Ferrante’s Naples: Plebeians and Proletarians

May 6, 2016 § 1 Comment


Over the past week I’ve been listening to Lynsey Hanley reading from her book, Respectable, on Radio 4. By coincidence I was immersed in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first volume in her Naples quartet. In different ways Hanley’s account of her 1980s working-class childhood in the English Midlands and Ferrante’s Neapolitan world of post-war poverty both connect with my own experience as a working-class child in 1950s Scotland. Hanley explores the dislocations of identity in moving from one class to another through education: ‘like emigrating from one side of the world to the other’, like travelling between ‘parallel worlds’; Ferrante’s novel recreates the past as a shifting space of economic and social change seen intimately from within the lives of characters close-knit by neighbourhood.

For a while I resisted the vogue for Ferrante. The hype put me off and I’d been unimpressed by an earlier novel of hers I read at least a decade ago. In the end, a friend thrust a copy of My Brilliant Friend into my hands and told me I had to read it, because it was so good, but also because, reading it, she had thought of me. One reason she had in mind was the little-known affinity between Naples and Glasgow, where I was born.

Twice in the 90s I visited Naples. Even though the city was more southern and more foreign than any I knew in Italy, even though it dazzled me with its light and exhilarating beauty, in a way I couldn’t explain I felt a little bit at home (Glasgow being the complicated default for that). Only later, meeting two young women from Naples engaged in postgraduate study in Glasgow, did I understand. They told me they loved Glasgow, it reminded them so much of Naples, its energy, its truculent wit. Glasgow, of course, was the great proletarian city of the 19th and 20th centuries; Naples, in the words of Pier Paolo Pasolini, was ‘the last plebeian metropolis’. Both cities have a working-class heart.

I don’t want to overdo the comparison; Glasgow can’t compete: it has shipbuilders, philosophers, one notable, much-misinterpreted economist and a great deal of proud labour history, but no volcanoes, no bay with paradisical islands. Founded as a Greek settlement, Naples is the oldest great European city outside Greece; next came the Romans, Byzantines, Goths and Normans, Angevins and Spanish, leaving sundry architectural traces; then there was the short lived and brutally concluded Parthenopean Republic of 1799. Naples derives musical fame from a string of composers including Scarlatti, Porpora, Pergolese, Cimarosa and Bellini, yet in the courtyard of its Conservatorio I remember there being only one statue, of Beethoven, which strikes me as typical Neapolitan generosity.

But just as in the 50s and 60s I found Glasgow grey and dreary, a place to be escaped from, so Lenù and Lila, Ferrante’s heroines in her epic of female friendship, carry no sense of being fortunate to inhabit Naples. Its cultural riches do not belong to them. Their lives are bounded by one small impoverished corner of the city until secondary school (in Lenù’s case) and marriage (in Lila’s) take them a little further. Shame frequently accompanies these displacements, which can also give rise to humiliation. This at a time when Italy’s boom is getting underway in the North, while in much of the South agriculture still depends on the horse and wooden plough. When a little prosperity seeps into the neighbourhood its main beneficiaries are the Solara family, wealthy thugs who rule the local economy, their investments and moneylending activities shored up by Camorra and Fascist affiliations that have an insidious reach.

Ferrante’s writing is addictive, to be relished headlong in a rush. Its dramas have a visual intensity. The pleasure of reading was deepened for me by knowing places she describes, thinking of how Lenù must be feeling on the Maronti beach where I too swam and sunbathed (It was November, but Maronti is sheltered and south facing, the best microclimate on Ischia). And I kept thinking of Rocco and His Brothers, Visconti’s masterpiece of a family’s migration from the South of Italy to the North in the 1950s. I remembered Amore Molesto (Troubling Love), a film by Mario Martone adapted from an earlier Ferrante novel that I haven’t read, and another of Martone’s Naples films, Morte di un matematico napoletano (The Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician) about Renato Caccioppoli, the grandson of Bakunin, who killed himself in the 1950s.


Ferrante’s exploration of class is all the more fascinating and complex for its intense focus on gender. The girls are aged eight when we first encounter them, taunting and daring one another to small acts of bravery, with Lila the more fearless, the one without restraint and, in Lenù’s eyes, the more powerful intelligence. We follow the tensions, rivalries, doublings, oppositions and separations of a friendship sustained, despite all, by mutual support. It is Lenù who does the telling, in first-person narration of heartbreaking candour, and everything emerges through that fragile distance as she struggles to keep up with her clever, wilful friend and to discover who and what she herself can be, her sense of self-worth constantly derailed. Their intellectual conversation begins when together they read Little Women, that childhood primer for feminism read by so many of us. It flowers, is crushed by events, and sometimes flowers again. It would make the novel sound schematic to suggest they typify in any way. They are wholly original creations, they are two and they are one, both in turmoil: the girl who does not see herself as fully formed giving a fierce reality to the girl only seen from outside whose impulses and actions often defy any logic. Both trajectories intimate the pain of challenging or splitting from a world so grounded in the injustices of class.

Reading is central to this novel at every stage. Fiction temporarily frees the reader from the limits of gender, class and geography; books can open up the world of politics and history, be a tool for understanding and creating, and a source of conflict with those who do not read. Yet knowledge through reading is not the only key you need to take a confident place in the wider world, as Lenù finds repeatedly, having entered the culture of learning, where she is an exception.

My Brilliant Friend has two girls becoming women as its fulcrum. It also illuminates the masculinity that surrounds them, violently traditional in its ideas of what it is to be a man, put under stress by corruption and economic impotence – and of men’s ideas of how women should be. From these ensue numerous domestic tragedies, in scenes vibrant with emotion, yet almost forensic. It is also mothers who beat their daughters.

Lynsey Hanley talks of casual violence as endemic in working-class life. ‘Middle-class people are nicer’ she notes. ‘They manage the dark things better, keep them hidden’. Besides, there are other ways of inflicting violence than the physical. Class still blights our lives, perhaps more than ever. Access to education has been diminished by cuts and tuition fees; pay gaps have widened, and the divisions, inequalities and embarrassments of class have grown.

Nowhere in Europe does class have such dominance as in Britain. It isn’t simply a matter of wealth. Schooling divides us and class privilege fostered by a private education system is further entrenched by networks of privilege within many professions and public institutions, by the imbalance that gives those from private schools an easy route to Oxbridge and the rest of the Russell group, to careers in publishing, journalism and broadcasting. When I was told by someone who works at the BBC that all the presenters on Radio 3 are privately educated it didn’t surprise me, given the discrepancy in resources for music education.

Dividing children by social class isn’t only a force for deprivation but a way of producing an unhealthy ignorance, a potential lack of empathy. Those educated in privilege often seem to have trouble in grasping of what their privilege consists and how anyone they meet as a social equal might have had a different kind of life, might not have family heirlooms or relatives to leave them property. Consider the small things: how speech and everyday words are stratified. I know of no other European country where meals eaten have different names according to your class: dinner in the middle of the day and tea in the evening; lunch in the middle of the day and dinner in the evening. Like Lynsey Hanley, I’ve got used to lunch and dinner, but what’s supper?

There’s one word I’d really like to get rid of in the discourse of class: aspirational. I think of it as a Thatcher/Blair word, a word I’d twin with the phrase ‘deserving poor’, except that when you’re ‘aspirational’ you’re aiming to be part of the deserving rich. It suggests that only some working-class parents want the best for their children. And it suggests a society where not all children deserve the best.

It isn’t the general custom in Italy or France for children to be sent to fee-paying secondary schools rather than the lycée or liceo. Of course there are still class divisions in Italy now, but to friends of my generation there, the British class dystopia has no parallel in their experience of school. In cities, the children of doctors and lawyers, and the grandchildren of aristocrats, often mixed in the classroom with the children of cleaners and factory workers. I recall one friend telling me about her son’s teenage years at the liceo: he would feel embarrassed when one of his better off friends who lived in spacious luxury (with a second home in the background) came to visit their cramped family flat. The embarrassments would diminish over time but there would remain a recognition of differences in wealth and parents’ status, of undesirable inequalities. Privilege needs to see itself in relation to others who are valued, and see those others not as inferiors. Turning education into a shared experience would make it richer for everyone.

Ferrante’s novels (I’ve now nearly finished the second one) are neither formally innovative nor stylishly written, but they have depth and insight and they achieve something very rare in fiction, by giving working-class characters organic life in a world of great complexity.


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§ One Response to Ferrante’s Naples: Plebeians and Proletarians

  • Ruth Petrie says:

    Dear Liz,

    I loved your blog – and am so delighted that you have discovered the power of Ferrante. I have now finished the fourth and feel quite bereft. Her ability to grab us by the throat is extraordinary. And I was very engaged by your comparisons with Glasgow too.

    Sue and I had a wonderful few days in Naples some years ago and in our first hour there witnessed – with a sense of exhilaration – a car chase with car doors still open, around a small, crowded street market.

    Let’s get together soon. I hope all is well.

    Much love, Ruthie xo

    Sent from my iPad


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