I came to Naples with a plan, a detailed list of locations to visit, and several passages from Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels saved to my phone.
I wanted to retrace every step the main characters, Lenù and Lila, took. I thought I would have to seek the story to bring it to life.
Instead, the city of Naples came to life around me, and with it, so did the books.
Without even trying, I encountered characters, settings, and even scenes that seemed to be pulled directly from the pages.
Shopping on Via Chiaia
I inadvertently stepped into Ferrante's novels on my very first night in Naples.
After eating my pizza fritti, I continued my walk down Via Toledo, and instinct guided me toward Via Chiaia.
As I wandered along, I spotted a cream-colored wool and mohair cardigan in a shop window. It was stylish in the window, and remained so when I tried it on. So, naturally, I bought it.
It didn't strike me until later that I had gone on a miniature shopping spree in the stylish Chiaia district -- just like Lila did in the novels when she married into the wealthy Carracci family.
Many times on my trip, I felt like I was channeling Lila, her fearsome confidence and oft-foolish disregard for her own safety.
The day I felt most like Lila (and even more like Lenù) was the day I ventured into "the neighborhood."
Context: The Neapolitan Novels
Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels cover the lives and friendship of two young girls in Naples. Lila is fiercely intelligent but unable to continue her education past primary school, while timid Lenù works hard for her brilliance and manages to get a scholarship and continue her education through university.
As the women age, Lila becomes an influential (though manipulative) person in the neighborhood and Lenù establishes herself as an author. Lenù struggles to balance work and family obligations and Lila loses a child and falls into worsening mental health problems. All the while, the women are envious of one another, struggling for power within their relationships, and navigating life together as women born into poverty in 1950s Naples.
My Literary Pilgrimage to Rione Luzzatti
In The Neapolitan Novels, "the neighborhood," is a rough place to be, so I approached with caution.
Still, a photo essay from The Guardian put me at ease because at the very least, I would be able to get a pastry at the popular Pasticciello bakery and retreat to safety. Plus, a local man reassured me of the city's safety the previous night.
Nothing quite prepared me for the reality of what I discovered in Rione Luzzatti.
Don't Go That Way
Because I was staying near Via Toledo, "the neighborhood," was at the opposite end of the city. I boarded the metro and rode it all the way to Piazza Garibaldi, another location featured prominently in the novels.
Immediately, the city seemed to change, or at least get grittier. I took a moment to orient myself and get a Neapolitan treat at Cuore di Sfogliatella, the cafe that held the record for the world's largest sfogliatelle.
As I enjoyed my crunchy, nutty, ricotta-y pastry, a few Italian men tried to chat with me. The conversations were pretty short due to my limited Italian, and the attention seemed harmless. One man asked where I was from.
I said, "Los Angeles," he said, "welcome to Napoli. Enjoy!" and that was that.
When I got up to leave, however, the man stopped me.
"Los Angeles," he said, "Don't go that way."
I tried to insist I knew where I was going, but he persisted.
"You have fancy dress. You belong on Via Toledo, Via Santa Lucia. Go that way," he said, pointing in the opposite direction with increasing urgency.
I mumbled something that seemed to satisfy him, then skirted behind some cars to avoid his gaze.
Going the Wrong Way
Of course, I crossed the street heading the wrong direction (according to the man). I came to Naples for my literary pilgrimage to the neighborhood. I felt like I owed it to Elena Ferrante; I felt like I owed it to myself. And so, I went.
It helped that Rione Luzzatti was a straight shot down Via Taddeo da Sessa, or the "stradone," of the novels, and I stood no chance of getting lost.
I strolled forward, albeit with less confidence -- a confidence that diminished with every pedestrian I spotted walking in the opposite direction.
The entire time I was walking down the stradone, I was the only person walking toward the neighborhood.
It had a chilling effect, but I remained excited to see the main setting of The Neapolitan Novels.
Arriving in the Neighborhood
I knew I had arrived in the neighborhood when I spotted decals of the characters on the street near the police station. My Brilliant Friend had been adapted to an HBO series, and I had read about the decals, which were installed as a type of respectful guerrilla marketing, meant to honor both Ferrante and the neighborhood she wrote about.
Although I hadn't watched the show, I recognized the characters immediately. Still, I was troubled to see that all the decals of Lenù and Lila had been destroyed.
The women had been defaced, but the men were left largely untouched.
My chill intensified.
Leaving the Neighborhood
Originally, I had planned to take some high-quality photos of the neighborhood, but I left my camera in my bag and snapped some quick pictures on my cellphone. I was acutely aware of the men (and men only) staring from the park, and I made my way towards Pasticciello to get my pastry and head home.
To my dismay, the place was shuttered; vanished. A small blue sign was the only evidence that a bakery had been there before.
Aside from one woman standing at her window, the neighborhood was empty.
Before leaving, I made a feeble attempt to walk some of Lenù and Lila's routes through the neighborhood, searching for the world of the novels -- or at least for the Guardian article I had read.
Instead, I felt nothing but the dread and hopelessness Ferrante wrote about; the sharp desire to leave, just as everyone had been doing on the stradone.
When I finally found the infamous tunnel that Lenù and Lila escape through on their first adventure outside of the neighborhood, I was relieved -- ready to go, and eager to write about it.
Naples and the Novels
As I walked home from Rione Luzzatti, I thought a lot about Lenù and Lila -- and I was happy to see at least one decal of them that hadn't been vandalized.
Throughout my journey, I felt a lot like the bold Lila, but most of the time, I felt like the timid, bookish Lenù -- always apologizing and trying to navigate a space for myself, whereas Lila just takes it, like it's something she's owed. (For example: Lila never would have escaped the man's gaze before heading in whichever direction she saw fit).
Of course, Lenù ultimately fared much better in the novels, which like my trip, did a great job of making me think about what it means to be a woman.
In addition to my literary thoughts, I was able to compare Naples the city to The Neapolitan Novels in a number of ways.
Characters of the City
Many students live in the hostel I am staying at, and hearing their lively discussions and debates brought to mind Mariarosa's house -- a hub for socializing students in the novel.
There are also shoe shops, like I imagined the Cerullo family's, at practically every corner, and once, my friend Sadiya, bought a pair of new boots.
I heard the Neapolitan dialect in a Limoncello factory, and I can't count how many times a person on the street reminded me of the characters, from the women pushing strollers down the Lungomare to the well-dressed, sleazy-looking men who reminded me of Nino Sarratore.
Settings of the City
On every street, I could also feel the contrasts of the city -- rich/poor, beautiful/ugly -- and I had a strong sense of Elena Ferrante's Naples:
A place to leave and return, a complicated home, and ultimately, a city with its own gravitational pull.
At once, I understood why Lenù left and why she felt the need to come back. I also understood Lila's desire to make the most of the city and her life within it.
Overall, I have felt so lucky to walk in Lenù and Lila's path with the privilege I have as a tourist, an American, and most importantly, as a woman of the 21st century (instead of the 50s and 60s, when My Brilliant Friend takes place).
Sometimes, I like to imagine what Lenù and Lila's lives would have been like if they were born now, but I doubt two weeks in Naples will get me any closer to understanding that.
It has, however, given me a much deeper understanding of Ferrante's texts -- and I didn't even have to look that hard.
Like the novels, I have fallen in love with the city -- and all its grittiness and history.