San Francisco Chronicle: "The elusive yet volcanic Italian author Elena Ferrante has become a kind of insiders' icon on both sides of the Atlantic."
Date: Dec 15 2013
The elusive yet volcanic Italian author Elena Ferrante has become a kind of insiders' icon on both sides of the Atlantic. Shunning publicity, concealing her real identity, Ferrante will only say (per the New Yorker writer James Wood, who discusses Ferrante brilliantly in its pages), "I study, I translate, I teach."
Electrified by "My Brilliant Friend" - book one of "The Neapolitan Novels" - I devoured all Ferrante's other titles immediately: "The Days of Abandonment," "Troubling Love," "The Lost Daughter" and now book two of the Neapolitan group, "The Story of a New Name." (Each has been limpidly translated by Ann Goldstein, an editor at the New Yorker.)
Ferrante's effect, critics agree, is inarguable. "Intensely, violently personal" and "brutal directness, familial torment" is how Wood ventures to categorize her - descriptions that seem mild after you've encountered the work.
"My Brilliant Friend" is framed as the recollection by narrator Elena Greco (a stand-in, one senses, with all her other books' protagonists, for Ferrante herself) of a childhood shared with her gifted, fierce, querulous best friend, Lila Cerullo. The two girls are reared - to a large degree rear themselves - in the chaos and poverty of postwar Naples, a struggle to survive so wrenching, so desperate, a reader can smell it.
In one of that novel's earliest actions - typical of the girls' embattled friendship - Lila calmly throws Elena's favorite doll down an air vent. During similar, subsequent misadventures, the two will constantly test and protect each other. The girls aspire to write a novel together, and at first it seems that Lila's innate intellect will sail her forward in school.
But by the end of "Friend," hard want and cultural pressure drag her down, into marriage to a grocer. It's soon clear that only Elena will seize the education that will allow her to escape the cesspit of the girls' origins - and to write.
Intriguingly, "The Story of a New Name" likewise opens with a cruel act, as young-adult Elena dumps a strongbox containing Lila's precious, lifelong writings - entrusted to her by the now miserably married, frantic Lila - into the Arno. The novel will, like its predecessor, lead us through the prior, convoluted ordeals that have made Elena take such action.
And convoluted they are. The cast of characters is so extensive (10 families) that Ferrante supplies an index of names, stations and advisory notes. ("Lila's mother ... is close to her daughter, but doesn't have the authority to support her against her father.") Readers who've seen the Italian film "The Best of Youth" may be reminded of it here: "Story" follows a similar ensemble through time, along a roller coaster of bad to worse.
The searingly crucial difference is that its protagonists are female.
Despising her bewildered husband (who feels he has no choice but to beat her), Lila travels with a family retinue to a seaside town and commences to seduce Nino Sarratore, the one boy Elena has cared for since childhood. In retaliation, Elena soon allows Nino's scummy father to seduce her, as a sort of furious self-punishment.
Ferrante's just getting started.
"Story" tracks Lila through her doomed marriage, the birth of a son, fleeing her husband, and finally casting her lot as a single mother in ghastly deprivation, rooming with a male friend from childhood while working in a sausage factory. Elena, meantime, labors (against family resentment and need, feelings of unattractiveness, loneliness and Northern hostility toward her Southern roots) to complete her education and to write a novel, which - somewhat improbably - becomes an instant hit. Here, "Story" abruptly concludes. Presumably, book three will sweep us back in.
The through-line in all of Ferrante's investigations, for me, is nothing less than one long, mind-and-heart-shredding howl for the history of women (not only Neapolitan women), and its implicit j'accuse. Ferrante seems to be holding our heads stiffly so that we cannot look away, telling us repeatedly, This is how it is. Men don't enjoy much more ease in the realms Ferrante depicts, but they're at least granted bits of power and, on occasion, comfort. Women, with rare and stunning exception, are cattle, currency, trophies, decoration, glue.
What's hardest is to watch Lila, Ferrante's frenzied warrior, gamble and lose, time after time, trying and failing to adapt conventional roles in any fresh way that might save her. "I don't like what I've done and what I'm doing," she tells Elena, in dialect - the use of dialect underscoring the observation's naked truth. (Ferrante's prose, in Goldstein's translation, is always powerful, dense and profluent.)
It's been suggested by more than one reviewer that the tragedy of Ferrante's women is a biopsy sample of the tragedy of Italy, or, ultimately, of the species. One is reminded, in her world's hothouse desperation, of gladiators who may be fast friends, forced to kill one another for an emperor's sport: Here the emperor is the pitiless compression of economic, political and social inequities; of ancient biases and corruption. Machine-like, that compression destroys people: women and children first.