Once in my youthful and idealistic search to discover answers to the eternal and inexplicable mysteries of life, I asked my college professor what was the true meaning of love. He replied: "I think that real love is having been through a lot together."
With the publication this week of The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final volume of her Naples Quartet, Elena Ferrante has written a love story of such epic magnitude that it is destined to take its place among the great works of Western literature.
What began in My Brilliant Friend as a schoolgirl rivalry between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo in a poor neighborhood in Naples grows into a friendship that endures over the next 60 years, through estrangements and intimacies, secrets and confidences, separations and reconciliations, recriminations and absolutions, to become real love.
The four novels -- My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child -- are nothing less than Tolstoyan in scope. Ferrante introduces us to a dozen families and a score or more individuals who cross the two girls' lives, and over the decades that the novels cover we come to know them as well as the neighbors we grew up with in whatever city or town we called home.
The comparison to Tolstoy is not idle hyperbole. If the Neapolitan families in Ferrante's novels are several rungs down the social ladder from Tolstoy's Russian aristocracy, they pursue the same human desires and succumb to the same human failings. And if the battles, domestic and otherwise, on the streets of a poor Naples neighborhood are not as grand in scale as Napoleon's invasion of Russia, they are no less passionate, violent, bloody, and deadly.
Ferrante's Naples is inhabited by hardworking but hapless men and women pitted against the rich and powerful and all the unseen forces that may shape any individual's destiny. There is a shoemaker, a railroad conductor, and a baker; a carpenter, a porter, a fruit-and-vegetable vendor; a grocer, a crazy woman, and a coffee bar owner. Among them are Communists, Fascists, and at least one shady family with ties to the Camorra. There is a hierarchy in the neighborhood that is alternately hated and courted just as in any princely palace or seat of power.
We live through the successes and disappointments that befall each family as the children grow up and become adults, much as we live through those of our own kith and kin, wringing our hands over their bad decisions, grieving at the inevitable losses and deaths, and rejoicing at the small victories that are strewn through the course of the half century and more the four novels cover.
Always at the heart of the saga is the friendship between Elena, who is the narrator in all four books, and Lila. It is a friendship that is born in a mean gesture: Lila throws Elena's doll through a grate into the dark, forbidding cellar of a building in which the feared local ogre resides; Elena reciprocates in kind. From the loss of each girl's doll comes a lifelong relationship that withstands marriages, children, spiteful jealousies, achievements and failures, and long separations. It is fueled by fierce competition and sustained by compassion.
As they grow into adulthood, one goes to university, begins to write, and travels - to Genoa, Florence, Milan, Turin, Paris, even briefly to New York -- while the other is forced to drop out after elementary school and remains rooted to the mean streets of Naples. Despite the different paths their lives take, it is hard to know from chapter to chapter, book to book, who is the more "brilliant."
The novels follow each woman through the turbulent upheavals of the 60's and 70's, the corruption and scandal and political violence it spawned, into the advent of the digital age, and the new century. There are betrayals, devastating loss, and painful death. A raw truth about human emotion and desire runs through all four books that is rare to find in fiction and virtually screams from the pages.
But as Elena observes toward the end of the fourth novel, "a book could make noise but ancient warriors before the battle also made noise, and if it wasn't accompanied by real force and immeasurable violence it was only theater." Ferrante's Naples Quartet is anything but theater. It is the first genuine literary classic of the 21st century.