In August, like most tourists to Naples, I was there en route to somewhere else. But as I had four days to spend in the city, I decided that since I was engrossed in reading the final volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child, I would turn the stopover into my own informal Ferrante fangirl tour. It was 90 degrees out and the sun shone uncompromisingly, but I laced up my sneakers, packed a water bottle, and left my husband and air-conditioned hotel room behind.
I’m not sure what I was looking for. I guess I was intrigued to see what the city might say to me that could enrich my reading of the novels. The first three volumes focus on intimately chronicling the lives of Elena (or Lenù) Greco and Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo from girlhood to old age in post-war Italy, and the difficulties they encounter as women in a man’s world, the violence of everyday life in their rough neighborhood in Naples, abusive parents and partners, the quiet devastations of marriage and motherhood. But Naples pulses beneath the surface of each of the novels, like the trucks thundering under the stradone, the road that serves as the border between Lila and Elena’s neighborhood and the city beyond. On the basis of the first few volumes I’d have said that the city was there to underline the division between the girls’ humble origins on the periphery of the city and the glittering promise of success represented by the more chic quarters of the city, the Piazza dei Martiri, the Vomero, Posillipo, Mergellina.
Strangely enough, as I read in the wildly different, dramatic spaces of the city—downtown, on the funicular, on the Vomero, at the beach—I was surprised to find the book itself, especially as it drew to a close, was more and more about the city. In fact, it took center stage in the last 30 pages or so. It’s through the city that Elena is able to piece together some sense of independence, whether it’s in her walks as an adolescent, or in leaving her cheating lover, in the last volume, and to come into her own as a writer, drawing on Naples to produce some of her best, most mature work. (This development feels extremely meta.) But for Lila, too, the city plays a central role in her self-image, and it’s the city she turns to after the loss that occurs in the middle of the volume.
I realized, as I read, and walked, and walked, and read, that they aren’t called the Neapolitan novels for nothing. It’s the city itself that mediates between the strongest divisions Elena uses to make sense of her life—between leaving and staying, neighborhood and city, Elena and Lila.
Setting off from my hotel on the Via Constantinopoli, in the historic center, I think: what a tangle this city is. An assault on all of the senses at once, a challenge to the brain to decipher all that raw material.
The textures of the buildings are made up of layers of posters pasted up, then torn away, pasted up and torn away, covered over with the many contributions of graffiti artists, some tags, some stencils, some stickers, all projected onto walls in various states of entropy, the stucco crumbling away to reveal brick beneath, gum and grime and whatever else stuck in the cracks. Pipes line the faces of the buildings—water pipes, gas pipes, various unidentifiable ducts; the wiring, exposed, runs across buildings, leaping across gaps from one to the next.
Then there is the city’s laundry, the bright colors and patterns of its clothing and linens, hanging from its windows and strung across its alleyways; I even saw a pair of shoes drying outside someone’s front door. Scooters zoom by, cars honk, trucks trundle, people yell, phones ring and beep and buzz amid the general hum of a crowded city on a hot day. The poor tourists I walk past, those who are headed for or just coming back from the Mediterranean calm and blue of the Amalfi coast, stand on line for hours at Bill Clinton’s favorite pizzeria (everywhere in Naples makes this claim), eager to throw themselves into a cheese-and-carbohydrate stupor to muffle the onslaught.
“Ah, there is no city that gives off so much noise and such a din as Naples,” writes Ferrante.
In the second novel, The Story of a New Name, Elena’s father takes her beyond the neighborhood, to the street we’re staying in, the Via Constantinopoli, and, just off of it, the bookstalls of Port’Alba, a kind of back alley accessed through a dark archway, very atmospheric. The pizzeria there, Pizzeria Port’Alba, is meant to be the oldest in the world; its original owners apparently kept the pizza warm in small tin stoves they balanced on their heads. (I’m not sure how true this is but Wikipedia confirms it.) This historic part of Naples is not the part of town Elena and Lila know well, and Elena feels “overwhelmed,” Ferrante writes, “by the names, the noise of the traffic, the voices, the colors, the festive atmosphere, the effort of keeping everything in mind so that I could talk about it later with Lila (…) Was it possible that only our neighborhood was filled with conflicts and violence, while the rest of the city was radiant, benevolent?”
The city promises something to them, as children. In My Brilliant Friend, the girls run away together to the sea, which they have never seen, but get caught in a rainstorm that forces them to retreat. The escapade turns out to have been engineered by Lila as a way of keeping Elena close: of course when they return home to their parents, Elena receives a beating for disobeying, and disappearing. But her punishment does not keep her from going off to middle school to study the classics, while Lila has been made to quit school at fifth grade so she can go out to work. “They’re still letting you go?” Lila asks. Elena realizes that by coaxing her out of bounds, Lila was trying to ensure they would always remain in the neighborhood together.
As I walk past the boxes and boxes of used paperbacks lining the Via Port’Alba, all available for a euro each, I fight back the urge to bring home a few, though I don't read Italian, not really, and I have no sense of which books I ought to read, which names I should know, what I ought to know about them. For a moment I understand how Elena felt, confronted with a tradition she couldn’t decipher.
I emerge into the Piazza Dante, which is full of cafes, the closest of which is playing techno music. A little kid kicks a soccer ball against a wall, while a tinny bell in the nearby church sounds noon. I peer at the women I see sitting at plastic tables under umbrellas, shaded from the sun, sipping strong ristretto coffee in spite of the heat, and imagine that Elena Ferrante—famously, infuriatingly anonymous—could be any of these women. That one over there, with the blond hair. Or that one, very tan, with the chunky gold charm bracelet. Would Ferrante wear a charm bracelet? I want so desperately for her to be right under my nose, walking past me on the street, but something tells me if she still lives in Naples, she doesn’t spend her mornings gossiping in the Piazza Dante.
None of the points of origin of these books are made explicit; not their author, and not the neighborhood that looms so large in Elena and Lila’s lives. When I first decided to come to Naples, I looked through the books and tried to correlate them with the map, attempting to locate their rione, or neighborhood. We are told there is a busy street, under which there runs a tunnel, and, nearby, some railway tracks. Elena frequently mentions trips to the central station at Piazza Garibaldi as if it were not an easy destination but not an unusual one, either. In the first volume she references a Church of the Holy Family, but I found no such church on Google Maps. Elena describes the town as crouching at the foot of Vesuvius, but that could just be a way of thinking of all of Naples.
Maybe it doesn’t matter where precisely the neighborhood is. Maybe it’s an idea more than a specific place, anywhere that’s rough and unforgiving, from which it’s difficult to escape. Even when Elena seems to have gotten away, having left Naples to study at university in Pisa, gone on to become a successful author, and married the son of an important professor, settling with him in Florence and bearing him two daughters, the neighborhood keeps its hold on her until the last page.
In book two, it looks like Lila will make it out, too. She designs a shoe for her family’s shoe business and soon finds herself running the Cerullo shoe store in the posh Piazza dei Martiri, at the other end of the Via Chiaia, which, in the earlier books, is one of the neighborhoods they visit as teenagers to gawk at the “wealthy, elegant people.” Through some dodgy business dealings with the Camorrist Solara brothers, Lila’s husband (a local boy whom she marries at the age of 16) showers her with money, allowing her to dress like Jackie Kennedy. It doesn't last; she leaves her husband for Nino, and falls into a series of dead-end jobs which, at their lowest point, have her working in a sausage factory.
All that seems very far off during the days she reigned over the Piazza dei Martiri. I’ve been walking in that direction, down the Via Toledo towards the port, anticipating the heat, thinking I’ll find somewhere chic and air-conditioned to have lunch, the kind of place Lila would have sat in wearing her pillbox hat. When I reach the Via Chiaia, it’s not what I’m expecting. They’ve made it pedestrian-only, and the black volcanic paving stones have been arranged into some kind of tasteful pattern, and polished into two long ribbons to delineate the center of the road. But it seems as if it’s seen better days, full of chip shops and novelty shops with loud music pouring out of every doorway. (Why is Shakira always on the radio in Southern Italy?) It gets nicer towards Piazza dei Martiri; I pass upscale brand-name jewelry shops, like Chopard and notice some kind of tall monument in the center of the square. I think, fleetingly, that this is the Place Vendôme of Naples. I hadn’t realized quite how posh Cerullo Shoes was, to have its shopfront in this part of town.
As time goes on, however, Lila’s brother Rino runs it into the ground and it eventually closes. Lila blames the Solara brothers for “interfering” with her brother, that if they had left him alone, “he might have surpassed Ferragamo.” And lo and behold, today, in the Piazza dei Martiri, there is a large, sleek Ferragamo store.
In book two, Elena likes to go for walks up to Vomero via Via Salvator Rosa, where she visits San Martino, before coming back down the Petraio. This is where I head the next day, though in this heat I elect to take the funicular rather than climb the steep hill on foot. My husband joins me, and we poke around San Martino for awhile, which has the most beautiful Baroque marble floors, then try to walk around the Vomero, until the heat gets the better of us and we take refuge in a restaurant in a square by the metro.
This is the part of town where Nino sets Elena and her daughters up in an apartment he pays for, on the Via Tasso, while he continues to live with his wife and children. It’s leafy and quiet; the people who live up here are obviously well-off. It doesn’t feel much like the Naples down below. I want to walk towards Posillipo, and Mergellina, where teenaged Elena takes the stationer’s daughter to swim, where Elena’s sister Elisa lives with Marcello Solara, where Gigliola lives, for a time, with Michele Solara. But the heat is ruining my plans. We stay put until there is no more fizzy water and another beer would be unwise, and head home to our air-conditioner.
These chic quarters of Naples hold a complicated power over Elena, representing both an escape from her origins, and compromises with different forms of social power. She wonders how her life might have been different “if I had waked every morning not in my neighborhood but in one of those buildings along the shore.” But she understands that even the wealthy parts of Naples are tied to the corruption at the heart of the city. Visiting Gigliola in Posillipo, Elena notes the view of the bay, the volcano, the city below, and feels, for a moment, “hypnotized by the beauty of Naples.”
In one of her essays on Naples, her adopted home, the Australian author Shirley Hazzard writes that Posillipo was built on the remains of a Roman villa called Pausilypon, Greek for pause from care. “Augustus was entertained here,” Hazzard writes, “notably, on an occasion when [its owner] ordered that a slave who had broken a goblet at table be fed to a tankful of carnivorous eels.”
Since its earliest days, then, Naples—even in its beaux quartiers—has been a place of violence, and of class tension. Elena chalks this up to the city’s eventful geological past. “The city seemed to harbor in its guts a fury that couldn’t get out and therefore eroded it from the inside, or erupted in pustules on the surface, swollen with venom against everyone […] How could one endure in that place of disorder and danger, on the outskirts, in the center, on the hills, at the foot of Vesuvius?” There is no escaping the neighborhood, even on the other side of town, even, Elena finds, on the other side of Italy.
Elena knows that these beautiful views come at a price. There is something dishonest about Elena herself living in the Vomero, she writes, not least because she’s being kept by a married man; but it means something more, some kind of class betrayal. “I remained the one who had gone away, and who, even though I had returned, now had another view, lived in upper-class Naples, could not be fully welcomed back.”
One of the more curious moments of The Story of the Lost Child comes after Elena and Lila survive the earthquake that shook the city down on 23 November 1980. As the world starts to tremble, the usually self-possessed Lila is terrified. “She cried out, gasping for breath, that the car’s boundaries were dissolving, the boundaries of Marcello, too, at the wheel were dissolving, the thing and the person were gushing out of themselves, mixing liquid metal and flesh.” Lila confesses that she is constantly menaced by these “dissolving boundaries,” that for her, the “outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread […] an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing.” Her whole life, she had trouble believing “that life had firm boundaries, for she had know since she was a child that it was not like that—it was absolutely not like that.” But these dissolving boundaries take on a very specific meaning in a Neapolitan context.
Elena spends her life defining herself against the neighborhood, and against Lila; she often describes them as diametrically opposed, “I fair, she dark, I calm, she anxious, I likable, she malicious, the two of us opposite and united, and separate from the other pregnant women, whom we observed ironically.” She spends the four novels enforcing these boundaries between them, only to have them scrambled by Lila at every pass. “With her,” Elena notes, “there was no way to feel that things were settled; every fixed point of our relationship sooner or later turned out to be a provisional; something shifted in her head that unbalanced her and unbalanced me.” Elena is the shape-giver, Lila the shape-shifter. Lila is the quake, Lila is the flood, Lila is the one who—whether she likes it or not—is keyed into the terrifying fury at the heart of Naples.
In her later years, Lila—I’m not giving anything away, for those who haven’t read it yet—becomes obsessed with the city and its history, and spends entire days walking its streets, reading and looking and thinking.
One moment “she was concerned with the porcelain factory near the Palazzo Reale. Now she was gathering information on San Pietro a Majella. Now she sought testimonies of foreign travelers in which it seemed to her she could trace a mixture of attraction and repulsion.” She takes Elena’s daughter Imma with her, and instills in her a lifelong interest in the city. They visit the Piazza dei Martiri, site of her greatest social triumph, and, not incidentally, the place where she carried on her affair with Nino, Imma’s father.
From Imma’s reports to Elena, we are treated to swathes of Neapolitan history, that take on added force in the context of Lila and Elena’s struggles. Imma relates the revolutionary history of the square, its role in the people’s attempts to overthrow their Bourbon leaders; the monument I noticed was built in 1848 by a Bourbon king, to mark the return of peace (that is, the stable monarchy), but was repurposed after Naples was claimed by the Kingdom of Italy, and was rededicated “in memory of the Neapolitans who had died for freedom.” Four lions were added, Imma explains, as if she were reading from a guidebook, each with its own battle to commemorate. “Then, mamma, up there, instead of the Madonna of Peace he put the bronze statue of a beautiful young woman, that is, Victory, who is balanced on the world: that Victory holds the sword in her left hand and in the right a garland for the Neapolitan citizens, martyrs for Freedom, who, fallen in battle and on the gallows, avenged the people with their blood et cetera et cetera.”
It’s hard not to read Lila as the allegorical statue to Victory, and Elena does begin to wonder if Lila isn’t using the past to serve their complicated present. “In the Neapolitan facts as she recounted them there was always something terrible, disorderly, at the origin, which later took the form of a beautiful building, a street, a monument, then to lose memory and meaning, to decline, improve, decline, according to a flow that was by its nature unpredictable, made of waves, flat calm, downpours, cascades. The essential, in Lila’s scheme, was to ask questions. Who were the martyrs, what did the lions mean, and when had the battles and the gallows been, and the road of peace, and the Madonna, and the Victory.”
Through her walking, and questioning, Lila reinvents the city, giving it the form of her personal struggles. “Ah what a city, said aunt Lina to my daughter, what a splendid and important city (…) here is Vesuvio which reminds you every day that the greatest undertaking of powerful men, the most splendid work, can be reduced to nothing in a few seconds by the fire, and the earthquake, and the ash, and the sea.”
What interests Lila most is finding explanations for the violence that has haunted their lives. In this sense, the turn to the city is a chance to sum up the quartet as a whole. “We believed, she said, that it was a feature of the neighborhood. We had it around us from birth, it brushed against us, touched all our life, we thought: we were unlucky. You remember how we used words to cause suffering, and how many we invented to humiliate? You remember the beatings that Antonio, Enzo, Pasquale, my brother, the Solaras, and even I, and even you gave and took? You remember when my father threw me out the window?” She locates the source in the old pit that used to exist under the present-day church of San Giovanni a Carbonera.
In the area called Piazza di Carbonara the poet Virgil in his time ordered that every year the ioco de Carbonara take place, gladiator games that didn’t lead to the death of men, as they did later … But then, in Piazza di Carbonara, from stones she moved on to weapons, and it became the place where men fought to the last drop of blood. Beggars and gentlemen and princes hurried to see people killing each other in revenge … Ah, the violence: tearing, killing, ripping. [It’s] a street we’ve walked on thousands of times, Lenù, it’s by the station, near Forcella and the Tribunali.
Lila’s excavations prompt Elena to consider the way her own revolutionary actions paved the way for her daughters’ social advancement; they assume it’s thanks to their well-connected father’s family. “But I - I who did not have privileges - am the foundation of their privileges,” Elena notes (4:457). When it comes to Lila, however, Elena worries that it is she is on some level responsible for any successes Elena might have known, that her very fame rests on the foundations Lila laid for her. She knows that Lila goes home from her walks and writes for hours on her computer, generating what Elena imagines is thousands of pages of writing about the city, a masterpiece that will surpass Elena’s own writing. She fantasizes about serving as its editor, giving Lila’s monstrous, sprawling book a neat, marketable shape. But the most frightening thought is that Lila won’t need her at all. That the work is perfect as it is, a “touchstone” to be read for generations to come when Elena’s own work has been forgotten. That what really might survive is not Elena’s fashionable stories à la Françoise Sagan, or her treatises on women’s bodies, or on the workers’ struggle, but Lila’s sweeping testimony to the enduring power of place.
It’s this blend of storytelling and city that gives the novels their force, I thought, as my bus drove out of Naples. As we climbed the exit ramp that lifts traffic up and out of the city’s crush I craned my neck to see if I could spot their tunnel, their stradone, here at the edge of the city, but all I could see was broken-down houses, crumbling brick walls, litter, laundry. Elusive rione, elusive Ferrante. I had to content myself with the wild textures of the Naples I could see, until the buildings melted into rock, and the sea stretched out beside us.