Tunnel visions

A trip to Naples provides a way into and out of the world of intimate and claustrophobic friendship depicted so compellingly by Elena Ferrante

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“The entrance on the right was very dark: we had never been inside that obscurity. We held each other by the hand and entered. It was a long passage, and the luminous circle of the exit seemed far away… Apprehensively, dazed by the echo of our steps, we kept going. Then Lila let out a shout and laughed at the violent explosion of sound. Immediately I shouted and laughed in turn. From that moment all we did was shout, together and separately: laughter and cries, cries and laughter, for the pleasure of hearing them amplified. The tension diminished, the journey began.”

The undercurrent of violence in the Ferrante books, claims Pagano, does not mirror reality

Leaving her childhood neighbourhood for the first time is a pivotal moment for Lenu, protagonist of Elena Ferrante’s celebrated My Brilliant Friend. Before she and Lila skipped school to find the sea, she had never questioned what lay beyond its familiar parameters. After, she would spend a lifetime trying to escape it, only for Lila – too frightened to ever really leave – to draw her back to the punishments awaiting her. Beatings from her mother and father in this case stung less than the realisation that her friend was trying to ensure Lenu, like herself, would not be permitted to attend middle school.

“The girls left the neighbourhood through the right-hand tunnel, so I think it’s appropriate that we arrive through the left,” says Sophia Seymour, the writer and documentary maker who’s leading us into Rione Luzzatti. The working-class neighbourhood, three miles east of the historic centre of Naples, has been identified as the setting of the pseudonymous Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet – four books that chart, with simple linearity and malignant metaphor, the friendship between the two girls from the age of six to 66.

I’m visiting with friends of my own – women with who, two years ago exactly, I began a WhatsApp-based book club to chat about the audiobooks we were already sharing. We listened on commutes, on breaks from academic research, while cooking for our families, while walking our dogs and running on treadmills. It was brain food for the time starved.

We listened to fiction about electrically charged women, Hollywood starlets’ memoirs and essays by philosophers. We listened to Tolstoy! Our conversation was far from academic though – recurring topics included plants, dogs, our bodies, our mothers and, naturally, food. Soon we were sharing every thrilling, mundane and disgusting detail of our lives. After six months, someone suggested we read My Brilliant Friend and Ferrante became a deity of intimate and claustrophobic friendship to us.

As the stories of Lenu and Lila unfolded in our ears – and later the characters from Ferrante’s other books – we gathered up the yarn of each other’s unravelling lives.

When Lila was facing the harsh realisation that her new husband was not her ticket out of poverty at the end of the first book, there was a real-world infidelity. When a neighbourhood mother was murdered towards the end of the third book, we were dealt another blow – a mother unlikely to live beyond her next birthday. We arrived at Ferrante’s first book last and it was while reading Troubling Love that a partner walked out. Ferrante – that distant and anonymous figure, not of our generation or our language – had invaded our lives, seemingly wreaking havoc but forging a vital, complicated and brilliant friendship between us in the process.

Main image: tour guide Sophia Seymour. Above Ludovica Nasti (Lila) and Elisa del Genio (Lenu) in the HBO adaptation of My Brilliant Friend, which traces their friendship from the age of six to 66

Six months after we finished reading everything she’s committed her pen to, and having watched the My Brilliant Friend HBO series and started rereading the books in paperback, the idea to visit Naples – a city Ferrante apparently has utter disdain for – has come to fruition and Seymour is reading the passage about the tunnel as we walk through it.

We exit the tunnel onto Via Gianturco, the main road edging the neighbourhood and a character in its own right in the quartet – the stradone.

Seymour is a British Napoliphile with a wealth of knowledge at her fingertips. On the short walk from the tunnel to the entrance of the neighbourhood she shows us Chinese fashion outlets and talks about “pronto moda” – fast fashion – and its corrupt underbelly. She shows us roadside chairs and explains their distinctively Neapolitan function as lookout spots. And when we see a woman rummage on tiptoe in a reeking roadside bin, she talks about the destitute Roma community living on surrounding industrial wasteland.

Crime and poverty course through the veins of the Neapolitan Quartet and the neighbourhood is its beating heart. But as we enter Rione Luzzatti it’s clear that’s where residents separate fiction from fact.

“This was a neighbourhood for aspiring workers who either worked for the state, on the railways or in the factories,” says Seymour. “You had to have a behaviour report from work to be housed here and the neighbourhood offered a lot.”

Built in the fascist era between 1914 and 1929, Rione Luzzatti contained rationalist blocks of flats, their architecture reflecting their functionality, but also an infant school whose façade replicated Naples University. There were public gardens, a library and cinema, shops and the crowning jewel – the parish church.

The imposing Sacra Famiglia church was originally built in the 15th century in the city’s historical centre but now sits proudly in the well-maintained neighbourhood. It was moved there brick by brick in 1934 – a gift from the Catholic Church – and contains the Eternal Father, the only other work in Naples by Sanmartino, sculptor of the famous Veiled Christ. It was in good company by then – fringing the neighbourhood already was an Olympic swimming pool and the city’s football stadium.

But neither of these facilities survived the Allied air raids that decimated Naples during the Second World War. Ferrante’s novels begin in the 1950s when the neighbourhood would have been struggling to recover post-war. Lenu narrates: “Our world was full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all
my life.”

“During the war this area becomes a dumping ground,” says Seymour, standing outside properties standing where the stadium once did. “All the rubble from all the bombs in Naples was put in the stadium and a hill was created. They put grass over it and that became a place where people who were displaced moved to and these barracks were thrown up.”

Marshall Plan aid given by the Americans to rebuild Europe was used to destroy the mound and build a new neighbourhood, “which brings this new type of people. As locals would say, that’s when the riff-raff moved in.”

Lenu feels no nostalgia for her childhood and yet she paints a picture of community that still exists to some extent within Rione Luzzatti.

Seymour is taking us to meet Maurizio Pagano, an author who, like his nonagenarian father, grew up in the neighbourhood and still lives there now. En route to his apartment we stop by the library, which bears the the area’s only overt link to the Ferrante books – a mural featuring some of the characters from the HBO series, made by series photographer Eduardo Castaldo. Pagano was at the helm of the mural project, which he sees as a fitting tribute to the library that features heavily in the Ferrante books and has long provided a quiet place, away from cramped apartments, for neighbourhood children to study. Inside today there are a number of teenagers working studiously.

Pagano himself co-authored a book there. The World of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet details the real-life people and events from Rione Luzzatti. Among them is Professor Collina, who founded the library by lending out his own books, held classes for children who didn’t go to school and started a neighbourhood newspaper. Ferrante’s character Maestro Ferraro appears to be based on Collina. In the mural the fictional librarian holds a photo of the real one.

Seymour tells us we shouldn’t turn up to a Neapolitan home empty-handed so we pick up a €2.50 two-litre bottle of vino sfuso – local aglianico wine dispensed from the barrel in a shop –
and some oven-fresh sfogliatella, a shell-shaped filo pastry that’s stuffed with citrusy ricotta.

In the basement of Pasticciello bakery we chat to Lucia, who proudly tells us she is one of the few bakers who – like Ferrante’s highly regarded pastry maker Signor Spagnuolo – still makes these shells by hand. She thanks us with a hug for visiting.

Rosita Pagano greets us in her top-floor apartment with an aperitif of Aperol spritz before serving up a five-course feast of Neapolitan cuisine. A stomach-busting portion of spaghetti puttanesca is followed by giant sausages and fish caught by a friend the day before. Vegetables are zucchini scapece and friarielli – a bitter broccoli only grown on Mount Vesuvius, “the blue mountain with one low peak and one a little higher”, as Lenu describes her view of it from the neighbourhood.

Our palates are cleansed with apple pieces that have been idly soaking up vino sfuso, before coffee and Lucia’s still warm sfogliatella, for which Pagano gives us lessons on pronunciation. Homemade nocino is served as a digestif – a sticky, dark brown liqueur our hosts explain is only made once a year – 24 June, San Giovanni’s day – with the first green walnuts of the year. Rosita says their batches, made from her husband’s grandmother’s recipe, never usually see the beginning of July but, luckily for us, this bottle evaded them.

Throughout the courses Pagano speaks – in Italian, translated by Seymour – of his theories about which locals the characters are based on and who he believes Ferrante might be. The author’s desire to remain anonymous is impossible to honour in a neighbourhood she has dissected so thoroughly.

“There are three readings of the book,” says Pagano. “The first reading is by all the people who have never crossed the crossroads that you crossed. The second is people like you who have visited and can piece the puzzle together. The third is the people who live here.”

Pagano draws numerous links between his home and the books but he is also keen to tell us “the killings in the books never happened. That’s the fiction.” The undercurrent of violence in them, he claims, is a misrepresentation that has left the neighbourhood in “uproar”. It does not, he says, “mirror the reality”.

But Pagano is determined to make the most of the profile Ferrante has given his home. “I took some children round last week – they are from a really rough neighbourhood, where the sausage factory is in the books. I wanted to show them that you can be a writer and you can leave your neighbourhood. Then, the next day, there was a shooting of a Camorrist [member of Mafia-type crime syndicate] outside their school. He was taking his nephew to school and was shot in front of all the kids and they were so traumatised. So I rang up the mother of the little girl who played Lenu in the series – who, like all the cast, was street cast in Naples – and as a surprise took her to meet all the children in school the next day.”

After lunch Pagano shows us the rooftop – where fireworks are set off and shots are fired on New Year’s Eve in My Brilliant Friend – and the cellar where Lila and Lenu look for their lost dolls. Like Lenu, he left the neighbourhood for a while before returning – something he says happens routinely with young people from Rione Luzzatti. “There’s always the pull back to the place you are from – you can hate it, but still be drawn to it.”

At the crossroads as we leave the neighbourhood Seymour reads another extract underlining the geographical accuracy of the Rione Luzzatti as the setting for the Neapolitan Quartet – with the stradone, the ponds and the tunnel of three entrances to our left, in the direction of the sea. My friends and I leave, as the characters do, through the right-hand tunnel. But unlike them we were only visiting and we’re unlikely to ever return. We’ve already travelled quite far to get here and we don’t hold hands.

Sophia Seymour runs private tours of Rione Luzzatti, with the optional extra of lunch with the Paganos, through lookingforlila.com. Read our interview with Ferrante’s translator Ann Goldstein here   
Main photo: Giuseppe di Vaio

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