This past winter I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, a set of novels that amount to a modern masterpiece, expansive and moving in their depiction of the lives of two women in Naples over the span of sixty years. When I finished the final book I saw there was a “readers guide” at the end of the novel. There’s something annoying about finding a reading guide at the end of a novel that cannot be reduced to simple and trite terms like “who was your favourite character”? These reading guides are often found at the end of books intended for women, I suppose because women are more likely to be in a reading group (or that’s the impression people have) but more often than not the questions seem like they are directed at the boozy moms from some summer comedy and not, you know, women who read a breadth of great literature and enjoy discussing it with their friends. One of the things that this reading guide said was something about the universality of the story. But what universality? In the Neapolitan novels Ferrante shows us what a changing Italy looks like, what it’s like for women to be born into a deeply patriarchal society and the pain and hardship that goes with trying to free oneself from it or, at least, navigate it. There were certainly parts that felt like things that all women have experienced. The ugliness and mundanity of day-to-day life ,the one that so often minimizes and suffocates women. The sense of being around people who are threatened by your intelligence and skill, their desire for you to become less and less until you’re nothing at all, the feeling of loss and jealousy and self doubt and of course the love, competitiveness and the pain of female friendships, yes these are universal themes. But there was also a lot of this book that I didn’t “understand” in the sense that it wasn’t my own experience. The physical violence that the women are consistently subjected to, the deep poverty, the landscape of a post-war Italy. At one point the narrator describes a young man, who, striving to become more modern, a Socialist and a feminist, has decided to stop beating women. The problem is he doesn’t quite know how since violence against women has been as much a part of the day to day life of men as eating dinner. In moments like these misogyny and violence become something uncontrollable and overruling. The male characters, as much as the female ones are trapped by a life that has only shown them cruelty and force, where power can only be maintained by destruction and violence. Furthermore the characters don’t have a neat, clean, history book view of fascism, misogyny or familial ties and seeing these things from the perspective of characters who transition from impoverished children to educated adults is enlightening, it’s thrilling. Ferrante’s writing is so vivid and violent that the characters pain feels at once personal and foreign.
The reason that representation matters so much in entertainment is because underrepresented people deserve to see themselves reflected. But for people who aren’t in that group it’s also necessary to see nuanced and complicated portrayals of different ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations. None of us benefit from seeing, hearing or reading the same stories over and over again. And that’s why I chaffed at the depiction of The Neapolitan Quartet being a “universal” story. Not only because I don’t think it was a universal story but also because I don’t want or need it to be. In the last year I made a conscious effort to read more books by women and writers who aren’t white or straight and it has made a massive difference in my life and in the way I see the world. I want to be exposed to stories that show me something different. The part of the novel that was foreign to me, life in Naples, I enjoyed because it was about something that I didn’t know anything about. The parts that were relatable to me, the parts about being a woman were excellent because they spoke about that specific experience. There’s something cathartic about reading (or watching, or hearing) something that expresses something you’ve felt but not been able to put into words. There’s a reason that the response to The Neapolitan Quartet, because it so accurately describes women’s inner lives. But those inner lives are specific to women and they are not, from my perspective, universal.
Likewise, like you, I imagine, I have an image of Italy in my mind. I imagine old farm houses where long family lunches take place between close knit family members. I imagine the ancient Roman architecture, the quaint villages (imagined in black and white, like the first episode of the second season of Master of None ), the pasta, the stylish people populating the streets. I’ve visited Italy, but I could move to Italy tomorrow and live there for the rest of my life and still not know what it feels like to bean Italian person. Or to be an Italian woman born in post-war Naples. North American people hold this idea that Europeans do everything right. We want to cook like Italians and enviously look up to the Scandinavian countries’ education system and their moody crime dramas. We want to dress like French women and envy cool British girls. We see it as an advanced place where the large societal problems we have in North America have long since been vanquished. But this isn’t the reality. There are deep problems in Europe and a troubled history that is threatening to rear it’s ugly head once again. It’s for reasons like these that novels like The Neapolitan Quartet are essential to read. Elena Ferrante’s writing is moving, bold and unforgettable and it challenges us at every step.