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Mirabile Dictu: "Are Ferrante’s books autobiographical, as everyone speculates? Yes, perhaps: we all have difficult friendships; but these also seem to be about different aspects of the same person."

Date: Sep 20 2015

I am far, far behind in blogging about books. Will I ever catch up? Well, no. I write Mirabile Dictu four to six days a week (whew!), so I sometimes choose only marginally bookish topics.

But today I had a brainstorm: doubling up on two novels about doubles, Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name and Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying.

In 2013 I read the first book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy, My Brilliant Friend. I enjoyed it, but it was a bit like reading an Italian version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And I didn’t continue with the series, till every publication in the world had praised the tetralogy. I finally read the second novel, The Story of a New Name.

It is easy to see why these books are best-sellers. Ann Goldstein’s translations are elegant, and they are very fast reads. There is something for the literary reader, and something for the reader of pop fiction. On the Sept. 20 New York Times Best-Seller list, My Briliant Friend is No. 6 and the latest book, The Story of the Lost Child, is No. 7.

The Story of a New Name is a delightful realistic novel. Still, I quickly sussed out that it is about doubles, and even possession, rather than a literal friendship. Elena, the novelist narrator, and Lila, the troublemaker, are childhood friends who squabble, compete, adore writing, read the same copy of Little Women, and grow up in a poor neighborhood in Naples. Lila breaks all the rules, but is ultimately the least fortunate: she drops out of school to work in her father’s shoe shop and marries the grocer’s son at 16, while Elena achieves their childhood dreams by graduating from secondary school, going to college, and becoming a writer.

The Story of a New Name begins with Elena’s destroying Lila’s secret childhood notebooks. Lila, fearful that her husband will read them, entrusts them to Elena. Elena reads them, memorizes her favorite parts, and yet is disturbed by a certain artificiality. She pushes the box of notebooks off a bridge because “I couldn’t stand feeling Lila on me and in me, even now that I was esteemed myself, even now that I had a life outside of Naples….”

Later in the book, when they are on vacation at the beach without Lila’s husband, Lila swipes Elena’s boyfriend, Nino, seemingly because she has to have whatever Elena has. She also reads the books Nino lends to Elena and talks more intelligently about Beckett and politics. She trumps whatever Elena or Nino says.

Elena is furious.

"I couldn’t take it anymore. What I already knew and what I nevertheless was hiding from myself became perfectly clear: she, too, now saw Nino as the only person able to save her. She had taken possession of my old feeling, had made it her own. And, knowing what she was like, I had no doubts: she would knock down every obstacle and continue to the end."

By the end of the book, Elena has written her thesis on Book IV of the Aeneid, graduated from college, and published her first novel. At home in Naples, she receives her own package of childhood notebooks from the sister of a dead teacher. The notebooks are charming, and Elena smiles at the spelling mistakes and the “good”s and “excellent”s in the margins. But in the midst of her notebooks, she finds Lila’s little book, The Blue Fairy, which Lila wrote as a child. And then she realizes that Lila’s The Blue Fairy had inspired her own novel. Their lives are parallel. They are almost like one person. Are Ferrante’s books autobiographical, as everyone speculates? Yes, perhaps: we all have difficult friendships; but these also seem to be about different aspects of the same person. Elena and Lila are like Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.