FEATURE

Cruel Intentions

The Story of a New Name (Neapolitan Trilogy) BY Elena Ferrante. Europa Editions. Paperback, 480 pages. $18.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Neapolitan Novels) BY Elena Ferrante. Europa Editions. Paperback, 400 pages. $18.
My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan) BY Elena Ferrante. Europa Editions. Paperback, 331 pages. $17.

HAS ELENA FERRANTE ANY RIVAL? Only one: Lila, a fictional character, whom Ferrante, in her Neapolitan Novels, immortalizes and annihilates. Lila is charismatic and wild. Lila acts and Elena, Ferrante’s fictional stand-in, responds. Lila excels and Elena struggles to keep up. Or that’s how Elena sees it—her childhood is filled with delight in Lila’s prowess and pain at her own comparative inferiority. Yet My Brilliant Friend, the first in the series, records Elena’s apparent triumph: She passes her exams and goes to middle and then high school, where she performs stunningly, while Lila hangs back and marries the son of a rich grocer.

Their early friendship implies an almost unbearable contest, a zero-sum game. Can only one of them be brilliant? Elena’s trajectory is, with few detours, upward. She goes to university, marries a professor, becomes a writer, finds acclaim, while Lila veers sideways or down: She bears a child, has an affair (with the man Elena has loved since childhood—the competition is sexual, too), leaves her abusive husband, works in a sausage factory. Her hands become covered in scars. She goes half mad, falling prey to her own labile, undisciplined intelligence. Yet neither Lila’s hardship nor Elena’s success prevents Elena’s envy or—a more burdensome problem—her feeling of dependence. Elena suspects that she requires Lila, that what is original in her thinking are Lila’s ideas, that what is beautiful in her writing are Lila’s rhythms. The game isn’t really zero-sum so much as dialectical. If it weren’t for Lila, Elena wouldn’t have wanted any of it in the first place. Without Lila, her own significance drains away.

Intellectual romance is sympathetic and aggressive, admiring and devouring. “You wanted to write novels,” Lila hisses. “I created a novel with real people, with real blood, in reality.” This feminine competition isn’t petty, as the stereotypes would have it, but foundational—it makes the women do things, and it undoes them. When Lila entrusts Elena with her diaries, extracting a promise that she won’t read them, Elena immediately betrays her. First, she only reads a little. Then she reads everything. Then she drops the notebooks off a bridge into a river. Finally, as if the theft weren’t complete, she puts what she remembers into a novel that we’re to understand is the one we’re reading.

Where is Lila now? All we know about her fate, at the end of the third but not final book of the series (that one, available in Italy, has yet to be translated here), is that she is missing. Is she dead? Is she out there somewhere, reading with a joyless heart? Has Elena won so roundly? Why do I act like she is real? Ferrante’s mysterious biography—she writes under a pseudonym and shuns the public eye, and many Italians insist, with no evidence, that she is a man—invites the speculation. So does the resemblance between the character and the very little we do know of the writer. But it is not for these superficial reasons that we read the books imputing the stories to life. Verisimilitude comes from style, and Ferrante’s is intent, exhaustive, smooth without being uniform. Sometimes the plain sentences seem to tense up or snap, the syntax lost in rage or desire. As Elena reflects and theorizes, her analyses do not obscure the facts, visible as stones under water. Nonetheless, the effect is not diaristic but novelistic: The books’ momentum comes from the sickening feeling that not just anything but something in particular, events appropriate and inevitable, will occur. If these people seem real, it’s because they’ve been so completely invented.

In the third book, Elena, now in her late twenties, encounters the work of Italian radical feminists. “I sometimes imagined what my life and Lila’s would have been,” she says, “if together we had studied to get our degree, elbow to elbow, allied, a perfect couple, the sum of intellectual energies. . . . The solitude of women’s minds is regrettable . . . it’s a waste to be separated from each other, without procedures, without tradition. Then I felt as if my thoughts were cut off in the middle, absorbing and yet defective, with an urgent need for verification, for development, yet without conviction, without faith in themselves. Then the wish to telephone her returned.” Elena’s wish to telephone Lila can’t be separated from her wish to shut her up and oughtn’t be. Witness the courage and brazenness of Ferrante’s character, who steals to create, who will step on the back of her friend to make something of herself then bend down to pick her up, who can withstand being told she has failed (“It’s an ugly, ugly book,” Lila says of Elena’s second manuscript. “Why did you force me to tell you what I think”), who can fail and still go on. The feminine tradition Elena misses is the one Ferrante is establishing, with all due violence.

Emily Cooke is Bookforum’s associate editor.