The New York Times Book Review: "Ferrante's gift for recreating real life stems as much from the quiet, unhurried rhythm of her writing as from the people and events shes describes.:
Date: Sep 29 2013
Every so often you encounter an author so unusual it takes a while to make sense of her voice. The challenge is greater still when this writer's freshness has nothing to do with fashion, when it's imbued with the most haunting music of all, the echoes of literary history. Elena Ferrante is this rare bird: so deliberate in building up her story that you almost give up on it, so gifted that by the end she has you in tears. "The Story of a New Name" is the second part of a trilogy that began with "My Brilliant Friend." Both novels are primarily set in Naples, are Naples, as they teem with the city's dialect, violence and worldview. Tracing the friendship between Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, two extraordinary arid troubled girls who become extraordinary and troubled women, Elena's first-person account charts what scholars and politicians alike have ominously labeled the Southern Question: the cultural and economic divide between north and south that has defined Italian life for centuries. But history never overpowers what is at heart a local story about the families living along a poor Neapolitan stradone, or avenue, with intricate plotlines spun like fine thread around Elena and Lila.
The novel begins with Elena throwing Lila's notebooks into the Arno after Lila has entrusted her lifetime of writing to her best friend. About to publish a novel and graduate from Pisa's prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore, 22-year-old Elena can't bear toread of Lila's love affair with Nino Sarratore, the young man she believes Lila stole from her. But the act of sabotage has deeper,darker roots. Elena has always feared that Lila, although poorly educated and stuck in Naples, is more brilliant than she, that Lila is the real writer. These two love each other ferociously, but each burns with a desire to outdo the other, sometimes killing what is best in her soul mate.
The night the teenage Lila makes love to Nino, Elena allows Nino's father, Donato, to take her virginity on a dark beach. Ferrante never says that Elena is performing a horrific pantomime of her best friend's actions, but the reader knows it and Elena knows it. Lila shadows Elena everywhere:on the dark beach, at the university, even in the pages that bring her recognition. Oneof Elena's editors remarks that her novel has "sincerity, naturalness and a mystery in the writing that only true books have" - but Elena admits to herself that her literary voice is borrowed from a short story Lila wrote when they were children. It is "the secret heart of my book. Anyone who wanted to know what gave it warmth and what the origin was of the strong but invisible thread that joined the sentences would have had to go back to that child's packet, 10 notebook pages, ... the brightly colored cover, the title and not even a signature."
In a marvelous reversal, Elena destroys Lila's notebooks at that mythical site of Italian culture, the Arno River, where the novelist Alessandro Manzoni had gone to "risciacquare i panni," or "to rinse the laundry" - to learn the Tuscan of Dante and other luminaries while recasting his monumental novel, "The Betrothed," in that dialect. But in Ferrante's universe the Arno is where Lila's art dies. The river's traditions belong to the world of men and thus are not to be trusted. To inhabit the female body, Elena proclaims, is to suffer: "I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighborhood. They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them. Extremely thin, with hollow eyes and cheeks, or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children who clung to their skirts and wanted to be picked up. And, good God, they were 10, at most 20 years older than me."
Elena and Lila race to avoid this fate. At first, Lila surges ahead. A beauty, she marries money and becomes the Jackie 0 of the stradone. The bookish Elena takes a more plodding route. Unattached, she pursues her studies. It's Elena who manages to escape the neighborhood, but not the Southern Question.
Despite its gender and class insights, Ferrante's novel wears its analysis lightly. Her aims are literary, and she spends as much time glancing back into the Italian canon as she does considering the challenges of Naples. Ferrante portrays a cascade of characters and the hum of everyday life defined by family, superstition and a fatalistic worldview, a southern Italian world where God is feared more than loved.
As a translator, Ann Goldstein does Ferrante a great service. Like the original Italian, the English here is disciplined, precise, never calling attention to itself. The occasional use of dialect spices things up nicely. Ferrante's gift for recreating real life stems as much from the quiet, unhurried rhythm of her writing as from the people and events she describes. The translation reproduces Ferrante's narrative ebb and flow while registering the distinct features of her voice.
Georg Lukacs once claimed that Manzoni's "Betrothed" was an allegory of all of Italian history, "a concrete episode taken from Italian popular life," in which "the love, separation and reunion of a young peasant boy and girl" are transformed "into a general tragedy of the Italian people." Likewise, Ferrante transforms the love, separation and reunion of two poor urban girls into the general tragedy of their city, a place so beautiful and heartbreaking that it inspired the expression "Vedi Napoli e poi muori"- "See Naples and then die."