The Economist: "Elena Ferrante may be the best contemporary novelist you have never heard of."
Date: Oct 5 2013
ELENA FERRANTE may be the best contemporary novelist you have never heard of. The Italian author has written six lavishly praised novels. But she writes under a pseudonym and will not offer herself for public consumption.
Her characters likewise defy convention. Her women vent their fury at being effaced by men. “The Story of a New Name”, the second volume in a magisterial Neapolitan trilogy, is an intense portrait of one woman’s struggle against the misogyny of 1960s Naples.
Lila Cerullo is a woman as trapped, betrayed and unforgettable as Madame Bovary; the violent slum where she and her best friend Elena grow up as teeming as any 19th-century cantonment. Yet Ms Ferrante’s voice is startlingly honest and modern in her descriptions of the psychic toll this world takes on two young women. Lila is Bovary with backbone: intelligent, fearless, fighting to escape a patriarchal world that bars her from any education beyond primary school. Elena, dogged by a sense of “constitutional inferiority” next to her incandescent friend, manages a little more formal learning, yet she still struggles to leave the neighbourhood behind.
The trilogy is framed by Lila’s disappearance at the age of 66, an act that enrages the adult Elena and prompts her to tell their story. The second book picks up at Lila’s marriage at 16. In swift, horrific scenes, the reader witnesses her chilling transformation into Signora Carracci following a rape and beating by her husband on their wedding night, the haunting appearance of a mad, abandoned local woman and a triumphant but short-lived revenge as Lila disfigures her own wedding photo.
For Elena “the condition of wife had enclosed her in a sort of glass container.” Later, as the depths of Lila’s entrapment become clear, her friend surveys the broken, older women around them. “They were nervous, they were acquiescent…they had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers,” she writes. “When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?”
Lila has a “power she held back like the spring of a dangerous device.” She refuses to submit to her own destruction, and by the novel’s end has been reduced to brutal, bloody labour in a sausage factory. The drumbeat of injustice leaves the reader hungry to know how she rebounds. If the best prose is like glass—communicating without calling attention to itself—Ms Ferrante’s is crystal, and her storytelling both visceral and compelling. The third book, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”, comes out in Italy in November; it will appear in English late next year. Worth the wait.