One of the expressions I heard time and time over while living those ten years in the north of Italy was “Quando vieni al Sud piangi due volte; quando arrive e quando te ne vai” – the great North/South divide took great joy in bouncing off each other (and still does) and I can remember a Milanese taxi driver telling me with genuine concern as I plonked my heavily pregnant self down on the back seat on route for the airport for my mother-in-law’s sixtieth celebrations, dangerously close to my due date : “be careful, stai attenta, Signora, you don’t want the bambino to arrive while you’re in Roma”… The south has always held great fascination for being less ordered, less orderly, more subject to the secret laws that govern it – and the further south you go the more pronounced this becomes.
Naples particularly has always been considered a law unto itself; I remember stories being bandied about of people having very enterprising strangers offer to help park their car in a very tight spot for them, only to have their knight in shining armour promptly disappear literally into the night behind the wheel of their vehicle, leaving them stranded (!). I also witnessed with great amusement the local reaction to the introduction of the law making the wearing of seat belts obligatory: a whole new cottage industry was born overnight, as the Neapolitans enterprisingly printed car-loads of T-shirts with a fake seat belt carefully printed and emblazoned on the front, and blatantly left the real belts hanging and unused as per usual. Sheer madness, totally irresponsible yet somehow engagingly creative all at the same time.
Driving by taxi down from the Capodichino airport to catch the ferry to take us over to Ischia to where la Mamma spent three months every summer was always a heart-in-mouth experience, as the drivers weaved ferociously and highly dangerously along busy double-carriage highways, gesticulating and taking their eyes off the road and generally giving me a bit of a heart attack every time, especially when the kids were little. Never in all those years did we encounter a single scrape, but it was inevitably a hairy half hour, despite the nonstop chattering and cheery inquisitiveness of our chauffeur, and always a relief to stumble out of the airless car into the heatwave down by the boats taking us over to the island.
We were so lucky. We actually got married on Ischia all that time ago in the most beautiful church imaginable at Forio, la Chiesa di Santa Maria del Soccorso, so at the opposite end of the island to where Elena Greco spends that summer in Book 1. Talk about an Anglo-Italian culture shock. Not really of any interest here, but it was a whole chapter of its own, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
By the by, for the wedding weekend and still on the taxi front, for instance, we sent all our non-Italian guests printed sheets to show at the airport, stating in beautifully typed Italian, “Please take us by taxi to the port at Beverello where our friends are meeting us – we know it costs about 60,000 lira”, simply to avoid everyone foreign being ripped off, and knowing full well that the taxi drivers would find this quite comical and would rise to the occasion – which to a man they did, and the tales are still told today of everyone taking their watches and any nice jewellery off, just to avoid arriving with less than they had set off with…. Even back then, and even for the Roman contingency, where the then other half’s family lived most of the year, Naples has always had an air of potential skullduggery and this has always added to its utter charm : more scoundrel than terrible crook, but always best to err on the side of caution.
And always, always, the sprawling city holds a unique place in Italy’s history. I can already feel the magic of Ferrante’s compelling writing after reading just the first quarter of this particular story. She so faultlessly depicts such an authentic atmosphere, very much of its times, and above all you feel as though her protagonists are flesh and blood individuals walking the streets, and they are living and breathing every step of the way. Vendettas are commonplace, violence is a constant: slaps at home are customary, brawling is a nightly occurrence, just as the over-exuberant competition over whose firework display can last longer is only moments away from becoming a potentially dangerous attack on the opposition.
The sense of claustrophobia pervades throughout: everyone knows everyone, and all dirty washing is hung out very publicly for everyone to see and comment upon. It’s a very tight, very crowded community and we’re frequently reminded of how these two women who are already so strong and passionate in their individual ways are constantly aware of their geographical limitations. It seems unthinkable that the sea is just down the road, yet for them it might as well be oceans away. The two of them are insatiable readers, yet their library borrowing does not stretch as far as reading newspapers and having much access to or interest in the outside world.
The relationship between the two friends as related by Elena is fascinating: you share her sense of acute competition with Lila, you feel her emotion from the moment that dolly gets knocked down the shaft at the beginning, every bit as much as you share her discomfort when she questions her own morals set against people’s perceptions and preconceived ideas about her friend much later in the book. And you know that this friendship is going to be enduring, not only but also because of the cliff-hanger at the very start of this first book. It’s rare that a ‘slice of life’ story manages to pull off closure the way Ferrante does: the wedding scene and the narrator’s thought processes in the final chapters are quite simply brilliant, leaving the reader avid to instantly pick up Book 2 to continue finding out what happens next.
The world that Elena Ferrante has created is as real as anyone could dream an imaginary world would be. You can’t help but wonder how much is based on the writer’s own experiences, and to what extent. It’s quite a help having the index of characters at the start too, as it gets very easy to confuse your Antonio’s with your Alfonso’s, and I confess to having had a moment when the Sarratores practically reappear on the beach at Ischia and I couldn’t for the life of me remember who they were for a brief second of panic.
From the start, though, whether you’ve physically been there or not, in your mind’s eye you can clearly envisage the rione her characters live in, you can see the dilapidated homes and the smell the mothers’ cooking, just as you’re aware of the possibility of encountering cockroaches and rats from the very first pages of the recounting of Lenù and Lila’s climbing of the stairs to the ogre of fairy tales Don Achille’s apartment. As Ann Mah comments in her article in the New York Times about “Elena Ferrante’s Naples, Then and Now”, the expression of bursting into tears twice in the South – once when you arrive and once when you have to leave – comes into its own here: the city has become a character itself: “dirty, dangerous and seductive, the place everyone yearns to leave behind, and the place they can’t shake”.
There’s apparently been a huge upturn in literary holidaymakers mad keen to visit Napoli and see this brave new world for themselves. The Guardian’s Tracy McVeigh reported on Valentine’s Day that ‘Ferrante fever’ is bringing hordes of fresh tourists to the ‘Spaccanapoli’ area and that there is even more interest now that a 32-part series by the producers of “Gomorrah” will shortly be underway. ‘Ferrante pizzas’ now feature on many menus, and some cobblers have resourcefully put up their own printed sheets in the shop windows, claiming their particular calzolaio is the one that the infamous pair of shoes were shaped in.
I loved reading some of the 74 comments responding to Mah’s article, many from Neapolitan locals, in particular this heartfelt one by Michela Caudill:
“Naples astonishes: with its many wonders. To dismiss the City as dirty and riddled with the Mafia is to put blinders on. Naples offers to its visitors so much since it is a setting of singular beauty. A city that saw occupation after occupation plus the wreckage of war, and yet it arose like a phoenix out of it all, and embraces life. As one walks its streets and observes its crowds, it is impossible not to reflect upon the complex history of this extraordinary city. Accept that the streets are not the cleanest and delight in the treasures that the city has to offer. They are many and they await discovery for the patient observer. Naples reveals itself slowly and it unwinding is rather like its narrow streets. Go down any one and discover what lays beyond”.
Does that not also want you to just up sticks and hop on a plane too?
I’m dead certain that the big mystery surrounding the identity of the owner of the hand that writes also plays its own little part in conjuring up even more of the much-justified hype of these latest four novels (s)he has penned. Whereas J K Rowling’s nom de plume was leaked out so ignominiously, no-one seems keen to burst the bubble on this one for the time being, although maybe it can only be a matter of time before one of the paparazzi get a photo of him/her on set if (s)he is to be so closely involved with the prospective TV adaptation. On the acting front, suspect that unlike the much-loved “War & Peace” it will be a very Italian affair this time round (so no Jim Broadbent playing Nino Sarratore’s dad then?). Can’t wait. In the meantime, need to crack on and dive into Book 2. How wonderful to be at the stage still where’s there more ahead than behind me…
Rating : 10/10
Shortlisted for the Waterstones Book of the Year 2015