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:
These are women we wish to be, women we are, women we admire, women we fear. The women writers I spoke to about their favorite female fictional characters overflowed with names—Lauren Olamina from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Dicey Tillerman in Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming—but we asked each for one. This list could be so much, and so easily longer—pull in Anne Shirley, Katniss Everdeen, Laura Ingalls, Meg Murray, Francie Nolan, Sabriel, Sula, Mrs. Ramsay, Miss Jean Brodie, Jadis, Ada Doom, Sophie Stark, Celie, Mazie, Bette Fischer, Úrsula Iguarán, Bertha Mason—and I have to stop myself. I’m stopping. What this list isn’t is exhaustive or authoritative. What it is is deeply personal, and I think all the more meaningful for it.
35) Lila and Lenù, the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante
Two strands of the same fictional double-helix, Lila and Lenù are admittedly individual characters but also inextricable ones. How to talk about one friend without the other? Their relationship, which sparked Ferrante Fever across Italy and the world, is at turns symbiotic and parasitic, intense and distant over the six decades that span the four Neapolitan novels. One hard, one soft, one flickering, one steady, they are each eachother’s brilliant friend.
—Molly McArdle, books editor, Brooklyn Magazine
Ferrante Fever is putting the literary spotlight on female friendships; here are 25 books that do a similarly good job of exploring a fascinating topic.
The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante
Well, of course — the series that has everyone talking about female friendship in literature again. If you’re reading this list and you haven’t picked up at least one of these, I’d be surprised.
This week: beach reading and classic literature intersect in one long literary shocker.
The books are the four “Neapolitan Novels” of Elena Ferrante—from My Brilliant Friend to The Story of a Lost Child, published late last year.
Ferrante’s identity remains beguilingly unknown, but she has put so much of her life and world in this masterwork that we’re not going to dwell on that part of the mystery.
Instead we’ll count the many faces of her novels. From the outside, the books look innocuous enough: their covers are airbrushed photo collages of mothers, daughters, and girls in Mediterranean scenes.
But deep down they are roiling, and white-hot: with male violence, women’s resistance, pleasure, trespass, and loss. Think ofCharlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” rewritten into a feminist epic.
The ungovernable city known as Gomorrah has experienced a ‘riscatto’ – redemption – thanks to the popularity of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels
‘Naples,” the thread begins, “I’ve been there many times and it just seems to get worse. Everything is a scam and there are crooks and small gangsters everywhere waiting to rip the chain off your neck. Garbage, hookers and fake everything.”
In the minds of the collective imagination, Naples has long been a strong contender for worst European city you’ve never been to. It’s most famous reference in popular culture in recent years has come in the form of the brutally cinematic Gomorrah, whose scalpel-sharp depiction of the irredeemable squalor and violence wreaked by the Camorra mafia.
Now, however, Naples is back on the map as a go-to city, thanks to the popularity of enigmatic author Elena Ferrante. Her critically acclaimed Neapolitan novels have sold more than 800,000 copies in the US and made the top 10 of every important 2015 booklist.
Ferrante is the biggest literary phenomenon to have come out of Italy in decades. Last month marked the writer’s highest achievement yet when the last volume of her quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, was shortlisted for the influential Man Booker Prize. Press-shy and writing under a pseudonym, Ferrante barely gives interviews at all (and then only via email). This foments speculation around her true identity.
Many believe her to be a team of writers; others conjecture that she is the wife of a respected Italian academic. Some have suggested that Ferrante is a man – a speculation which the author descended from her tower of mystery to quell.
The novels form a bildungsroman around the lives of Lila and Elena, set in one of city’s most deprived rioni (districts) in the 1950s. The intensity and vitality of the girls’ experiences are set against peeling grey walls, domestic violence, criminality and drab poverty.
A testament to Ferrante’s enticing convocation of Naples is its newfound popularity among tourists. The New York Times and the Guardian have both run articles on how to visit Naples “in search of Ferrante”. Pizzas have been named after her, tour guides hare advertising tours after her books, and bookshops display her works in their windows.
The popularity of the novels abroad has restored a romance and bygone glamour to foreigners’ perception of Naples, which had previously been reserved for the nearby Amalfi coast. Much like the paradoxical relationship between Lila and Elena, Italy has a conflicted relationship with the Naples.
With its world-famous food, Naples has more Michelin-stared chefs than any other Italian city. The common phrase genio napoletano reflects the volume of creative geniuses who claim Naples as their birthplace, among them Sophia Loren, Enrico Caruso, and Vittorio De Sica. Its opulent architecture reflects its strange position in history as a Swedish-ruled city, a territory of the Spanish empire, and the site of ancient Greek and Roman settlements.
Yet even the most innocent review of a Neapolitan pizzeria reads like a warning from an over-anxious mother: “Be careful and avoid arguments with men offering to park your car. Be careful of unofficial taxi services. Avoid engaging in any gambling. Avoid these neighbourhoods . . . ”
In a 2015 survey run by national newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, Naples topped the list (“once again”) as the Italian city with the worst quality of life. For years it has made headlines for the ongoing Camorra-related mishandling of its rubbish, resulting in constant concerns over the contamination of water and food supplies.
Naples gets plenty of bad press. So it was no surprise that when the New York Times wrote not one, but two articles praising the city, Neapolitans were eager to not let anyone forget about it.
“The city changes alongside the narrative,” she says. “Above all, Ferrante’s Naples is not made up of preconceptions or known places. There’s no football. Even without retreating from talking about the Camorra, it is still a million miles from the Naples in Gomorrah. The city doesn’t have to change. It is us that have to grow and take stock, re-appropriate what riches we have at our disposal here.”
Siniscalchi’s vision of Naples as an unfairly maligned and bypassed city would be shared by many. Aside from Ferrante’s literary prowess and her unconventional secrecy, her resuscitation of Naples’s spirit is what she is commended for most in her home town. Ferrante suggests that while it may be in the rough, a diamond Naples still remains.
Ardent fans will recognize everything from Siniscalchi’s tours, which start at the Rione Luzzatti, the rione believed to be where Elena and Lila grew up. Tour guides still warn visitors to be “careful” there. It’s bordered by Via Emanuele Gianturco and the tracks of Napoli Centrale train station, which feature throughout the books.
There is a stop at Via Taddeo de Sessa, the stradone (wide road) that the characters walk up and down so frequently in the first books. Piazza dei Martiri, which features prominently, is situated in the midst of the upmarket Chiaia shopping neighbourhood, where Lila’s shoe shop is located.
Il Rettifilo where Lila buys her wedding dress in The Story of the New Name, is also a stop and most likely the bustling Corso Umberto. The upscale neighbourhood of Posillipo, where the last books go, is another stop, offering tourists amazing views of the Gulf of Naples.
Elena Ferrante fever will continue to rise regardless whether or not she wins the Booker. But Naples’ fate is less certain.
In her Napolista interview, Siniscalchi says that her greatest hope for Naples is to see its riscatto, a word that neatly encompasses both “redemption” and “ransom” in its meaning.
By one measure, yes:
The Man Booker International Prize has commissioned Nielsen Book to conduct an unprecedented research project into the translated fiction market. Nielsen Book examined and coded the data on physical book sales between 2001 and April 2016. The findings show that the proportion of translated fiction published remains extremely low at 1.5% overall and 3.5% of literary fiction. However, in terms of sales, fiction punches well above its weight with translated fiction providing 5% of total fiction sales in 2015 and translated literary fiction making up 7% of literary fiction sales in 2015. On average, translated fiction books sell better than books originally written in English, particularly in literary fiction.
The translated fiction market is rising, against a stagnating general fiction market. In 2001 51.6 million physical fiction books were sold, falling to 49.7 million in 2015. However translated fiction rose from 1.3 million copies sold a year to 2.5 million. In the literary fiction market, the rise was from 1 million copies to 1.5 million.
Of course, translated literary fiction still makes up a minuscule fraction of the literary fiction market, but increasing your units sold by 50% in 14 years isn’t terrible performance, particularly when your competition is in decline.
I think this is a pretty clear confirmation of the inroads that translation fiction advocates are making into the corporate media—that’s where you need to get your message out if you want to sell in large numbers. It probably also reflects the resurgent independent bookstore scene and a general resurgence in alternative culture, enabled in part by Internet technologies.
I’d be interested to see what the comparable stats are for the American market. My guess is that the U.K. fares far better, since it is a part of Europe and so close to so many nations that speak other languages (in addition to the much greater anti-intellectualism in the U.S.).
The article also lists the top ten best-selling translations of 2015. Fascinatingly, while Elena Ferrante has 3 of the top ten, Karl Ove Knausgaard has none. Not quite sure what that’s all about, but it is eye-catching.
The New Yorker editor who turned Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet into vivid, bestselling English novels has become the face of translators.
Behind every great anonymous Italian writing sensation stands a brilliant translator – though Ann Goldstein, who has transformed Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet into vivid, muscular English prose that has both charmed the critics and scaled bestseller lists, might shy away from being described in such a way. In person, Goldstein, a long-time editor at the New Yorker, is quiet and precise, her voice exuding a gentle curiosity and wry humour.
The Neapolitan books, which centre on the ruthlessly honest friendship between two women, have also been hailed as bringing to light a bold, new modern voice. Is there something about Ferrante’s use of Italian that is unique? “Italian is a naturally beautiful language. It’s very mellifluous. In terms of the sound, it’s very expressive. English can be very beautiful, but not in the same way – it’s not this kind of flowing, fluid thing.”
Goldstein says Ferrante talks about how she doesn’t want to be a “beautiful writer”. “Italians are very into these sorts of elaborate, beautiful, flowery kinds of sentences, and that’s the sort of classical Italian, and she doesn’t really fit into that. She’s so direct about what she’s describing, about emotions, about feelings, about the things that happen between people. The fact that she’s describing things that are not usually described in those terms in Italian literature means that the language she uses is often a little cruder, more raw. I don’t mean vulgar. I just mean it’s more direct, really. And kind of brutal.”
A few years ago I was invited to speak at a New York bookstore with Elena Ferrante’s translator,Ann Goldstein. At the time, Ferrante was not yet the literary sensation she is today; she had a few slim volumes out with Europa Editions, for which Ann and I have done an extensive amount of translating — at that point, our combined efforts apparently accounted for over a quarter of their catalog. The event was modestly attended, as such events generally are, even in New York. But for a moment,Ann and I were on stage, visible, recognized for what we do.
Now we have “Ferrante Fever.” For for me as a translator, the phenomenon is doubly fascinating because of the author’s deliberate invisibility. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym; we suspect she lives in Naples, but other than that she is a mystery. It is Ann Goldstein who has become the “face” of Ferrante — who is interviewed, invited to festivals or events that authors regularly attend. This reversal of the usual relationship between author and translator is an opportunity for the reader to remember — or realize — that not only is literature in translation something to enjoy and cherish, but that it is a collaborative effort. The translator, like the interpreter of a piece of classical music, is an artist in her own right, not merely a backstage employee of the publishing company whose name is all to often left out of reviews or other publicity. (Imagine advertising a concert at Carnegie Hall without crediting the soloist.)
This month the winner of the prestigious Man Booker International Prize will be announced. Weekend is featuring all six of the shortlisted books before the winner is made public. Unusually the $72,000 prizemoney is divided equally between the writer and translator.
This week’s book is The Story Of The Lost Child by Italian writer Elena Ferrante. It’s the final part of a series known as the Neapolitan Quartet, about the sixty-year friendship between Elena, a successful writer, and her childhood friend Lila.
Weekend’s Julian Worricker spoke to the book’s translator Ann Goldstein, who says she has never met Ferrante herself. But her acquaintance with her work goes way back.
This month the winner of the prestigious Man Booker International Prize will be announced. Weekend is featuring all six of the shortlisted books before the winner is made public.
This week we look at one of the hot favourites: The Story Of The Lost Child by Italian writer Elena Ferrante. It’s the final part of a series known as the Neapolitan Quartet, about the sixty-year friendship between Elena, a successful writer, and Lila, her friend from childhood. Elena Ferrante refuses to have a public profile, but she does communicate via email and agreed to an exchange with the BBC. Her answers have been voiced by an actress.
Her writing is extremely intimate and emotionally honest. But she herself is pseudonymous. Weekend’s Julian Worricker asked why she keeps such a distance between life and work?
Survey commissioned by the Man Booker International prize finds authors including Elena Ferrante and Haruki Murakami are driving a boom in UK sales of translated literary fiction
Translated literary fiction is selling better on average in the UK than literary fiction originally written in English, according to new research, with authors including Elena Ferrante, Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard driving a boom in sales.
Though fiction in translation accounts for just 3.5% of literary fiction titles published, it accounted for 7% of sales in 2015, according to a survey commissioned by the Man Booker International prize.
The research, conducted by Nielsen Book, looked at physical book sales in the UK between January 2001 and April 2016. It found that translated fiction sales almost doubled over the last 15 years, from 1.3m to 2.5m copies, while the market for fiction as a whole fell from 51.6m in 2001 to 49.7m in 2015.
Although the proportion of translated fiction is still “extremely low”, at 1.5% overall, the sector still “punches well above its weight”, said the book sales monitor, with that 1.5% accounting for 5% of total fiction sales in 2015.
“On average, translated fiction books sell better than books originally written in English, particularly in literary fiction,” said Nielsen. Looking specifically at translated literary fiction, sales rose from 1m copies in 2001 to 1.5m in 2015, with translated literary fiction accounting for just 3.5% of literary fiction titles published, but 7% of the volume of sales in 2015.