feminist perspectives for as long as I can remember. Like with Elena, the women in my life – particularly my mother, closest girlfriends, certain cousins, an older mentor figure or two – have had an immeasurable impact on my life. Unlike Elena, I have always acknowledged all of them and their views as a wholly and singularly positive influence. While I naturally admit a disagreement or transgression as a fleeting thought (“I can’t believe she didn’t tell me immediately.” or “How can she of all people believe that?”) I don’t peel the negative layers like she does.
Yet, I would be lying to myself if I said that I’d never felt envious of this friend’s stable romantic relationship. Or anxious that I haven’t had another friend’s character-forming dalliances through my twenties. Or conflicted because I disagree with so many of a mentor’s political and social ideologies. Or uncomfortable that I have subconsciously moulded my identity to be the antithesis of certain family members’.
And here’s where the systemic forcefully collides with the personal. Dwelling on the darkness in my individual relationships with these women would of course risk putting those indispensable relationships in jeopardy (I get now why the author does not reveal her identity to the world). For example, I might risk subconsciously eroding the intimacy of a particular friendship if I begin to feel embarrassed by my envy, anxiety, political conflict, or discomfort. But it’s more than that. I would also feel like I’m being disloyal to “the sisterhood”. With male friendships (even those uncomplicated by romantic or physical benefits!), it’s easier to dwell on the darkness – ascribe one mentor’s fondness for personal pronouns to male pomposity, put down a friend’s occasional “fat jokes” to the patriarchy’s obsession with the female body, and so on. With female friendships, however, I’m hesitant to firstly, throw under the bus the conglomerate that has been my lifeline, and secondly, play into patriarchal portraits of backstabbing women, female scorn, and petty jealousy.
But the Neapolitan friendship begs the question – by pushing these negative feelings away, am I always lying to myself by omission?
The more difficult question though is: would it do any good to bring these feelings to the surface, just because that’s Elena’s natural tendency?
I don’t know but I’d like to figure it out.
“Every intense relationship between human beings is full of traps, and if you want it to endure you have to learn to avoid them. I did so then, and finally it seemed that I had only come up against yet another proof of how splendid and shadowy our friendship was, how long and complicated Lila’s suffering had been, how it still endured and would endure forever.”
The Story of The Lost Child, Book 4
The way I see it at the moment, putting my closest female relationships under the scanner will be a rather painful process. But, perhaps getting to the bottom of why certain resentments creep in, or analysing mutual patterns of engagement and disengagement, or realizing my traps and triggers, could counterintuitively strengthen my relationships and help me be a better friend. And perhaps for the sake of its own identity, it’s important at one stage or another, to divorce each friendship from the pressures of agglomerated sisterhood, to resist its counter-dependence on the patriarchy.
Of course only time will tell. But it’s liberating to give oneself the permission to change, and to recognise that every view expressed in this ramble will have to be held up to rigorous lifelong editing by my future feminist self and her various female friends.
Excerpt from a rare interview by the mysterious Elena Ferrante to Vanity Fair:
Interviewer: Friendship between women can be particularly fraught. Unlike men, women tell each other everything. Intimacy is our currency, and as such, we are uniquely skilled in eviscerating each other.
Ms. Ferrante: “Friendship is a crucible of positive and negative feelings that are in a permanent state of ebullition. There’s an expression: with friends God is watching me, with enemies I watch myself. In the end, an enemy is the fruit of an oversimplification of human complexity: the inimical relationship is always clear, I know that I have to protect myself, I have to attack. On the other hand, God only knows what goes on in the mind of a friend. Absolute trust and strong affections harbor rancor, trickery, and betrayal. Perhaps that’s why, over time, male friendship has developed a rigorous code of conduct. The pious respect for its internal laws and the serious consequences that come from violating them have a long tradition in fiction. Our friendships, on the other hand, are a terra incognita, chiefly to ourselves, a land without fixed rules. Anything and everything can happen to you, nothing is certain. Its exploration in fiction advances arduously, it is a gamble, a strenuous undertaking. And at every step there is above all the risk that a story’s honesty will be clouded by good intentions, hypocritical calculations, or ideologies that exalt sisterhood in ways that are often nauseating.”