The West Australian: "Ferrante captures female rage that liquefies any remains of the veneer of civility"
Date: Jan 7 2014
The Story of a New Name follows My Brilliant Friend as the second in a trilogy about the lives of two young women who grew up in Naples in brutality, beauty, labour, learning and the sure knowledge that marriage came with the threat of being subsumed.
Much has been made of Elena Ferrante's reclusiveness (she has said that once a book is written it has no more need of its author). It is hard therefore to draw certain parallels between the narrator's voice - Elena in this book - and the author's (despite sharing a name) in order to make bald statements on the author's view of the position of women in life and in this story.
What is certain is this: Ferrante does not flinch from revealing with fierce forensic detail the intense dynamics between two women who are dissimilar in temperament but share unusual ambition, given the context of the time, for their lives. She peels back the nicety of more acceptable friendship transactions to shine light on the less attractive motivations and manners between female friends, making her writing mesmerising and glittering with stark truth.
Early in the piece it is the girls' ambition (not blankly stated) to escape the crushing misogyny that would make women shadows of themselves and parodies of their husbands. In this circumstance, a sisterhood between women becomes vital but is never merely political or straightforward.
Ferrante does not retreat from the treachery that exists in this female bond, or the savage selfishness of desire - or the surprising way loyalty will reveal itself (the reader understands one will not ultimately leave the other's life regardless of fate and fortune).
Ann Goldstein, an editor for The New Yorker, has now translated four of Ferrante's novels (the first, Troubling Love about a mother-love, then the acclaimed Days of Abandonment) and will continue with the final follow-up to this book. Her work reaching into 2015 will include re-publishing the complete works of Primo Levi. So, in her early 60s, she isn't backing off giant works of literature that come with the pressure of being globally lauded.
Commenting that Ferrante is about her own age, Goldstein notes the biographical setting of Naples where the author's first novel was also set. "I do think her tone is bleak; it's gently despairing," says Goldstein on the line from her home in New York City.
"There's a point in this book where Lila throws her books away - books that were the symbol of her brilliant friend (Elena) and freedom from life-draining labour. You feel physically in the language how her freedom is failing."
At the beginning of The Story of a New Name we understand Lila, born like Elena into dire poverty and who, like her friend, proved an able student, has forgone further study to make an early financially advantageous marriage. It is soon clear from the first night of her new life when her husband rapes her and later subjects her to beatings that she has become his property, his object. From this moment Lila stands in contempt and despair of her position and it translates into measured fury.
At the time, such violent subjugation was ordinary. Lila looks around her and sees most other women who are also being subsumed in the same silent, relentless manner, by men. Lila however, is not ordinary, nor silent, and her animalistic nature tears at the obscenity of female objectification and ownership.
Ferrante captures female rage that liquefies any remains of the veneer of civility through Lila's passions. It is at the base of her treatment of her husband Stefano and comes with her ability to cause chaos, acrimony and upheaval at home and work.
"Ferrante does talk about really intimate things that are hard to talk about and are not pleasant," Goldstein says. "But overall what I think about Ferrante and her power as a writer, is that she is a great explorer of the inner life of women. I do think her tone is bleak; it's gently despairing . . . you feel physically in the language how her freedom is failing.'