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The Idle Woman: "The prose isn't pretty or elegant: the English translation (by Ann Goldstein) is terrifically simple and understated . . . But it's the power of the emotions bleeding through the words that grips you."

Date: Sep 19 2015

The first installment of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels moved me deeply and there was no doubt I'd continue with the series. For various reasons this week has been challenging and so yesterday afternoon, on a whim, I bought the second book and have spent a few hours here and there absorbed afresh in Ferrante's compelling world, by turns painfully familiar and shockingly alien. As in the first novel, the characters have a presence and reality which means one can't comfortably dismiss them as fictional. Once again, this book has the charge of thinly fictionalised autobiography: nostalgic, fearless and merciless, a forensic dissection of the anatomy of friendship.

More than the first book, perhaps, this slice of Elena and Lila's history evokes powerful emotions that I find it difficult to put into words. Much of that, I think, stems from the fact that I can relate to certain aspects of Elena's emotional experience, particularly her sense of isolation. Her studies render her unable to fit into the world of her childhood, but offer her no replacement sphere where she feels at ease. Anyone who's gone away to university after growing up in a small town, where people all know each other and rarely move away, will be familiar with that bewildering sense of semi-exclusion on returning home. In this novel, she finds herself still studying at the high school, increasingly separated from her childhood friends who have dropped out of education to do as their mothers did before them: to work in the grocery or the shoe store, gradually re-calibrating their lives to focus on what is considered the natural environment for a woman: a useful job and then a husband, children, the weary grinding down of marriage. Elena has chosen to take another path, defiantly pursuing her studies while increasingly confused about what value they have in the greater scheme of things. In adolescence, doing well at school is an end in itself. But once life broadens out and becomes about more than grades, what is the merit in being educated for education's sake? It becomes increasingly apparent that Elena's determination to keep learning isn't just founded on a desire to make the most of her intelligence. It isn't even part of a coherent plan for ending up somewhere else, somewhere better, than the humble neighbourhood of her youth. It is more an effort to prove herself to Lila: to prove that she, finally, has something Lila doesn't have. For Elena knows that, despite Lila's choice to marry, and to take on the life of the elegant, prosperous young wife, her friend still burns at the thought of being outdone in anything.

Lila's magnetic, frustrating character is at the heart of Elena's life and at the heart of the books. I don't think it's possible to read these books and to not have a fierce feeling for Lila one way or the other. Elena herself acknowledges that her thoughts, her ideas, even her own first novel, only seem to gain richness and interest when she subconsciously draws on the ideas that Lila has had before her. It is a heartbreaking and (on the part of the character) unconscious display of insecurity. Despite all her successes and her own intelligence, Elena can't believe in her own brilliance because she has always been so submissively convinced of Lila's innate intellectual superiority. Despite the men who move in and out of their lives, one can't help feeling that, for Elena anyway, life only gains colour and texture when it is being lived either with Lila or in her shadow. And yet the tragedy of Elena's situation is that Lila - to me anyway - seems increasingly hard and selfish. In everything she chooses to do, she excels; and, although she assures Elena that she's happy to see her doing so well, she almost immediately seems to have to deflate Elena's successes, either by immediately showing that she can out-think, out-talk or out-reason Elena despite her relative lack of education, or by rubbishing the standards by which Elena judges success: by implying that education is all very well for those who have nothing else to worry about, but the real world and the real challenge is whatever's preoccupying Lila at the moment. Whenever Elena seems to be succeeding - whenever Lila feels that she's the one being cast into the shadow - she makes a change. She snatches what Elena wants, pretending not even to have realised that her friend was after it. And this, in itself, shows that Lila is also terribly insecure. Each of these two girls desperately wants what the other has, and feels that something only has value if it's desired by the other. The difference is that - until now - Elena has meekly accepted that Lila will have the best, while Lila herself goes out, shamelessly and self-centredly, to fashion the world as she wishes it to be. Yet this is a situation that can't endure: by the end of this book, Lila is learning the price that must be paid for freedom.

We end this novel in a very different place from the first, but on no less of a cliffhanger. Once again I can't help admiring Ferrante's talent for weaving characters in and out of the story, and for giving them the weight of real people, so that simply a chance glimpse of someone can be sufficient to unlock for the reader a whole tumble of associations, fears or hopes. This isn't an easy book to read, emotionally. It's full of violent feelings, betrayal of various kinds, misery and bitterness, alongside the small victories here and there that buoy up Elena's sense of herself and her potential. But it is a powerful book. It isn't easy, because it feels honest and real. It brings you into Elena's emotions so firmly that you find those same emotions stimulated in yourself. The prose isn't pretty or elegant: the English translation (by Ann Goldstein) is terrifically simple and understated, and I imagine the Italian must be much the same. But it's the power of the emotions bleeding through the words that grips you. It's a relentless, urgent, confusing, painful journey through two lives crammed full of opportunities and foolish mistakes. It isn't the kind of book that I think one can 'like' or 'dislike'; it feels too elemental for that. The key thing is that it grips you: I just feel that I have to carry on now, to see this through to its sprawling, conflicted end.