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The New Yorker Blog: James Wood chooses The Neapolitan Novels as his Favorite Books of 2013

Date: Dec 20 2013

I was excited, this year, to read the work of Elena Ferrante. This reclusive Italian novelist (she writes pseudonymously, and does not make public appearances) is a savage talent. Her formidable novel “Days of Abandonment” tells the story of an Italian academic and writer whose husband suddenly leaves her for another woman. You might expect something along the lines of an Iris Murdoch book, or what used to be called. in England, “a Hampstead novel” (middle-class lives, book-lined sitting rooms, and the spice of adultery). But Ferrante’s novel is closer to Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” poems: a desperate, brutally honest, at times slightly repellent, powerfully self-analytic cry of pain. Unlike many novels that treat similar material, this book doesn’t request your sympathy so much as your gasping assent. I’ve read little else like it; the pages are on fire.

Europa also recently published the first and second volumes of Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, “My Brilliant Friend” and “The Story of a New Name.” These wonderful novels are less claustrophobic than “Days of Abandonment,” and they bring to life an entire Neapolitan working-class community, from the nineteen-fifties to the nineteen-seventies. What they share with Ferrante’s earlier work is a tender bleakness—an extraordinary honesty, an absolute commitment to the avoidance of sentimentality, and beautifully spare, lucid prose. Reading these books, which are so full of struggle, ambition, and the desire to escape a rich but stifling community, I was reminded of the work of the Sicilian master Giovanni Verga, and of mid-twentieth-century neorealist filmmakers, like Rossellini and De Sica.

-James Wood

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