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A TALE OF TWO CITIES
The inexhaustible tension between the parochial city and the infinite city infiltrates everything in Elena Ferrante’s Naples

By Nathaniel Popkin

When protestors in Istanbul’s Taksim Square last year refused to back down to soldiers trying to remove them ahead of a massive government sponsored construction project, more than a few people must have nodded to themselves: I know that place, where Galip and Kemal, protagonists of Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul novels, go to the cinema, hail a taxi, have tea and pastry. But far beyond documentation, over the years Pamuk has transformed Istanbul streets and corners and neighborhoods into a kind of powerful metaphysical landscape, a character itself. The city’s history and mythology haunt the other characters, the searching humans.

Zadie Smith’s NW (Penguin Press, 2012) likewise hinges on the personality of London circa 2010, in the wake of the financial crisis, in the glowering air of premature summer caused by global warming. Simmering racial and class tensions push up the Kilburn High Road and onto the Underground’s gray line, the route 98 bus, and into the tortured hearts of Leah and Keisha. Leah, of Irish descent, marries Michele, from West Africa. She’s insistent they stay in Willesden, the neighborhood in London’s northwest where she and Keisha grew up. Michele wants to climb the ladder and get out. Keisha does — eschewing her sloppy Jamaican family for the life of a corporate lawyer, marrying the cosmopol Frank, and giving herself a new name, Natalie.

But Frank’s infinite city bores her, renders her empty. Does she even belong there? The old parochial neighborhood, with its secrets and its dangers, never quite sets Natalie free, despite the new identity. What’s more, the old place is volatile; she can’t control it.

If urban geography is destiny, perhaps then Natalie Blake is proof. But please don’t tell Elena Greco, the protagonist-narrator of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, the latest of which, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta), Europa Editions published earlier this month in the translation by Ann Goldstein.

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