When a book doesn’t enchant me within twenty pages or so, I usually let it go, maybe for a while, maybe until the right time comes or potentially forever. When I started the first book of the four Neapolitan Novels, “My Brilliant Friend”, I had no idea that this opus would inspire my mind the way it did. I read the beginning, but at that point I couldn’t feel the story yet in my body, so I let it go. For around two years, until it forced itself out of my bookshelf into my hands again and I knew that the time had come for me to dive in and not come up for air until I had found its colossal worth.
There are around fifteen invaluable books that truly impacted my life and the biographies of Lila and Lenù brought an unbreakable energy into my personal canon. Ferrante’s masterpiece (the term is absolutely justified here) entails everything that moves and fascinates me: girlhood, womanhood, female friendships, ambition, misery, creativity, female sexuality, mothers and daughters, death, crime, inner life and language, violence, the female body, dysfunctional families and feminism. I had never read a story that captured female friendships as I experienced them: torn between admiration and envy, attraction and disgust, comparative and competitive thinking, compatibility and tension, acceptance and judgement, submission and oppression, co-dependency and solitude, concealed language and embellished expression, vulnerability and viciousness, secrecy and betrayal, motives and silence, desire and punishment, disapproval and imitation, intertwinement and liberation. Ferrante describes how female friendships are moulded by contradictions and travel across opposed poles, highs and lows, failures and successes, antagonism and protagonism, artifice and truth. And yet in-between all the black and white pillars, there is so much grey matter rendering these portraits of girlhood and womanhood so complex, interwoven and multilayered.
“Two Actresses” by Jean-Baptiste Santerre (1651-1717)
The way Ferrante exposes (predominantly Southern) Italian behavioural codes, men, women, power dynamics, theatrics, hierarchies, society and families cannot be underestimated. My mother is German, I was born and grew up in Luxembourg and my father brought the South of Italy into our home. I was hundreds of kilometres away from Southern Italy and yet its mindset infested my thinking, its violence confronted me, its screams and mental illness penetrated my memory, its systematic misogyny branded me as guilty even as a young girl, physically and psychologically I was subjected to it in the form of one person: my father. My life as a girl and a woman was a constant battle to stand up against him, rid my body of all the words he tried to imprint on it, protect it from harm, wire my brain against the borders of his mind, develop my sexuality without shame, guilt, male expectation, depreciation and condemnation, grow into my body without male disgust, commentation, lechery and dictatorship. Ferrante’s voice helped me burst the corset of my childhood and adulthood, my inner demons that were imposed on my psyche, defects that were never my own, she put everything in words, and I found my autonomy and agency, identifying my rebellions as such, as justified and necessary for survival and growth. I wanted to be on my own, free, and discover who I was as an entity without ancestral and cultural damage and baggage. I had never been the person others thought I was or diminished me to be. I had a world in my spirit and my body unblemished by outer influences, a palace built out of ruins.
You might read the novels and categorise yourself as a Lila, even though you are a Lenù, see Lila as ideal and Lenù as lacking, then your perception will shift with the downfall or growth of one or the other, it’s going back and forth, until you think they can only be perfect when put together, as one, their qualities united, but perfection is the most boring and stagnant thing there is and has nothing to do with these girls and women, and that’s why I love them so much. They are us. Climbing and falling. Succeeding and failing. Hand in hand or wrestling. They are both their own woman. Their story connects them. They are whole. They have chemistry and substance, grit and resilience, imagination and power, rich inner lives and flaws, madness and intellect, rebellion and patience, willpower and perseverance, love and darkness, tact and thunder, creativity and rage, language and life. Demonisation and idealisation can not just be found in many forms within the novels themselves, but also in your own unreliable mindset as you’re reading these two women. What are demonisation or idealisation doing to or for your mind, advancement and development? Either your hands are tied or you take advantage of them both. Self-creation or self-destruction. They are shapeshifters. You and I. Lila and Lenù. Vice versa. Everything in-between. Metamorphosing. Walking in other women’s shoes and our own.