Garbage piles up in Naples. via

There are two Italies,” Percy Shelley complained in 1818. One was “the most sublime and lovely contemplation that can be conceived by the imagination of man”: the aesthetic Italy of “the green earth and the transparent sea,” the “mighty ruins” and “aerial mountains.” The other Italy, the actual one, was “degraded, disgusting, and odious.” So were its people, the “Italians of the present day.” The men were “a tribe of stupid and shrivelled slaves,” and the women smelt of garlic. The problem with Italy was the Italians.

In 1958, the American political scientist Edward Banfield named the Italian problem “amoral familism.” In his fieldwork at Chiaromonte, a town in the arch of the Italian boot, Banfield observed that the locals turned every public good to private profit. They enriched themselves and their families at all costs. Rich or poor, they seemed incapable of civic virtue. Their organized activities were mostly criminal. Passing judgment on the “Southern problem,” Banfield entered Chiaromonte into a kind of witness protection program, and called the town “Montegrano.” But the title of his report was withering: The Moral Basis of a Backward Society.

Italy’s political unifiers and modernizers have also identified another pair of “two Italies”: the north and the south, the rich and the poor, the improving and the incorrigible—two rival realities, divided by geography, economy, and morals. The northern Italian economy seems to have floated over the Alps, but the Mezziogiorno is the largest low-income region in Europe. Youth unemployment touches 50 percent, and the hands of the various Mafia groups grasp at every form of life. “Italy?” Luigi Farini wrote to Count Cavour from Naples in 1860. “No, this is Africa: compared to these oafs, the Bedouin are the very blossom of civil-minded virtue.”

Not that the north is immune to the “Southern problem.” In his urbane and embittered handbook, The Secrets of Italy, Corrado Augias observes that the northern industrialist practices nepotism like a Pope, and dispenses favors like a feudal lord.1 Every European nation has its literature of the national character. The English flatter themselves by ironic denigration; the French congratulate themselves directly. The Italian tradition, exemplified by Luigi Barzini, tends towards ironic congratulation and direct denigration. For Augias, Italy’s “best-kept and most important” secret is not a decent restaurant with a pretty view, but a political question: “Why has the history of the peninsula had so little to do with the history of freedom?”

This is not an exclusively southern problem. Never, Augias writes, in the history of the peninsula has “a proper treaty proclaimed and guaranteed the rights of individuals.” The “deplorable” Napoleon started the work of unification and opened the ghetto of Venice. Foreign armies and American money toppled Mussolini, and underwrote the postwar settlement. Since then, Italy’s leaders have “trivialized liberty.” Like Barzini, Augias is embarrassed as he shows the tourist around the art galleries, the splendid ruins, and the wreckage of Italian democracy. An optimist might note that, along with the unities of soccer and the loathing of immigrants, amoral familism proves that the north and south are not wholly divided.

Still, if the “moral metaphysics” of amoral familism is a general affliction, its symptoms are worse in the south. The capital of this kingdom of amorality and backwardness is Naples, a city as blessed in climate and setting as it is cursed in manners and masters: as the medieval phrase had it, “a paradise inhabited by devils.” In his book Le strade della violenza, “Streets of Violence,” (2006), the Salerno-born politician Isaia Sales calculated that the Camorra had committed over 3,500 murders in twenty-five years, a death toll and time period roughly equivalent to the Irish Troubles. As Roberto Saviano related in Gomorrah (2006), the northerners contract the removal of their toxic waste to the Camorra, who dump it illegally in their own back yard, poisoning the topsoil, the ground water, and perhaps, too, that creamy buffalo mozzarella in your refrigerator.

When Saviano exposed the Camorra to Anglophone readers, his subjects issued a contract for his murder. He needed armed guards and eventually went into exile. According to her publisher, the next Italian writer to air Naples’s dirty laundry in translation has retreated pre-emptively, publisher’s contract in hand. Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous author of the “Neapolitan novels,” is said to live on a Greek island.2

The Neapolitan novels describe the deep and tortured friendship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, two girls born in a nameless Neapolitan slum in the 1950s. Lila, the daughter of a shoemaker, is the more intelligent and sure of the pair, but it is Elena, the daughter of a municipal porter and his lame wife, who gets away, finding fame as a novelist by exposing the violent, vulgar world of her childhood, and collateral prestige by marrying into a family of Florentine intellectuals. Yet as Elena climbs the ladders of academic success and social class, she remains haunted by her “brilliant friend.” Lila’s fearlessness before teachers, boys, and the distant world of learning have licensed Elena’s anguished progress. At every step, Elena believes Lila to be the more beautiful, the more intelligent, the more deserving. Lila agrees, and cruelly feeds Elena’s fears.

“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood,” Elena recalls, “it was full of violence.” At the opening of the first Neapolitan novel, My Brilliant Friend (2005), the wreckage of wartime bombs still defaces the landscape. Marshall Plan money has yet to transform the economy, and the neighborhood is ruled by a medieval honor code. The men beat the women, the women fight each other, the adults hit the children, and the children hit each other. Everybody is poor, except the local tyrants: Don Achille Carracci, a landlord enriched by the war, mysteriously murdered in the opening chapters; and the Solaras, a family of fascist crooks who run the neighborhood bar. Nobody has any civic sense: Elena’s father uses his job at city hall to scrounge tips from favor-seekers. Everyone is ignorant, except Donato Sarratore the railway conductor who, this being a realist affair, is also a communist, a philanderer, and a poet.

When the girls’ schoolteacher tries to convince Lila and Elena’s parents of their daughters’ potential, only Elena’s father is willing to buy his daughter’s textbooks. Forced to apply her energies to her family, Lila dreams of turning her father’s basement workshop into a factory. Despite her father’s blows and ridicule, she and her feckless brother Rino create a sample: a beautiful pair of men’s shoes. The thuggish Marcello Solara, obsessed with Lila since the day she pulled a shoemaker’s knife on him, offers Lila’s father a commercial partnership and a marital alliance. Lila’s father is delighted, but Lila spurns the deal. Instead of falling into the clutches of the Solaras, she falls in love with Stefano Carracci, son of the late Don Achille.

The first book ends with Lila and Stefano’s lavish and raucous wedding. Sitting with a Carracci cousin who has made good in Florence as a dealer in scrap metal, Elena is now educated enough to despise her origins.

The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer.

Lila suffers a worse recognition at the wedding banquet. Marcello Solara enters, wearing the shoes that she and Rino made. Her husband, father, and brother have traded her and the shoe factory for the Solaras’ investment, and Solara money has paid for her wedding. The gravity of custom and violence cannot be suspended. For Lila, it is downhill from here. So too for the reader.

Anticipating the strategies of the Solara brothers, in 1824 Giacomo Leopardi described the Italians as “supreme individualists”: too much ambition and cynicism, too few “great moral principles,” too little communal trust and ethical restraint.

Ferrante’s second volume, The Story of a New Name (2012), opens with Stefano beating and raping Lila on their wedding night.3 As the neighborhood closes in on Lila, Elena’s horizons open. She attends university in the alien northern city of Pisa, and falls in love with Pietro, the son of a professor and a publisher, and already marked for academic success. Yet Elena still envies Lila, now the “Jackie O of the neighborhood,” for her adult prestige. The shoe business has spawned a shop, managed by Lila, in a fashionable street in Naples.

The centerpiece of The Story of a New Name is a romantic triangle between Elena, Lila, and Nino, the son of Sarratore the railway poet who, in the first of many painful contrivances, turns up on the beach. The sunburn and scorching emotions are described perhaps too accurately: the melodramatic underscore of adolescence sounds beneath the brutal realism. After Lila poaches Nino from her, Elena can no longer deny the dark sources of her friend’s strength. When Lila says she wants “to disappear without trace,” it is not by dissolving, but by an explosion of fury that will take the neighborhood down with her. Although Elena leaves for Pisa, she cannot escape Lila’s emotional pull. Like Pip Pirrit besotted by Estella, Elena cannot lift her eyes from the image that first revealed her own potential, and the possibility of a wider world.

In Pisa and Florence, Elena encounters the other Italy of northern refinement, and its pampered, entitled children. She also contends with the structural entropy of the Bildungsroman. As the bildung develops, the roman declines. The terrors of childhood lead to the passionate mediocrity of adolescence, and thence to the passionless complacency of adulthood. David Copperfield’s search for love and success lacks the appalling power of his childhood agonies; when he finds love and money with the dull Agnes Wickfield, his story ends not with a bang, but a simper. Elena complains that Pietro leaves her to bring up their children. Then, writing a novel about the neighborhood, she gains the modern currencies of fashion and celebrity. Ferrante’s narration of the Sixties mimics the worst aspect of Sixties fiction: the novelist who is not “Elena” writes about the novel written by the fictional Elena. It is as if David Copperfield found success by writing novels about neglected children, and “Dickens” was a pseudonym for Bulwer-Lytton.

A second structural weakness appears. Just as Balzac’s Scenes from Private Life grew into Scenes from Provincial Life, so the portrait of childhood intimacy must double as a portrait of an age. As Ferrante’s vision broadens, so the content thins. The weave of ambivalence between Lila and Elena retains its explosive complexity, but it becomes predictable and repetitive. The growth of postwar Italy is signposted in crude symbols, the backdrop for the inevitable screen adaptation. Lila cuts up and defaces the giant portrait above the shoe shop counter like an intuitive Pop artist; the Solaras open a supermarket in the slum: the Sixties are here! Nino the lothario turns up with sideburns, a cardigan, and a bad case of Gramsci: it’s 1968! Elena enters the student revolt perfunctorily; not because of her suspicion of the middle- class radicals, but because, like day-tripping tourists among the monuments of the past, we can only spend an hour at each stop on our itinerary.

For Augias, the modern state has failed to create a national sensibility to match the historical image. The Venetian republic fell in imperial fashion, from within. Napoleon toppled an already rotten system: “a weakened and divided ruling class, a government that was unable to rise to the occasion, and the lack of an informed citizenry.” The same conditions, Augias fears, have ripened in modern Italy.

Henry James said that there was “nothing left to discover or describe” about Venice, but he must have forgotten to inspect the drains. If a trip to Venice has left you wanting to know more about the city’s post–Napoleonic sanitation policies, look no further than R. J. B. Bosworth’s Italian Venice. Bosworth, a biographer of Mussolini, describes the city’s afterlife as a glorious and futile appendix to modern Italy, ruled by the same grandiose dimwits as the rest of the country, and disfigured by floods of water and tourists. Bosworth is the Ruskin of municipal historians.4

Napoleon only threatened to visit the wrath of Attila upon Venice. It was the tourist hordes who evicted most of the city’s population, and the city fathers who, having let the barbarians in, kept on pandering until they created the ruin of disneylandizzazione, or “Disneylandification.” The “other Venice” could be a fascinating story, but Bosworth cannot tell it. His style has all the fluency and clarity of a blocked canal. He has a knack for spoiling a subject: he drowns the human drama in a torrent of trivia. No sewer is too narrow, no episode of town–hall backscratching too trivial for this Baedeker of the city hall. Bosworth criticizes every aspect of Disneylandification, but calls the international concern for the city’s future “supercilious” and snobbish. Instead of acknowledging that the global plebs and the city’s leadership are destroying Venice, he claims fatuously that the day-trippers are, “in quite a few senses,” Venetians. They are not. Nor does Bosworth’s nodding acquaintance with the English language make him a poet.

Ferrante’s third volume, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), begins with a corpse in the shrubbery, but never revisits the scene of the crime.5 With Don Achille’s murder in the first volume still unexplained, there are now two unresolved killings. Yet the added complexity does not raise the tension. The list of suspects has lost its red herrings and expendable characters to Naples’s vigorous murder rate. The Solara brothers have perpetrated every possible depravity as they fight their way to the middle. And Lila, Elena keeps telling us, is captivating because she has a murderous fury.

A similar predictability drains the drama from the story of Elena and Lila. Unsatisfied by love and work, Elena has an affair with Nino. This is a surprise for her, but not for the reader. Inheriting his father’s role as a cipher for philandering and radical politics, Nino bobs up with painful serendipity, seduces with Trotskyite sweet nothings, then dissolves without so much as a farewell poem. We cannot care about this inanimate functionary, or believe Elena’s protests of passion.

Meanwhile, Lila flees Stefano’s beatings. She and her infant son live chastely under the protection of Enzo, a docile Communist laborer from the neighborhood. In a scenario of industrial degradation that reads like Zola’s Germinal rewritten by Norman Mailer, Lila finds work in a sausage factory. She cuts her hands as she carves meat from the bone, is groped by her boss in the salami-curing room, and unionizes the exploited workers. As the narrative staggers into the 1970s, the burden of historical representation obliges Lila and Enzo to juggle Red Brigade–style terrorism with a correspondence course in computing, so that they will be ready for the 1980s. A third unsolved murder is committed: masked gunmen execute the boss of the sausage factory in his office.

After her marriage collapses, Elena returns south. Lila still fascinates her, but their lives are now divided by class. As Elena describes a talent thwarted, this telling is necessarily unfounded. Her narration, already hollowed by the reflexive trickiness of her career as a novelist, drifts towards magical realism. The emotional compression that made the first volume so exciting becomes theatrical. As Ruskin complained in Mornings in Florence, in the streets “you never hear a word uttered but in rage, either just ready to burst, or for the most part explosive instantly”: a method as “impersuasive and ineffectual as the shaking of tree branches in the wind.”

The third volume ends with Lila and Enzo striking it rich in the computer business, and Elena eloping with dull Nino on a jet plane. By now, the old characters have all fallen in love with each other at least once, and the new characters are hobbled by their metonymic duty to represent aspects of social history. The condensed power of the first novel has devolved into a soap opera. The Neapolitan novels, which were announced as a trilogy, have now grown, like a successful film franchise, into a tetralogy.

Elena Ferrante, The Boston Globe tells us, is a “reclusive avant-garde genius.” Yet there is nothing avant-garde about her writing. As Ferrante’s pseudonym suggests, and as she has admitted, she is inspired by Elsa Morante, whose History (1974) might be a Roman ancestor of the Neapolitan novels. Nor does Ferrante exhibit genius, in the Romantic sense of spontaneous, profound evocation. Ferrante is expert in the techniques of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century modernism. She switches nimbly between omniscient and unreliable narrations. She times her twists and cliffhangers perfectly. She avoids the long words and long sentences that might challenge her readers, but winks to the canon of modern Italian literature. To create a national language, Manzoni revitalized an artificial “Milanese Tuscan” with a “rinsing in the Arno” of Florentine dialect. Elena, entrusted with Lila’s confessions in Neapolitan dialect, tips them back into the Arno. All this artlessness takes a lot of practice.

As for the reclusiveness, Italian politics includes the armchair art of dietrologia, the detection of dubious motives beneath the shiny or soiled surfaces of public life. American reviewers have consistently linked Ferrante’s dramatic female protagonists to her experience and identity as a woman; The New York Times has praised Ferrante’s “devastating honesty about some of the most uncomfortable facts of life, and especially of female life.” Yet in Italy, “Ferrante” is widely suspected of being a man, a Neapolitan Flaubert who, from cynicism or idealism, has entered the ridotto of letters in a woman’s maschera. As in political scandals, the prime suspect is successful, well-connected, and circumstantially involved—but his business partners have no intention of confessing while there is money to be made.

Domenico Starnone was born in Naples in 1943. He wrote a novel a year until the early 2000s but, despite winning prizes in Italy, failed to crack the lucrative English market. He fell silent just as the equally prolific Ferrante appeared, and in the last decade has written only one novel and an occasional screenplay. Starnone’s publisher, E/O of Rome, publishes “Ferrante” in Italian, and Starnone’s wife, Anita Raja, has worked as a consultant for E/O. In 2005, E/O collaborated with American editors to create Europa Editions, bringing “fresh international voices to British and American markets.” Europa’s first English publication was Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. The Times compared that novel to Anna Karenina—for its female protagonist, not its author’s sex.

“Elena Ferrante” must be somebody, and nobody seems more likely than Domenico Starnone. Challenged by Corriere della Sera, Starnone called the rumors pettegolezzo, “gossip.” They were, he complained, symptomatic of “the superficiality that lurks in the Italian cultural world.” When you are caught red-handed, the rules of dietrologia demand nothing less than high-minded outrage. E/O is laughing all the way to the bank, but while “Ferrante” remains unknown, her identity will remain an inside joke, cracked at the expense of the plebs who buy the books: a collusion against the public, an institutional betrayal of the individual.

Barzini complained that, although the old tyrants and barbarians had gone, the modern Italians acted their servile roles for the tourists with more gusto than necessary. Ruskin had no illusions about the difference between his Venice, the beached medieval museum, and the modern reality, the tawdry boarding house of the world. But we, it seems, cannot tolerate such dissonances. We pay for our slices of aesthetic and gastronomic revelation, and we expect the locals to play their parts authentically, even as they become extras in Disneyland. Ferrante offers English readers a private view of a beloved land, a neighborhood inaccessible enough to be “undiscovered,” but comprehensible enough to be visited. This is the elixir of tourist authenticity: the literary equivalent of a great restaurant, yet to be spoiled by the coach parties. The waiters, though, always know we are coming.

1 The Secrets of Italy, by Corrado Augias, translated by Alta L. Price; Rizzoli Ex Libris, 220 pages, $26.95.

2 My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein; Europa Editions, 331 pages, $17.

3 The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein; Europa Editions, 480 pages, $18.

4 Italian Venice, by R. J. B. Bosworth; Yale, 352 pages, $40.

5 Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein; Europa Editions, 400 pages, $18.