“Ah, what a city, said Aunt Lina to my daughter, what a splendid and important city: here all languages are spoken, Imma, here everything was built and everything was torn down, here the people don’t trust talk and are very talkative, here is Vesuvius which reminds you everyday that the greatest undertaking of powerful men, the most splendid work, can be reduced to nothing in a few seconds by the fire, and the earthquake, and the ash, and the sea.”
An ancient Greek “neapolis” that the Romans took over, Naples could arguably out-Rome Rome in the history department. A crime syndicate to rival the Sicilian mafia. An active volcano as scenic backdrop. A coast that consistently makes it to the not-to-be-missed lists. And, if you were to believe its residents, the best pizzas in the world, the only real competition being the pizzerias of New York City and Sao Paulo, and that’s only because their origins can be traced back to migrants from from Naples.
With all this and more, one would think that one could spend a few days in Naples without running into the world of Lila and Lenù, the chief protagonists of Elena Ferrante’s unputdownable Neapolitan quartet. I did not come here in search of them, though I am reliably informed that specialised tours catering to Ferrante fans do indeed exist, and are both expensive and popular.
My trip, on the other hand, was as bourgeois as it could get: a half-term holiday involving small children; an effort to inject a short and potent dose of warm weather and good food (I live in Scotland, which is famous for having neither of the abovementioned). Since we weren’t planning to deviate from the well-beaten tourist trail, we were in no risk of running into Ferrante’s characters.
But it didn’t take long to prove that my hypothesis was completely off the mark. Two hours into the trip, on our way to lunch, I stopped without warning in the middle of the road, leaving the kids to the vagaries of Neapolitan traffic to click pictures of a bridal gown on a zombie-like mannequin inside a rather run-down bridal boutique. My children had to be rescued by their father who asked the obvious question:
- “You getting married?”
- “Lila shops for a wedding gown from one of these shops ...”
- “Surely not this very one?”
- “It’s not about the dress or the shop for that matter, it’s about what she does with a photo of her in the wedding dress later in the narrative as her marriage disintegrates. She uses a stylishly defaced version of the photo as a piece of art in her shoe boutique. It is a sort of erasing of self.”
My explanation is unsuccessful.
“Is this the same person who abandons her boring academic husband and two daughters halfway through the book?” the boring academic asked me, looking at his daughters, deep in thought, no doubt contemplating single parenthood.
“No, this is her brilliant friend”, I said but I am not sure he believed me.
One of the “joys” of travelling with small children is that you get to “appreciate” the most mundane of things – say you stand across the street from the Hagia Sophia, gazing wondrously at the amazing structure in front of you, and they jump up and down excitedly because they have just seen a tram. My kids are no exception to this, so we are forced to travel in all assorted means of transport in any given city.
This proved to be a blessing in the case of Naples as an outstanding public art project has transformed a number of the city’s underground metro stations to essentially contemporary art galleries accessible to the everyday commuter and the odd tourist. At the Toledo Metro, the deepest in the city, the theme is water and light and as one descends, the earthy shades change to blue vitreous mosaic and then to still deeper blue at the platform level.
The ticket hall features artwork by William Kentridge who has taken stories of the city’s past and fashioned Pompeii-style mosaics out of them. As if this weren’t enough, the station also boasts of the remains of an old Aragonese castle to make the point that we are standing on a historic site.
We alighted at the next station – Dante – and as we stepped out into the October sunshine, we ran into an imposing statue of the man himself in the middle of a large square. He looked rather dour which I suppose is to be expected of someone who has been given a tour of purgatory and hell by Virgil who, by the way, is clearly as good at making up stories in after life as he was in real life. In a semi-circle around Dante, atop an ornate Bourbon building stood statues depicting qualities that the King is supposed to possess.
The most interesting feature, however, of this not-too-distinct European piazza was the abundance of bookshops. I followed the trail to an arched gate – the Port’Alba – which led to a narrow passageway filled with “scholastic” bookstores. I jumped up and down like my daughters do when they see a train thundering down the platform. This is a Lenù haunt! She not only browses here, she also works part-time at a bookstore nearby during her university holidays.
This is not her part of town; in fact, she never feels at home in the historic and the well-heeled part of the city though she spends many years living there. But here, in Port’Alba, among these books, the bookish Lenù would definitely have spent many a happy hour.
There were no Ferrante books on sale here as the clientele were students looking for books on their curriculum, but I did see them a couple of streets away at a bookseller who sells antiquarian books, stamps and prints. However, in a recurring theme, there were more Ferrante books in English than in Italian, which leads one to suspect that Ferrante is more a phenomenon outside her native city and country.
Dotting the alley and the street following it were a number of pastry shops selling an assortment of Neapolitan pastries – sugar-filled concoctions of various sizes and shapes that the denizens of Lenù’s world bought from Solaras’s bar-pastry shop, and gobbled up as they went about their daily lives. Do these shops pay hafta to the Camorra, I wondered for a moment, but shook my head just as quickly. Even I knew that the crime syndicates of our day are way more sophisticated than they were in last century.
Herculaneum, the well-preserved Roman ghost town that was buried under ash by Vesuvius in AD 79 (but thankfully not so well-traipsed nowadays, unlike its illustrious neighbour Pompeii) lies a few miles away from Naples in the middle of a modern suburban built-up area. Further excavations are difficult since there is no way to dig and not displace current denizens.
The street plan of this ancient town follows the familiar Roman grid – the main east-west street (Decumanus Maximum) and parallel streets are intersected by a number of narrower north-south streets (Cardo). This is also, interestingly enough, the street plan of the historic centre of modern day Naples with the Via dei Tribunali as the main Decumanus.
The main east-west streets, barely wide enough for one chariot once upon a time, are nowadays open to more modern means of transportation, though the driver has to be both courageous and skilled to attempt driving here especially since honking is frowned upon. These historic streets, are also, as to be expected, tourist central, and are dotted with souvenir shops, an equal number of pizzerias and churches, bar pastry shops and a music conservatory that none other than Mozart studied in.
Not just madonnas and pagan gods, but also living Gods make an appearance here. Across from an ancient marble statue of the god of the Nile is a bar wildly popular with Argentinian tourists as it boasts of a framed box which contains a single strand of hair from the head of Diego Maradona.
We walked from there to the sea which wasn’t far, as it can’t be from most parts of this city. It is difficult then to believe that despite living just a few kilometres away, Lila and Lenù had never seen the sea until they were about ten. Lila convinces Lenù and they set off for the sea only to get caught in the rain. Lenù wants to continue on but Lila doesn’t, and they come back home.
This event has consequences and not just in terms of the beatings they receive. Lenù will leave the city, choosing to live in various other parts of the country, while Lila never leaves the neighbourhood.
As I spent the evening walking along the pedestrianised beach front with Vesuvius looming in the horizon, it struck me that the sea continues to be the setting for some of the most important moments in the books. Lenù takes the stationer’s daughter to the beach at Posillipo, one of her first experiences of freedom. At Ischia, across the bay, relationships are made and broken as Lila and Nino get together, and Lenù loses her virginity to the father of the boy she always loved.
Further along the coast, on her honeymoon, Lila is beaten and repeatedly raped by her husband. Nino sets up Lenù with a flat facing the sea while Michele Solara, the Camorra man, buys an extravagant flat in Parco Vigiliano with a magnificent view of this bay.
On our last day in Naples, I set out early in the morning taking the younger one with me. I wanted to get to Capella Sansevero and see Giuseppe Sanmartino’s Veiled Christ before the coach bus traffic got there, en route to Pompeii. Naples wasn’t an early type of city, I decided as I walked past mostly empty narrow alleys filled with graffiti and drying laundry on balconies.
In the first three books, and in most of the fourth, of the Neapolitan quartet, Ferrante lets the city lie in the background. She gives us no history, no legends, no Greeks or Romans or French or Spanish; she gives us the basic geography to ground ourselves in, she gives us a defining time period, and, most important, she gives us the class we are concerned with.
But she doesn’t adorn this setup with anything other than the stories of her characters. To an outsider, that her stories are set in Naples is almost incidental.
But as we get to the end of the final book, Lila goes overboard (as she tends to do) on the history of the city and takes many a long walk with Lenù’s little daughter, filling her with stories, fables, legends, spirits and a fair bit of her own fantastic imagination. Lenù’s constant insecurity comes to the fore almost immediately. She is worried that Lila is writing a book on the history of the city that will easily surpass her writing career of three decades. It is almost as if Ferrante was worried about something similar – did she think bringing this city to the forefront earlier in the series would have been a serious distraction?
I don’t know but as I pushed my daughter’s buggy through the streets of Naples early that morning past churches and groggy eyed shopkeepers, I kept an eye out for a half-mad woman talking to a child who clings to her every word because one thing was certain – it is impossible anymore to think of Naples and not think of Ferrante in the same breath. Or vice versa.