Why should God create ugly men

God creates men, but women invent them

In the third volume of Elena Ferrante's tetralogy of Naples, the turbulent sixties and seventies come into view. Italian society is ravaged by turmoil and terror.

The fuss about the alleged release of the pseudonym Elena Ferrante has fueled the success, but the literary reputation has been slightly scratched, especially in Italy. Because what sells well can't be really good - that's a common criticism cliché. This is also refuted by the excellent third volume of the globally read Naples saga, “The story of the separated paths”, which has just been published in German in a resourceful, agile translation by Karin Krieger. It tells the parallel life stories of friends Lila and Elena in the turbulent years from 1968 to 1976, in which the women, despite revolt and feminism, have to endure their love needs and the dressing by men are told in sophisticated interleaving.

The first two volumes dealt with the childhood and adolescence of the first-person narrator Elena and her "brilliant friend" Lila, both born in 1944, with their origins in a poor district of Naples, with rivalry, social advancement and fall. The highly intelligent, defiant shoemaker's daughter Lila stayed in town, got temporarily rich through marriage, slipped into the Camorra milieu and later into the misery as a worker with child. Even hard-working Elena had no luck in love, but made it to university, got engaged to the offspring of educated salon communists from the north and wrote a successful novel at the age of 24, which, however, turned out to be a flash in the pan.

Protests and revolts

That is the starting position in 1968 at the beginning of the third volume, when the protest fever spreads across all shifts, from universities to factories, and will soon lead to Italian terror from left and right. Elena marries her academic boredom, has two daughters, lives in an educated middle class in Florence, is only a distraught onlookers at the university revolts and for years struggled in vain for a second novel that everyone expected. Feminism finally inspires her to write a “booklet”, half essay, half story, about female docility and against “the invention of women by men”. That this will lead to a soaring of happiness is just as little to be expected as from the maddening shuddering love that attacks Elena again at the end of this penultimate part of the novel.

Elena Ferrante's more than 2000 page tetralogy is with all the sprawling love tears a fascinating epoch novel of the last half century full of upheavals in Naples, Italy and the world. This third part in particular is historically precisely anchored through the key data of the bombings of those years. The mysterious author is not only at home in the world of left-wing spiritual beauty salons, she also knows the ugliness of the Neapolitan periphery. There Elena's friend Lila slowly struggles out of her proletarian misery. Only reluctantly, Lila joins the union struggles in a sausage factory, which she regards as "men's wars". She says she doesn't know any “working class”, only workers, “from whom one can learn absolutely nothing” “except misery”.

Lila no longer has a head for love stories. She now shares the table and apartment (but not the bed) with a childhood friend who persistently loves her. She also studies “programming languages” with him, and slowly she is becoming a sought-after expert for fabulous machines for “data processing”. Lila's bourgeois friend and rival Elena now has to admit: "She had an eventful life, mine stood still." But this movement and the financial rise have their price, because the company that Lila now works for belongs to a boss of the Camorra who has been courting her in vain for years. This life with forced compromises in Italy, ravaged by organized crime, is also one of the virtuoso themes in this cycle of novels.

And again and again the Camorra

In an artistic anticipation of the present in 2010, Elena tells at the beginning of the “Story of the Separate Paths” of her last meeting with Lila five years ago: “She had changed a lot. Age had defeated us both. " But what's worse than being overweight and wrinkled is what you see in that moment - a dead friend from the old days, the presumably murdered, often betrayed wife of the Camorra boss. The turmoil of love is complicated for everyone, but for women of all classes an additional complication is that they usually have the slightest hand in society. When it comes to describing these mechanisms, Elena Ferrante is a grand master who shines with linguistic cunning and does without dogged feminism.

The dear need with love is of course not neglected in the third part of the saga. This, too, is quite conventional in literary terms, but brilliantly entertaining and cleverly trimmed for tension. It also ends with an amorous bang, which revives the old animosities between the friends: the rivalry over the fascinating Nino, an intellectual darling of women, whom Lila had snatched from her friend years ago and fell terribly on the face. How Elena will fare with this cream puff is not that difficult to guess. The fourth and final volume will report on it. It will be published in German in February 2018.

Elena Ferrante: The story of the separate ways. Novel. Volume 3 of the “Neapolitan Saga” (“Adult Years”). Translated from the Italian by Karin Krieger. Suhrkamp-Verlag, Berlin 2017. 551 S., Fr. 34.50.