Whether he meant to or not, Claudio Gatti created a line of demarcation only a few months ago. Did you read Elena Ferrante before the Italian journalist supposedly revealed the real author behind the pseudonym or were you an early adopter, able to read the Neapolitan Quartet before her true identity was revealed? That question may be more for me than for you. It’s me that has to deal with the anxiety of influence, knowing the real author may not be from the complex, beautiful Naples she inhabits in My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in her quartet.
The novel centers on Elena Greco and her relationship with her closest friend Lila. Elena quickly realizes Lila walks through life with a certain ease—she’s the smartest in class, has the quickest wit, and is tougher than anyone else in the neighborhood—that Elena envies. Everything is hard for Elena including school and love, the two topics any kid between nine and 17 obsesses over.
But the story of Elena is not universal—it is one of girls growing up in a world whose trials and choices are far more complex than the boys they live alongside. The neighborhood is filled with violence. Men fight and kill over status and notions of masculinity that make the men and boys alike look petty and childish. The girls however must fight to survive with the added threat of sexual violence. Status in the neighborhood means the ability to take whatever girl you want, thus Lila and Elena must deal with the implicit and explicit cruelty that comes with being a prize to be won.
As Elena and Lila grow up, their lives take different paths. Though both excel at school, it is Elena who continues her education, while Lila is forced to quit school and work in the family business. Elena spends her teenage years quiet and awkward, constantly envious of the brashness and beauty of her friend.
Ferrante paints a beautifully sparse picture of a small neighborhood in Naples. She fills the streets with characters like Melina, who loses her husband then quickly obsesses over a married man in the building, slowly losing her mind as he toys with her emotions before moving his family to another part of the city. There are criminals and murderers, hard working shop owners and privileged teenagers. If Naples is sitting on the writer’s easel, she uses the idiosyncrasies of its people to create the city in a way that needs very little description of buildings and streets.
This is where Gatti’s outing may ruin a little of the novel’s mystery. If, like me, you find it hard to separate the art from the artist, it may come as a disappointment to learn that Ferrante’s true self didn’t grow up in the nuanced post-war Naples of Elena and Lila. I still loved the novel and will gladly continue reading the quartet, but some part of my brain is disappointed that the magic of not knowing the writer behind the pseudonym—allowing myself to paint a picture of her outside of reality—was lost before the novel started.