TIME Books

The Historical Truth Behind Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

As the fourth and final book comes out in English, a look at what it would have been like to really grow up in Elena's world

In the three years since My Brilliant Friend was first published in English, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels have wooed many readers with their forceful elegance and unusual perspective on friendship. But, while the relationship between protagonists Elena and Lila is the story’s heart, there’s another character exerting a strong influence on their lives: the city of Naples, which is portrayed in gritty detail throughout the novels. When My Brilliant Friend begins, Elena and Lila are primary school students, born near the end of World War II and growing up there in the 1950s and ’60s. Though Elena escapes to a better life in other cities in the subsequent books, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Naples maintains a gravitational pull on her. In The Story of the Lost Childthe series’ final installment, out Tuesday in the U.S.—she finally returns to her hometown, where life is as turbulent as ever.

While Elena and Lila have their ups and downs, Naples is consistently depicted as a place of violence, poverty and social unrest. And, in large part, that’s for good reason: though Ferrante’s characters are fictional, her Naples is based on truth.

The 20th-century history of Naples was a particularly hard one, explains Rutgers University Associate Professor Paola Gambarota, who is writing a book about the city, and the devastation experienced during the war set it up to be a place of remarkable deprivation and struggle. Naples was bombed more than 100 times during World War II, and when the Germans prepared to evacuate the city before the Allies landed in 1943, “Nazis destroyed the whole port,” she says, “because they knew that this would be the main port of operation for the Allies.” When troops arrived, the water, gas and electricity systems had all been destroyed. Because the shipping system had been paralyzed, even American troops were at first guaranteed only 100 calories-worth of food per day. The destruction was so great, Gambarota says, “Maybe only Berlin in 1945 can be compared.”

While the Allied forces quickly restored the city’s infrastructure, problems remained: The black market was a powerful force in the port city, and as much as a third of the goods imported by the Allies were stolen and sold illegally. While wealthier Neapolitans had been able to flee to safer areas, like Sorrento or Capri, the poor and the petit bourgeoisie stayed behind to suffer the consequences, though some also benefited from the black market, like the Solara family in Ferrante’s novels.

The city had already been poor before the war—little was invested in the South when Italian Unification began a century earlier—but afterward, Gambarota says, “the socioeconomic situation in Naples…was worse than anywhere else.” Education was a luxury. While it was possible to be lucky like Elena and go on to advanced schooling, many children went the way of Lila, dropping out at a young age in order to earn money for their families. Nevertheless, as the daughter of a shoemaker, Lila would not have been truly impoverished by the city’s standards. “Poverty there [in the ’50s] meant you lived seven people to one room, and that there was nothing to eat. People with no shoes,” Gambarota says. “It’s not the poverty that we know here.”

Domestic violence, which many women experience in the books, “was a daily thing,” she says. This is thanks in part to the fact that until 1975, she says, wives basically had the same legal rights as children. Outside the home, violence was just as bad; Gambarota, who was born in nearby Avellino but moved with her family to Naples while she was still young, remarks that while the Neapolitan culture is rich, “it’s a tough town,” and even more so in the areas surrounding the city center, like Lila and Elena’s neighborhood.

American readers of Ferrante’s work (translated to English by Ann Goldstein) may also wonder about the sections where a character is said to have spoken “in dialect” rather than in proper Italian. Ferrante also uses that in dialetto designator in her original text, says New York University Assistant Professor of Italian Studies Rebecca Falkoff, with only a few exceptions in which dialect words are written out. The split between those who speak mostly Italian and those who speak mostly Neapolitan is one more indicator of the true difficulties of life in Ferrante’s Naples, in which less educated people have trouble communicating with the rest of the world. Even today, Falkoff says, though spoken Italian is widely understood, “for a native speaker of dialect who did not complete secondary schooling and had little experience beyond his or her local community, it might be very difficult to produce grammatically correct standard Italian.”

And to all the practical commonalities between Ferrante’s Naples and the real Naples, Gambarota adds one more intangible similarity: a certain longing to escape, especially among women. “In order to evade that daily violence, that daily force that you were subjected to—and there are some small things but really very difficult things—you just have to go away,” she says. “And this has happened to so many of us. You just have to get away. You just have, at a certain point, a feeling that there is nothing that you can change. And that’s another unchangeable thing in Naples.”

TIME People

Sarah Palin Defends Curt Schilling’s Comparison of Nazis and Muslim Extremists

<> on February 26, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong—Getty Images Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin addresses the 42nd annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) February 26, 2015 in National Harbor, Maryland. Conservative activists attended the annual political conference to discuss their agenda.

ESPN had removed the analyst from covering the Little League World Series

Several days after ESPN suspended analyst Curt Schilling for an offensive tweet about Muslims, Sarah Palin has come to the former Major League pitcher’s defense.

In the original tweet, posted Tuesday, Schilling shared a photo of Hitler with the caption, “It’s said only 5-10% of Muslims are extremists. In 1940, only 7% of Germans were Nazis. How’d that go?” His own comment on the image read, “The math is staggering when you get to true #’s.”

Schilling quickly deleted the tweet, and ESPN announced it had removed him from covering the Little League World Series. While Schilling once again took to Twitter to apologize and say he agreed with his punishment, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin posted a lengthy response to the incident on her Facebook page in which she called ESPN “a journalistic embarrassment,” adding “Your intolerant PC police are running amok and making a joke out of you!”

Palin went on to say she agreed with Schilling, in fact saying he was being too generous in his comparison. “The difference between Hitler’s army and the genocidal maniacs of ISIS,” she wrote, “is that the jihadists don’t have as much power… yet.” She said that ESPN had bought into ISIS’s propaganda, “helping mislead the public about the very real threat of terrorism.”

Palin also recalled offensive remarks made about her on an ESPN affiliate’s program in 2011, saying the “x-rated celebration of violence against women didn’t even draw a chirp from ESPN’s wussified leaders.”

Palin concluded her post by telling the network to “stick to sports.”


Lawsuit Accuses Nestlé of Using Slave-Caught Fish in Fancy Feast

Fancy Feast cat food
Elise Amendola—AP Fancy Feast cat food cans are photographed in Boston on March 19, 2015.

California residents brought a class-action lawsuit

A class-action lawsuit filed by California residents claims that Nestlé purchases fish from a Thai supplier known to use slave labor—and uses that fish in Fancy Feast cat food.

The suit was brought by consumers who say they would not have bought the product if they had known it had ties to slave labor, according to Bloomberg. Their lawyer says that “By hiding this from public view, Nestlé has effectively tricked millions of consumers into supporting and encouraging slave labor on floating prisons.”

Nestlé would not comment specifically on the suit, but told Bloomberg that it was working with an NGO “to identify where and why forced labor and human rights abuses may be taking place” in the region, and that forced labor “has no place in our supply chain.”


TIME celebrities

Ricky Martin Says Donald Trump ‘Makes My Blood Boil’

The Jorge Ramos incident sparked the singer's op-ed

Ricky Martin has written an op-ed disparaging Donald Trump’s remarks about Latinos, saying that the presidential candidate’s attitude toward the community “makes my blood boil.”

The Latin singer apparently saw Trump’s kerfuffle with Univision journalist Jorge Ramos as the last straw. “Jorge Ramos was doing HIS JOB as a journalist at a press conference in which he appeared freely and democratically, representing one of the most important Latin television networks in the world,” Martin wrote. “But this new character in American politics verbally attacks him and ejects him from the press conference.”

Trump has said that Ramos was “totally out of line” at the press conference in question, and that Ramos should have waited his turn to be called on to ask a question, while Ramos told TIME that he was just trying to make Trump answer some tough questions on his immigration proposals.

In the op-ed for Univision (translated from the original Spanish to English on Billboard), Martin called on the Latino community to hold Trump accountable for his “racist, absurd, and above all incoherent and ignorant” comments. “Xenophobia as a political strategy is the lowest you can go in search of political power,” he wrote.

[Univision, Billboard]

Read Next: Univision’s Jorge Ramos: Reporters Need to Get Tougher on Donald Trump

TIME celebrities

Pierce Brosnan’s First Kiss Broke His Little Heart

Bet she's sorry now

Sure, Pierce Brosnan is an international movie star now, but back when he was a young teen, he apparently wasn’t such hot stuff. As the actor told Jimmy Kimmel on Thursday night, the girl who gave him his first kiss broke his wee little heart.

Carol, whom Brosnan described as “a lovely girl,” apparently did not see that she would be missing out on a relationship with a superstar. “I bet her husband wasn’t even James Bond once,” Kimmel said.

Brosnan is now appearing in No Escape alongside Lake Bell and Owen Wilson.

TIME celebrities

Watch J Law and Amy Schumer Dance Barefoot on Billy Joel’s Piano

jennifer lawrence and amy schumer
Jason Merritt—Getty Images; Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer

The new BFFs got it on the fun at the singer's concert in Chicago

Billy Joel might just be in love with two new Uptown Girls. Or at least, his audience certainly is.

Gal pals and American sweethearts Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer got on stage at the singer’s concert on Thursday at Wrigley Field in Chicago, dancing along to “Uptown Girl” (which features on the soundtrack of Schumer’s movie, Trainwreck). In one video posted to Instagram, Lawrence kisses Schumer on the foot.

The new friends recently announced earlier this week that they’re working on writing a movie together in which they’ll play sisters. “We start the day off on the phone, laughing,” Lawrence told the New York Times. “And then we send each other pages. And we crack up. I’m flying out tomorrow to see her in Chicago.”

[Chicago Tribune]

TIME Bizarre

Car Thief Suspect Does Dance for Police During Chase

If it was meant as a distraction, it didn't work

A woman suspected of stealing a car gave the cops pursuing her a bit of a show.

After Los Angeles police engaged in a chase with the woman on Wednesday night, they threw down a spike strip, which punctured a tire. In an unusual turn of events, she then got out of the car, did a little dance, and got back into the car. Cops eventually surrounded the vehicle and pulled her out.

The woman is believed to have been driving under the influence. Watch her performance in footage from the local ABC station.


TIME movies

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Craig Zobel on Z for Zachariah‘s Surprising Ending

Roadside Attractions Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Z for Zachariah

The actor and director on working with a small cast, religion and what they'd do in a post-apocalyptic scenario

This article contains spoilers. Click here to reveal them.

Correction appended, Aug. 31

What would you do if you thought you were the last person on Earth, and then someone else came along? That’s the question faced by the characters in the new Craig Zobel-directed movie Z for Zachariah, in which Margot Robbie plays Ann Burden, a young woman who’s been protected from nuclear fallout by the self-contained weather system of the valley where she lives alone—until John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) shows up. And unlike Ann, a devout Christian, Loomis is an atheist and a scientist—he’s been protected from radiation by a high-tech suit—and views their situation in practical terms. Just when it seems they may be ready to take on the work of repopulating the planet, scruffy coal miner Caleb (Chris Pine) shows up, proving that three’s a crowd.

The film is an adaptation of the 1974 novel by the same title, though the character of Caleb was invented for this version; the addition complicates every aspect of their existence, from religion (Caleb, too, is a Christian) to sexual tension (Ann now has a choice of mate), making their valley a microcosm of human relations.

TIME caught up with Zobel and Ejiofor ahead of the film’s release on Friday to talk about small casts, the sci-fi genre and the film’s surprising ending.

TIME: What drew each of you to this project?

Zobel: I was drawn to the idea that it was a way to talk about relationships. It has a moment of people who are being individuals, and being alone and living with that, and then having to be with another person—even in a platonic way, just having to share a house with another person changes your life slightly, you know?—but then of course any romantic feelings… changes things. Adding a third person, it becomes a community.

Ejiofor: I thought it was fascinating for much the same reasons. I’d also been a huge fan of Craig’s film Compliance, which was a really fascinating film. Even though it’s very contained [because it’s] set in a fast-food joint, it had an epic scope and a dynamic quality to it—the discovery of characters and the nuances of language and personality. And to get into the interpersonal relationships of a two-hander and then into a three-hander, being able to ratchet up the dramatic tension just on the basis of personality—I thought, as an acting exercise, it was pretty exciting.

Had either of you done any post-apocalyptic reading in preparation, besides the book this is based on?

Zobel: In my life I have. I’m a big fan of Alas, Babylon, which is kind of in the same vibe of being a realistic post-nuclear situation.

Ejiofor: I hadn’t really looked at it in terms of novels, really, but the [cinematic] sci-fi reference points are always quite strong. You [Craig] were talking about that movie The Quiet Earth. I was thinking about it in terms of the films that I’ve seen that have a minimal amount of characters. The ones that spring to mind are Dead Calm. Then there’s that movie Sleuth with Michael Caine and Lawrence Olivier.

How was working with such a small cast different from other movies you’ve worked on?

Zobel: The more I think about it, it’s still the same work. The plus is you get to know each other enough where the communication is a little faster.

Ejiofor: It’s interesting. I don’t know 100% if that’s right. There is a point that we got to where we were actually communicating at a very high rate. I remember, there was a conversation we had outside the trailers, and it was the four of us standing up, talking in a kind of a huddle. By that point we had such a rapid shorthand that there was this quickfire session that actually went on for quite a while, all of us pinging the ideas we were thinking about that scene. It’s very hard to imagine that occurring, actors and director, without ego—to be able to build that level of conversation, of trust, engagement, is quite rare. It required all that time and isolation.

Zobel: That’s true. And I’m not sure that that scene was, frankly, written as good as it could have been, and I like it in the film—it’s one of the dinner table scenes. I think it’s a strong scene in the movie, but I don’t know that it would have survived the edit if we hadn’t done that.

How did the religious aspects of the film come together?

Zobel: It’s baked into the story from the novel on. I didn’t want to make it about that first and foremost, but it’s a tribe we all do or don’t join. The interesting thing is [Ann] truly believes, and I don’t necessarily have that strong a faith, but there is a part of me that when I see people who really, truly believe, it’s fascinating to me. That does help them, and it’s something that I don’t have. If I were in her place, I would probably not feel the same way. More than anything, [it’s] essentially a level of politics that they can play.

Chiwetel, your character is more science than church. Personally if you were in this world, would you be more on the science side or the church side?

Ejiofor: I think it would be a transition from atheist to agnostic. Loomis is definitely an atheist, and cannot and will not shake that—even in the face of his minoritization when Caleb turns up and they’re starting to bond over their religion, at which point he’s completely outmaneuvered. Loomis’ close-mindedness to all that ends up not being very helpful to him than a more broadly agnostic approach might have. That’s probably where I would have ended up.


Obviously you didn’t pick the title, but who or what do you think is Zachariah?

Zobel: In the book, the idea is that it’s kind of like a reference on “A is for Adam” would be the first man—this certainly has an Adam and Eve thing going on—and Z is for Zachariah, he’s the last man.

Ejiofor: What is the character Zachariah? I can’t remember now.

Zobel: In the Bible? Gosh, now I can’t remember either. It doesn’t correlate quite correctly.

So, I have to ask: Did John drop Caleb?

Zobel: I think you know.

I think he does…

Zobel: Yeah. I feel like it’s heavily hinted at.

Definitely, but I did leave wondering if maybe he did decide, It’s too crazy, I’m just gonna hit the road.

Ejiofor: That’s not a terrible thing to think. I think it’s slated one way, heavier in one direction than the other.

Zobel: Sure. Because you don’t get that moment, you’re allowed to have hope.

Do you think Ann knows?

Ejiofor: She’s gotta be deeply suspicious either way. The real thing is what they can rebuild—and if they can. Or is there a point where she does drive him off the land. Is that in their future? Or is there a future in which they actually figure it out?

Zobel: It certainly isn’t superfluous why Caleb isn’t there anymore, but certainly the fact that he’s gone and Loomis is by himself is enough of the problem for her. I think it’s a different story if you fast-forward two days after the movie ended to, like, six months after the movie ended—might totally be different stories.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the title of a post-apocalyptic novel by Pat Frank. It is Alas, Babylon.

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