Notes on the Neapolitan Novels


I was recently introduced to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels and spent about three weeks to read through the quartet. These notes are an unorganized collection of what I have learned or thought of — or “frantumaglia” in Ferrante’s lingo — during and after reading the series. They are not intended to be a formal and complete review. I also intentionally left out some of the most prominent themes, such as feminism and motherhood, that I don’t feel prepared or qualified to opine on. I apologize for the sketchiness.

The Reading Experience

I didn’t count the time spent as I read, but it’s reasonable to expect the 1,700-page series will knock around 30 hours off your schedule. Despite the length, the reading doesn’t take much effort, as the plot is engaging and Ferrante’s writing has a persistent momentum.

The frictions, if any, were mostly due to a lack of cultural background. Italians, as I found with amusement, liberally switch between three or more names for a single person, with shorter or “sweeter” variants reserved for more intimate occasions. For example, our protagonist Lina has a formal name, Rafaella, that’s almost never used, and a nickname, Lila, used exclusively by her friend-nemesis Elena. I initially struggled with remembering all these names, and the Chinese version’s lack of spelling clues between name variants didn’t help. Eventually, I came to terms with the “dysnomia” by drawing parallels between reading fiction with hearing anecdotes, where capturing the rough dynamic and vibe is more important than remembering characters; confusing names is venial if the confusion is part of the experience.

It would also be helpful to learn about Italy’s unrest during the 1970s and 1980s, or the Years of Lead, before you are caught off guard by the mirage of parties and movements in Vol. 3. This period, marked by political violence and social upheaval, contrasts with the post-WWII “economic miracle” of the previous two decades. The economic boom brought changes in attitudes and behaviors, especially among young people, but its effects were uneven, with the South lagging behind the industrialized North. Social repression and gender inequality remained pervasive, with women’s roles confined to the domestic sphere even more firmly than before (Bullaro 2016), explaining the female characters’ struggles throughout the novels.

Be prepared that the novels can take great emotional effort to finish, though. I seldom read fiction, and even more rarely do I experience a “book hangover.” The Neapolitan Novels made me do both. Without spoiling the plot, suffice it to say that the pages are filled with complex, intertwining personal and social dynamics and dramatic, painful turns. My introducer to the series remarked that many parts have the force to give the reader pause with sheer cruelness while immediately pulling them back for a reread; I agree.

Adding to the depth is Ferrante’s symbolically candid and intimate writing style, with monologues that often stretch across pages and never avoid being fraught, messy, dark, bloody. “There appears to be no mitigation between her consciousness and the words on the page,” notes a review on LARB. Also notable is the metanarrative framework that blurs the lines between two Elenas — the protagonist-narrator and the author — as well as between Elena and her friend Lila, whose notebook of memories creates an intertextual layer that makes Elena’s narrative whole. Their identities and perspectives conflict in action and end up in unity.

The series strikes me as I’ve recently been challenging some of my stubborn patterns of thinking and perceiving. Among other things, I’ve always been overly alert to intense emotional reactions. It’s as though there’s a moderator at the top of my mind suppressing the ebb and flow, based on the belief that excitement is inherently a vulnerability. This thinking model manifests on me an appearance of calm and logic but also costs me the ability to be ardent, earnest, and passionate when these feelings are due. Ferrante’s writing demonstrates how it’s legitimate and human to think with velocity, ferocity, and even gloom and malice. I appreciate her reassurance.

The Chinese Translation

I read the Chinese translation by Professor Chen Ying but kept the English version handy for cross-references. While Professor Chen’s effort in making the tomes available in Chinese is commendable, the translation is more functional than refined, especially compared to Ann Goldstein’s acclaimed English translation. Expect rough edges and errors as you read on.

A notable example appears in Ch. 10, Vol. 2, where Elena tells Lila about her affections for Antonio:

Love in my case is not indispensable to pleasure, nor is respect.

But in the Chinese version, it becomes:

对于我来说,爱情并不一定要带来快乐,也并不需要尊重。[Lit. For me, love needs not bring pleasure; nor does it require respect.]

This translation errs by flipping the logic, denying love as a sufficient condition for pleasure, while the original means that neither love nor respect is a necessary condition. It also implies a utilitarian view of love, which is too cynical for Elena at that stage.

Another example is the last sentence of the series:

Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity. I thought: now that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore.

The Chinese version reads:

真实的生活和小说不一样,过去的生活没有凸现出来,而是陷于黑暗。我想:现在莉拉那么清楚地浮现出来了,我应该放弃继续找她。[Lit. Unlike novels, the past life sanks into darkness, instead of becoming more recognized. I thought: Lila’s presence is so clear now and I should stop looking for her anymore.]

Here, the word “real” is lost in translation, the present tense is mistranslated as present perfect, and “now that” [既然] is confused with “now” [现在]. Given the importance of this sentence, these imperfections are unfortunate.

Also lost in the Chinese translation are the forte of run-ons, or sentences in which multiple clauses are joined in an arguably ungrammatical way without proper punctuation or conjunctions. For example:

But he didn’t convince me, I didn’t believe him, he expressed enthusiastic opinions about the work of too many women. (Ch. 72, Sec. 1, Vol. 4)

Christopher Warley notes that these run-ons, despite of the grammatical flaws, “create a momentum that is headlong and occasionally breathless but still intimate,” and “offer a sense of going somewhere, of life being lived, happening and continuing to happen.” Elena’s agitation and suspicion are thus visible through and between the commas.

The Chinese version retains the punctuation, but since run-ons are grammatical in Chinese, this fidelity becomes toothless:


Admittedly, this is more about the inevitable loss — or “betrayal” in Ferrante’s words — of details in translation than the translator’s fault. That said, it’s another reason to consult the English version more frequently.

The Adopted Language

Language choice is a recurring theme in the series, and it resonates with me deeply. Ferrante often highlights whether her characters are speaking Italian or the Neapolitan dialect. Elena primarily uses Italian at college but switches to dialect when she returns home. She also reverts to dialect during arguments or inner turmoil, such as facing an attack during a public reading of her book. Conversely, Lila consistently uses dialect, except on rare and significant occasions, like serious discussions with Elena about love.

As argued in Cavanaugh 2016, language choices carry “indexicalities,” or links to certain places, values, and social variables. For Neapolitans contemporary with Elena and Lila, the mastery of Italian represented a path to ambition and social advancement. As such, the use of the dialect indexes connections to their origin, and secondarily, the intimacy and violence associated with Naples. Italian, on the other hand, indexes social mobility, education, and distance from one’s place of origin, and thus authority, sophistication, and emotional distance.

Exploring the nuances in the books’ linguistic landscape, I can’t help but be reminded of Yiyun Li’s “To Speak Is to Blunder,” one of my favorite essays. There, Li reflects on her relationship with Mandarin and English: Mandarin signifies her constrained and nostalgic upbringing in Beijing, while English represents her struggles to integrate into American society and become a fiction writer. For Li, “the wisdom to adapt is the wisdom to have two languages: the one spoken to others, and the one spoken to oneself.” Her desire to distance herself from her past “orphaned” her from her mother tongue, so she adopted English to think, feel, and express herself.

I, too, have chosen English as a private language for specific purposes. Unlike Li, my disillusionment with Mandarin stems not from traumatic experiences but from the censorship and trivialization it actively suffers from. It’s chilling to see your mother tongue being muffled and losing its capacity for serious discourse. Thus, I have to turn to English when and where my native language fails me.

There’s also a more personal perspective on my connection to English: I leverage its inherent “otherness” to navigate my difficulties in thinking retrospectively or emotionally. (Frankly, I couldn’t express most of the thoughts here in Mandarin; even contemplating them in Mandarin feels shameful.) In a second language, my inner voice sounds like that of a neutral, indifferent outsider, allowing me to be more open and candid than I usually am.

Smarginatura and Eros

Smarginatura, or “dissolving margins,” is arguably the most fascinating concept in the series. The word is a typography term that means “bleeding” in English, i.e., cropping the borders of a page so the background extends to the edges. In the books, smarginatura first occurs during a New Year’s celebration in 1958 but is detailed during an earthquake in Naples in 1980. Lila describes it as a state where solid objects and bodies lose their defined edges, revealing what lies beneath.

There are many ways to interpret smarginatura. Some argue that the “margins” are societal norms around identity, expectations, and women’s roles (see, e.g., Lillestrand 2023), while others emphasize the feminist perspective, seeing them as the vulnerable boundaries of the female body and subjectivity under patriarchal control (see, e.g., Rousseva 2021).

I agree more with Natalie Bakopoulos’ approach centered on identities. In this model, the margins are boundaries of the self. Lila’s identity is precarious, like “a liquid that struggles to contain itself” (Ch. 53, Sec. 1, Vol. 4) because she tries so hard to stay within it, “shutting herself off within a suffocating perimeter” (Ch. 51, Sec. 2, Vol. 4), a defensive reaction to the oppression and truths of Naples. Thus, sudden and acute emotional or physical turmoil, like fireworks, an earthquake, or seeing a corpse, can shatter her boundaries and lead to a helpless state with feelings of chaos and annihilation. In contrast, Elena’s boundaries are more compartmentalized, and she navigates different aspects of her identity more straightforwardly. Her writing allows her to distinguish between various selves, thus finding a sense of autonomy.

The complex interplay of self and other in the series also reminds me of the Greek concept of eros. Plato famously discussed eros in three dialogues: Symposium, Phaedrus, and Lysis. Although ostensibly about love — how eros is usually translated today — these dialogues also explore boundaries, rhetoric, and knowledge.

To understand their connection, it’s crucial to know that the object of eros needs not be a person. Eros concerns what is lacked and has been deprived (Ly., 221c); it is the desire to possess the good forever (Symp., 206a). As argued in Carson 1986, “eros is an issue of boundaries […] of flesh and self.” Eros is a lack that “alerts a person to the boundaries of himself, of other people, of things in general.” Lila, with her desire for control, experiences bodily dissolution that resonates with metaphors used by ancient Greek poets. For example, the god of desire is called “melter of limbs”; his glance is “more melting than sleep or death,” and the lover he victimizes is a piece of wax dissolving at his touch. This response is “the acute awareness of self that ensues from the reach of desire.”

Eros also relates to writing, as to write is to play with “imagination called forth in the space between you and your object of knowledge.” As Elena writes, she doesn’t control her narrative progression, and Lila’s perspective infiltrates her text, demonstrating the divine manic that comes with eros, which entails an takeover that teaches the real nature of the self (Phdr., 253a).

The final erotic characteristic comes with the way Ferrante crafts her narrative as she intentionally blurs the lines between the book Elena wrote and the book we are reading. In Carson’s words, novels institutionalize the ruse of eros, allowing the reader “to stand in triangular relation to the characters in the story and reach into the text after the objects of their desire, sharing their longing but also detached from it, seeing their view of reality but also its mistakenness. […] It is almost like being in love.”