In a state of admiring overwhelm, I have at last finished Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. The series inspired many thoughts, but one aspect I was very drawn to in these books is the open question of class mobility, the ultimately limited role of scholarship and professional performance in rising out of one’s class, the ways in which the relative privilege of one’s birth remains in play forevermore, regardless of how the outer trappings change. Only in producing another generation can we make a permanent leap. So many readers seem to focus on Ferrante’s “anger,” but I read her in a more melancholy, matter-of-fact documentary way: This, as we all know, is how the world works.
Spoiler alert: The following passage is from near the very end of the series, set in 2002.
“How pleasant that December was. I was fifty-eight, a grandmother, I cuddled Hamid. I remember that on Christmas evening I was in a corner with the baby and looking serenely at the young bodies of my daughters, charged with energy. They all resembled me and none of them did, their lives were very far from mine and yet I felt them as inseparable parts of me. I thought: how much work I’ve done and what a long road I’ve traveled. At every step I could have given in and yet I didn’t. I left the neighborhood, I returned, I managed to leave again. Nothing, nothing pulled me down, along with these girls I produced. We’re safe, I brought them all to safety. Oh, they now belong to other places and other languages. They consider Italy a splendid corner of the planet and, at the same time, an insignificant and ineffectual province, habitable only for a short vacation. Dede often says to me: Leave, come and stay in my house, you can do your work from there. I say yes, sooner or later I will. They’re proud of me and yet I know that none of them would tolerate me for long, not even Imma by now. The world has changed tremendously and belongs more and more to them, less and less to me. But that’s all right–I said to myself, caressing Hamid–in the end what counts is these very smart girls who haven’t encountered a single one of the difficulties I faced. They have habits, voices, requirements, entitlements, self-awareness that even today I wouldn’t dare allow myself. Others haven’t had the same luck. In the wealthier countries a mediocrity that hides the horrors of the rest of the world has prevailed. When those horrors release a violence that reaches into our cities and our habits we’re startled, we’re alarmed. Last year I was dying of fear and I made long phone calls to Dede, to Elsa, even to Pietro, when I saw on television the planes that set the towers in New York ablaze the way you light a match by gently striking the head. In the world below is the inferno. My daughters know it but only through words, and they become indignant, all the time enjoying the pleasures of existence, while it lasts. They attribute their well-being and their success to their father. But I–I who did not have privileges–am the foundation of their privileges.”