Foyles: "Ferrante had brought the story, the lives she was excavating, to a conclusion that, while it does not answer all the questions, or even many of them, feels the way life feels."
Date: Aug 25 2015
In 2011 L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend) was published in Italy. It was five years since the appearance of Ferrante’s previous book, La figlia oscura (The Lost Daughter), and readers—including me—were eager to hear from her, both in Italy and in the Anglophone world, where her books had been well received and won her a small but avid following. In those intervening years I occasionally asked the publishers if Ferrante was working on something, or when there might be another book. And, finally, at a certain point, they said yes, a new book was imminent.
In the fall of 2011, I began reading My Brilliant Friend. In some ways I felt that I had entered a familiar, recognizable world: the Turin of The Days of Abandonment and the Naples of Troubling Love, the middle-aged woman narrator, the strong, almost physical language of emotion and description. But I was also reading something completely different: for one thing, the book was more than twice as long as the previous books—and it was only the first book of what at the time was projected to be a trilogy. Then, it began with a framing device: a woman of sixty-six is seeking to investigate—not literally, as the narrator of Troubling Love investigates the death of her mother, but psychologically—the disappearance of her closest and oldest friend. To do so, she goes back to their childhood with the intention of writing down everything she remembers about their lives, in order to recapture and, perhaps, comprehend them. So, unlike the earlier books, which concentrated on a period of months or weeks, this trilogy would ultimately take in an entire life. The subject, women’s lives, was not a new one for Ferrante, but it was on a new scale.
Ferrante had originally had the idea of publishing the whole work in a single volume, but was dissuaded by her publisher, who felt that it would make an unwieldy (to say the least) book. Indeed, the trilogy soon became a tetralogy. The three books that follow My Brilliant Friend are a hundred pages longer each. In the course of something like 1800 pages, Ferrante narrates, in sometimes excruciating psychological detail, the story of Elena, the narrator, and of Lila, her friend. The girls are born into poverty in a crumbling, violent neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Lila is made to leave school after fifth grade; her father sees no point in paying to educate a girl. Elena manages to continue, becoming an outstanding student in high school and winning a scholarship to the university in Pisa. Lila, instead, gets married at sixteen. We follow the paths of both lives, as they alternately separate and come together, as the friendship of the two girls is sometimes close, sometimes distant, but always in some way present to each.
As readers we are immersed in the lives of Elena and Lila, we get to know their families, their friends, we experience what happens to them—marriages, births, deaths, loves, hatreds—over some six decades. In the background—more than in the earlier books, and sometimes pushing into the foreground—is the history of Italy from the postwar period to the present. We really know these people and their struggles; we see them grow up and change and age and, in some cases, die, as we do with people in our own life. That’s one of the things that make the books so compelling. It’s not so much that we identify with the details of these lives—most of us did not grow up amid the violence and poverty of an outlying neighborhood of Naples, Elena and Lila’s childhood world. But I think we do identify with, and recognize, the people themselves and their relationships with each other and with life, and, perhaps, with their desire to find order or sense in their lives. Ferrante’s ability to analyze, and dramatize, such emotions, to excavate them (to use a term she uses herself), is tremendous and moving.
As the translator, I live with the characters in my head quite vividly and over a long period of time. I seem to inhabit a world with them—I react to them the way I might to real people. I get angry, annoyed, I’m sympathetic or not, I hope and fear for them. Starting with the second book, The Story of a New Name, I began translating as I was reading it for the first time. This happened by chance, as a matter of timing, but then I felt it was useful, in that, at least during the first draft, it intensified my sense that I was experiencing the characters’ lives with them. Like them, I didn’t know what was going to happen, the next day, the next year. Unlike the ordinary reader, I had at the same time to put into words, even if at that point crudely, the narrative. (I confess that occasionally I looked ahead a few paragraphs because I couldn’t wait to type all those words, but generally I stayed with them.) It should be said that Ferrante is a master storyteller. Her plots are packed with incidents, some of which may seem almost melodramatic or too coincidental, but they are always grounded in the reality of the world she has created. And she occasionally goes back or forward in time—skipping months or years, or stepping out of the story and into the original frame of the woman in the present who is writing the pages you are reading.
When I finished the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, I felt bereft. I was so used to having the characters, the words, the rhythms of the sentences in my mind that my life seemed to be missing an important and active part. I was relieved when I began to work on the fourth book, but when I came to the end of that, and the end of the series, I didn’t have the same sense of loss, of something missing. Ferrante had brought the story, the lives she was excavating, to a conclusion that, while it does not answer all the questions, or even many of them, feels the way life feels.
As the translator, I’ve more often, more intimately, been concerned with the novels on the level of words, sentences, even paragraphs. And in a sense it’s on that level that I’ve lived with them. But when I came to the end I was compelled to see the whole, in the way you would look at someone’s life, perhaps your own, at the good and the bad, the failures and the successes, the humiliations and the achievements. Ferrante creates a sense of closure that enabled me to leave not without emotion but without wishing for more. And I am willing to bet, or at least hope, that she is working on something new.