My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante My Brilliant Friend

 

The Neapolitan Quartet – Book One

 

Translated by Ann Goldstein

 

2012, pp. 336, Paperback

$ 18.00 / £ 10.99

ISBN: 9781609450786

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. Elena 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.

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Recent reviews

 

The New York Times Book Review

By the Book – Chelsea Clinton

Which writers—novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets—working today do you admire most?

In addition to the other writers I talk about in this space, I deeply admire che work of Colson Whitehead; Hilary Mantel; Masha Gessen; Haruki Murakami; Andrei Makine; Margaret Atwood; Erik Larson; Lin-Manuel Miranda; Marilynne Robinson; Elena Ferrante; Julian Barnes; Ian McEwan; Anne Applebaum; Timothy Egan; and more. I also hope Gita Mehta writes again. (…)

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The Korea Herald

Elena Ferrante’s neorealist novels translated into Korean

The Italian Embassy in Seoul celebrated the publication of novels in Korean by renowned author Elena Ferrante at a book talk on Jan. 19.

The event at the embassy marked last year’s translated release of the first two of “The Neapolitan Novels,” a four-part series comprised of “My Brilliant Friend” (2012), “The Story of a New Name” (2013), “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” (2014) and “The Story of the Lost Child” (2015).

The books are published by Hangilsa Publishing Company Limited, which printed the bestseller “Stories of the Romans” novels by Japanese writer Shiono Nanami since the early 1990s.

As a neorealist bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, Ferrante’s novels portray two “perceptive and intelligent” girls, Elena Greco and Raffaella Cerullo, as they strive to forge their lives out of a poor, violent and stultifying neighborhood on Naples’ outskirts.

“The novels neatly fit into the Italian neorealist style, championed by writers Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante,” said Italian Ambassador to Korea Marco della Seta at the event. “The story is universal, depicting Naples, humanity and the friendship and struggle of two women from childhood through adulthood.”

Noting that Ferrante is the pen name of the real author, whose identity is cloaked in secrecy, the envoy argued that the novels were successful partly due to Ferrante’s mysterious character. Ferrante’s work also exemplifies the strengths of the Italian language, which is evident in culture, music, literature, cinema and food, he added.

“I’ve never met Ferrante and nor have you. But we like her writings so much and think as if we are talking with her,” said Kim Un-ho, publisher of Hangilsa. “At the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, I had a great time discussing and reveling in Ferrante’s novels with some 50 leading publishers from around the world. Her books are like rainbows and bridges connecting people.”

By Joel Lee (joel@heraldcorp.com)

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The Daily Star

The unsolved mystery of Elena Ferrante

Joe Treasure

Elena Ferrante is an Italian novelist in her 70s who has been producing published work for about 25 years. But it was only four years ago with My Brilliant Friend, a novel about growing up in a poor and sometimes violent neighbourhood in Naples, that Ferrante achieved international fame. At the heart of that story is a bond between two girls in which love and enmity mingle in constantly surprising ways. Three further novels have traced that relationship through adolescence and into adulthood. The last of this series, The Story of the Lost Child, was judged by The New York Times one of the 10 best books of 2015.

Ferrante is a pseudonym. What little is known about the author has been gleaned from interviews, and a volume of correspondence with editors which appeared in 2003. She insists on anonymity, explaining that she finds it necessary for her work. In an email interview with Vanity Fair in 2015 she said, ‘I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.’

In spite of this, two controversial attempts to unmask her were published during 2016. The first drew on internal textual evidence to prove that Ferrante was in fact Marcella Marmo, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Naples. The author of this paper, a Dante expert, said that he had conducted a philological analysis ‘as if I were studying the attribution of an ancient text’. Even in the face of such scholarly evidence, however, professor Marmo insists that it isn’t her.

An investigation by Claudio Gatti for the Italian newspaper Il Sole received wider circulation when it was reprinted in the New York Review of Books. Using investigative techniques that might be more usefully applied to exposing the corruption of politicians and corporate executives, Gatti followed a trail of payments from the publishers to a freelance translator of German texts, Anita Raja. Raja has also denied authorship.

Bizarrely, Raja’s husband Domenico Starnone, a screenwriter and journalist, has previously been identified as the real Ferrante, as has the male writer and critic Silvio Perrella, as if only a man could show such a confident grasp of late twentieth-century Italian social and political history. But to anyone who has actually read the 1,700 pages of the Neapolitan quartet – a slow-burning study of female friendship and rivalry and the struggle to achieve autonomy in a patriarchal society, punctuated by intense love affairs, abusive marriages and intimate explorations of the trials of pregnancy and motherhood – the idea that this is an extended act of male ventriloquism must seem implausible.

A recent convert to the Ferrante cult having just read this series, I find the author’s identity the least interesting question about it. Sprawling, loosely constructed, with too large a cast and too many tangled plot lines, it shouldn’t work but it does – magnificently. That’s a mystery worth investigating.

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Verily Mag

ELENA FERRANTE’S ‘MY BRILLIANT FRIEND’ AND THE WORLD-CHANGING POWER OF FEMALE FRIENDSHIPS

If you missed this much-discussed book in 2016, now’s the time to revisit it.

This past month, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof posted his favorite reads in 2016 on his Facebook profile. The one book he criticized was Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which he views as a “disappointment” and a book that “everybody in the world seems to love except me.” Even though I am a fan of Kristof and his work, I beg to differ.

Ferrante’s series, the “Neapolitan Novels,” which in chronological order include My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and the fourth and final novel, The Story of the Lost Child, are without doubt some of the most carefully crafted and painfully poignant novels I have read. I am not alone on this opinion, as TIME magazine listed Ferrante as one of 2016’s Most Influential People, and this past summer the literary world was shaken when the previously anonymous author’s name was revealed. Now, wherever the name Ferrante is mentioned, people have a word or two to share.

Ferrante’s master storytelling reveals a series of powerful themes, one of which is the story of female friendships. Throughout the series, Ferrante exposes the raw and unapologetic truth behind friendships between women, predominantly between the two main protagonists, Elena Greco and Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo. Elena and Lila are childhood friends from the same neighborhood outside of Naples, Italy in the 1950s. Both are born into impoverished families whose parents have elementary-level educations. Despite their backgrounds, Elena and Lila stand out from their peers alongside a select few of their fellow classmates. The two girls recognize their mutual talent and from the start of their friendship, they understand that they need each other in order to survive the patriarchal society they find themselves in which involve domestic violence against women and local political corruption. Throughout the story of their friendship, Ferrante exposes the highs and lows of Elena and Lila’s relationship, the moments of true love and absolute toxicity. It’s Ferrante’s gift of depicting the virtues and vices in female friendships that makes the Neapolitan Novels stand out from the crowd.

Ferrante shares this familiar feeling among women, the urge to compare and to resent when other women seem to have it better. Throughout the novels we see how the female characters discover that the grass is not greener on the other side, and often the two female protagonists were bearing heavy burdens and trials beneath the surface. Very rarely do we get to see the interior struggles that other women share and for this reason, Ferrante depicts this familiar psychological battle with precise accuracy.

Despite Lila’s deep resentment that she never completed her education, she champions Elena. In one of the most vital scenes from the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, Elena is in the middle of preparing Lila for her wedding while discussing Elena’s schooling. Lila insists that Elena must do whatever it takes to continue her education, because in Lila’s words, Elena is her “brilliant friend.”

During Lila’s wealthy period of life, she buys Elena’s schoolbooks and lets her study in her well-furnished apartment because in her own heart, Lila knows that if Elena excels in life, this will also be a symbolic victory for all the women of the neighborhood. Even though Lila struggles with her own inner demons, her love for Elena triumphs in the end and is the catalyst for Elena’s ultimate success as a writer among the Italian intelligentsia.

In the relationship of Elena and Lila, Ferrante illustrates her striking talent for showing how flawed characters can overcome their faults to love. We are all imperfect creatures so in turn, we love imperfectly. We all struggle with our own jealousies and insecurities that are the result of other broken relationships and inner struggles, but as Elena and Lila demonstrate, love is nonetheless the key to surpassing our vices.

At the end of the day, Lena and Lila love each other and it’s this love is what helps them overcome their flaws. As Italians say when they love someone, ti voglio bene: “I want you well.” According to St. Thomas Aquinas’s definition of love, to love is to want the ultimate good for the beloved. It’s this selfless love, conveyed so beautifully in the pages, that renders Ferrante’s novels incredible exemplars of the power of female friendships.

One of the major flaws of these female characters are similar to those of many women—a proclivity to envy. The primary source of jealousy between Elena and Lila is education. Although the two girls experience verbal and physical abuse at home, Elena’s parents consent to her advancement in education after elementary school; meanwhile, Lila’s father throws her out the window when she tries to argue with him. Both girls were at the top of their class, however Lila possesses a talent, a rare inner drive that intimidates Elena. Lila is aware of Elena’s insecurity and out of spite, Lila frequently mocks Elena with the fact that if she continued her education, she would have surpassed Elena. However, Lila’s quipping remarks are the result of her own ache knowing that she will never have the chance like Elena to realize her own potential.

Although most women may never reach the degree of asinine comments that Elena and Lila exchange throughout the course of their relationship, many women can understand the temptation to compare themselves to their fellow female friends. Think about the time when your friend got hired for that job, got to go on that European backpacking trip or finally got into that dream relationship…did it ever sting for you at all? This green monster is known all too well between Elena and Lila and constantly creeps into their friendship.

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The Times

‘Elena Ferrante was more challenging than Tolstoy’

Timberlake Wertenbaker has adapted the Italian author’s hit novels for radio. She reveals why she took the characters from Naples to Manchester

It comes as rather a shock — like getting toad-in-the-hole when you were expecting linguine pescatore. First, floating over the airwaves, there’s Neapolitan folk music such as you might hear in a family-run pizzeria in Old Napoli. That, and a voice-over, introduces us to Radio 4’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s second novel in her bestselling historical saga known here as The Neapolitan Quartet. Then you hear the main characters — Naples-born childhood friends Elena and Lila — speak . . . in broad, flat-vowelled Mancunian. It’s hard not to giggle.

Not everyone will appreciate the BBC’s two-part take on The Story of a New Name, to be aired on January 15 at 3pm and again the week after. Naples has been transferred to the north of England again — the radio treatment of the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, which first aired in the summer to mixed criticism, also made the ragazze sound as though they were Made in Manchester.

Yet once you tune in to the accents — Monica Dolan, last seen as the maid in the BBC’s Agatha Christie adaptation The Witness for the Prosecution, is a wonderful Lena and Anastasia Hille gets a suitably turbulent Lila just right — the story possesses you. The precise dialogue, artful reduction and accomplished performances made me, a Ferrante addict, want to listen on and read the novels all over again. Phew, va tutto bene — as they say in Stockport.

The writer responsible for the adaptation is one of our premier playwrights, Timberlake Wertenbaker, best known for Our Country’s Good. That play about an Australian penal colony, which opened at the Royal Court in 1988, is still being taught in schools and was recently revived to acclaim at the National Theatre by Nadia Fall.

We meet in the National Gallery café in London — she has tickets to the Caravaggio exhibition (more representations of earthy Italians) and we have an hour before her slot. Wertenbaker, 70, who has wonderful Crystal Tipps hair, sparkly eyes and an elegant gait, read about Ferrante online more than two years ago and had a personal connection with Naples — she visited with a journalist boyfriend as a student and witnessed political discontent at first hand — so she was interested. “I got the first book and started reading it that night and didn’t put it down, and manufactured the flu so I could stay in bed and read it. It was 4am and I had to get up at 7am.” A classic diagnosis of Ferrante fever.

After she’d eaten up the novels, she pitched the idea for a radio play to the drama producer Celia de Wolff at Radio 4. “I was under the very naive impression that I had discovered her [Ferrante]. I said to the BBC: ‘It will be great! We will introduce England to Elena Ferrante!’ Of course, that’s a joke now. Now I feel that everyone has read it so it’s a different proposition.”

And their relocation to England? “I definitely didn’t want them to be from London or the southeast — that would be like setting it in Florence or Milan. Liverpool was right, but too distinctive an accent and place. We wouldn’t have dreamt of them speaking with Italian accents.” So they settled on “around Manchester”. “The only thing that has been a pain is getting the pronunciation of the Italian names right,” she admits.

Wertenbaker has adapted many great authors from Sophocles to Racine and, more recently, War and Peace, also for Radio 4. Ferrante was one of the most challenging, she says. “Tolstoy was easier, with Tolstoy you are going from A to B at a gallop and with Ferrante what makes it so difficult is that it’s circular, actually a spiral, and events might happen three times in one novel, and that’s difficult to write in a dramatic form of time.”

I definitely didn’t want them to be from London or the southeast

In Ferrante there are a lot of auxiliary characters — from shop workers to activists — who are nevertheless crucial to the plot. How did she ram them all in? “It’s hard, but it’s important. What I have noticed is that you leave a character out at your peril because that character will reappear at some point and will explain something.”

In Wertenbaker’s version Lena and Lila take it in turns to narrate. “It was the only way to give them equal weight.” So, Elena or Lila, does she have a preference? “I can’t have a favourite!” she laughs. “Being a dramatist you have to love everyone. Otherwise you can’t make them speak if you don’t like them, they won’t talk very well.”

The Story of a New Name packs an almighty emotional punch; from Lila and Stefano’s violent marriage-night scene to Elena and Lila’s holiday on Ischia. When I spoke to Ferrante’s translator Ann Goldstein recently she said that having your head stuck in Ferrante had an emotional consequence in one’s own life. Wertenbaker agrees: “The characters really get to you. You have to get inside them to make them speak.”

Her working method for adaptations is total absorption and no cut-and-pasting. Wertenbaker read the book a few times, learnt it by heart and then “tried to know it”. Then she reread it once again taking notes (she pulls an exercise book from her bag exposing her neat, slanty writing). “Then I go to my computer and start page one, then I go back to my notes.” She uses only the dialogue that she remembers. “In fact her [Ferrante’s] dialogue is very good, but it has to be cut. In a novel you can speak in a paragraph, but I have to take a line.”

Wertenbaker admits there is great pressure when you are adapting a writer with such a passionate fan base. She takes a sip of green tea. “I am worried about the Ferrante fans because they know the books better than I do. I had that a bit with the War and Peace fans, but there weren’t that many. You are not doing the book, you are doing an adaptation. You hope that those who haven’t read it will listen and read it or that it brings something back to those that have. I think it’s great to read after listening. It’s not like TV when you have the image printed. It’s very fluid.”

So what more does a radio play ever bring to a well-known story? “I don’t think it brings anything,” she says with true modesty. “It is another way of being reminded — in the same way that you listen to an adaptation of a Jane Austen you have read 25 times.”

(Read more)

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The Stage

Casting announced for Elena Ferrante stage adaptation

by Georgia Snow

Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack are to lead the cast of My Brilliant Friend, the stage adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.

Adapted for the stage by April De Angelis, My Brilliant Friend is directed by Melly Still and premieres at the Rose Theatre Kingston in February.

Running from February 25 to April 2, it will have a press night on March 11.

The new two-part production will star Cusack and McCormack alongside a company made up of Justin Avoth, Adam Burton, Martin Hyder, Victoria Moseley, Emily Mytton, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Jonah Russell, Badria Timimi, Toby Wharton and Emily Wachter.

It has set and costume design by Soutra Gilmour, lighting by Malcolm Rippeth, sound by Jon Nicholls and music by James Fortune.

Movement is by Sarah Dowling and casting by Charlotte Sutton.

The show is produced by the Rose Theatre Kingston.

 

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Financial Tribune

Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ Published in Persian

My Brilliant Friend’ (in Italian ‘L’amica Geniale’), a fiction by one of Italy’s best-known contemporary writers is now available in Persian.

The original book in Italian is translated by Sara Assareh and recently released by Tehran-based Nafir Publications, Mehr News Agency reported.

First published 2011 in Italy, it is written by a mysterious Italian writer who goes by the pseudonym Elena Ferrante.

However, from her interviews and letters in the past 20 plus years, it can be presumed that she grew up in Naples and has lived for periods outside Italy. “I’ve moved often, in general unwillingly, out of necessity … I’m no longer dependent on the movements of others, only on my own.” In addition to writing, “I study, translate and teach,” Ferrante said in an interview.

“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 the two women. The book 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 the 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.

“The two women are the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through their lives, 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 Elena and Lila,” according to Good Reads (goodreads.com).

Austerely Honest

Ferrante is the author of several remarkable, lucid, austerely honest novels, the most celebrated of which is ‘The Days of Abandonment,’ published 2002 in Italy.

What she looks like, what her real name is, when she was born, how she currently lives, are all unknown, according to The New Yorker. In 1991, when her first novel ‘Troubling Love’ (L’Amore Molesto) was about to be published in Italy, Ferrante sent her publisher a letter in which she laid out the principles she has not deviated from since.

She will do nothing for ‘Troubling Love,’ she wrote to her publisher, because she has already done enough. 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.”

“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,” she said.

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Murder, she read.

2016 IN REVIEW: CRIME, FICTION, AND WOMEN

As I got deeper and deeper into my PhD thesis I learned that there is more to reading for pleasure than crime fiction. After reading and writing about Scarpetta and Brennan for hours and hours, I found myself less likely to pick up a crime novel during my free time, and instead binge-watching crime television shows (an addict is an addict, right?). This is why I finally approached the Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child). The four novels, which are an international success, tell the story of Elena ‘Lenú’ and Lina ‘Lila’ from their childhood in the corrupt and violent Naples of 1950’s until our current times. At first I did not understand why the series were so successful, but one page in Ferrante’s writing will make you read the four novels in a row. More on Ferrante soon.

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CBC News

2016’s most read books at the Vancouver Public Library

Justin Trudeau, Ian Rankin, Elena Ferrante top the list of most checked-out authors this past year

By Maryse Zeidler, CBC News Posted: Dec 30, 2016 8:00 AM PT Last Updated: Dec 30, 2016 8:00 AM PT

Some of the most checked-out books at the Vancouver Public Library this year include memoirs, thrillers and classic novels.

For some, annual holiday traditions include carols, cookies and crafts.

But for those of a literary persuasion, they may also involve stocking up on books and settling under a warm blanket.

This list is for you, friends.

VPL’s top 10 most checked-out fiction

  1. Even Dogs in the Wild Ian Rankin, 2015
  2. All the Light We Cannot SeeAnthony Doerr, 2014
  3. A Few of the Girls, Maeve Binchy, 2012
  4. Life After Life: A NovelKate Atkinson, 2013
  5. My Brilliant Friend: Childhood, AdolescenceElena Ferrante, 2013
  6. Speaking in BonesKathy Reichs, 2014
  7. The MartianAndy Weir, 2011
  8. The Order of ThingsGraham Hurley, 2015
  9. To Kill a MockingbirdHarper Lee, 1960
  10. A Tale for the Time BeingRuth Ozeki, 2013
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San Francisco Chronicle

The karaoke book club: where women talk literature, then sing

We began because we needed to talk about the fever. For some, it begins with “The Days of Abandonment”; for others, with “My Brilliant Friend.” But one thing is sure: Ferrante fever doesn’t break.

Readers around the world are riveted by Elena Ferrante’s portrayals of friendship, love and loss, and the social, cultural, political frameworks that have everything to do with desire versus possibility. Her books are gloriously and unabashedly about girls and women. Their covers, the subject of several articles, dare you to call the work women’s fiction. The author herself is famously pseudonymous, asking readers to focus only on the work.

And we do. Last year, Aimee Phan and I found ourselves texting about Ferrante. We agreed that reading her novels was an intense, immersive experience, and one that we wanted to talk about. We should have a book club, Aimee said, and before we knew it we did: a group of women, writers, living in the Bay Area and, as it happens, Asian American. Our first goal: the Neapolitan quartet.

It turned out that we also shared an enthusiasm for karaoke and the particular joy of singing ’80s and ’90s songs at top volume in a private room. And so our karaoke book club was created. We gather for dinner to discuss Ferrante, writing and literature, with a dash of gossip, and then we sing. If this sounds strange, I can only say: Try it. The pairing makes the gathering not just a conversation but an event.

It was already election season when we started our club, so it’s no wonder that many of our conversations were underpinned by the political climates in the Neapolitan novels and in our lives. How women were treated and viewed, and so often disrespected and dismissed. How often women faced punishment for their ambitions. How the governmental and social structures in Naples, circa 1960s and beyond, kept systems of sexism in place, and what it meant to challenge these.

The novels revolve around two women — Elena, the narrator, and her closest friend and sometime frenemy and sometime soul mate Lila — who navigate girlhood and womanhood under the watchful gaze of so many boys and men. Both Elena and Lila yearn to write, create, learn and become. It wasn’t just that all of us in our book club could understand that; it’s that on some level, big or small, we had felt and experienced the same.

Some book clubs are a reason to get together. Some have authors visit or Skype in. Ours feels like community and creativity, each holding up the other. Like when we talk about how Ferrante writes about writing and the feelings of self-doubt that come with it.

Or when we talk about Nino, the bad-boy figure of the Neapolitan novels (everyone knows or has dated a Nino). It happens, too, when we’re at karaoke, yelling out songs from the girlhoods that none of us, ever, really leave behind.

"Frantumaglia" Photo: Europa Editions

Photo: Europa Editions

“Frantumaglia”

Recently a few of us got together to discuss “Frantumaglia” (Europa Editions; $24), a recent collection of Ferrante’s interviews, letters and excerpts of some previously unpublished material. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, which began at a restaurant and carried over into email. The participants are Kirstin Chen, author of “Soy Sauce for Beginners”; Vanessa Hua, author of “Deceit and Other Possibilities” (and a columnist for The Chronicle); Beth Nguyen, author of “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” “Short Girls” and “Pioneer Girl”; and Aimee Phan, author of “The Reeducation of Cherry Truong” and “We Should Never Meet.” Also in the club are Reese Okyong Kwon (“Heroics”), Frances Hwang (“Transparency”) and Rachel Khong (“Goodbye, Vitamin”).

Aimee: I feel like I’m reading these books at the perfect moment in my life: I am in my late 30s, I have two children whose lives consume me (both positively and negatively), and I’m still trying to be a productive writer. Many of her protagonists are also at that moment in their lives: When they are overloaded with responsibilities, both mundane and profound, and they also have a strong sense of wanting to maintain their own individual identities. And at the same time, Ferrante moves beyond this particular reliability — it seems like she can go anywhere in her prose without any need for a transition. She can talk about politics, history, philosophy, sexuality, loneliness, and I willingly go with her, without ever questioning it. I don’t know any writer who can do that for me.

Vanessa: I was gripped by her portrayal of the complicated relationship between women, and what women face — and continue to face — when they attempt to move past traditional gender roles. As the daughter of immigrants, I was interested in the outsider narrative, Elena and Lila both striving to find their place in the world, but struggling to fit in for reasons of language, for reasons of assimilation and class. As a writer, I’m interested in how she approaches her craft, creating characters and circumstances that propel us through a lifetime’s worth of friendship.

Beth: “Frantumaglia” is a bit jarring, because it takes us out of the world Ferrante has created and gives us glimpses into the author’s world, and her process. Before this, I never wondered about Elena Ferrante’s life. I never really thought about it, because it was like she didn’t really exist as a writer you could access. But when I read this, I was like, now I know she writes on the second floor. She writes in a small space and there’s a balcony. She doesn’t like heights. She has two daughters. And then I started thinking about hey, what does she talk about with her friends in real life? Do they know who she is as a writer? Can they talk about their writing, or is it totally off limits? How does she negotiate her everyday life?

Vanessa: Yeah, her cover story is that she’s a translator.

Beth: But to have a cover story with your own friends — like a veil of secrecy?

Kirstin: She didn’t seem to have a clear answer for that. “Frantumaglia” isn’t really Ferrante’s, in a way. It’s a collection of her work, but it doesn’t seem guided by her. I mean, there’s no narrative arc.

"My Brilliant Friend" Photo: Europa Editions

Photo: Europa Editions

“My Brilliant Friend”

Vanessa: I thought about the mysterious founder of bitcoin. People don’t really know, but they want to know because it’s as if knowing the origin must mean or reveal something. I never cared or wondered about which theory was correct about who Ferrante actually is. It didn’t matter to me at all. I mean when we read books as kids, did we think, you know, I want to know everything about Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott?

Beth: This is why reading as a child is magical, because it’s so much about just the book.

Aimee: There’s something nice about speculating, when you’re reading Ferrante’s novels, how much is her? Without having an answer and without getting an answer. It makes it one’s own experience.

Kirstin: I was so interested in Ferrante’s deep love for Lila. That she was her favorite, unequivocally.

Vanessa: Yet she doesn’t tell the novels from Lila’s point of view.

Kirstin: Because Lila is too magnetic.

Aimee: There are lines when I thought I hated Lila and then — oh! Absolutely the opposite. At the same time, Elena is complicated, too. She’s the good-girl narrator and then she’s not. Which makes her, in a way, more deceptive than Lila. Lila’s life has so many highs and lows, because she’s living on her own terms and she refuses to capitulate.

Beth: I loved the frantumaglia idea, the way her mother described it. The jumble of fragments in your mind that can weigh you down. It made a lot of sense.

"The Story of a New Name" Photo: Europa Editions

Photo: Europa Editions

“The Story of a New Name”

Vanessa: The question of influence always comes up with writers. What are your influences; what is your origin story. But frantumaglia is interesting because there’s that note she adds about being disturbed by it, and she’s so disturbed that she has to write about it to get it out of her body. So the frantumaglia idea is a darker take on influence, which is fascinating.

Beth: Still, Ferrante does say several times that writing puts her in a good mood. Though publishing does not.

Vanessa: Ferrante is the kind of author who, once you read their work, you want to read all of it. I feel like that’s really rare.

Beth: She writes a lot about how her absence gives her this creative freedom that she could never have otherwise. Do you think that would be true for any of us, ever, if we decided we would leave social media and all that, and we would just write?

Kirstin: I’m not sure that’s possible for us anymore!

Aimee: Yeah, you’d have to be committed to it from the very beginning, as Ferrante was, in order for it to work. And then I wonder what it costs to keep that going.

Vanessa: I thought about these emerging nonfiction writers whose first publications are incredibly personal and revealing memoir pieces. They’re so confessional, like “I slept with my dad!” And they don’t realize that they can never get away from that.

Beth: Did you notice that whenever people asked about her literary influences, she would always cite Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf — and I don’t think she ever mentioned a single woman of color.

"Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay" Photo: Europa Editions

Photo: Europa Editions

“Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”

Vanessa: Yeah, as usual, writers of color are pretty much never mentioned as influences — except by other writers of color.

Beth: So what do we think about that? What do we think about race and Ferrante? I mean, do we read her the way we read Jane Austen — you know, like it’s a period piece? I think that’s how I read them, and so I have a different level of expectation.

Vanessa: In the books, the characters are outsiders, trying to move from one social and educational class to another, and that’s totally relatable. The struggles are similar.

Kirstin: It’s funny; hers is a world in which it doesn’t occur to me to think about race. It’s so much about regional difference.

Vanessa: I thought it was interesting how Ferrante insisted that the translators not try to render dialect as sounding like dialect. Instead there are markers like, this character says that in dialect and this one said that in Italian. It’s a kind of equalizing move.

Aimee: I think we’ve been pretty critical about American writers when they don’t address race, when their stories are incredibly white. But we don’t put that same standard on Ferrante.

Vanessa: Minority readers can see a mirror in nonminority characters, in white characters, but people don’t always assume that the reverse can happen.

Beth: I think part of the enjoyment of reading period pieces, honestly, is that as a person of color I can be like, yeah, I don’t have to go through the whole racial negotiation.

Aimee: I do identify with Lila feeling so trapped in every decision she made. She’s super smart and she’s thinking so much about self-preservation. And no matter what she does — she’s stuck. What choices are really available to her?

"The Story of the Lost Child" Photo: Europa Editions

Photo: Europa Editions

“The Story of the Lost Child”

Kirstin: I see a lot of writers trying to get away from the inevitable “what about your book is autobiographical” by writing historical fiction.

Beth: Do you think all writers tend to write the same stories or subjects over and over, like Ferrante?

Kirstin: I think we write about what we’re obsessed with, and sometimes that obsession just stays. Ferrante even says she starts with the same voice each time, which seems amazing to me.

Aimee: I think the role of the translator is incredible. They know both worlds — they know everything.

Beth: The translation is another layer of remove, which is totally interesting. There’s the author, there’s “Elena Ferrante,” there’s the translator, and then there’s us.

Later, over email, we reflected on the origins of our book club and what it means to have karaoke be part of it:

Aimee: Usually when I read a really good book, I can gush about it to my partner, whether or not he has read it yet. But with the Neopolitan novels, I felt a need to discuss them not only with other women, because of the incredible way Ferrante handles female perspectives and confronts the overwhelming power of misogyny in this world, but because of what the books said about being a female writer and thinker, and making choices that are not complementary to wifehood or motherhood. Her characters felt so radical and brave, and yet incredibly nearsighted and selfish at times, which is how we all have felt. I liked how passionate these women were, and how Ferrante showed those consequences. As for karaoke — I love karaoke and I love reading. They are both outlets and inspirations, so they make total sense!

Kirstin: I appreciate Ferrante’s writing, first and foremost, I think, for the rawness and the rage. Everything I read in my creative writing classes throughout college and grad school was understated and elegant and wry. That’s what I understood good writing to be and that’s what I aspired to write. When I sink into one of the Neapolitan novels, it really feels like I’m drowning in Ferrante’s words (In a good way! Like drowning in chocolate or something). I’m very struck by Elena’s isolation in the Neapolitan novels, by how much she has to figure out on her own because she simply has no one to turn to. I’m so grateful for our book club. All of this — writing, publishing, academia — would be such a huge puzzle — and so much less fun! — if I didn’t have all of you. And there’s something about the campiness of karaoke that appeals. We all write literary fiction/nonfiction, and karaoke is kind of the opposite of that, almost subversively so.

Beth: The depth of Elena and Lila’s friendship, with all of its complications, and the secrets and secret ambitions both women keep — for me this is real talk, real life. Very often, the Neapolitan Quartet is realism doing some of the best work it can do, showing us that we are not alone. I love that Ferrante is a forthright feminist and that these books are so unapologetically about the lives of girls and women. I use that word “unapologetically” because I feel like, for too long and still, people feel the need to justify that, as if the experiences of girls and women aren’t universal or literary enough. Ferrante knows she doesn’t have to justify that, and I think something about our book club is similar. We don’t have to explain our Ferrante fever; we revel in the feeling of it. The karaoke, too. We go with the feeling (of the writing, of the song) and trust that it will take us somewhere we need to go.

Vanessa: When I first tried reading “My Brilliant Friend,” I couldn’t get much past the section on their girlhood. So many neighbors, so much infighting and squabbling. Yet I knew how passionately people devoured the series, and when Aimee suggested the book club, I was eager to try again. The second time around, the book resonated and I quickly finished reading it, and then the entire quartet. What seems like the minutiae of childhood, I grew to understand, is foundational to understanding the dynamic between the two women, and social and economic forces they are up against their entire lives. Over dinner and drinks, we talk about how the book moved us and made us think about the world as women, as writers. It’s a fun way to engage our intellect. By contrast, karaoke is pure emotion — the highs so high, the lows so low. We’re going back, way back, to the songs we sang along to at prom or played while cruising around with our friends. Likewise, Ferrante’s Lila gives us access to her innermost thoughts and feelings in her childhood and adolescence — all her life, she is raw and honest and restless, like any great karaoke ballad.

 

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