There is something about Elena Ferrante as a writer that is difficult to ignore. She never misses a beat. Her novels, as varied as they are, don’t waver; they are consistently thoughtful, provocative, smothering and honest. This novel was my personal pick to be put on the longlist. She has been brilliant for so long and deserves the Oscar. Her brilliance isn’t limited to her mechanics, her finesse or her creativity as a writer, but it’s her willingness to continually address the psychological machinations of women who have very unfeminine feelings.
The Story of a New Name is the second installment in the Neapolitan novels, which follows the lifelong friendship of Lila and Elena. This topic of female friendship may seem prosaic and even fertile ground for melodrama, but Ferrante is too gifted and too smart to reduce her own psychological observations to dramatic extremes. Instead she mines the emotional gamut of friendship through success, poverty, betrayal, abuse, and resignation.
Although Ferrante repeatedly takes on “issues that women have,” they are the verboten. Mothers who don’t like their children in The Lost Daughter, the manifesto against domesticity by a wife spurned in The Days of Abandonment, and the jealousy the exists between friends who both want to succeed albeit in different ways in The Story of a New Name. The Story of a New Name is a departure from her previous novels in that it is much longer and involves a multitude of characters that intersect, overlap and weave seamlessly in and out of the narrative.
Most importantly though, it examines the role of femininity, how it represses, constricts, judges and becomes currency. Even though the novel is set during the 1950s and 1960s in Italy, the issues Ferrante confronts are just as polemic and endemic as they were then. Just as I cringe when I see a Miley Cyrus licking a foam finger, Elena feels and expresses aptly when she accompanies her recently married sixteen-year-old friend, Lila, on a return to her old neighborhood:
Walking next to her I felt embarrassment and also a sense of danger. It seemed to me that she was risking not only gossip but ridicule, and that both reflected on me, a sort of colorless but loyal puppy who serves as her escort. Everything about her—the hair, the earrings, the close-fitting blouse, the tight skirt, the way she walked—was unsuitable for the gray streets of the neighborhood. Male gazes, at the sight of her, seemed to start, as if offended. The women, especially the old ones, didn’t limit themselves to bewildered expressions: some stopped on the edge of the sidewalk and stood watching her, with a laugh that was both amused and uneasy…
In that paragraph alone, there is desire, jealousy, anger, shame, arrogance, and a few other emotions that not many other writers could convey as easily. This is the question that Ferrante asks in her fiction: what power does a woman actually have? Is she ever at an advantage? On the surface, of course she may be, but at what sacrifice to her sense of self? And through the friendship of women, they validate and invalidate each other, become inextricably connected and measure their own self-worth against the sacrifices of the other. This is powerful stuff and perhaps Ferrante has caught on because society still doesn’t view women as equal.
What’s even more impressive is that Ann Goldstein, whom has translated her last four works, deftly renders the intimate, nuanced and complex nature of Ferrante’s prose. (P.S. Europa, could you give credit to the translator on the cover of the novel? Just asking.) Fellow judge, Elizabeth Harris, gave me a quick translation of a page or so of the original Ferrante and Goldstein handles it so well, that it’s difficult to ignore her role in making Ferrante as potent as she is in Italian as in English.
Ferrante and Goldstein deserve to win this award not only because of the quality of The Story of a New Name but because of the quality of every work they have put out. Because they are committed to exhausting every possibility that language can communicate to best state what is closest to the truth of each character. Ferrante does this over and over again with excellence and precision. It’s not just a woman thing, it’s a great literature thing.
Monica Carter curates Salonica World Lit. She is a writer and reviewer. Her most recent critical piece appeared in World Literature Today (September 2013). She is also a reader for Tin House Magazine.