The Times Literary Supplement: "clear, honest, and [in which] the facts the facts of ordinary life are extraordinarily gripping when read"
Date: Nov 26 2013
Elena Ferrante is regarded as one of Italy’s finest novelists, but she is also one of its most elusive. Her wish to remain unidentified stems, she says, from “a somewhat neurotic desire for intangibility . . . . The work is public: in it, there is everything we have to say. Today, who really cares about the person who wrote it?” In her case a lot of people care, and understandably: she has written with devastating honesty about some of the most uncomfortable facts of life, and especially of female life. The respectable, well-educated narrators of her short, intense novels I giorni dell’abbandono (2002; The Days of Abandonment) and La figlia oscura (2006; The Lost Daughter) can’t help resenting their mothers, viewing their children as parasites, feeling trapped and diminished by their domestic roles. “In literary fiction you have to be sincere to the point where it’s unbearable”, she has said – and withholding her identity “produces a space of absolute creative freedom”.
Ferrante’s Neapolitan series – which follows the lives of two brilliant friends, Elena and Lila, born into an impoverished, dialect-speaking community of bakers, carpenters, fruit-and-vegetable sellers and shoemakers – is something of a departure in its long view and expansiveness: it will extend in four volumes from the 1950s into the twenty-first century, and the index of characters in this second volume alone runs to ten families. But Ferrante’s imprint is firmly there in its forensic attention to psychological states; and its scale has perhaps made it more personal, not less. “In order to begin such a long novel, I felt the need to anchor it as much as possible to that which I am, that which I know,” Ferrante has said, “even to the point of using my own name for one of the characters.”
The first volume, L’amica geniale (published in English as My Brilliant Friend and reviewed in the TLS, February 1, 2013), ended with a dazzling description of Lila’s wedding celebrations – she has abandoned her studies to marry a grocer, the son of a murdered loan shark – during which it became appallingly clear to our narrator Elena that the marriage was already over. At the beginning of The Story of a New Name (Storia del nuovo cognome, 2012), Elena recalls the occasion when Lila entrusted to her a metal box, frightened that her husband might find it. Elena promises not to open it, but she can’t help herself, and inside she finds notebooks full of descriptions, of “the branch of a tree, the ponds, a stone, a leaf with its white veinings, the pots in the kitchen, the various parts of a coffeemaker, the brazier, the coal and bits of coal” – all “evidence of a stubborn selfdiscipline in writing”. Elena reflects that “whatever Lila captured . . . assumed importance, so that even in the pages written when she was eleven or twelve there was not a single line that sounded childish”. Elena pores over the pages for weeks, obsessively, learning passages by heart – until finally, “exasperated”, she throws the box into a river.
Those who have read My Brilliant Friend will understand that reaction, even if they are shocked by it. Lila exerts a magnetic power: she is bold, defiant, driven, interestingly beautiful, full of flair. Ever since the pair learnt Latin and Greek together amid raucous chatter and stone-throwing boys, Lila has been Elena’s most important confidante and inspiration (“[our] exchanges . . . ignited my brain . . . we tore the words from each other’s mouths, creating an excitement that seemed like a storm of electrical charges”). But she is also – perhaps inevitably – a threat. And Lila threatens not just to outdo Elena, but to inhabit her.
Scenes of high emotion – notably Lila’s honeymoon – are all the more powerful for being simply rendered
That is (crudely put – Ferrante’s portrait is incredibly nuanced) this book’s central dynamic. We witness Elena’s despondency when Lila leaves school (“Lila always knew what she wanted and got it; I don’t want anything, I’m made of nothing”); and the waxing and waning of Elena’s studiousness as she is seduced by her friend’s opulent new lifestyle and repulsed by the insularity, pettiness and brutality of those who help to pay for it. We observe her surprise and relief at the discovery that, in her own way, she has been to Lila what Lila has been to her (“She drew out of herself . . . words written and spoken, complicated plans, rages and inventions, only to show me something of herself? Having lost that motivation, she was lost?”); and her exhilaration in the company of the bookish, earnest, self-possessed Nino – as well as her grief and self-loathing (“It’s my fault, my tendency to conceal myself”) when he falls not for her, but for Lila. Then there is Elena’s determination, after a summer fraught with the turmoil of watching Nino and Lila’s attraction to each other play out, to live for herself only, with an “attitude of absolute detachment”: “I am what I am and I have to accept myself; I was born like this, in this city, with this dialect, without money; I will give what I can give, I will take what I can take, I will endure what has to be endured”. On leaving school Elena takes up a university scholarship in Pisa, where she excels – and starts to write creatively – even while suffering from a new sense of social inferiority.
Scenes of high emotion – notably Lila’s honeymoon – are all the more powerful for being simply rendered. Ferrante reserves the present tense for a pivotal moment infused with pathos, when Lila is barricaded in her son Rinuccio’s room, weighed down with the knowledge that she must leave her husband; it is the closest we have come to entering her consciousness:
“Just thinking of her son saps her strength. What ended up in Rinuccio’s head: images, words. She worries about the voices that reach him, unmonitored. I wonder if he heard mine, while I carried him in my womb. I wonder how it was imprinted in his nervous system. If he felt loved . . . . What will happen to this child. Now Rinuccio knows that when I go into another room he won’t lose me, I am still here. He maneuvers with objects and fantasies of objects, the outside and the inside . . . . He recognizes the letters of the alphabet. He puts them together so as to write his name. He loves colors. He’s happy. But all this rage. He has seen me insulted and beaten. He’s seen me break things and shout insults. In dialect. I can’t stay here any longer.”
One of Ferrante’s greatest virtues is her doggedness in unearthing – and fearlessness in articulating – thoughts that usually remain unspoken. “I have an emptiness inside me that wears me down”, Lila tells Elena when she is pregnant. “I know I’m supposed to think beautiful things, I know I have to resign myself, but I can’t do it, I see no reason for resignation and no beauty.” Ferrante is also a master of the conflicted state, and of moments of self-analysis and correction. Such analysis is aided here by the narrator’s point of view: since this is a much older Elena looking back, the account she gives is one of silted-down wisdom (“I understood only later that . . .”; “Today I feel some uneasiness in recalling . . .”) and enriched perspective (“What I am now recounting I learned from various people at various times”). The text is vivid in its detail partly thanks to Lila’s notebooks – an ideal device, given that their existence and transferral to Elena, at a time when Lila is being jealously controlled by her husband (“He doesn’t want me to have even a thought of my own”, she says before she hands over the box), make perfect sense.
Ferrante herself likes to read narrative in which “the writing is clear, honest, and [in which] the facts – the facts of ordinary life – are extraordinarily gripping when read”. That exactly describes her fiction, and her translator Ann Goldstein has served it beautifully.