Storia del nuovo cognome
L'amore molesto, Roma, 1992.
I giorni dell'abbandono, Roma, 2002.
La figlia oscura, Roma, 2006.
L'amica geniale, Roma, 2011.
Storia del nuovo cognome. L'amica geniale volume secondo, Roma, 2012.
Cronache del mal d'amore, Roma, 2012.
Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta. L'amica geniale volume terzo, Roma, 2013.
Contos para crianças
La spiaggia di notte, Roma, 2007.
La frantumaglia, Roma, 2003.
Troubling Love, 2006
The Days of Abandonment, 2005
The Lost Daughter, 2008
My Brilliant Friend, 2012
The Story of a New Name, 2013
NOTA DE LEITURA
Li de rajada no Kindle os dois livros de Elena Ferrante, Una amica geniale e Storia del nuovo cognome que comprei baratos na Amazon.com. O leitor fica de boca aberta ao ver tão bem descrita a alma da cidade de Nápoles e dos napolitanos.
O nome da autora é um pseudónimo, continua sem se saber quem é (ele ou ela). Os livros deverão ser autobiográficos tal é a força de autenticidade que demonstram.
É muito difícil que sejam traduzidos para português, pois não será fácil transpor para a nossa língua todas as nuances, algumas perfeitamente dialectais. Mas não é difícil de ler para quem saiba algum italiano e até ajuda a estudar os verbos porque a autora que escreve na primeira pessoa utiliza sistematicamente o passato remoto.
Nos USA, uma tradutora competente, Ann Goldstein, traduziu já a maior parte da obra que tem tido muita difusão,como demonstram as recensões a seguir reproduzidas.
Tenho de confessar que gostei mais do primeiro livro da trilogia, Una amica geniale, do que do segundo. Neste, Lila ou Lina recebe tantos safanões na vida, que o leitor fica com pena dela. Acho que o mesmo acontecerá no terceiro e último volume, Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta.
Elena Ferrante, or “Elena Ferrante,” is one of Italy’s best-known least-known contemporary writers. She is the author of several remarkable, lucid, austerely honest novels, the most celebrated of which is “The Days of Abandonment,” published in Italy in 2002. Compared with Ferrante, Thomas Pynchon is a publicity profligate. It’s assumed that Elena Ferrante is not the author’s real name. In the past twenty years or so, though, she has provided written answers to journalists’ questions, and a number of her letters have been collected and published. From them, we learn that she grew up in Naples, and has lived for periods outside Italy. She has a classics degree; she has referred to being a mother. One could also infer from her fiction and from her interviews that she is not now married. (“Over the years, I’ve moved often, in general unwillingly, out of necessity. . . . I’m no longer dependent on the movements of others, only on my own” is her encryption.) In addition to writing, “I study, I translate, I teach.”
And that is it. What she looks like, what her real name is, when she was born, how she currently lives—these things are all unknown. In 1991, when her first novel, “Troubling Love,” was about to be published in Italy (“L’Amore Molesto,” its original title, hints at something more troubling than mere trouble), Ferrante sent her publisher a letter that, like her fiction, is pleasingly rigorous and sharply forthright. It lays out principles she has not deviated from since. She will do nothing for “Troubling Love,” she tells her publisher, because she has already done enough: she wrote it. She won’t take part in conferences or discussions, and won’t go to accept prizes, if any are awarded. “I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum”:
I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. . . . I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana, which I waited for as a child. . . . True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known. . . . Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.
It is hard to argue with the logic of this withdrawal, and the effortful prying of the Italian press—Why have you chosen this privacy? Are you hiding the autobiographical nature of your work? Is there any truth to the rumor that your work is really by Domenico Starnone?—has about it the kind of repressed anger that attends a suicide. Ferrante is probably right when she claims that an author who does publicity has accepted, “at least in theory, that the entire person, with all his experiences and his affections, is placed for sale along with the book.” Our language betrays us: nowadays, you triumphantly sell a novel to a publisher; thirty years ago, a publisher simply accepted that novel.
As soon as you read her fiction, Ferrante’s restraint seems wisely self-protective. Her novels are intensely, violently personal, and because of this they seem to dangle bristling key chains of confession before the unsuspecting reader. There are four novels available in English, each translated by Ann Goldstein, an editor at this magazine: “Troubling Love,” “The Days of Abandonment,” “The Lost Daughter,” and now “My Brilliant Friend” (all from Europa Editions). Each book is narrated by a woman: an academic in “The Lost Daughter,” and a writer in “The Days of Abandonment.” The woman who tells the story of her Neapolitan youth in “My Brilliant Friend” is named Elena, and seems to cherish the possibilities of writing and being a writer. More than these occasional and fairly trivial overlappings with life, the material that the early novels visit and revisit is intimate and often shockingly candid: child abuse, divorce, motherhood, wanting and not wanting children, the tedium of sex, the repulsions of the body, the narrator’s desperate struggle to retain a cohesive identity within a traditional marriage and amid the burdens of child rearing. The novels present themselves (with the exception of the latest) like case histories, full of flaming rage, lapse, failure, and tenuous psychic success. But these are fictional case histories. One can understand that Ferrante has no interest in adding her privacy to the novelistic pyre.
“The Days of Abandonment” is Ferrante’s most widely read novel in English, with good reason. It assails bourgeois niceties and domestic proprieties; it rips the skin off the habitual. Olga is thirty-eight, is married to Mario, lives in Turin, and has two young children, Ilaria and Gianni. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” The calm opening sentence belies the fury and turmoil to come. Olga is blindsided by Mario’s announcement. First, there are the obvious responses: loathing, jealousy, despair. She yells without control at Mario:
“I don’t give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife? Fuck you! What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me? What words should I use for what you’re doing with that woman! Let’s talk about it! Do you lick her cunt? Do you stick it in her ass? Do you do all the things you never did with me? Tell me! Because I see you! With these eyes I see everything you do together, I see it a hundred thousand times, I see it night and day, eyes open and eyes closed!”
What menaces Olga more deeply is the threatened dissolution of her self. What does her life amount to, without the intact family unit? “What a mistake it had been to close off the meaning of my existence in the rites that Mario offered with cautious conjugal rapture,” she reflects. “What a mistake it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifications, his enthusiasms, to the ever more productive course of his life.” She is haunted by the memory of a dark figure from her Neapolitan childhood, a woman who lived in her apartment building, whose husband left her, and who, in her abandonment, lost all identity: “Every night, from that moment on, our neighbor wept. . . . The woman lost everything, even her name (perhaps it was Emilia), for everyone she became the ‘poverella,’ that poor woman, when we spoke of her that was what we called her.” Young Olga was repelled by “a grief so gaudy,” and is desperate, in her own abandonment, not to act like the poverella, not to be “consumed by tears.”
Over the next few weeks, Olga struggles to hold on to reality. The children must be looked after, the dog walked, the bills paid. One day, she sees Mario with his new lover, and realizes that it is Carla, a twenty-year-old who is the daughter of an old friend; Mario had tutored her. Olga violently assaults her husband, knocks him down in the street, tears his shirt. Meanwhile, at home, everything is disintegrating. Ants have invaded the apartment; Gianni has a fever; the phone stops working because the bill hasn’t been paid; the front-door lock won’t work; the dog gets sick. Ferrante turns ordinary domestic misery into an expressionistic hell; she can pull a scream out of thin air. These small trials become a huge symbolic judgment. When Olga sprays insecticide to kill the ants, she does so uneasily, “feeling that the spray can might well be a living extension of my organism, a nebulizer of the gall I felt in my body.” Her inability to open the front door strikes her as the overwrought emblem of a sexual failure; the workmen who had installed the new lock had seemed to insinuate that locks “recognize the hand of their master.” “I remembered the sneer with which the older one had given me his card, in case I should need help,” Olga tells us. “I knew perfectly well what lock he wished to intervene in, certainly not that of the reinforced door.”
The literary excitement of “The Days of Abandonment” lies in the picture it gives of a mind in emergency, at the very limits of coherence and decency, a mind that has become a battlefield between reason and insanity, survival and explosion. Here Olga watches Carrano, her downstairs neighbor, a single man, a mild, shy, graying professional cellist:
So I stood silently watching him from the fifth floor, thin but broad in the shoulders, his hair gray and thick. I felt an increasing hostility toward him that became more tenacious the more unreasonable I felt it to be. What were his secrets of a man alone, a male obsession with sex, perhaps, the late-life cult of the cock. Certainly he, too, saw no farther than his ever-weaker squirt of sperm, was content only when he could verify that he could still get it up, like the dying leaves of a dried-up plant that’s given water. Rough with the women’s bodies he happened to encounter, hurried, dirty, certainly his only objective was to score points, as in a rifle range, to sink into a red pussy as into a fixed thought surrounded by concentric circles. Better if the patch of hair is young and shiny, ah the virtue of a firm ass. So he thought, such were the thoughts I attributed to him, I was shaken by vivid electric shocks of rage.
In a spasm of self-hatred and need, Olga throws herself at poor Carrano: the scene in which she sadistically seduces him, at once requiring and repulsing his desire, is a tour de force of squalor. Yet Carrano surprises Olga, later in the book, with his gentleness and generosity, and becomes one of the unexpected agents of Olga’s eventual survival, her successful race against dissolution.
Ferrante has said that she likes to write narratives “where the writing is clear, honest, and where the facts—the facts of ordinary life—are extraordinarily gripping when read.” Her prose has indeed a bare lucidity, and is often aphoristic and continent, in Ann Goldstein’s elegant, burnished English. But what is thrilling about her earlier novels is that, in sympathetically following her characters’ extremities, Ferrante’s own writing has no limits, is willing to take every thought forward to its most radical conclusion and backward to its most radical birthing. This is most obvious in the fearless way in which her female narrators think about children and motherhood.
Ferrante’s novels could be seen as marked, somewhat belatedly, by the second-wave feminism that produced, among other writing, Margaret Drabble’s fiction of female domestic entrapment and Hélène Cixous’s theory of l’écriture féminine, in the nineteen-seventies. (L’écriture féminine, or feminine writing, is the project of inscribing the feminine into the language of a text.) Yet there is something post-ideological about the savagery with which Ferrante attacks the themes of motherhood and womanhood. She seems to enjoy the psychic surplus, the outrageousness, the terrible, singular complexity of her protagonists’ familial dramas. Olga’s plight might seem familiar enough, in particular her apprehension that, in throwing her all into being a mother, she has become dangerously null, while her “ever more productive” husband has only blossomed in the outside world.
But the rhetoric with which she expresses her despair and revulsion around motherhood is perhaps less familiar. There is little room for ideological back-and-forth when children are seen as hideous enemies from a horror film: “I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping; a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves, leaving on me the odor and taste of their gastric juices. Nursing, how repulsive, an animal function.” As Olga follows her train of thought, she becomes convinced that the “stink of motherhood” clung to her and was partly responsible for her husband’s defection. “Sometimes Mario pasted himself against me, took me, holding me as I nearly slept, tired himself after work, without emotions. He did it persisting on my almost absent flesh that tasted of milk, cookies, cereal, with a desperation of his own that overlapped mine without his realizing it. I was the body of incest. . . . I was the mother to be violated, not a lover. Already he was searching for figures more suitable for love.” There is a foul brilliance in how Ferrante sticks with the logic of Olga’s illogic, so that an ordinary enough complaint about the difficulty of raising children becomes an outsized revulsion, and the stink of motherhood leads inexorably to the incestuous end of all marital eros. But this wayward rigor, engrossing in its own right, also makes absolute sense within the context of Olga’s raging jealousy.
Leda, the narrator of “The Lost Daughter” (published in Italian in 2006, and in English in 2008), is a forty-seven-year-old academic who, like Olga, has had to manage both motherhood and professional advancement. She is no longer married to her scientist husband, who lives in Toronto, where her two grown daughters, Marta and Bianca, have also gone to live. About her daughters Leda has ambivalent and often sharply hostile thoughts. Did she, she wonders, really want her children, or was her body simply expressing itself, as a reproducing animal?
I had wanted Bianca, one wants a child with an animal opacity reinforced by popular beliefs. She had arrived immediately, I was twenty-three, her father and I were right in the midst of a difficult struggle to keep jobs at the university. He made it, I didn’t. A woman’s body does a thousand different things, toils, runs, studies, fantasizes, invents, wearies, and meanwhile the breasts enlarge, the lips of the sex swell, the flesh throbs with a round life that is yours, your life, and yet pushes elsewhere, draws away from you although it inhabits your belly, joyful and weighty, felt as a greedy impulse and yet repellent, like an insect’s poison injected into a vein.
For the narrators of Ferrante’s earlier novels, life appears to be a painful conundrum of attachment and detachment. What seems appalling to Leda is that her daughters are so umbilically connected to her own flesh and at the same time are always pushing “elsewhere,” are so alien and other. Thus she feels for them “a complicated alternation of sympathy and antipathy.” When her daughters were six and four, Leda abandoned them for three years. “All the hopes of youth seemed to have been destroyed, I seemed to be falling backward toward my mother, my grandmother, the chain of mute or angry women I came from.” Suspended on a chain of maternity—grandmothers, mothers, daughters, all flesh of one’s own flesh—the only thing is to sever the links and get out. Leda feels it is the way to survive: “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself.” She remembers standing in the kitchen, her daughters watching her, pulled by them but more strongly pulled by the world outside the home:
I felt their gazes longing to tame me, but more brilliant was the brightness of the life outside them, new colors, new bodies, new intelligence, a language to possess finally as if it were my true language, and nothing, nothing that seemed to me reconcilable with that domestic space from which they stared at me in expectation. Ah, to make them invisible, to no longer hear the demands of their flesh as commands more pressing, more powerful than those which came from mine.
Ferrante may never mention Hélène Cixous or French feminist literary theory, but her fiction is a kind of practical écriture féminine: these novels, which reflect on work and motherhood, on the struggle for a space in which to work outside the work of motherhood, necessarily reflect on the achievement of their own writing. To get these difficult words onto the page is to have subdued the demands of the domestic space, quieted for precious intervals the commands of children, and found “a language to possess finally as if it were my true language.”
Before the writer is an adult, she is a child. Before she makes a family, she inherits one; and in order to find her true language she may need to escape the demands and prohibitions of this first, given community. That is one of the themes that connect Ferrante’s latest novel, “My Brilliant Friend,” with her earlier work. At first sight, her new book, published in Italy in 2011, seems very different from its anguished, slender predecessors. It’s a large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman, apparently the first of a trilogy. Its narrator, Elena Greco, recalls her Neapolitan childhood and adolescence, in the late nineteen-fifties. There is a kind of joy in the book not easily found in the earlier work. The city of Elena’s childhood is a poor, violent place (the same city is found in Ferrante’s first novel, “Troubling Love”). But deprivation gives details a snatched richness. A trip to the sea, a new friend, a whole day spent with your father (“We spent the entire day together, the only one in our lives, I don’t remember any others,” Elena says at one point), a brief holiday, the chance to take some books out of a library, the encouragement of a respected teacher, a sketched design for a beautiful pair of shoes, a wedding, the promise of getting your article published in a local journal, a conversation with a boy whose intellect is deeper and more liberal than your own—these ordinary-seeming occurrences take on an unexpected luminosity against a background of poverty, ignorance, violence, and parental threat, a world in which a character can be casually described as “struggling to speak in Italian” (because mostly people in this book are using Neapolitan vernacular). If Ferrante’s earlier novels have some of the brutal directness and familial torment of Elsa Morante’s work, then “My Brilliant Friend” may remind the reader of neorealist movies by De Sica and Visconti, or perhaps of Giovanni Verga’s short stories about Sicilian poverty.
Elena meets her brilliant friend at school, in the first grade. Both children are from relatively impoverished households. Lila Cerullo is the daughter of Fernando Cerullo, a shoemaker; Elena’s father works as a porter at city hall. Lila first impresses Elena because she is “very bad.” She is feral, quick, unafraid, vicious in word and deed. For every act of violence meted out to her, Lila has a swift response. When Elena throws stones back at gangs of boys, she does so without much conviction; Lila does everything with “absolute determination.” No one can really keep pace with that “terrible, dazzling girl,” and everyone is afraid of her. Boys steer clear of her, because she is “skinny, dirty, and always had a cut or bruise of some sort, but also because she had a sharp tongue . . . spoke a scathing dialect, full of swear words, which cut off at its origin any feeling of love.” Lila’s reputation grows when it is discovered that she taught herself to read at the age of three: there is a wonderful scene, indeed the equal of something by Verga, when Lila’s schoolteacher excitedly calls in her mother, Nunzia Cerullo, and asks Lila to read a word she has written on the blackboard. Lila correctly reads the word, but her mother looks hesitantly, almost fearfully, at the teacher: “The teacher at first seemed not to understand why her own enthusiasm was not reflected in the mother’s eyes. But then she must have guessed that Nunzia didn’t know how to read.”
Elena, who had enjoyed her status as the cleverest girl in the class, has to fall in behind the brilliant Lila, who is as smart at school as she is on the street: she comes in first on all the tests, and can do complicated calculations in her head. The two girls seem destined, through education, to escape their origins. In the last year of elementary school, they become obsessed with money, and talk about it “the way characters in novels talk about searching for treasure.” But “My Brilliant Friend” is a bildungsroman in mono, not stereo; we sense early on that Lila will stay trapped in her world, and that Elena, the writer, will get out—like the academic who, in “The Lost Daughter,” describes her need to leave violent and limited Naples thus: “I had run away like a burn victim who, screaming, tears off the burned skin, believing that she is tearing off the burning itself.”
In this beautiful and delicate tale of confluence and reversal, it is hard to identify the moments when a current changes course. Perhaps one occurs when Elena’s schoolteacher, Maestra Oliviero, tells her that she must take the test for admission to middle school, and that her parents will have to pay for extra lessons to prepare her. Elena’s parents, after some resistance, say yes; Lila’s say no. Lila tells Elena she is going to take the test anyway, and no one doubts her: “Although she was fragile in appearance, every prohibition lost substance in her presence.” But Lila eventually loses heart, and does not go to middle school. When Elena later mentions the brilliant Lila to Maestra Oliviero, the teacher asks her if she knows what the plebs are. Yes, Elena says, the people. “And if one wishes to remain a plebeian,” Maestra Oliviero continues, “he, his children, the children of his children deserve nothing. Forget Cerullo and think of yourself.”
This warning casts its shadow over the rest of the novel like a prophecy in classical tragedy. In a powerful scene near the end of the book, Lila Cerullo, now sixteen and on the verge of marrying a grocer’s son, decides that she wants to take the wedding invitation in person to Maestra Oliviero. Elena accompanies her. The old teacher affects not to recognize the brilliant girl who never made it to middle school, and turns to Elena: “I know Cerullo, I don’t know who this girl is.” With that, she shuts the door in their faces. At Lila’s wedding—where, in a characteristically vivid detail, the guests become restive when they realize that the “wine wasn’t the same quality for all the tables”—Elena looks at the modest company and recalls the schoolteacher’s question:
At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer. They were all laughing, even Lila, with the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost.
This is where “My Brilliant Friend” ends, with Elena watching the horizon, and Lila being watched by Elena. One girl is facing beyond the book; the other is caught within its pages. Elena Greco, like the women who narrate Ferrante’s earlier novels, is a survivor; like them, she has had to wrench her survival out of the drama of attachment and detachment. She feels a kind of survivor’s guilt, as if she had robbed the promise of her riches from Lila’s treasury. A final irony is coiled in the novel’s title, the biggest reversal, a shift in perspective that has taken a whole novel to effect. Before the wedding, when Elena is helping Lila with her wedding dress, the two girls briefly discuss Elena’s continued schooling. Lila urges Elena to keep on studying; if necessary she—soon to be a comfortably married woman—will pay for it. “Thanks, but at a certain point school is over,” Elena says with a nervous, doubtless self-deprecating laugh. “Not for you,” Lila replies ardently, “you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”
06 novembre 2013
L'indagine sull'amore, la rabbia e altri demoni di Elena Ferrante
Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta, di Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante, anche per il mistero che la avvolge, sta diventando un mito: i primi due volumi de L'amica geniale hanno conquistato la critica internazionale, dunque l'ultimo e conclusivo volume era molto atteso. E non deluderà i lettori: la passione nel narrare è la stessa e insieme l'impressione di una inarrestabile eruzione dell'anima. Quando si apre il terzo e ultimo volume che racconta la storia di Lila e di Lenù, anzi, come recita il titolo la Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta, siamo nell'anno 2010. Elena Greco vive a Torino e guarda l'acqua passare sotto i ponti del Po: l'ultima volta che ha incontrato Lila a Napoli era il 2005. Ha rivisto l'amica invecchiata e trascurata, con i capelli bianchi e la durezza di sempre nel volto e nei modi: non ha avuto una vita facile. Qualcuno avverte le due amiche che in una aiuola poco lontana c'è un cadavere: vanno a vedere, è quello di Gigliola, una loro ex compagna. Grassa, in disordine, i capelli rossi, è quasi irriconoscibile. Chi l'avrà ammazzata? E Il fatto è che il quartiere, o meglio il rione come lo chiamano loro, non ha perso affatto con il passare degli anni la torva carica di violenza che da sempre lo contraddistingue: la sopraffazione e la legge del più forte dominano la vita di tutti, anche con il mutare delle generazioni e l'alternarsi delle fortune. Elena si rende conto che non è Napoli a essere marcia e che non basta andare via perché tutto cambi. Lila, che ha un intuito molto raffinato, capisce che l'amica sta pensando a tradurre in scrittura la loro storia e la storia del rione e la diffida: non ci provare, noi dobbiamo sparire. Soprattutto non ci provare con me. Scrivi di Gigliola e degli altri, ma non di me. Ecco, sono passati cinque anni da quell'incontro, Lila è scomparsa e di lei non si sa più nulla. Elena non sa neppure bene se pensarla viva o morta: però adesso scrive e scrive, riandando con la memoria a quella serata di quarant'anni prima, quando il suo libro, presentato in una libreria di Milano era stato attaccato da un vecchio signore, che poi avrebbe saputo essere un critico che scriveva sul Corriere della Sera ed era stato difeso con grande forza da Nino Sarratore, suo amico d'infanzia da sempre segretamente amato, comparso come per incanto a Milano dove stava facendosi strada all'Università. Siamo nel pieno delle lotte studentesche, delle rivendicazioni operaie, delle rivolte femministe: il mondo è in fermento e la violenza dilaga. I vecchi partiti non sanno adeguarsi e nascono a ripetizione gruppuscoli e movimenti, fino alle formazioni clandestine delle Br. Questo solo per accennare al clima nel quale si trova a vivere Elena, ormai considerata una scrittrice e protetta dalla famiglia Airota nella quale sta per entrare sposando Pietro, professore universitario di latino, anzi cattedratico di ruolo a soli venticinque anni, per meriti paterni, dicono i maligni. In realtà il romanzo non si può (non si deve) raccontare: servirebbe solo ad accorciare la vita di Elena e di Lila, che continuano a specchiarsi l'una nell'altra anche se vivono lontane e in modo assai diverso. Lila campa in modo infame, lavora in una fabbrica di salumi dove lo sfruttamento e il sopruso sono la norma. Ha un figlio, Gennaro, che forse è di Nino Sarratore, con il quale si è messa dopo aver lasciato il marito. Elena sta ora a Firenze, non fa quasi nulla, diventa madre una prima e poi una seconda volta, ma il rione di Napoli da cui proviene, quello che le ha dato un imprinting incancellabile, è come se fosse in agguato, un fuoco in apparenza domato, ma mai estinto. Possiamo dire che le storie di Elena e di Lila rappresentano un'indagine serratissima sull'amore: su quanto possa essere (per usare un aggettivo caro all'autrice) molesto e acuto un sentimento che si mette di traverso, che esalta e insieme complica le cose, distrugge ed edifica, scompiglia vecchie alleanze e ne ripropone di nuove. Ma sono anche, queste storie, un tentativo di capire la realtà femminile, sulla quale Elena riflette a lungo, persino scrivendo un piccolo saggio, perché ha bisogno di vedere controluce se stessa e le scelte spesso estreme che si trova a compiere. La Ferrante racconta il travaglio di Elena dal di dentro e la scrittura scorre via velocissima come il pensiero, densa di interrogativi, di spasimi, di paure, di catastrofi annunciate o evitate. La tensione è spesso al diapason, come del resto era accaduto anche nei due libri precedenti de L'amica geniale, e le vicende si intrecciano in modo sorprendente. Specie se riguardano il rione e i suoi abitanti: che continuano ad ammazzarsi tra di loro in una faida che non conosce fine ma anche a desiderarsi, in un intreccio di storie, tradimenti, matrimoni senza amore in cui Lila, soprattutto, ed Elena sono coinvolte anche se non sempre direttamente. Ha avuto un senso fuggire? Ha avuto un senso cercare scampo presso altre tribù umane, più civili, più ricche e potenti? Quando descrive i sapienti, la Ferrante ha sempre un occhio (eccessivo) di riguardo. Della madre di Pietro, Adele, fa una specie di deus ex machina, sempre pronta ad aiutare Elena, a trovare la soluzione giusta per ogni cosa. Ma è molto più credibile e incisiva quando parla della madre di Elena: aggressiva, possessiva, perennemente sul piede di guerra e pronta a mandare la figlia a quel paese se la scoccia con una domanda inopportuna. Sì, lì vedi scorrere la vita, con tutti i suoi imprevisti e in questo la Ferrante resta una narratrice molto originale. Ci sono scene di gruppo nella Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta veramente memorabili, come il pranzo nella casa di Elisa, la sorella minore di Elena, dove convergono i maggiorenti del rione ostentando tutta la volgarità delle loro ricchezze e dei loro modi di fare. Ma memorabile soprattutto resta il ritmo di queste pagine, ora lento e ora velocissimo, che restituiscono il flusso vitale con la stessa naturalezza con cui batte il cuore o scorre il sangue nelle vene.
Chi è Elena Ferrante? L'autore di alcuni bei romanzi, come L'amore molesto, I
giorni dell'abbandono, e di un vero capolavoro, la trilogia che ha per
protagoniste Elena e Lila, di cui è uscito da poco l'ultimo volume Storia di chi
fugge e di chi resta. L'amica geniale, che apre la trilogia, è a mio parere uno
dei romanzi più belli della nostra letteratura recente.
Sì, ma chi è Elena Ferrante? Non lo sappiamo. Sappiamo che si tratta di un nom de plume, ma la casa editrice mantiene il segreto alla perfezione da anni. Potrebbe essere, come veniva detto all'inizio, una donna riservata, che vive in un'isola della Grecia e non intende farsi rovinare la vita dal successo. Oppure Domenico Starnone, come sempre più spesso si insinua, che non pago della sua onoratissima carriera, si diverte a svagolare. Sono stati pubblicati saggi di italianisti, che hanno comparato i libri di Starnone e quelli di Ferrante alla ricerca di analogie e differenze. Secondo loro, non solo è possibile, ma è addirittura molto probabile che l'autrice sia Starnone. E tutta la faccenda della letteratura scritta dalle donne, le sue doti e i suoi difetti? Per non offendere gli studi di genere, si è detto allora che Ferrante sia la moglie di Domenico Starnone, Anita Raja, consulente di e/o, la casa editrice che pubblica tutti i suoi libri.
E Ferrante che dice? I libri non hanno bisogno degli autori. Lo spiega in una raccolta di interviste, lettere e quant'altro intitolata non a caso La frantumaglia. Ha ragione, i libri non ne hanno bisogno. Ma noi sì. Forse perché io detesto i misteri, ma un romanzo senza autore mi sembra un'opera zoppa. Che può essere magnifica, come appunto certi libri di Ferrante, ma che andrà sempre per il mondo come una creatura non finita, inspiegabile. Vittima delle interpretazioni e delle illazioni che finiranno per seppellirla. Elena Ferrante, ti prego, dicci chi sei e lasciati amare.
Huffington Post - 12 novembre 2013
Elena Ferrante svela il mistero di Napoli e l'impossibilità di essere normali
Chiunque si nasconda dietro il nome di , firma misteriosa apposta al ciclo de "L'amica geniale" () ora arrivato al terzo volume, di sicuro è una donna, e sa narrare Napoli come nessuno. Lo fa con una scrittura che somiglia a una ragnatela fatata, per la sua forza espressiva e la magia con cui arriva a creare mondi. E lo fa evocando quello della città-mondo più indecifrabile che ci sia.
In tutti i suoi libri c'è qualcosa che toglie il respiro. Forse è per via dei toni cupi da tragedia greca riecheggianti al di sotto di storie apparentemente ordinarie o dall'intreccio complicato, come quella raccontata nelle 384 pagine di "". Ma anche se i precedenti "L'amore molesto" e "I giorni dell'abbandono" propiziavano immersioni più veloci e dirette per il guizzo del passo narrativo spedito, per una più asciutta risolutezza del lampo di scrittura, le pagine dell'ultimo libro hanno un respiro potente capace di restituire il mistero di una Napoli opaca e degradata, tra i primi anni Cinquanta e i Settanta-Ottanta.
Leggiamo della Napoli di allora, dell'infanzia, adolescenza e giovinezza dell'io narrante Lenuccia, condivise con l'amica Lila, e vi troviamo il mistero di Napoli e della sua immobilità nel tempo. Nelle pagine di Elena Ferrante quasi tocchiamo le barriere sociali tra i quartieri dell'affaccio sul mare e quelli dove vive gente che il mare potrebbe non averlo visto mai. Troviamo il senso di sospensione, l'attesa del cambiamento, la speranza di svoltare poi cancellata, il precipizio e il ritorno all'indietro.
La città qui descritta è inizialmente quella del laurismo e dei paesaggi dell'abbandono, con i quartieri plebei popolati da bambini con perenne moccio al naso e croste alle ginocchia. È la città delle "mazziate" alle mogli dispensate regolarmente come norma condivisa. È quella della cattiveria spavalda e struggente delle "guaglione" nate in famiglie miserabili, dove si ritiene che lo studio sia "un trucco dei ragazzi più furbi per sottrarsi alla fatica quotidiana", ostile soprattutto all'impegno delle femmine. È un luogo che mette radici in chi ci nasce, anche se, come Lenuccia, se ne allontana per andare a Nord, in un percorso di emancipazione intellettuale e sociale mai del tutto compiuto.
Le radici di questo luogo, sembra dire la Ferrante in pagine tra le più belle mai scritte sulla lingua napoletana dopo quelle di La Capria, sono rese visibili dal dialetto: qui è rappresentato come un osceno rito identitario, codice di necessità, contagio che attacca pensieri cattivi anche ai bambini, esplode in urla scomposte impossessandosi perfino, e nuovamente, di Lenuccia nelle sue liti fiorentine con il civilissimo marito. E la dimensione dialettale trionfa nel pranzo, raccontato in pagine memorabili, a casa dell'arrogante affarista Solara, con le donne feroci e infelici intente a "ticchettare sui tacchi alti" dopo essersi ben "apparecchiate", cioè ridotte a tavole imbandite per l'appetito sessuale del maschio padrone.
Quella che incontriamo in queste pagine è dunque la stessa città "senza grazia" raccontata dalla grande Ortese, ma con lo sguardo allungato di chi l'ha vista in anni successivi sollevarsi e poi cadere ancora. E di chi sa che il fallimento di Napoli è il fallimento di tutti.
Nella finzione narrativa, e nel rione popolare da cui Lenuccia partirà e Lila sparirà alla fine di una vita durissima, spadroneggia una famiglia dalle sembianze camorriste appena accennate e però palpabili. Ma qui non c'è traccia alcuna del "pan-camorrismo" adoperato insistentemente con logica da alibi di tutti i mali, oltre che come ossessivo espediente romanzesco.
Qui il "difetto" del luogo abita nelle persone, ed è per questo che Lenuccia decide di "filar via definitivamente, lontano dalla vita che avevamo sperimentato fin dalla nascita". Per questo sceglie di "insediarsi in territori ben organizzati dove davvero tutto era possibile". Ma se lo fa, è per scoprire "nei decenni a venire, che mi ero sbagliata, che si trattava di una catena con anelli sempre più grandi: il rione mi rimandava alla città, la città all'Italia, l'Italia all'Europa, l'Europa a tutto il pianeta".
Il "difetto" del luogo Napoli, della città che anticipa le patologie del mondo, nel romanzo prende le forme della "smarginatura", il senso di labilità, spaesamento, sperdimento di sé e dei propri confini avvertito da Lila come oscura malattia. La "smarginatura" s'identifica nei percorsi pubblici e privati di tutti i personaggi come dei napoletani di ogni tempo e luogo, incapaci di darsi un riscatto da se stessi, in imprenditori, politici, amministratori pubblici, intellettuali.
Ed è come se, di fronte al rischio della "smarginatura" , Ferrante optasse per la sparizione, l'assenza calcolata, l'occultamento dietro un nome-pretesto. Ma chiunque si nasconda dietro quel nome, l'importante è che ci sia qualcuno con una scrittura così, capace di mostrarci che cosa c'è dietro la vita.
The New York Times
December 21, 2012
Book One: Childhood, Adolescence.
By Elena Ferrante.
Europa Editions, paper
Elena Greco, known to all as the porter’s daughter in her poor, 1950s Naples neighborhood, always liked school: “Right away, from the first day,” it seemed like “a much nicer place than home.” She’s the teacher’s pet, often asked to sit beside the maestra as a reward for her diligence. So it comes as a distressing surprise when Lila Cerullo, the shoemaker’s daughter, is invited to take the seat of honor instead. After this initial shock, Elena trains herself to accept Lila’s superiority. The charismatic and mysterious Lila is eminently crush-worthy, but it doesn’t take much hermeneutic detective work to see that Ferrante thinks her namesake protagonist is brilliant in her own right. She’s also more fortunate: Elena’s parents allow her to continue her education through high school, whereas Lila’s expect her to drop out and start working. By the end of this astute novel, which has been translated into lucid English by Ann Goldstein, these environmental differences have just begun to manifest themselves, setting up the next installment of a planned trilogy.
February 01 2013
On the precipice
My Brilliant Friend
Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein (translator)
Elena Ferrante’s novel opens with the disappearance of the enigmatic Lila, one of her two principal protagonists, half a century after the events that the novel will trace. Disappearance is a recurrent trope in Ferrante’s fiction, which it is tempting to read as a sly nod to the author’s notorious reclusiveness; in an age when it seems that every novelist spends almost as much time tweeting as writing, Ferrante refuses even to be photographed and grants interviews only rarely, giving rise to occasional speculation that she writes under a pseudonym.
Whatever the truth of this, MY BRILLIANT FRIEND, translated by Ann Goldstein, is stunning: an intense, forensic exploration of the friendship between Lila and the story’s narrator, Elena. Ferrante’s evocation of the working-class district of Naples where Elena and Lila first meet as two wiry eight-year-olds is cinematic in the density of its detail, its atmosphere heavy with barely suppressed brutality. Naples in the aftermath of the Second World War remains suffused with almost medieval suspicions and fears: “You could die if you were sweating and then drank cold water from the tap without first bathing your wrists: you’d break out in red spots, you’d start coughing, and be unable to breathe.” The war still casts a shadow, with the half-understood darkness of Fascism present in the nightmarish figure of Don Achille, who in the girls’ fevered imaginations steals their dolls and spirits them away in his sinister “black bag.”
The girls become friends at school, where Elena is studiously successful and Lila shines with a wild brilliance. When Lila’s parents refuse to allow her to go on to high school, she studies for a while on her own, using Elena’s books, picking up ancient Greek and English with a speed that puts her former classmate to shame. Everything about Lila leaves the plodding Elena in her shadow; while Elena grows into a heavy, spotty teenager, the tomboyish Lila becomes a stunning young woman, a magnet for every male in the district. She wields a shaming power over her closest friend. Even her disappearance is a way of erasing not only her own life but that of Elena, too. It is fitting, in a story that is seamed with tiny tales of vengeance, that in writing this story Elena thwarts both Lila’s desire to disappear and her attempt to recast her friend’s as well as her own past.
Elena claims to “feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence” – though the very act of writing about it could be seen as a refutation of this claim. In a poignant episode towards the end of the novel, she experiences a terrible confusion when she watches Lila having a bath on the morning of her wedding. Though Elena has already lost her virginity to her boyfriend Antonio, it is the sight of Lila’s nakedness that seems to awaken her sexually for the first time. Through the prism of age and experience, the adult Elena, looking back, recognizes “the embarrassment of gazing with pleasure at her body, of being the not impartial witness of her sixteen-year-old beauty”; but she then slips into the present tense, recalling how “everything is there, present, in the poor dim room, amid the worn furniture, on the uneven, water-stained floor, and your heart is agitated, your veins inflamed.” This is no longer a memory but a feeling, transgressing the boundaries of time; the acknowledgment of the confusion of adolescence and the headiness of passionate teenage friendship becomes a gesture of forgiveness from the adult Elena to her younger self.
The novel’s climax brings all the characters together for a wedding, where the intense dramas of this tight-knit community are played out. But we are told that this is the first novel in a trilogy; the wedding is not a happy ending but a precipice.
The Sydney Morning Herald
November 16, 2013
One of the most astounding - and mysterious - contemporary Italian novelists available in translation, Elena Ferrante, unfolds the tumultuous inner lives of women in her thrillingly menacing stories of lost love, negligent mothers and unfulfilled desires.
Volumes one and two of the Neapolitan trilogy, the first of Ferrante's novels published in Australia and translated by Ann Goldstein, chronicle a humble neighbourhood and changing society through the trajectory of two seemingly average girls.
begins with Elena's present-day discovery that her lifelong friend is missing. Sixty-six-year-old Lila has erased herself, even excising her image from photographs. In response, Elena recreates Lila anew on the page.
What follows is a compulsive joint history of the girls that inspires affection and revulsion. As the title suggests, Elena defines herself through the filter of her friend, giving Lila an immense power to shape their personalities.
This striking novel documents Lila's fearlessness and desire to set the world aright, according to her enigmatic principles. The true friendship begins after Lila throws Elena's beloved doll through a grate accessible only to the town ogre. She then takes Elena's hand as together they confront their greatest fear.
Blonde and studious, Elena shines when compared with the scrawny Lila, with her dirty clothes and filthy mouth, until the teacher discovers that Lila has taught herself to read. Elena then forever measures herself, unsuccessfully, against her friend.
Although the girls' paths fork - Elena heads for middle school and early puberty, while skinny Lila mends shoes - they continue to need each other, if only to view the ways their alternate realities unfold. Elena's devotion borders on obsession; Lila's appears at moments of terror. Although still children, they must discover how to traverse the world of men and their own raw sexuality. Ferrante writes with clear, unadorned and confessional prose that inflicts on the reader the thrill and dread of living in a world half understood.
The end of leaves the girls suspended in peril all the more terrifying because it remains unnamed. picks up almost immediately at Lila's wedding, where the first book ends, but its tone shifts, giving the effect of a rebirth during the freeze-frame that separates the two volumes, as though the portal of marriage has changed not only a name but the state of being of all girls of their generation. While Lila reigns over the neighbourhood during her engagement, bingeing on expensive dresses, her status plummets to that of unhappy wife as soon as she seals her union with the wealthy grocer. At 16, she is trapped, her womb the subject of conversation, while her own mother ignores her battered face.
Meanwhile, Elena juggles her first tastes of illicit physical love with her impulse to remain top student, although she has no example of an alternate future her schooling might provide. The best she can envision - after slaving through Latin and Greek - is to marry her mechanic boyfriend and pump petrol until she has babies.
Ferrante imbues the large cast of characters with machinations that surface in dramatic ways. Their connections to one another shift, as though their very persons (duplicitous even to themselves) are reincarnated, like chess pieces, once they hit certain marks.
What sets these girls apart, and transforms what might become a personal story of hemmed-in females fighting against a patriarchal society, is the spirit of small - and large - revolts each one enacts that subtly crack the foundation of their community, where women are told little and punished for misunderstanding. Their revolts - and their squabbles - become politically and morally charged. At stake is the nature of belonging, of shedding the prescribed self, and of the shameful comfort of corruption.
With frustrating impotence, we watch Lila's story unfurl; only Elena, with her education and increasing distance from the claustrophobic community, can attempt to understand their possibilities and buck against them. That is, until Lila - always ahead of everyone, despite herself - challenges the rules and shatters lives. These two novels - uncomfortable and compelling - mark the beginning of what is destined to become a lasting Italian classic that transcends place, even while commemorating it.
Almost nothing is known about the writer called Elena Ferrante, including her real name, making her even more reclusive than, say, Pynchon or Salinger, which is refreshing in an industry that desires celebrity of its writers.
Although the first two Neapolitan novels - each full, if not complete in itself - are less fierce than her previous ones, they move far from contrivance, logic or respectability to ask uncomfortable questions about how we live, how we love, how we singe an existence in a deeply flawed world that expects pretty acquiescence from its women. In all their beauty, their ugliness, their devotion and deceit, these girls enchant and repulse, like life, like our very selves.
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 writer , 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, . 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 . Ferrante seems to be holding our heads stiffly so that we cannot look away, telling us repeatedly, . 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.
is the author of five books of fiction and a book of collected essays, "Because You Have To: A Writing Life."
October 02, 2012
With so many literary heavyweights clamoring for attention this fall, it would be both easy—and a terrible mistake—to miss one more. Italian author Elena Ferrante’s gutsy and compulsively readable new novel, the first of a trilogy, is a terrific entry point for Americans unfamiliar with the famously reclusive writer, whose go-for-broke tales of women’s shadow selves—those ambivalent mothers and seething divorcées too complex or unseemly for polite society (and most literary fiction, for that matter)—shimmer with Balzacian human detail and subtle psychological suspense.
Her talents are in full force in My Brilliant Friend (Europa), translated by Ann Goldstein, which follows the relationship between two women: studious, quietly determined Elena, who narrates, and the canny, enigmatic Lila, beginning with their girlhood outside Naples in the aftermath of World War II. The novel is told in retrospect: In the brief prologue, Elena is in her sixties, living in Turin, when Lila’s son calls to inform her that his mother has disappeared along with her belongings. Even her face has been cut out of family photographs. “Lila is overdoing it as usual,” Elena thinks to herself, more exasperated than alarmed.
And so Elena decides to write Lila’s story, thus thwarting her friend’s effort to erase herself—and, by extension, Elena. Their stories, we understand, are irrevocably intertwined, as are their certain-to-be-divergent paths; the mystery of their fates is precisely what will drive the narrative. At the outset, the girls are eight years old, bright, exuberant sparks against the backdrop of a godforsaken village one can only imagine filmed in an Italian neorealist’s black and white, characterized by its casual violence and grotesqueries, its inhabitants so interconnected that grievances and rivalries fester for generations. “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence,” writes Elena, matter-of-factly. “We grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”
In the tiny fishbowl of their community, everything is noticed, especially the lives of young girls, and differences are measured in the smallest of degrees. Lila is the cleverer of the two: Elena must work to excel, while Lila has a fierce native intelligence. Their teacher encourages them both to attend school in the city, but only Elena’s family is willing to pay for their daughter to continue her studies, and the rage-filled teenage Lila is left behind to work in the family business. Eventually, she gives up her books entirely. She rebels by designing elegant shoes no one can afford to buy, and in time, her “beauty of mind,” as their teacher bitterly predicts, finds an outlet “in her face, in her breasts, in her thighs, in her ass, places where it soon fades and it will be as if she had never had it.” But at sixteen, where this installment of their story leaves off, Lila is the dominant, if increasingly warped personality, both the emotional core of Elena’s world and the magnetic pole around which the men in the village are drawn. Page by page, the tension ratchets up, culminating in Lila’s wedding.
One of the more nuanced portraits of feminine friendship in recent memory—from the make-up and break-up quarrels of young girls to the way in which we carefully define ourselves against each other as teens—Ferrante wisely balances her memoir-like emotional authenticity with a wry sociological understanding of a society on the verge of dramatic change. As Nino, Elena’s classmate and an object of her affection, puts it: “Here in Naples we, with all due respect to Don Quixote, have no need to tilt against windmills, it’s only wasted courage: we need people who know how the mills work and will make them work.”
Elena Ferrante is obsessed by disappearance. Her first book, the extraordinary "The Days of Abandonment," published in 2002 in her native Italy, opens, "One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me." By the end of the paragraph, the husband has gone, "leaving me turned to stone beside the sink."
The book is driven by the narrator's compulsion to dismantle the husband's decision, and to determine how she could have known nothing of its origins. Conjuring scenes and conversations, she forces him to reappear, if only in her mind, as she descends into a kind of fever state.
The narrator is preoccupied with solving a marital mystery, that mystery which is the unique agreement - the - between two people; the fortunate reader becomes her captive on this mission.
"My Brilliant Friend" is Ferrante's fourth novel, the first in a trilogy, and also obsessed by a most intimate relationship, a friendship. Elena Greco, the narrator, receives an urgent call from Rino, the son of an old friend. His mother, Lila, has disappeared, he says. Elena has known since they were little girls in the 1950s, both of them fierce and tortured inhabitants of a destitute Neapolitan neighborhood.
Elena, factual and unsentimental, is interested by the news but neither panicked nor confused, as the son is. She's known for years that Lila "wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world."
True to the nature of their fraught friendship, Elena will not allow Lila what she wants. She launches into meticulous history in a narrative that serves as an act of vengeance, a suitable form generated by their old neighborhood, which erupted with dirt and violence, old codes of behavior reinforced, helplessly.
"It was like that," Elena explains. "We didn't know the origin of that fear-rancor-hatred-meekness that our parents displayed ... and transmitted to us, but it was there, it was a fact, like the neighborhood, its dirty-white houses, the fetid odor of the landings, the dust of the streets."
This story, told in lengthy, precise scenes that burst with vivid neighborhood characters, is no less brutal for the evident love and compassion Elena has felt all her life for her difficult friend.
"My Brilliant Friend" takes us from young childhood up to Lila's unlikely marriage at age 17. Elena, who considers herself intelligent but unattractive, has become a star intellect in spite of her culture that values instead labor, thrift and family.
Her friendship with Lila is its own world within an insular world, and like most girls' friendships, it trades in support, competition, confidences, example and that "continuous game of exchanges and reversals that, now happily, now painfully, made us indispensable to each other." This friendship tells her who she is and at the same time undoes what she knows of herself.
Elena, the scholar, reads one of the few letters Lila has sent her and says with grudging admiration, "The voice set in the writing overwhelmed me, enthralled me even more than when we talked face to face: it was completely cleansed of the dross of speech, of the confusion of the oral."
Ferrante, beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein, rises above "the confusion of the oral" and writes with a ferocious, intimate urgency that is a celebration of anger. Ferrante is terribly good with anger, a very specific sort of wrath harbored by women, who are so often not allowed to give voice to it. We are angry, a lot of the time, at the position we're in - whether it's as wife, daughter, mother, friend - and I can think of no other woman writing who is so swift and gorgeous in this rage, so bracingly fearless in mining fury.
Elena Greco describes the frank and brutal Lila as "gripped by a frenzy of absolute disclosure"; she is also describing her frank, brutal and brilliant creator.
's new book, "She Matters: A Life in Friendships," will be published by Scribner in January.
LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS
August 27th, 2013
ELENA FERRANTE’S 2012 begins with an epigraph from Goethe’s , spoken by the divinity: “Man’s active nature, flagging, seeks too soon the level;/ Unqualified repose he learns to crave.” This could refer to narrator Elena Greco: thoughtful, cautious, willing to seek reasonable compromises with life to gain her share of happiness. (Born into the austerity and sufferings of post-World War II Naples, Elena cannot take for granted happiness or even simple “repose.”) But the passage continues: “Whence, willingly, the comrade him I gave,/ Who works, excites, and must create, as Devil.” This spirit of demonic invention is embodied in Elena’s comrade-rival Lila Cerullo, Ferrante’s greatest creation to date, an incandescent figure deformed — but not contained — by the prejudices and limits of patriarchal postwar Italy. published this month by Europa Books, is the second fat installment of a projected trilogy about Elena and Lila, two girls of unusual talent and drive born into an impoverished, violent neighborhood. “[A] single novel that, because of its length […] is being published in several volumes,” according to Ferrante, these books follow Elena and Lila from their childhood beginnings in Naples, through adulthood and into old age in a modernizing Italy. One of them abandons the society and class they were born into, one stays; one tempers anger in order to attain higher education and the upward mobility it permits, the other’s internalized rage, a “poisoned fury” in her stomach, proves debilitating.
“We lived in a world,” an adult Elena recalls 1940s Naples,
in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died […] Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.
“Blood,” she continues:
In general it came from wounds only after horrible curses and disgusting obscenities had been exchanged. That was the standard procedure. My father, though he seemed to me a good man, hurled continuous insults and threats if someone didn’t deserve, as he said, to be on the face of the earth.
Physical violence is constant, often in the form of domestic abuse routinely (but sometimes startlingly — one father throws his daughter out a second-floor window) visited by men on their wives and children. But if the women are less violent, their rage is no less potent: “[W]hile men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.”
The books are at once juicy, engrossing historical novels — so crowded with characters they require a prefatory family tree to keep the names straight — and searingly intense parables of artistic creation. Lila fascinates Elena, along with nearly everyone she encounters, in her brilliance and unpredictability. Her “quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.” Her intelligence is so dazzling as to sometimes appear as a kind of black magic or witchcraft; she more than once seems, in fits of rage, to cause spontaneous combustion in objects, and she can be a frightening adversary: “You’d better go, we’re witches here […] [A]ll he has to do is touch me and he’ll burn: it’s I who hurt people.” Within these realist historical novels lie hints of a primal supernatural. Lila becomes a thwarted creator possessing powerful — albeit largely suppressed — talents, and wielding transformative forces. And Elena, due in part to Lila’s influence, herself becomes an artist, one who “must create.”
These latest novels mark a new phase for Ferrante. Her previous novels — (1999, English trans. 2006), (2002, trans2005), and (2006, trans. 2008) — can themselves be read as an informal trilogy of intensely raw, slim novels (the longest well under 200 pages) about lost and abandoned daughters and mothers. The first, , a less fully accomplished trial run for the superb two that follow it, begins witha middle-aged woman, Delia, recounting the apparently accidental drowning of her mother, Amelia. An investigation into her mother’s death leads Delia on a hallucinatory journey into Naples: rough-hewn, violent, inimical — the hometown she had intended to leave for good upon entering the professional middle class of Rome. This simple plot — a vanished mother, a seeking daughter, an unwished-for return to the scene of a childhood trauma — also sets a template for Ferrante’s next two novels. Each of her three works could plausibly have been titled featuring as they all do a woman who grapples with the love, hatred, closeness and revulsion she feels for her own mother, sometimes for her children, and often for the Naples where she was born and raised. The novels are fiercely compressed and confessional, erupting with emotions and images charged by stifled feelings.
Invariably damaged, Ferrante’s narrators and protagonists suffer from injuries that tend to shift, disconcertingly, from the figurative to the literal, from the psychological to the bodily. When someone bears a wound in Ferrante’s work, it is difficult to say definitively if it is psychological or physical, linguistic or somatic, because, according to Ferrante, these realms are never separate. “I tend to throw into words — for the most part vainly — my entire body,” she has commented. One consequence is that Ferrante seems to view language and writing as at once wounded and wounding, and as a means for better understanding past injuries. Discussing her novels, Ferrante comments that the ones she prefers “seemed to me the ones that most decisively stuck a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected, and without a safe distance.” “At other times,” she adds, apparently discussing unpublished work, “I’ve written about clean or happily healed wounds, and I did so with the regulation detachment and the right words. But then I discovered that that is not my path.” This is for her a primary goal of fiction—to “stick a finger” into an infected and open wound, to prod it and remind oneself where and why it hurts.
Ferrante’s comments invite biographical inquiry: what are these still-infected wounds explored by her novels? For now, however, we can know little beyond the evidence of the fictions themselves, for “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym for an author who has, somewhat incredibly for someone of her renown, managed to keep her identity hidden. Through her Italian publisher, she has engaged in occasional written interviews from which we learn that she is, assuming no deeper deception, a Naples-born woman who has “a degree in classical literature,” who works or has worked in academia — “I study, I translate, I teach” — and who lived for some time in Greece. In addition to a strong interest in classical mythology and literature — the figure of Dido, the self-sacrificing Queen of Carthage, is a significant reference within , for example — she admits “that I am slightly interested in psychoanalysis, and fairly interested in feminism.” Naturally, her secrecy has guaranteed that almost nothing published about her fails to speculate about the reasons for and effects of her pseudonymity. For her part, Ferrante attributes it to "a somewhat neurotic desire for intangibility.” She writes a book, she asserts, “to free myself from it, not to be its prisoner.” “I would like only to decide myself what part of me should be made public and what instead should remain private.” All this is to say: don’t bother checking for her Twitter feed.
Since we can’t know about Ferrante’s own unhealed wounds, we can only consider those of her characters. One central category could be described as maternal injuries: injuries by and of mothers, sometimes inflicted by children, sometimes constituted by those children. begins with its 48-year-old narrator, Leda (remember that Ferrante is a classicist), a divorced scholar and teacher of English literature, explaining how she passed out while driving home from a beach vacation on the coast and woke up in a hospital room: “The only serious injury was in my left side, an inexplicable lesion.” The novel, in narrating the events of this unrestful holiday, eventually explains how she acquired the injury — but this proves an answer that does not solve or salve, so much as prod and stick a finger in.
Every daughter in these books seeks, with the passion of instinctive necessity, to separate herself decisively from her mother, which proves impossible because the daughter’s identity and body are constituted quite literally out of the mother’s. Each daughter carries traces of her own mother within her. In , Delia imagines her own teenaged mother, running through a dark city underpass in Naples, followed by aggressive men “making obscene remarks.” (Frightening sexual harassment on streets and busses is a leitmotif for Ferrante.) As Delia retraces her mother’s steps, “[s]he ran in my head. Was it possible that I, passing through there, carried her in my aging, unsuitably dressed body? Was it possible that her sixteen-year-old body, in a homemade flowered dress, was passing through the shadowy light by means of mine?” In , the 38-year-old narrator, Olga, a frustrated writer, recalls her feelings of helpless dissolution when she had nursed her infant children. “I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping: a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves.”’s Leda observes:
The women of my family swelled, dilated. The creature trapped in their womb seemed a long illness that changed them […] It seemed to me that little Bianca, right after her beautiful birth, had suddenly changed and treacherously taken for herself all my energy, all my strength, all my capacity for invention.
In the daughter’s struggle for autonomy and self-differentiation has specifically Gothic overtones: Delia looks at a photo of herself and is startled to see her mother. In the later novels, a sense of uncanny doubling imbues the language, but more ambiguously. Part of the power of Ferrante’s writing lies in its self-awareness of language as uncanny, charged with uncontrollable forces beyond the agency of any speaker or writer. Each of her protagonists traces a personal journey out of Naples, a journey that occurs simultaneously within the registers of geography, psychology, family, class, and the linguistic. In what must have posed a particular challenge for Ferrante’s able translator, Ann Goldstein, her work is continually concerned with diglossia, the shifting tensions between Neopolitan dialect and the proper Italian of the educated-professional class. This Neopolitan dialect is, in every novel, associated with obscenity, the erotic, childhood, violence, and the voice of the mother. (Ferrante has commented that “[a]s a child, as an adolescent, the dialect of Naples frightened me.”) Dialect possesses uncanny characteristics for Ferrante’s educated protagonists, who in their ascent out of the working class have “surmounted” dialect (to use the technical Freudian term), in so doing infusing it with the explosive force of the disavowed. Dialect is the idiom of cursing mothers and grandmothers from the old neighborhood, a shameful but vital reminder of their continued unrefined existence. In a climactic scene of confrontation in Leda “heard her behind me, hissing insults in dialect, terrible as the ones my grandmother, my mother used to utter.” ’s Delia hears on the streets on Naples “the buzz of dialect sounds that I deciphered unwillingly. It was the language of my mother, which I had vainly tried to forget.”
These characters want to “forget” dialect, to learn to speak exclusively in a more cultured and cosmopolitan Italian; they cannot, in part because dialect continues to offer a sub-rational link to sources of authentic identity. Dialect is particularly linked with both “obscenity” and the erotic. When Delia is sexually harassed on the streets on Naples by a strange man, she is “hit by a stream of obscenities in dialect, a soft river of sound that involved me, my sisters, my mother in a concoction of semen, saliva, feces, urine, in every possible orifice.” But she also recognizes that she cannot seem to do without dialectical obscenities. “The sound of obscenities uttered in dialect” are for her “the only obscenities that could fit together sound and sense in my head in such a way as to make concrete a sex that was troublesome in its aggressive, pleasure-seeking, and sticky realism: every other formula outside of that dialect seemed to me insignificant, often lighthearted.” Olga in, after her husband Mario leaves her for a much younger family friend, explains, “Obscenity came to my lips naturally; it seemed to me that it served to communicate […] that I was not one to be taken in by fine words. As soon as I opened my mouth I felt the wish to mock, smear, defile Mario and his slut.”
Dialect, the obscene, Naples: these categories all designate that which must be left behind in order to enter the middle class in Florence, Rome, or Turin, but which persist as embodiments of an unrefined authenticity. “[W]ho knows, maybe it was I alone who was obscene now,” Olga comments, half in dismay, half exulting in her newfound verbal and erotic powers. These novels bear the imprint of classic second-wave feminist criticism and theory; Simone de Beauvoir’s story collection is a recurring intertext of for example, and in that novel, Olga’s “obscene” language could be a manifestation of Hélène Cixous’s declaration, in her “The Laugh of the Medusa,” that “[a] woman’s body, with its thousand and one threshholds of ardor […] will make the old single-grooved mother tongue reverberate with more than one language […] with a force never yet unleashed”[i]
With , Ferrante shifted from compressed interior psychological fiction, confined within a single narrator’s vividly claustrophobic consciousness, to a new mode of expansive, multi-character historical . ( and — entitled , Vol. 2 in its Italian edition — each begins with a daunting genealogical character list, grouped according to nine primary families: “The Cerullo family (the shoemaker’s family)”; “The Greco family (the porter’s family)”; and so on.) These books in many ways do mark a departure from the previous work. They are less anguished, their pace is slower, and they offer a far broader, more panoramic vision that connects the microcosm of Elena’s and Lila’s particular lives to Italy’s postwar national experience of industrialization, modernization, social class, and shifts in norms of sexuality and gender. In short, they are historical novels in a classic mode, as well as or that narrate Elena’s gradual development into an intellectual and a successful author.
Despite the break preceding these new historical novels (or single meta-novel), however, and are unmistakably still productions by the author of . Although the books remain deeply interested in mother-daughter relations, the focus now shifts from those vertical bonds to the horizontal connections of peer friendship: primarily Elena and Lila’s, but also their ties to a cast of friends, classmates, and lovers. Partly due to slightly less-supportive parents, and partly, perhaps, because as a girl in Naples of this era, it may be more profitable to in effect “seek […] the level” as a very intelligent second-best in the class than to dazzle as an intimidatingly brilliant number one, Lila drops out of elementary school while Elena proceeds to middle school and then later onward to university on a scholarship. Yet even as the two girls’ bond of friendship frays from the pressure of their increasingly different lives, Elena never doubts that her own success is rooted, in some fundamental way, in her tie to Lila. As Elena comments, “I devoted myself to studying and to many things that were difficult, alien to me, just so I could keep pace with that terrible, dazzling girl.” Later she observes that “[i]t was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other.” “Lila’s world, as usual, rapidly superimposed itself on mine.” The girls share a mutual obsession with Louisa May Alcott’s , and the novel that the adult Elena eventually writes, to acclaim, is indebted to and even derivative of a story entitled “the Blue Fairy” that Lila wrote as a child and later burned. Elena and Lila are rivals and, in effect, collaborators: “Her life continuously appears in mine,” Elena remarks movingly toward the end of , “in the words that I’ve uttered, in which there’s often an echo of hers, in a particular gesture that is an adaptation of a gesture of hers.”
concludes with a cliffhanger at Lila’s wedding; charts the paths of the two girls and their peers into the 1960s, the fate of Lila’s troubled early marriage, and Elena’s eventual success at university and finally as a novelist with the book inspired by Lila’s abandoned childhood creation. In these thousand or so pages, so far, occur some episodes and sections that made me wonder if the endlessly expansive form of a multi-book saga had encouraged Ferrante to sacrifice too much of the lean economy of her earlier novels. Yet by the end of you feel that the novels have more than earned their amplitude. They contain so much — even if possibly too much — making the previous novels appear a bit too minimalist and Modernist by comparison. (You call 175 pages a Ferrante conjoins Elena’s practical realism with Lila’s creative rage and Romantic rebellion — Elena’s Catherine to Lila’s Heathcliff — to create an engrossing, wildly original contemporary epic about the demonic power of human (and particularly female) creativity checked by the forces of history and society. It is also an unforgettable tale — surely at some level autobiographical, even if I am only guessing — of the lifelong difficult friendship of two women who learn, together, how to represent and shape their world through the mastery of language: “I, I and Lila, we two with that capacity that together — only together — we had to seize the mass of colors, sounds, things and people, and express it and give it power.”
[i] “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Hélène Cixous; , Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1976), pp. 875-893. James Wood makes a similar point: “Ferrante’s novels could be seen as marked, somewhat belatedly, by the second-wave feminism that produced, among other writing, Margaret Drabble’s fiction of female domestic entrapment and Hélène Cixous’s theory of , in the nineteen-seventies.” “Women on the Verge: The fiction of Elena Ferrante.” by James Wood, January 21, 2013.
Voice and the Victorian Storyteller
The New York Times
September 27, 2013
THE STORY OF A NEW NAME
By Elena Ferrante
Translated by Ann Goldstein
471 pp. Europa Editions.
“The Story of a New Name” is the second part of a trilogy that began with “My Brilliant Friend.” Both novels are primarily set in Naples, are Naples, as they teem with the city’s dialect, violence and worldview. Tracing the friendship between Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, two extraordinary and troubled girls who become extraordinary and troubled women, Elena’s first-person account charts what scholars and politicians alike have ominously labeled the Southern Question: the cultural and economic divide between north and south that has defined Italian life for centuries. But history never overpowers what is at heart a local story about the families living along a poor Neapolitan stradone, or avenue, with intricate plotlines spun like fine thread around Elena and Lila.
The novel begins with Elena throwing Lila’s notebooks into the Arno after Lila has entrusted her lifetime of writing to her best friend. About to publish a novel and graduate from Pisa’s prestigious Scuola Normale Superiore, 22-year-old Elena can’t bear to read of Lila’s love affair with Nino Sarratore, the young man she believes Lila stole from her. But the act of sabotage has deeper, darker roots. Elena has always feared that Lila, although poorly educated and stuck in Naples, is more brilliant than she, that Lila is the real writer. These two love each other ferociously, but each burns with a desire to outdo the other, sometimes killing what is best in her soul mate.
The night the teenage Lila makes love to Nino, Elena allows Nino’s father, Donato, to take her virginity on a dark beach. Ferrante never says that Elena is performing a horrific pantomime of her best friend’s actions, but the reader knows it and Elena knows it. Lila shadows Elena everywhere: on the dark beach, at the university, even in the pages that bring her recognition. One of Elena’s editors remarks that her novel has “sincerity, naturalness and a mystery in the writing that only true books have” — but Elena admits to herself that her literary voice is borrowed from a short story Lila wrote when they were children. It is “the secret heart of my book. Anyone who wanted to know what gave it warmth and what the origin was of the strong but invisible thread that joined the sentences would have had to go back to that child’s packet, 10 notebook pages, . . . the brightly colored cover, the title and not even a signature.”
In a marvelous reversal, Elena destroys Lila’s notebooks at that mythical site of Italian culture, the Arno River, where the novelist Alessandro Manzoni had gone to “risciacquare i panni,” or “to rinse the laundry” — to learn the Tuscan of Dante and other luminaries while recasting his monumental novel, “The Betrothed,” in that dialect. But in Ferrante’s universe the Arno is where Lila’s art dies. The river’s traditions belong to the world of men and thus are not to be trusted. To inhabit the female body, Elena proclaims, is to suffer: “I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighborhood. They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them. Extremely thin, with hollow eyes and cheeks, or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children who clung to their skirts and wanted to be picked up. And, good God, they were 10, at most 20 years older than me.”
Elena and Lila race to avoid this fate. At first, Lila surges ahead. A beauty, she marries money and becomes the Jackie O of the stradone.The bookish Elena takes a more plodding route. Unattached, she pursues her studies. It’s Elena who manages to escape the neighborhood, but not the Southern Question.
Despite its gender and class insights, Ferrante’s novel wears its analysis lightly. Her aims are literary, and she spends as much time glancing back into the Italian canon as she does considering the challenges of Naples. Ferrante portrays a cascade of characters and the hum of everyday life defined by family, superstition and a fatalistic worldview, a southern Italian world where God is feared more than loved.
As a translator, Ann Goldstein does Ferrante a great service. Like the original Italian, the English here is disciplined, precise, never calling attention to itself. The occasional use of dialect spices things up nicely. Ferrante’s gift for recreating real life stems as much from the quiet, unhurried rhythm of her writing as from the people and events she describes. The translation reproduces Ferrante’s narrative ebb and flow while registering the distinct features of her voice.
Georg Lukacs once claimed that Manzoni’s “Betrothed” was an allegory of all of Italian history, “a concrete episode taken from Italian popular life,” in which “the love, separation and reunion of a young peasant boy and girl” are transformed “into a general tragedy of the Italian people.” Likewise, Ferrante transforms the love, separation and reunion of two poor urban girls into the general tragedy of their city, a place so beautiful and heartbreaking that it inspired the expression “Vedi Napoli e poi muori” — “See Naples and then die.”
Published: 20 November 2013
Elena Ferrante is regarded as one of Italy’s finest novelists, but she is also one of its most elusive. Her wish to remain unidentified stems, she says, from “a somewhat neurotic desire for intangibility . . . . The work is public: in it, there is everything we have to say. Today, who really cares about the person who wrote it?” In her case a lot of people care, and understandably: she has written with devastating honesty about some of the most uncomfortable facts of life, and especially of female life. The respectable, well-educated narrators of her short, intense novels (2002; ) and (2006;) can’t help resenting their mothers, viewing their children as parasites, feeling trapped and diminished by their domestic roles. “In literary fiction you have to be sincere to the point where it’s unbearable”, she has said – and withholding her identity “produces a space of absolute creative freedom”.
Ferrante’s Neapolitan series – which follows the lives of two brilliant friends, Elena and Lila, born into an impoverished, dialect-speaking community of bakers, carpenters, fruit-and-vegetable sellers and shoemakers – is something of a departure in its long view and expansiveness: it will extend in four volumes from the 1950s into the twenty-first century, and the index of characters in this second volume alone runs to ten families. But Ferrante’s imprint is firmly there in its forensic attention to psychological states; and its scale has perhaps made it more personal, not less. “In order to begin such a long novel, I felt the need to anchor it as much as possible to that which I am, that which I know,” Ferrante has said, “even to the point of using my own name for one of the characters.”
The first volume, (published in English as and reviewed in the , February 1, 2013), ended with a dazzling description of Lila’s wedding celebrations – she has abandoned her studies to marry a grocer, the son of a murdered loan shark – during which it became appallingly clear to our narrator Elena that the marriage was already over. At the beginning of ( , 2012), Elena recalls the occasion when Lila entrusted to her a metal box, frightened that her husband might find it. Elena promises not to open it, but she can’t help herself, and inside she finds notebooks full of descriptions, of “the branch of a tree, the ponds, a stone, a leaf with its white veinings, the pots in the kitchen, the various parts of a coffeemaker, the brazier, the coal and bits of coal” – all “evidence of a stubborn selfdiscipline in writing”. Elena reflects that “whatever Lila captured . . . assumed importance, so that even in the pages written when she was eleven or twelve there was not a single line that sounded childish”. Elena pores over the pages for weeks, obsessively, learning passages by heart – until finally, “exasperated”, she throws the box into a river.
Those who have read will understand that reaction, even if they are shocked by it. Lila exerts a magnetic power: she is bold, defiant, driven, interestingly beautiful, full of flair. Ever since the pair learnt Latin and Greek together amid raucous chatter and stone-throwing boys, Lila has been Elena’s most important confidante and inspiration (“[our] exchanges . . . ignited my brain . . . we tore the words from each other’s mouths, creating an excitement that seemed like a storm of electrical charges”). But she is also – perhaps inevitably – a threat. And Lila threatens not just to outdo Elena, but to inhabit her.
That is (crudely put – Ferrante’s portrait is incredibly nuanced) this book’s central dynamic. We witness Elena’s despondency when Lila leaves school (“Lila always knew what she wanted and got it; I don’t want anything, I’m made of nothing”); and the waxing and waning of Elena’s studiousness as she is seduced by her friend’s opulent new lifestyle and repulsed by the insularity, pettiness and brutality of those who help to pay for it. We observe her surprise and relief at the discovery that, in her own way, she has been to Lila what Lila has been to her (“She drew out of herself . . . words written and spoken, complicated plans, rages and inventions, only to show something of herself? Having lost that motivation, she was lost?”); and her exhilaration in the company of the bookish, earnest, self-possessed Nino – as well as her grief and self-loathing (“It’s my fault, my tendency to conceal myself”) when he falls not for her, but for Lila. Then there is Elena’s determination, after a summer fraught with the turmoil of watching Nino and Lila’s attraction to each other play out, to live for herself only, with an “attitude of absolute detachment”: “I am what I am and I have to accept myself; I was born like this, in this city, with this dialect, without money; I will give what I can give, I will take what I can take, I will endure what has to be endured”. On leaving school Elena takes up a university scholarship in Pisa, where she excels – and starts to write creatively – even while suffering from a new sense of social inferiority.
Scenes of high emotion – notably Lila’s honeymoon – are all the more powerful for being simply rendered. Ferrante reserves the present tense for a pivotal moment infused with pathos, when Lila is barricaded in her son Rinuccio’s room, weighed down with the knowledge that she must leave her husband; it is the closest we have come to entering her consciousness:
“Just thinking of her son saps her strength. What ended up in Rinuccio’s head: images, words. She worries about the voices that reach him, unmonitored. I wonder if he heard mine, while I carried him in my womb. I wonder how it was imprinted in his nervous system. If he felt loved . . . . What will happen to this child. Now Rinuccio knows that when I go into another room he won’t lose me, I am still here. He maneuvers with objects and fantasies of objects, the outside and the inside . . . . He recognizes the letters of the alphabet. He puts them together so as to write his name. He loves colors. He’s happy. But all this rage. He has seen me insulted and beaten. He’s seen me break things and shout insults. In dialect. I can’t stay here any longer.”
One of Ferrante’s greatest virtues is her doggedness in unearthing – and fearlessness in articulating – thoughts that usually remain unspoken. “I have an emptiness inside me that wears me down”, Lila tells Elena when she is pregnant. “I know I’m supposed to think beautiful things, I know I have to resign myself, but I can’t do it, I see no reason for resignation and no beauty.” Ferrante is also a master of the conflicted state, and of moments of self-analysis and correction. Such analysis is aided here by the narrator’s point of view: since this is a much older Elena looking back, the account she gives is one of silted-down wisdom (“I understood only later that . . .”; “Today I feel some uneasiness in recalling . . .”) and enriched perspective (“What I am now recounting I learned from various people at various times”). The text is vivid in its detail partly thanks to Lila’s notebooks – an ideal device, given that their existence and transferral to Elena, at a time when Lila is being jealously controlled by her husband (“He doesn’t want me to have even a thought of my own”, she says before she hands over the box), make perfect sense.
Ferrante herself likes to read narrative in which “the writing is clear, honest, and [in which] the facts – the facts of ordinary life – are extraordinarily gripping when read”. That exactly describes her fiction, and her translator Ann Goldstein has served it beautifully.