A Tale of Two Cities

The inexhaustible tension between the parochial city and the infinite city infiltrates everything in Elena Ferrante’s Naples.



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. “The essential thing was to get out of Naples,” says Elena, 51 pages into Those Who Leave. Elena, like Natalie, is an autodidact, desperate to rise above the violent, suffocating neighborhood where she grew up. She studies hard, adopts the mannerisms of her high school teacher Professor Galiani, and goes on to university in Pisa. She loses her Neapolitan dialect, the vulgar neighborhood slang, and, like Natalie, her given name, Lenuccia. After marrying Pietro Airota, scion of an intellectual and aristocratic family, she moves to Florence, that coldest of acculturated, infinite cities.

Since the English publication last year of the second novel in the series, Story of a New Name (Europa Editions, 2013), critics have lauded the mysterious Ferrante, whose true identity is unknown. They’ve praised her particularly for her skill in rendering the fraught relationship between Elena and her childhood friend Lina (alternatively called Lila). Indeed, she draws the lines of the deepest love and of momentary hate, of jealousy and manipulation, guilt and fear, with spectacular control and insight. Give Ferrante a paragraph, and she’ll burnish the page with brilliant, fiery life.

But underlying every nuance of personality here, every desire, every awakening, is the neighborhood, Naples, and the broad landscape of Italian cities, all in tension. This is “the infinite and the parochial,” as I attempted to conceptualize the opposite poles of urban life in Song of the City, my first book on Philadelphia. “It’s easy to become trapped in the parochial city,” I wrote, describing the neighborhood’s power of “exclusion and denial, stratification and fear.” On the other hand, “the infinite city is like the world itself. It is flat and wide and vast and in it everyone, everything can be known and explored.” For most of us and certainly for Elena and Natalie, “our relationship with the city stretches somewhere between the parochial and the infinite. Take away the parochial and the remains are cold, commodified spaces where personal, local connections do not exist. There are no neighborhoods, no neighbors, just glances. Dismiss the infinite from the city and what’s left is a village. The expectations are already known, the outcomes understood. The only way out is to leave.”

This is surely Elena’s intention. She will leave and Lina, who never got past grade school despite her fierce intelligence, will stay. Their neighborhood, which Ferrante never locates in the geography of the real city, as Pamuk and Smith do with Istanbul and London — she only vaguely identifies the church, the bar, entrance to the tunnels, the stradone, as if afraid of muddling the psychological power with needless detail — is controlled by small time Camorrists, the Solaras, who deal in fear. Occasionally, a communist or a high-minded agitator will confront them, usually resulting in assassination. The key to survival, unless you’re one of the Solara brothers, is to keep your expectations low. In the neighborhood, studying, as Elena does to rise out of this place, is “considered a ploy used by the smartest kids to avoid hard work.”

It’s a city of low expectations, all together a defensive, prideful, insular place, a distorted reflection of the “eternal city” Rome, or of Florence. On the scale of Italian cities, Naples leans away from the infinite. Elena never wants to return, but after becoming engaged to Pietro and publishing her first novel, she temporarily moves home. Pietro is like Natalie’s Frank, a ladder up — and curiously both are born in Milan (and Frank’s mother is named Elena). “During that period,” says Elena,

I was convinced that there was no great difference between the neighborhood and Naples, the malaise slid from one to the other without interruption…The clogged sewers splattered, dribbled over…People died of carelessness, of corruption of abuse, and yet, in every round of voting, gave their enthusiastic approval to the politicians who made their life unbearable. As soon as I got off the train, I moved cautiously in the places where I had grown up, always careful to speak in dialect, as if to indicate I am one of yours, don’t hurt me.

She isn’t one of them, of course. At least she doesn’t want to be any more. Ferrante uses the fertile territory of dialect to observe Elena struggling to find herself somewhere between the parochial and the infinite. Back in Naples after several years in Florence, to confront her sister Elisa, who has gotten engaged to one of the Solara brothers, she is surprised to find “that words were coming to me in the Neapolitan of our childhood, that the neighborhood — from the courtyard to the stradone and the tunnel — was imposing its language on me, its mode of acting and reacting, its figures, those which in Florence seemed to be faded images and here were flesh and blood.” She recoils, nervously rejecting part of her authentic self, which she spends the balance of the novel trying to reclaim and redefine.

It doesn’t help that after the publication of her book she must face a literary world she’s not prepared for. She doesn’t speak the language. She doesn’t know how to advance herself in the infinite world. Like Natalie in NW, she tries on phrases, she tries on mannerisms and clothing only to find herself confused and lonely. Compounding the dissonance, Pietro is dull and insensitive, a clod in bed (Natalie’s Frank is a little this way too). Imagine an upper class, erudite Italian who has no flare for life, no aesthetics, no passion! He’s a “failed Airota,” incapable grasping the infinite city of culture or even the pleasure of intellectual debate (he is a regimented thinker). Worse still, their life is detached, removed from the particular pleasures of Florence: they are dumb to the parochial side of that city. When Nino, the object of Elena’s enduring love, comes to visit from Naples, he takes Elena and Pietro and their two daughters out to a restaurant where he knows the chef, and they are treated to a special, authentic meal. Why don’t we have a special place of our own? she wonders.

Much of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay takes place between 1968 and 1976, during a time of intense political upheaval and violent conflict. Revolutionaries brandished guns and big manifestos and sought to overturn the old order. Ferrante takes the opportunity to push Elena further into the ether, caught between worlds, and to allow Lina to seize her own fierce strength, to seize and overcome the old neighborhood for her own benefit and to denigrate Elena. Ferrante is particularly adept here in exploring authenticity of economic class. Lina, who for much of the book works in a salami factory on the outskirts of the city, doing mind numbing and treacherous work under grotesque conditions, is asked by a group of Marxists, few of them with any idea of what it means to suffer, to help organize the factory. She rejects them as woefully ignorant of reality, shatters their ideology with her crude rendition of life in the factory — the words spilling out of her with the force of the neighborhood, the terrifying revenge of the parochial.

Later, after deciding to return to the neighborhood, where she’ll exploit the Solaras, she tells Elena to get out. “Go on vacation, she said, abruptly, write, act the intellectual, here we’ve remained too crude for you, stay away.” Lina’s defiant tone echoes that of Gloria, Natalie Blake’s sister, who’s never left their London neighborhood. “If you hate Caldie so much, why’d you even come here? Seriously, man. No one asked you to come. Go back to your new manor.”

Go away! Go back! Get out!

Isn’t this just what Natalie and Elena want to hear? Isn’t the only way out to leave? Yes, Elena had once thought so. Now she isn’t so sure. “How much had I lost by leaving, believing I was destined for who knows what life. Lila, who had remained, had a very new job, she earned a lot of money, she acted in absolute freedom and according to schemes that were indecipherable.”

But that freedom is delusion. Lina, in truth, will never feel comfortable outside the neighborhood. It’s a rich, haunting world, especially as Ferrante has rendered it, but by the force of its nature it can’t suit everyone. Elena, in contrast, will always be destined to flee. • 22 September 2014

Nathaniel Popkin's latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard. He is also the author of Song of the City, and The Possible City, and is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and co-producer and senior writer and editor of the documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment." Most of his work can be found at nathanielpopkin.net

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