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.
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From Scandinavian crime to Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausagaard, it’s boom time for foreign fiction in the UK. But the right translation is crucial, says Rachel Cooke, while, below, some of the best translators tell us their secrets
Last year, I decided to treat myself to a new copy of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, a novel I have loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, and whose dreamy opening line in its original translation from the French by Irene Ash – “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness” – I know by heart. But which one to get? In the end, I decided to go for something entirely new and ritzy, which is how I came to buy the Penguin Modern Classics edition, translated by Heather Lloyd.
Some days later, in bed, I began reading it. The shock was tremendous, disorienting. “This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’,” went the first sentence, which sounded to my ears a little as though a robot had written it. For a while I pressed on, telling myself it was stupid to cling to only one version, as if it were a sacred thing, and that perhaps I would soon fall in love with this no doubt very clever and more accurate new translation. Pretty soon, though, I gave up. However syntactically correct it might be, the prose had for me lost all of its magic. It was as if I’d gone out to buy a silk party dress and come home with a set of nylon overalls.
Last week, I mentioned this experience to Ann Goldstein, the acclaimed translator of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. She laughed. “I know what you mean,” she said, down the line from New York. “My feeling about Proust is that he’s Scott-Moncrieff [C K Scott-Moncrieff, who published his English translation of A La recherche du temps perdu as Remembrance of Things Past in the 1920s]. I haven’t read the newer translations – but I don’t want to. I’m very attached to his, even though people always say ‘he did this’ or ‘he did that’.” If Goldstein is aware that for many people she will always, now, be the one and only translator of My Brilliant Friend and the other novels that make up Ferrante’s best-selling Neapolitan quartet, she gave no sign.
Ann Goldstein discusses BBC Radio 4 forthcoming dramatization of MY BRILLIANT FRIEND (to be broadcast next Sunday) with dramatist Timberlake Wertenbaker and Kirsty Lang.
Episode 1 | Drama,Reading Europe – Italy: My Brilliant Friend
From one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is the first in a quartet of books entitled The Neapolitan Novels. They are a forensic exploration of friendship between Lila and the story’s narrator, Lena. This is no normal friendship, it’s a friendship that loves, hurts, supports and destroys – and yet it is one that lasts a lifetime.
It begins in the 1950s in a poor but vibrant neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets two girls, Elena and Lila, learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone – or anything – else as their friendship, beautifully and meticulously rendered, becomes a not always perfect shelter from hardship.
It is the story of a nation, of a neighbourhood, a city and a country undergoing momentous change.
This first book centres on their childhood and adolescence.
From the book by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein.
Dramatised by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Directed by Celia de Wolff
A Pier production for BBC Radio 4.
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