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Delve Seminar Summary: Elena Ferrante: The Neapolitan Novels (Part 1)

{by Gary Thill}

Seminar title: Elena Ferrante: The Neapolitan Novels Part One
Guide: Sarah Guest
Seminar texts:
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Session 1

Delve guide Sara Guest introduced the group to author Elena Ferrante and My Brilliant Friend as a mashup of old time Victorian and more modern memoir. Each Delver introduced themselves and told about what drew them to the delve. For many this was a continuation of the Delve experience, but several were first-timers.

Sara started the discussion on My Brilliant Friend with a look at the prologue. She asked the group to consider how that short section sets up the rest of the book. The group discussion centered around how the prologue cues us to the outcome of the main characters’ lives (Elena and Lila). Lila never left Naples, while Elena got out and now lives in Turin. The prologue also draws readers in and drives them forward. Sara told the group Ferrante accomplishes this feat using three key writing techniques: scene, backstory and scene summary. Ferrante also turns on “a mystery engine” — what happened to Lila? What happened to their friendship? — that further drives readers forward.

The discussion turned to the question of dialect mentioned in the book. Delvers were told that in Italy, there’s at least two distinct types of language: High Italian and the local dialect, which is more casual and coarse. The dichotomy between the two also points to a major theme of the book around class and education. An interesting discussion about how language acts as an intersection between class and education ensued, including parallels between Hispanic Italian families.The discussion about dialect also cued a further discussion about the realities of reading a translated work. In short, readers are left to the mercy of translators and we must assume that something gets lost in the translation that makes it more difficult to fully understand the work.

From there, the group turned its attention to the fragment of Faust that begins the book and pondered what it means and how it relates. The group discussed several themes evident in the Faust poem that speak to themes in the book such as making a bargain with the devil and the creator as being evil. Sara suggested the idea of the creator being evil may relate to the narrator.

Session 2

We went around the room and talked about scenes that were powerful to us in the second half of the reading, along with which character we’re most aligned with. One delver spoke about the scene in which Lila talked about the futility of the Holy Spirit. That scene was seen as an indicator of how sophisticated and smart Lila really is, so much so that it makes Lenu feel inferior again. That theme of Lenu feeling inferior to Lila comes up over and over again.

Sara then turned the discussion to the first chapter of the second part of the book and the concept of “dissolving margins” that it introduces. Sara told the group this chapter introduces another one of the mini-mysteries with philosophical implications. Why the multiple layers? They develop trust and to keep the reader going. They allow us to learn with the characters. Are Lila’s “dissolving margins” PTSD, a reflection of Lila’s anxiety, physical or emotional? It seems the answer is all of the above. 

She then turned to the question of what does it mean that this novel is a Bildungsroman, or coming of age novel? This question is especially complex because “My Brilliant Friend” is a coming of age for both main characters rather than just one character. This means that both their actions influence the others’ arc. But who most influences who most? And what does it mean that the readers are limited by one voice processing everything for us?

Session 3

One delver questioned whether Ferrante is more chick lit vs. real literature. Sara suggested that Ferrante’s novels are the grandchildren of novels such as Middlemarch but asked the group to consider where these novels fit into the overall cannon.

Sara then turned the discussion to themes and delvers named:

Revenge (Lila’s revenge over Stefano and others).
Loss of friendship (Lenu’s loss of Antonio).
Broken promises (Stefano to Lila etc.).
Self-loathing (Lenu’s inability to see her true worth. Lila hating herself for marrying Stefano.)
Identity and erasure (What does it mean to be a woman or a man? Why does Lila keep trying to erase herself?)
Who is educated and in what way? (Lila represents the education from environment of society and class. Lenu represents intellectual education. They’re using their knowledge to think about very different things. It raises the question of what education prepares you for).
Parents vs. children (Although the children try to escape their parent’s mistakes, they end up making similar ones).

Finally, Sara noted that the final chapters of the week’s reading show a lot of reversals happening and encouraged delvers to take note of those reversals as the novel continues.

Session 4

Discussion turned to whether and how Ferrante’s work is anything more than “chick lit.” Though all agreed they enjoyed the plot, some wondered if the Lila, Lenu, Nino love triangle was anything other than soap opera. Others said they loved the chick lit aspect of the book because it’s fun reading, but there’s more going on under the surface. Themes of revenge and escape and generational trauma are at play with Nino trying to escape his father, Lenu trying to escape the neighborhood and Lila trying to escape her class. But all seem to be repeating the mistakes of their forebears, which leads to more betrayal and desire for revenge.

From there, the group discussed Lila and Nino’s doomed love affair. What happened over 23 days that killed it so quickly? And do we really believe that Lila fell so deeply in love with Nino? Is it partly that he’s not beholden in anyway to the Solaras? One delver suggested it’s less love and more a new project in which Lila thinks she can shape the world to her liking through sheer force of her intellect. In other words, Nino is the new shoes, her opportunity to connect with the educated class. But Nino refuses to be shaped by Lila, which dooms the relationship.

Of course, the other relationship that gets tested is the one between Lila and Lenu. Lenu both longs to be with Lila and resents Lila for being so omnipresent in her life. Lila always makes Lenu question her own worth and value. The story comes alive when Lenu is recounting Lila’s life and practically comes to a halt when Lenu shares about her own life. In fact, readers get very little access to key parts of Lenu, which again raises the question of how reliable our narrator actually is.

But again, it’s important to remember that this is a coming of age tale with a twist because it’s an author writing about becoming an author by writing about her best friend. So is this more of a love story or a coming of age in reverse? And what are we really coming of age into? Is it the ability to build worlds, control the world you’re building? There’s tension between the two books and it always comes back to Lila being the creator and creative force. So, could it be that Lila is actually the author?

Session 5

Sara shared that the reason she wanted to do this Delve on Ferrante is that she started the novels because they were good reads. But she realized halfway through the third book that Ferrante was interested in much more than a good read. And this Delve only drove that point home.

Some themes that Delvers identified beyond the “good read”: 

Can you escape the past? The main characters are trying to escape the mistakes not only their parents made but also the mistakes of the neighborhood as a whole. Lenu is trying to escape through education. Lila is trying to escape by using her intellect to reshape her world. The shoes/marriage to Stefano was an attempt to escape poverty. Her affair with Nino was an attempt to escape Stefano/neighborhood. But there’s a desperation in her attempts that ends up harming her and others.

How do you get out of the neighborhood? A lot of examples of how gravity sucks people back in. Don Achille with tainted money. Solaras and the shoes. Lenu’s book is an exception. It has no impact on neighborhood and achieves escape velocity.

Rising up and rising down. For example, Lenu taking the taxi like a wealthy person and then using a bus like a plebe on the same trip. The journey to find Lila. Lenu started out excited to show Lila she’d made it and then Lila shows her that she’s still lost. 

How the ocean affects characters. The ocean represents beauty trauma, strength and force. In astrology the water sign represents volatile emotions. Oceans are transitions and take you places, a sense of freedom. Lenu went to the ocean when she was younger and forgot. Lenu feels more beautiful at the beach and it’s where she has her scholarly and romantic and sexual awakenings. Lenu dumps Lila’s notebooks in water. Lenu’s father takes her to the ocean. Lila and Lenu try to walk to the ocean. Lenu remarks that she’s lived in Naples her whole life and never seen sea.

Creative class vs educated class. Don’t see Lila wanting to escape. She just likes to think and gets a thrill from creating and learning. Lila trying to explore her mind. Another way of looking at are the “somewheres” and the “anywheres.” Anywheres are mobile intellectuals. Somewheres stay in one place most of life. Lenu is the anywhere driver that gets Lila out of Naples, which changes Lila’s life. But Lila is the somewhere driver that gets Lenu out of herself.

Ferrante exploring identity in all ramifications. One character who’s trying to erase her identity and one trying to forge it. Exploration of identity opens up so many questions. Can it ever be known?

As the group contemplated both books, Sara turned us back to the Faust quote that began them and again asked, what does it mean? Does Lila rep the devil but more in the sense of the devil as both creator and destroyer. Lila is usually the force of both creation and destruction. She represents what a powerful creative force can do in the world. As such the Faust quote may be more about the positive and negative impulses of creation. It also goes with the duality of the two main characters. And it may be more useful to see them as mirrors of each other rather than the same person.  


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