Elena Ferrante’s Naples Tetralogy

From the chaos of history (n) and of life, literature extracts its own world – a formed, an ordered world? And what does this world have to do with that life? An old question that has always been answered, weighted and interpreted again and again. In Elena Ferrante’s “saga” about the narrator Elena Greco, who is called Lenù or Lenuccia, and Raffaella Cerullo, Lina or Lila, this question is repeatedly taken up. Above all, Lila, the “ingenious friend” Elena, sets the awareness of deformability and fragility of all forms and contours – of things and people – existentially.

In the fourth volume, it is the 1980 earthquake in Naples that once again seizes her fear of chaos and disintegration. This fear triggers a horror in Lila, which she tries to counteract throughout her life, from earliest youth. She and Elena took refuge in their car after the first earthquakes, where Lila begins to describe and explain to the girlfriend her horror.

She [Lila] clutched my hand even tighter, gesticulating. Said that the contours of people and things are very weak, they could tear like a string. Whispering, for them it had always been like that, something loses its contours and rain on something else, everything is a single dissolution of different substances, a mixing and -mixing. She screamed that she had always had a hard time believing that life had solid edges, because from an early age she had known that was not true – it was absolutely not true – and therefore she could not rely on their tear and impact resistance.

And she foreshadows the most frightening and eponymous event of the fourth volume: “Nothing lasts, Lenù, even the child here in my stomach” – Lila is just pregnant like Elena – “seems to stay, but it does not stay.”

With the translation of the fourth volume, the last part of the tetralogy is now available in German. Until the last movement, one succumbs to the torrent of narrative, one is packed and deeply moved by the exciting as well as shocking, sometimes disturbing story of Elena and Lila, the story of her extraordinary friendship. At no point – this is one of the numerous tricks of the text – one can foresee how things will continue; while the tempo of the story on the 2200 pages of the tetralogy is held to the end. This is certainly also due to the excellent translation by Karin Krieger. “Ferrante pulls you through her text like a locomotive”, she herself said in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung (22.07.2017), “you have to emulate that in German, in both big and little”. Although it is not possible in German to reproduce the difference between the often crude Neapolitan dialect and Italian high-level language, the language levels that mark the distance between the two worlds in which the characters of the novel move, the distance between them, are also audible in the translation the world of Rione, a poor district of Naples where Elena and Lila grew up, where violence and brutality prevail, and the world of educated and literate Elena, through her studies and marriage to young university professor Pietro Airota ,

The German criticism has had much to complain about in this last volume. For many a critic, the plot was too lengthy in this last part, too trivial, even disappointing, especially with regard to the first three volumes. Only a bitter old woman is left over from the ingenious Lila, it is said, and the description of the relationship between Elena and her childhood sweetheart Nino – who is finally unmasked by the enamored Elena as a notorious raccoon hunter – was too exuberant , But is that really the essence of this last band said?

Hardly likely. For only if one hangs by the letter, on the surface of the action, one can arrive at such judgments. This includes the accusation that the book is too conventionally told, as it was already said about the first volume. From such an angle, one does not grasp what constitutes this work and its world-literary rank. It would never have celebrated such a success worldwide, could trigger such a “fever”, if the author alone could tell an exciting plot, more or less peppy, as well as psychologically cleverly designed figures. There is much more in the work.

It is the story of a friendship that finds its decision with the fourth volume, and yet the entire novel is much more than ‘just the story of a friendship’: Ferrante’s tetralogy is also a novel about writing and its conditions, about possibility and Impossibility of literature, of inspiration and of the precarious status of the writing subject – it is also “the history of authorship”, as Ernst Osterkamp aptly said in the period on 3 February 2017 on the occasion of the publication of the second volume. In doing so, the author uses a well-known narrative pattern – as a female variant – back: the first-person narrator tries to talk about her “ingenious” genius. – To clarify her friend and her lifelong relationship with her by writing down their story together. She does this at the moment when her friend, at the age of 66, has disappeared without a trace and – as you will find out in the last volume – will probably never return.

The writing situation is reminiscent of that in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (1947), in which Serenus Zeitblom, always plagued by self-doubt but occasionally envy, tells the story of his ingenious friend, the musician Adrian Leverkühn, who makes a pact for the sake of inspiration with the devil. It is not by chance that Elena Ferrante prefaces her tetralogy with a quotation from the “Prologue in Heaven” from Goethe’s Faust as a motto: “Man’s activity can all too easily go to sleep.” He soon loves unconditional peace. / Drum I like to give him to the journeyman, / The irritates and works and must create as a devil “. In addition, one thinks of Wilhelm Raabes The Files of the Vogelsang (1896), which authored the Upper Government Karl Krumhardt to the story of his genial childhood friend Andres Velten and thus, above all, to be able to process for themselves, always in the knowledge that he will never fully grasp its abysmal genius.

It is no coincidence that Osterkamp classifies the narrative process of this work into “the tradition of the great realistic novels of the 19th century” – admittedly “by ineffectually overriding all traditional authorship concepts”. Because a stable or a singular writing ego no longer exists. As a writer, Elena always relies on Lila: the girlfriend since childhood, who can charge everything that happens around her with deep meanings. However, she is not only the source of Elena’s inspiration, the one that incites and tempts Elena, her views and writing, as the “spirit that always denies”, but also those who co-write on her text – not directly and actively, but by being a part of herself, influencing her, being there, living and acting within her, almost as her alter ego .

Elena’s relationship with Lila is full of tensions right from the beginning; Love and hate, fascination and envy, the longing for closeness and the desire for the greatest possible distance alternate and mix, never is it one without the other. This is how Elena and Lila’s identities intermingle, so that even at the end, when she wrote down her story, the first-person narrator can not shake off the panic that Lila is “in her words”. At first she calms down: “That’s just what I was able to capture.” But: “Unless I can not tell what’s mine anymore and what’s about her because I always imagined what she would have written and how. “So also Elena threatens the fear of their own dissolution: With her, it is a fear of their own invisibility, not-being as a writer or better: before being dominated by another, for them – although entirely without higher education – better, smarter, more beautiful, ingenious than she is herself. Her entire life, her entire successful educational path can be read as an attempt to counteract this fear.

This leads to the first-person narrator again and again injustices and dishonesties against Lila. Elena does not always manage to separate her feelings of envy from the harsh circumstances in which Lila spends most of her life at Rione. Lila has to accept much heavier fatalities from an early age than she does. She retains her secondary education despite her extraordinary intelligence from her parents; her marriage to Stefano Carracci begins with a brutal rape. She struggles a long time as a worker in a sausage factory, constantly exposed to sexual violence by men; Finally, she mysteriously loses her second child, Tina, her and Enzo’s daughter, who is her very close to her: four-year-old Tina suddenly disappeared from the street she was playing on. Lila, who has been frightened of what she calls “dissolution” from an early age, experiences painfully, as a loss of the beloved child, how the forms actually dissolve into nothingness and never return. This almost drives her mad, to the extreme limits of her own ego – which she finally, at the end of the fourth volume, expands into the deliberately chosen and long-announced own dissolution. Where Lila has stayed remains a mystery until the end.

Only one thing seems a bit exaggerated in the overall view: all the unreliable male figures. So almost none of the men who appear have a character one could rely on only to a degree. Also Osterkamp has stated in his time criticism that the men in Ferrantes novel “all with their helpless waving macho and their blind outbreaks of violence or – the student variant – their experienceless squadron” all pitiable figures. In fact, almost all men are chauvinistic, impulsive and lying, almost always violent. The girls are supported only by teachers and mothers, never by men – Lila’s father Fernando even throws his daughter out of the window when she asks permission to attend high school. The only exception is Enzo, the partner of Lila and father of their daughter Tina. He is the only man in this tetralogy who is loyal, reliable and with integrity, recognizing and loving his companion with her ingenious demonic stubbornness. Nevertheless, his relationship with Lila breaks up as well. It is likely that the author intended to make all relations with men fail in order to make the uniqueness of the friendship between Elena and Lila even more intense: in view of the existential and profound, even metaphysical, meaning of their friendship, Their relationships with men as well as other people, even their own children, should fade and remain episodes. That’s consistent, but psychologically maybe a bit over-motivated.

All the more convincing, more disturbing is the conclusion: Lila has wiped herself out – not by killing herself, but by letting herself and all her objects and photos disappear, leaving no trace of her self. She had repeatedly expressed her wish for extinction; When Elena, contrary to her promise never to write about the disappearance of Tina, Lilas’ little daughter, does just that and makes a story titled Make a Friendship Out of It (and has great success with it), makes Lila serious about this wish. The first-person narrator only keeps the two dolls from her childhood, Tina, as Lila’s doll was called, and Nu, as her own was named, that one day lie on the mailbox of her apartment in Turin. “I immediately recognized the dolls that had been thrown into a cellar hole in the Rione nearly six decades in a row – mine by Lila, Lilas of mine” (with this scene the story of Lila and Elena’s friendship begins in the first volume) “It really was the dolls that we did not find, even though we had gone down to search for them.” The evil Don Achille, who took away the dolls down there – it seemed like Elena -, but this had not admitted they had given them money to buy new ones. “But we had not bought dolls with this money – how could we have replaced Tina and Nu? – We had bought Betty and her sisters , the novel that had made Lila write The Blue Fairy , and made me become what I am today, the author of many books and above all a very successful narrative titled A Friendship . “Whether Lila returns with the two dolls Elena also their mutual friendship and thus not only the first, but also the last word of their common history retains or whether they the indissoluble, in a form brought connection one last time confirmed forever in the symbol of their dolls, remains completely open. The first-person narrator only knows: “Unlike in the stories, true life, when it’s over, does not bow to the light, but to the darkness. I thought, ‘Now that Lila has been so clear, I have to resign myself to not seeing her anymore.’ ”

“Without the voices of others, I can not think, let alone write,” says author Elena Ferrante in the book on My Written Life , which finally appears in German in June, which she names in the top title with a word from the Neapolitan dialect: Frantumaglia which means fragmentation and indissoluble confusion. Meanwhile, in her tetralogy, she has been able to give voice to the bewildering fragmentation of life, a figure and structure, and thus a meaning, and the sheer immense, fullness of life – a language so profound, so alive, so authentic is like all the characters that populate this book. Not only does she design a magnificent panorama of Naples, but she also shows how closely connected everything is, how the world of Rione resembles, for example, the educated world: in the end, they all belong together and relate to each other, just like Elena and purple. Thus, language proves to be the (only) means against chaos, against dissolution and extinction: Lila and the seemingly threatening world are literature, have become form.

Highly recommended is the audiobook, which the actress Eva Mattes has expertly read; She has received the Special Prize of the German Audiobook Award 2018 for this. She manages to immerse listeners in the world and atmosphere of Elena and Lila; It gives each character – in the large arsenal of characters a great challenge – their own voice. At the same time Eva Mattes has said with the smartest about the end of the tetralogy: “I think this end is so great that brings the whole story again in a moment.”

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