Book two of the quartet of Neapolitan novels The Story of a New Name, ‘Youth’ follows directly on from the childhood of Lila and Elena, My Brilliant Friend and their friends and families. This book, for example, ends when Lila and Elena are aged 23. Elena is indeed brilliant has graduated with top grades and top honours from the University of Pisa and finds herself engaged, to be married in two years in 1969, to another brilliant student and she is an author, with a novel just published.
Reading My Brilliant Friend had me thinking of the alchemy of the Ouroboris, who is who and how young they were, how incredibly young. Lila’s father, Fernando Cerullo, the shoemaker, for example, is not yet forty and his wife Nunzia is younger. They have five children (I think). Rino is the oldest. Lila’s father and mother, are of course, one step from the sarcophagus lid sliding over them. Lila is sixteen and a half when she marries Stefano and into (relative) wealth and into the Carracci family. Her father owned Lila and now her husband owns her. She has escaped from poverty and a semi-arranged marriage to Marcello and into the Solara family, local hoods, whom she hates. Everybody loves Lila, she exudes beauty, sensuality and is prodigy able to turn her hand and mind to any task she takes on. In such a close knit and incestuous community the only thing more important than family is money, of which the Cerullos and Grecco family have none. The daughters of both are therefore saleable commodities. Lila refuses to be anything other than herself.
Elena has the power of the narrator. Her way out of poverty is to study more than anyone else and her uncertainty about the future drives her on. Lila is the catalyst, everything Elena has done Lila does better and first, without effort. Elena knows everything about Lila because her friend trusts her with her diaries which she tells her not to read, but of course she does. The first-person narrator angle also comes unstuck when Elena also seems to know what her ex-boyfriend Antonio is thinking and have knowledge of what he does. It’s a fudge between first-person narrator and third-person narrator. Antonio, of course, is the son of the mad widow. In Ferrante’s novel there is always a feral female, unhinged by doomed love. In this case it is Melina Cappucio and her doomed lover is the poet, conductor and journalist Donato Sarratore. In the first novel he molested Elena and courted her as if she, a girl of fifteen had asked for it, with a father of fortyish. But it is Nino Sarratore, Donato’s son, that Elena loves, but later it is Donato she loses her virginity to, in some ways to spite Lila.
Lila tries to convince Elena that Nino is ugly and he is unworthy of her. When Lila arranges for them to get away for some sunshine on the seashore Nino and his friend Bruno are also there. What Elena wants Lila gets, or vice versa. Lila wants school and education. She gets married and a big house. Elena wants Nino and gets education and learning. Nino wants Lila, in the same way that all his friends and most men do. Be careful what you want. So when Lila wants Nino the world is going to change, but remain the same mix of jealousy, money worries, poverty and violence. Nobody gets anything for free or gets off scot free.
When Lila has a baby she tells her husband the truth that it’s not his, but he doesn’t believe her. He too is having an affair, but become more controlling and violent with Lila.
Elena, meanwhile, has escaped to the safety of a desk and room and the University. But she finds her clothes and accent and, of course, her gender are mocked and belittled. Women aren’t as good as men is the message she reads, not in books but on the faces of her professors. Bit by bit Elena trains herself to be liked and to learn to speak properly and fit in, but another lesson is for that a certain amount of cultural capital as well as money is required. When she has a boyfriend who is wealthy with good connections, for example, she is not mocked and is invited to social gatherings. When not, she is not.
The graduate of university and Lila the graduate of life are reconciled outside Bruno’s stinking factory where Lila now works. Despite the burns and cuts on her hand, and despite how thin she is, Lila has got her zest for live back. This might have something to do with Enzo Scanno, the fruit and vegetable seller’s family, who has always loved her and is taking care of her. You can never be sure with Lila. The drive to find out more is the genius of the book. Now onto Book 3 of the quartet. Long live Lila! Long live Elena!