Neapolitan Novels Book One
Translated by Ann Goldstein
2012, pp. 336, Paperback
$ 18.00 / £ 10.99
A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.Ferrante is the author of three previous works of critically acclaimed fiction: The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, and The Lost Daughter. With this novel, the first in a quartet, she proves herself to be one of Italy’s great storytellers. She has given her readers a masterfully plotted page-turner, abundant and generous in its narrative details and characterizations, that is also a stylish work of literary fiction destined to delight her many fans and win new readers to her fiction.
Read it now:
If we tell ourselves stories in order to live, as Joan Didion wrote of our efforts to impose meaning on the world, we mine and transfigure our lives to suit us—narration as a tool of survival. (Drawn to female authors, including Didion, Nadja cites Elena Ferrante, Karen Russell, and Helen Oyeyemi as current favorites.) And while time and memory have a way of reducing those who loom largest in our pasts to archetypes, Nadja, who continues to live in Paris and dates an Algerian woman, reminds us of memoir’s potential to complicate and humanize—and even, sometimes, spark a reconnection. “My mother and my grandmother are both very strong storytellers of their own lives and that’s where their power comes from. Part of taking my place in that line of women was the understanding that none of these stories is more real than the other.” She considers the dessert menu, a twinkle in her eye. “I think we should order the madeleines.”
Ross Bradshaw, Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham)
Our best-selling book in translation is My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante published by Europa Editions and translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein which is probably the case with most bookshops! This novel is set in post-war Naples and is the first of a set of four. The book describes the relationship between two girls as they grow up within, and in one case out of a tightly-knit Neapolitan neighbourhood. It’s patriarchal and violent and you find yourself willing the girls on.
I’m a devoted fan of novelist Elena Ferrante, but I can’t match my wife—who is currently reading her sixth Ferrante novel and is game for more. Of course, we are hardly alone in our enthusiasm: Ferrante is ultra-trendy right now, and has emerged as Italy’s leading candidate for a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Except there’s a tiny problem—she probably won’t show up to accept a Nobel Prize. In fact, readers have no idea who Elena Ferrante really is. Ferrante isn’t her real name, and the author might not even be a woman. Various theories about the novelist’s identity have been bandied about, but the only thing her publisher will admit is that she “was born in Naples.”
By the same token, Satoshi Nakamoto deserves a Nobel Prize in Economics for his creation of bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that is changing the world of international finance. But there’s a problem here too—no one knows Nakomoto’s real identity. A number of candidates have emerged, including Australian Craig Wright, who recently tried to take credit for bitcoin, but many experts doubt his claim. The bottom line: The leading innovator in money matters is a mystery man, and we may never know his real identity.
Amanda has 3 recommendations of books that focus on female friendships.
This video is sponsored by Dream Jumper by Greg Grunberg and Lucas Turnbloom
It has just occurred to me that my last four books, all works of fiction, have had an image of a woman on the cover. The books, however, largely represent masculine points of view. One of the books is even called Young Men. It still has a beautiful girl on the cover.
The reason for this repeated imagery is simple and economic: Most readers of fiction in North America are, by a wide margin, women. The books are being marketed to them. I am perfectly happy with this. I know where my bread is buttered.
This kind of marketing is troubling, though, to many authors – particularly to female authors, who may fear that if their work is given too girly a packaging, it will be dismissed as “commercial.” Commercial is a fluid and puzzling concept in publishing these days, almost impossible to define (the most intellectual writers can be commercial successes, too), but in this discussion, commercial means a book about relationships and family that ends predictably, with adversity overcome and lessons learned. To be shunted into this category means you may sell well, but you may not be taken seriously by literary critics – and indeed may not even receive reviews in mainstream media.
A highbrow literary critic may have a problem with the concept of “women’s fiction” – why should there be such a category at all? Are the best writers not fascinating to readers of all genders regardless of the subject matter? Are women exclusively interested in family and romance? Why is Alice Munro not labelled in this way? Elfriede Jelinek? But protest as we might, the category exists in business. Especially on Amazon, where the label is used to push even canonical works such as Jane Eyre.
The tropes of the women’s fiction aesthetic wrapping are familiar. Cover images rely on: cottage dock, laundry on line, beach and umbrella, high-heeled shoe, martini glass (frequently with wedding ring in it), and endless variations on woman-with-her-back-turned (woman in half profile, in silhouette, woman lying down or upside down). Colours tend to pastels, especially pink, or sepia (for historical ones).
These conventions have been drawing fire in particular in relation to the work of a highly literary writer. Elena Ferrante – the mysterious Italian darling of critics, academics and serious readers for her series of books describing the 50-year friendship of a couple of women in Naples (the last one is called The Story of the Lost Child) – does, like Alice Munro, write about the lives of women. But she has been elevated to the category of the serious and sociopolitical, and so therefore never gets labelled as “women’s fiction.” And she seems to be equally admired among male critics. Why then, many detractors say, do her book covers look all girly, as if they are romances? Her publisher in the U.S., Europa, seems to be pushing her into the pink shelves, with its subdued images of sunny shores and weddings. This, say some angry commentators, reduces her seriousness, for her work is not just “women’s fiction”; it is human fiction.
An interesting counter-argument was made recently in The Atlantic: Writer Emily Harnett pointed out that Europa’s deliberate use of stereotypically commercial covers may itself be a political argument, a subtle reclaiming or reappropriation of the dismissed women’s label. It might be showing that commercial fiction should not be dismissed after all. (This has been the public position of U.S. chick-lit novelist Jennifer Weiner for some time: She has said that commercial fiction is trivialized for sexist reasons, not literary ones, and that male equivalents – dick-lit such as Nick Hornby – are given more respect.) Ferrante’s publishers themselves say that they knew the imagery was “kitsch.”
A parallel and not unrelated controversy arose the same week in the United States, with the publication of an essay in the New Republic by journalist Suki Kim, author ofWithout You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Kim reveals that her publisher insisted the book – the result of several years undercover in North Korea – be subtitled “a memoir,” because memoirs sell better than reporting does. (This is true – memoirs do sell better.) She claims that the book was judged in a different light as a result – a misogynist light, as memoirs, being akin to personal expression rather than hard facts, are seen as a more feminine domain. She writes, “I was being moved from a position of authority – What do you know? – to the realm of emotion: How did you feel?”
This, like the book-cover question, is a question of marketing, of packaging. Kim’s publisher wants quite naturally to maximize sales, as this is a publisher’s job. Should it respect the author’s delicate views about category, to spare her feelings? Most publishers would opt for the cynical and pragmatic choice. To feminize a book is simply good business practice.
Canadian novelist Marissa Stapley, author of Mating for Life, knows this conundrum. Her book, about a family of women, has been resolutely categorized as women’s or commercial (sometimes with the caveat “upmarket women’s,” meant to signify that her writing isn’t bad), and it has done well by it. The first edition had a dock and a sunset; the new cover is pink. But still she wonders if she has been taken less seriously for it.
“It’s definitely a ghetto,” she wrote to me in an e-mail, “but how can you chafe against your books being marketed to the people who buy the most fiction?” She wishes men were given permission to read her work, too.
This is a tough choice faced by many authors. I wish I had more male readers, too. But until we can convince boys that made-up stories not involving superheroes can be quite interesting, we cannot blame the marketing departments for their taste in pink.
Looking for a good new book or three to take away with you this summer? The Skinny boards the #summerreads bandwagon…
It’s that time of year again, when all the major publications seem to think you enjoy six weeks of summer holiday and can spend it doing nothing but reading 1000-page novels, sinking cocktails and lazing about by your infinity pool.
We’ve come up with a summer reading list that we hope is a lil’ more realistic, taking in some recent faves and brand new titles, plus a couple of short story and poetry collections to dip into on that long weekend in Whitby. Without further ado, here are The Skinny’s pick of summer reads for 2016.
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
If you’ve been waiting for the right moment to tackle Ferrante’s four-book opus – the biggest literary phenomenon of the last couple of years, alongside Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series – then a summer of political turbulence might be the time. Much has been made of Ferrante’s keyhole-intimate understanding of the central relationship, between lifelong friends Elena and Lila, but perhaps more fascinating is her depiction of 20th-century Naples as it convulses its way through decades of violence, corruption and revolution. It’s an important portrayal of men, women and politics; and the characters will never leave you. Published by Europa Editions, out now
TORONTO – Astonishing is the success of the mysterious Italian author who hides behind the pseudonym of Elena Ferrante. An extraordinary editorial case not only in Italy, but also – and especially – abroad: the four books that comprise the series of “My Brilliant Friend” (Europa editions) have won critics as well as ordinary readers, selling in the United States and Canada almost a million copies, 150 thousand the fourth volume solely. Why? Here there are three likely reasons.
First of all, the setting. For those who haven’t been overwhelmed yet by Ferrante phenomenon, “My Brilliant Friend” (2012), “The Story of a New Name” (2013), “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” (2014), “The Story of the Lost Child” (2015) tell the story of the friendship between Raffaella Cerullo and Elena Greco from their childhood to old age. Both born in 1944 and grew up in a suburb of Naples, the two ‘little women’ constantly intertwine their lives with the events of more than half a century of official history, a history that manifests itself in all its faces, from the economic boom after World War II to the Years of Lead and the 9/11 attacks. This Neapolitan frame and setting the plot “in the past” is a first reason for the success abroad, as the post-war Naples corresponds to an idea of Italy already present in the North American imaginary, and even more in the Italian-Americans and Italian-Canadians, people who often escaped from similar realities.
Secondly, the extraordinary relationship between the main characters, two women who represent, in their contradictory humanity, each one of us. Elena and Raffaella, aka Lenù and Lila, seem two protagonists very different in personality and destiny: one blonde and good, the other brunette and evil. The former beloved by everybody, the latter hated and envied from childhood to marriage, the former on the road to academic success and officially the “brilliant friend”, the latter fatally mired in poverty, the traps of Camorra and ignorance of the neighborhood. However, their identities are often confused. Lila, who only attended elementary school, studies Latin and Greek alone in her father’s workshop, a shoemaker, whereas Lenù seems to go on for her friend’s pleasure and, at the same time, to compete with her, in the study as well as in life. In other words, the four volumes unfold and put on display a complicated friendship, that leads the reader to question about who the brilliant friend really is. Perhaps it’s just a single person, split into two entities, as in Calvino’s “The Cloven Viscount”? In any case, they both represent the only glimpse of light in a violent and gloomy world with no hope.
Finally, Elena Ferrante’s writing style, which is powerful, intimate and catchy. The author creates a story that can deeply engage any reader and translator, that appeals to a broad audience, fascinated both by the two protagonists and their lives, in a style simple and sensual at once.
Our conclusions? It’s a graceful summer reading, recommended to those who love travelling, in Italy and abroad, (also) thanks to the power of their imagination.
There’s a reason they look straight out of a travel brochure
We all know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but if book buying data and design trends have taught us anything it’s that judging a book by its cover is what we do best. So what can we make of Elena Ferrante’s quartet covers? With just a single up-down you’re reminded of the kitschy romance cover you saw a fellow commuter reading on the subway yesterday. That and just about every ‘chick-lit’ book you’ve seen in your life. If you’ve read any one of the books in her four-part series, you also know that the covers do a ‘disservice’ to her impeccable writing. Why pair wonderful literature with such tacky covers? The reasons are more than cover deep.
Image courtesy of Jezebel.
Ferrante’s Neapolitan series amasses an entire culture of womanhood, adorned with childhood, parenting, abuse, and the full swing of female experience into two characters. Between the four books, our dual protagonists cover 50 years together and some 1,500 pages. The women are strong and ambitious, and their enduring friendship a testimony to both traits. Even so, buyers have had more than a few complaints about the cover according to the Atlantic, and many seem to miss the point: the cover image was designed intentionally, chosen by Ferrante herself. It’s a subversive nod to sexism in publishing and a very clever move on the part of the author.
Women’s lit (flash back to your subway partner’s book) has always had a bad rap and rarely found itself in the hum of literary praise. On the contrary, it’s often demoted to ‘bad’, ‘cheap’ literature, the kind you could probably sniff out at your local drug store. Good or bad, it’s the relationship between female authors and their work that is troubling to Ferrante. The relationship is one rooted centuries deep and unfortunately, still intact. For talented female authors today, it’s one that’s incredibly difficult to side-step. Beyond romance, it’s an association that bleeds into other genres and stitches itself to female authors more generally. Ferrante understands this, and rather than blatantly saying so, she toys with the misguided preconception, bringing us four heinous covers with awesome ulterior motives. It’s “dressing a refined story with a touch of vulgarity,” Ferrante’s art director, Sandra Ozzola, told Slate last year.
The real women of Ferrante’s quartet (Image courtesy of Getty)
Looking at the response of so many buyers is evidence enough for the strength of the stereotype. The feeling of horror you feel when looking at the covers is a testimony to the sexist notion, not to mention the way we privilege look and feel over quality of content. It’s a coy and playful hint at the nature of Ferrante’s work and a showcase for the sexism that still plagues the publishing world.
The association between male authors and ‘good’ literature, and ‘chick-lit’ and ‘bad’ literature is a destructive stigma that needs to be cracked — and cracked again when we realize it’s 2016 and sexism still lurks in a reader’s mind. Although there’s plenty of other covers we’d rather look at, the subtext of Ferrante’s cover images are better than any glossy minimalist paperback.
Readers complain about the imagery that adorns the author’s highbrow novels. But there’s value in embracing the oft-scorned “women’s fiction” genre.
The Neapolitan novels, as the Italian author’s beloved tetralogy is called, chronicle the friendship between two ambitious young women over the course of 50 years and some 1500 pages. Since the publisher Europa released the first book, My Brilliant Friend, in 2012, the series has sold over a million copies in the U.S. and garnered glowing critical praise. Her covers, by contrast, have earned comparisons to “$4 romance book[s] found in an American gas station. ” The complaints are so numerous that Ferrante’s publisher even expressedconcern to Slate that “many people didn’t understand the game we we’re playing, that of, let’s say, dressing an extremely refined story with a touch of vulgarity.” Certainly, readers aren’t required to enjoy the cloying sensibility of the images just because they’re intentionally bad, and because Ferrante herself chose them. But to despise the covers—and, by extension, the kind of novel they evoke—in the name of good literature is to buy into the destructive stigma that has long been attached to “women’s fiction” as a genre.
It’s true that Ferrante’s U.S. paperbacks look a lot like “chick-lit,” the favored slight for disparaging commercial, female-authored fiction. It’s also true that “chick-lit” that has cast a long, pastel shadow over Ferrante and her readers. Her covers are reminiscent of books by Jennifer Weiner, the reigning queen of pop romance who last year clashed with Jonathan Franzen over the fact that genre fiction by men has long been deemed more worthy critical attention than genre fiction by women. Weiner’s covers, like Ferrante’s, have a high frequency of ocean horizons and women with their backs turned. Their visual formula isn’t exactly “hideous,” as some readers claim, but it’s certainly tired, and not a little silly: Looking at a Ferrante or Weiner cover, it’s easy to conclude that no woman in their fiction has ever lived inland, or so much as looked directly at a camera.
For The Guardian in 2008, Diane Shipley interviewed a number of female authors on the subject of the “chick-lit cover up,” or the imposition of that style of covers on “any book written by a woman, whether it fits the genre definition or not.” Shipley describes one woman, Sue Hepsworth, as the author of a novel that “poignantly explores the pain of losing a parent;” its cover, according to Shipley, “makes it look like it’s about garden parties and designer clothes.” She also invokes novels by Fay Weldon and Rosy Thornton that similarly demonstrate the “blight” of “misleading” covers on literary books. “If you’re a woman releasing a book,” she writes, “then, you should apparently expect pale colors, swirly writing, and an insipid tag line—whether your story is a moving story about grief, a blog-turned-bestseller about life in Paris, or a potential chick lit-classic.”