The Neapolitan Quartet – 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. 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.
Read it now:
By KATE SCHATZ
e first known author was an ancient Sumerian priestess named Enheduanna. The first novel was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Court in Japan. Women wrote plays in ancient Greece, poems in ancient Persia. Fast forward some centuries, and five of the world’s top ten bestselling authors are women. Women from all over the world have been creating, influencing, and contributing to literature since its inception. Yet google “greatest writers” and you still get this:
(If you scroll the right for a while you eventually get to Virginia Woolf, then Jane Austen. J.K. Rowling, one of those top-selling authors, eventually appears as well. Out of, like, sixty dudes.)
It’s probably not a huge shock to see a slew of white, male, American/British/Russian faces here — but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. So, to counteract that in some small way, I want to bring attention to just a few of the women writers from around the world who have produced or are producing beautiful, necessary works of literature. (And I really mean just a few. It’s a good thing I have a wordcount and a deadline, because this could be very, very long.) I’ve kept it to twentieth- and twenty-first-ccentury fiction writers (rad women poets is another article entirely), and have included writers who write in English and those whose works have been translated. These are women whose novels and stories show us worlds, cultures, lives, and truths that need to be known.
As a monolingual person, I experience a particular sadness when I think about the many stories I won’t get to know. A New York Times study found that less than four percent of the new adult fiction published in the U.S. is in translation. That’s a huge loss, especially when you consider the wise words of Susan Sontag: “To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom… Literature was freedom.” With that in mind, read on.
Elena Ferrante, Italy
“Elena Ferrante” is the pseudonym of the Italian novelist responsible for captivating much of the reading world for the past several years with her incredibly intense, complex, and heart-wrenching Neapolitan novels. The four books (My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; and The Story of the Lost Child) track the passionate and overwrought friendship of two Italian women as they grow up, come of age, and navigate adulthood in a violent, impoverished section of Naples. They give depth and legitimacy to platonic female friendship in a way that feels unprecedented. Prior to the Neapolitan novels, Ferrante published several other novels, and has most recently published a children’s book. Despite the dogged and often invasive pursuit of journalists, Ferrante maintains her anonymity, explaining that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.”
Rad Reads: all four books in the Neapolitan novel series
Tanslated by Nicole Gounalis. The original Italian appeared online at Storie.
Elena Ferrante’s face in the Anglophone world today is that of her translator, Ann Goldstein. New Yorker editor, and guardian of its prestige, on March 30 of this year she returned as an ex-student to Bennington College—she left in 1971—where she met with a small group of students before taking part in an evening at a lecture hall on campus. BARBARA ALFANO, who has taught Italian literature at the Vermont college for years, gathered the testimony of Goldstein’s almost superhuman determination.
DANTE’S COMEDY AND THE NEW YORKER
What demon possessed you, at age 37, to learn Italian in order to read the Divine Comedy in the original and, furthermore, all of it, not just the Inferno, like most students in the United States? Was it the itch to discover this other world within the words of a person who recounted having been there, or were you overtaken by this mania because someone had explained to you that Dante is the father of the Italian language and, as the head copy-editor at the New Yorker, perhaps tired of embellishing others’ stories, eliminating useless adverbs and changing comma placements, you decided to learn a new language from its source?
Because you are also an editor of the magazine, a guardian of its prestige, and you know that certain things are either done well or not at all, and therefore to learn Italian you should start with Dante. Was it like that? That you were taken midway upon the difficult and industrious New Yorker journey?
This is what I wanted to ask Ann Goldstein (b. 1950), as soon as I met her, but we were seated in a classroom in Bennington, Vermont, in front of fifteen students eager to ask her questions about Elena Ferrante and Ferrante’s novels, all of which Ann has translated. She was as shy and surprised as the students to find herself at her alma mater, to which she hadn’t returned since 1971, the year she graduated with a degree in literature. She was seated between me and Ben Anastas,1 who had invited her and with whom I was teaching a course entitled “In Search of Elena Ferrante.”
When I finally had the opportunity to ask her why Dante, she responded that it was a pressing desire. After having read the Divine Comedy in English, “I wanted to read it in Italian and I convinced some colleagues that they, too, should learn Italian and read Dante.”
In that way, from 1987 onward, they studied Italian at the New Yorkerwith a private instructor once a week for many years, a habit that Ann and her colleagues have taken up again recently. In that first period of time, they started to read Dante after only a year of lessons. That same year, Goldstein, who has worked at the New Yorker since 1974, was simultaneously made head copy-editor and promoted to editor.
FROM ALDO BUZZI TO PRIMO LEVI AND FERRANTE
Before arriving at the New Yorker, Ann had studied comparative philology—Greek and Latin—for a brief period at University College, London. She also learned a little Sanskrit, but didn’t even think of translation until, in 1992, an Italian friend shared with her a short essay by Aldo Buzzi, “Chekov in Sondrio.” It was subsequently published in translation in the New Yorker; she said that she had tried her hand at translating it. In truth, she did much more than that: she won the PEN-Renato Poggioli Prize for translation for the volume of Buzzi’s collected writings, Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels (1996).
Since then, Ann Goldstein works on translation in all the free time she has left over from her job at the New Yorker—weekends, vacations, spare hours, and long nights. She has translated, in random order, Alessandro Baricco, Giacomo Leopardi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alessandro Piperno, Antonio Monda, Serena Vitale, Roberto Calasso, Giovanni Paolo II, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Primo Levi. She was the editor for the monumental work that is the translation of Levi’s three-volume complete works. She coordinated the work of nine translators and translated various pieces herself. It was a massive effort that took years, published in 2015, and it brought the translator, herself of Jewish origin, closer to the story of the Holocaust in Italy.
Fame, however, arrived thanks to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy. In September 2012, My Brilliant Friend was released in the U.S. and in January 2013, James Wood published a long article in the New Yorkerdedicated to Ferrante’s work. This marked the beginning of great international success, which quickly became ‘Ferrante fever’ with the publication of the final book in the cycle. The Story of the Lost Child is a candidate for the Man Booker International Prize, the prestigious prize that honors novels in translation.
Ann has translated all of Ferrante’s work, including the interviews. In November of this year La frantumaglia will also be released in translation, the book that complies more than twenty years’ worth of letters and various writings by Ferrante on the subject of her work. Ann’s relationship with Ferrante’s novels had already begun in 2005. As in the case of the Divine Comedy, the culprit was a book: The Days of Abandonment (2002), which enthralled her. Even though Europa Editions, sister press of the Italian E/O, had asked various translators to send only a short sample of work that they would like to do, Ann sent the publisher the entire novel. “I wanted that job!” she confessed to the students at Bennington with an intense look and a big grin, revealing the enthusiasm and professional rigor that have made her a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center (1995, 2006), the American Academy in Rome (1993-4, 2002, and the Guggenheim Foundation (2008).
A METICULOUS ARTISAN
While the students spoke with her, I glanced at the translation drafts she had brought with her to the class and that she had spread out on the desk for me with a restrained gesture, saying in a soft voice, “If these can be of use…” The answer I was looking for was there, in those drafts. There were no doodles, no confused notes in the margins, no long underlinings, no armies of question marks. There was nothing to indicate the translator’s torment, as I had imagined it. Instead, there were interruptions—words substituted for others, here and there, that lit up the sentences like a Christmas tree. A magic. A short pencil mark got rid of a word judged imperfect and the new word, written beautifully above, illuminated the entire sentence, gave it color, transformed it. In this way, I understood.
I understood that for an artisan of language, impassioned and meticulous, reading the Divine Comedy in English would have given her a great itch. Dante’s work doesn’t permit translation, only great betrayal, even when it’s done well. It would be an itch that only recourse to the original could scratch. The only cure for translation, it seems, is to become its practitioner.
Ann Goldstein is not merely the face of Elena Ferrante, as by now many overseas newspapers and magazines are calling her. Ann Goldstein, like every translator, creates what the author cannot: their work in another language. Translators don’t just lend their native language to a work. The organizers of the Man Booker International want this to be clear to everyone—the prize, starting this year, will be shared equally between the author and the translator.
Ann, congratulations on the nomination for the Man Booker International Prize. Have you and Elena Ferrante congratulated each other? Has she written to you?
Thank you. No, but we don’t have a relationship where we write each other regularly.
Has your relationship with her changed over the years?
Not much. In the beginning she was more reserved and when I had doubts I asked the editors at e/o, the Italian press. They would pass the questions on to Ferrante. I don’t know exactly why but I’ve kept up this ‘long distance’ relationship, so to speak, even though I imagine that now I could easily stay in touch with her through email.
The organizers of the Man Booker International decided, from this year on, to award translators alongside writers. Boyd Tonkin, president of the jury, spoke of first-class translations. Are they finally recognizing the translators’ role as equal to that of the author?
It’s a gratifying development, this recognition of the translator. I wouldn’t say that the translator is equal to the author, but obviously it’s important in the sense that a book wouldn’t exist in another language without the translator. Certainly all translators have had this experience of a review, where long passages from the book are quoted without reference to them, or to the fact that these passages have been translated from another language.
Elena Ferrante has said she is also a translator.2What effect does it have that the writer whose works you’ve been translating for more than ten years shares, in some sense, your profession and that she has complete trust in you (her words)? Is it common that one translator has such absolute trust in another?
I think that she recognizes and understands the difficulties of translation and therefore appreciates the work. I believe she reads English and has read the translations, at least of the first books.
Has it ever occurred to you to write a novel?
No. I leave that task to others.
The first novel of Ferrante’s that you translated was The Days of Abandonment and you did it all at once. Tell me about this experience.
It was an intense experience, as you can imagine. It’s book without any breathing room, in a certain sense, and this is communicated to the reader, who can feel suffocated. We’re in the mind of the protagonist and it is not a calm or easy place. Often I wanted to escape but it wasn’t possible, or only for a brief period. As the translator, I couldn’t escape, I had to go back to reading, to reviewing, to reflecting on the words, the sentences, and how to render them in English.
I won’t ask you if the translator is a traitor because you don’t like to betray: you stay as close as possible to the original text. Even so, with Ferrante’s Neapolitan cycle, you had to come to terms with an Italian that was purposefully rooted in the essence of Naples over time, with expressions like tamarro, scarparo, mappina, sciacquati in bocca. Did you have to betray, with a heavy heart? What was the biggest difficulty you encountered in translating the cycle?
I tried to find words or expressions that were not exactly slang, but more colloquial. I think that the most difficult thing was maintaining the intensity of the sentences, or the passages or paragraphs, and, at the same time, constructing fine English syntax. In The Story of the Lost Child,where Elena talks about the history of Naples, there are very complex descriptions, because it’s not only about places and a history unknown to Americans or Anglophones, but part of the setting.
Staying on the theme of faithfulness, I saw your name, for the very first time, as the translator of Alessandro Baricco’s City, and that work seemed perfect to me, very clean. It should be said that that book lends itself well to a fluid version in English, very close to the original. In fact, my first impression of City was that it was a novel suffused with America, even in its language. Baricco’s language, in other words, was inspired by America as a place.3 Did you notice that too? Are some styles easier to translate than others?
What you say is true, although I hadn’t thought about it in such explicit terms. City, a book I love—maybe I told you!—and which hasn’t received the attention it deserves, has a pretty American underpinning and for that reason it’s recognizable and, maybe, translatable. But every style has its own difficulties, even one that seems clear.
Before you, Italian literature in the Anglophone world bore the great signature of William Weaver, who passed away in 2013. Did you ever speak with him, even if not, ideally, in person, on your journey as a translator?
Yes, I knew him a bit—I knew some of his friends. We talked a bit, but when I had only just begun to translate. I visited him, once, in Italy—he had a house in Monte San Savino, near Arezzo, and there was a beautiful new room where he worked, which he called ‘the Eco chamber’, because it was built with the proceeds from The Name of the Rose. It’s a great story, but it indicates another difficulty translators face: the paltry compensation. Maybe the new Booker system will shed a little light on this problem.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing the translation of Something Written by Emanuele Trevi, a mix of autobiography/memoir and literary criticism of Pasolini’s Petrolio. It’s a fascinating text for me, having translated Petrolio, but it might not be for those who aren’t interested in Pasolini.
If it were up to you to propose a contemporary Italian author to translate, who would you choose and why?
I would like to translate Gli anni impossibili by Romano Bilenchi: it’s a series of three long short stories and I translated one of them, “The Chill,” but I think all three are necessary to render the power of Bilenchi’s writing. I wanted to translate Pasolini’s novels, but now I’ve done it, or at least I translated one of them4 (not including Petrolio, which I translated years ago).
Do you have a beloved book in the drawer that sooner or later you’ll translate?
Only in the sense that I’m behind on various projects.
She’s not running behind for her flight, however, which will take her to New Zealand to talk about Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi at the Auckland Writers Festival, ‘Down Under,’ as they say. She says goodbye to me from the airport in San Francisco. “That makes two of us,” I respond to her later, when she is already in the other hemisphere. “Tomorrow it’s my turn to talk about Ferrante.”
Aldo Buzzi, Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels, Random House, 1996.
Romano Bilenchi, The Chill, Europa Editions, 2009.
Ann Goldstein, “Remembering Updike,” The New Yorker, March 20, 2009.
Pia Pera, Lo’s Diary, Foxrock Books, 1999.
The Complete Works of Primo Levi, ed. Ann Goldstein, Liveright, 2015.
Pier Paolo Pasolini, Petrolio, Pantheon Books, 1997.
Elena Ferrante, “Our Fetid City,” The New Yorker, January 15, 2008.
James Wood, “Women on the Verge: The Fiction of Elena Ferrante,” The New Yorker, January 21, 2013.
Elena Ferrante’s Books Published in Translation by Europa Editions
The Days of Abandonment (2005)
Troubling Love (2006)
The Lost Daughter (2008)
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)
- 1.Benjamin Anastas is the author of the novels The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance (2002, New York Times Notable Book), An Underachiever’s Diary (1998) and the memoir Too Good to Be True (2012). He teaches Literature at Bennington College. His writing has appeared in Harpers, The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications.
- 2.“Ecco perché mi nascondo” [“This is why I’m in hiding”], La Repubblica, October 26, 2003.
- 3.Translator’s note: the Italian phrase used by Alfano (“sciacquare i panni in Hudson”) is a play on Alessandro Manzoni’s (1785-1873) famous quote describing his rewriting of the novel The Betrothed (I promessi sposi). Manzoni famously re-wrote his masterpiece into Tuscan Italian, even though he was from Milan and the novel takes place in Lombardy.
- 4.Ragazzi di Vita, The Street Kids (2016).
The success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels has sparked worldwide buzz in and out of academia, in literary journals, and in book clubs. Ferrante is the author of seven novels, a collection of papers related to her work as a writer, and a children’s book, The Beach at Night.1 When it comes to Ferrante, we may feel, indeed, stranded on a beach, at night, left there to collect the tokens of her presence and whereabouts in this world. The tokens are words and in them we find the lucid exactness of worlds inhabited by characters who are as vivid and real as she is elusive. They deal with what the author has called frantumaglia, a term she borrows from her mother and her Neapolitan dialect (frantummàglia), which she describes as “un malessere non altrimenti definibile che rimandava ad una folla di cose eterogenee nella testa, detriti su un’acqua limacciosa del cervello” (“a malaise that could not be defined otherwise and that hinted at a crowded, heterogeneous mix of things in her head, like rubbles floating on a brain’s muddy waters” [La frantumaglia; 94]). Ferrante’s compelling narrative dives into such muddy waters and surfaces from them with the strength of truth, where truth does not mean moral clarity, but stems from the unmistakable verity of naked human emotions. The origin of the word frantumaglia is very material; it refers, in fact, to a pile of fragments from broken objects that cannot be pieced together again.
This Colloquy seeks to bring together in one ongoing conversation, from a variety of intellectual perspectives, the voices of the international discourse about Elena Ferrante’s novels and the significance of her work in the contemporary literary landscape.
As for who she might be, in light of the quite disturbing invasion of privacy that Anita Raja has undergone, and considering the fact that in both La frantumaglia and several other interviews Ferrante gives us enough detail about what of her life experience gets into her novels, I repeat here what I have previously noted in an article for Storie: who cares? But if we do, why do we? This Colloquy would welcome any contribution that convincingly argues why the author’s biographic data would cast more light on her fiction, or why knowing her name would be at all important, and for whom. In the meantime, I propose again Ferrante’s response to a reader who sought to know her identity: “La personalità di chi scrive storie è tutta nella virtualità dei suoi libri. Guardi li dentro e ci troverà gli occhi, il sesso, lo stile di vita, la classe sociale e la voce dell’es” (“The personality of those who write stories is contained entirely in the virtual worlds of their books. Look in there and you will find their eyes, sex, life style, social class, and the voice of their Id” [La frantumaglia199]).
A native of Naples, Italy, Barbara Alfano is a member of the faculty at Bennington
“Obscurity rids the mind of the irk of envy and spite; [it] sets running in the veins the free waters of generosity and magnanimity; and allows giving and taking without thanks offered or praise given.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
When Virginia Woolf published Orlando: A Biography(public library) on October 11, 1928, she revolutionized the politics of LGBT love with this groundbreaking novel inspired by and dedicated to her longtime loverand lifelong friend Vita Sackville-West.
In a testament to the famous assertion that “fiction is the lie that tells the truth,” the novel has stood the test of time not only as an immensely pleasurable work of art, which Vita’s son aptly described as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” but as a ceaseless wellspring of truth and wisdom on such elemental existential concerns asthe elasticity of time, the nature of memory, the fluidity of gender, the enlivening power of illusion, and our propensity for self-doubt in creative work. It is the rare kind of book which, once read, accompanies you as a sage silent companion throughout life, always aglow with the perfect insight to illuminate any situation or struggle.
One such perfect insight came to mind in light of the recent parasitic paparazzo’salleged unmasking of Elena Ferrante. Nearly a century earlier, Woolf addressed the question at the heart of this egregious violation of artistic choice and integrity by juxtaposing the rewards of fame with those of anonymity, or what she called “obscurity,” in the original sense of the word — the state of being not-known, of having one’s identity concealed, of being hidden from view in the public eye.
While fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a man like a mist; obscurity is dark, ample, and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded. Over the obscure man is poured the merciful suffusion of darkness. None knows where he goes or comes. He may seek the truth and speak it; he alone is free; he alone is truthful; he alone is at peace.
Extolling the value of obscurity as “the delight of having no name, but being like a wave which returns to the deep body of the sea,” Woolf adds:
Obscurity rids the mind of the irk of envy and spite; [it] sets running in the veins the free waters of generosity and magnanimity; and allows giving and taking without thanks offered or praise given.
Woolf’s words offer the perfect affirmation of Ferrante’s artistic choice to use a pseudonym, which she herself had articulated to her Italian publisher in a beautiful letter penned on September 21, 1991, shortly before the publication of her debut novel, Troubling Love. The letter was later included in the Ferrante anthologyFrantumaglia. She writes:
You asked me what I intend to do for the promotion of Troubling Love… You asked the question ironically, with one of your bemused expressions… I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient. I won’t participate in discussions and conferences, if I’m invited. I won’t go and accept prizes, if any are awarded to me. I will never promote the book, especially on television, not in Italy or, as the case may be, abroad. I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum. I am absolutely committed in this sense to myself and my family. I hope not to be forced to change my mind.
I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. There are plenty of examples. I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana [a fairy-like character of Italian folklore], which I waited for as a child. I went to bed in great excitement and in the morning I woke up and the gifts were there, but no one had seen the Befana. True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known; they are the very small miracles of the secret spirits of the home or the great miracles that leave us truly astonished. I still have this childish wish for marvels, large or small, I still believe in them.
Complement with Einstein on the fickle nature of fame and the true rewards of work, then revisit Woolf on the relationship between loneliness and creativity, what makes love last, and the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.
The use of pen names is as old as literature itself. Every genre has its share; our childhoods are littered with them (Dr. Seuss and Carolyn Keene ring a bell?). But few of us realize that some of our most beloved books of adulthood are written under pen names. Below are several of our favorite examples of pseudonymous (yes, that is a real word) works, from a classic of espionage fiction to contemporary science fiction and a certain bestselling literary series.
My Brilliant Friend
Following years of interest in one of the most compelling modern literary mysteries, the true identity of Elena Ferrante was allegedly uncovered by The New York Review of Books earlier this month. MY BRILLIANT FRIEND is the first of four bestselling Neapolitan Novels by Ferrante. This coming-of-age tale of two precocious girls in 1950s Italy illuminates their strong bond in the midst of the rapid changes Italy faced throughout the twentieth century.
– See more at: http://offtheshelf.com/2016/10/who-wrote-that-12-books-written-under-pen-names/#sthash.7fsYUfRB.dpuf
…when I am another, my acts
are more mine when they are the acts
of others, in order to be I must be another,
leave myself, search for myself
in the others, the others that don’t exist
if I don’t exist, the others that give me
total existence, I am not, there is no I, we are always us.
from “Sunstone” by Octavio Paz
translated by Eliot Weinberger
On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted … on the fragile border … where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so — double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.
from “Powers of Horror” by Julia Kristeva
1. Boundaries of knowledge
In the opening of Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth book of the Italian writer’s Neapolitan novels, the narrator, Elena Greco, notes: “Now that I’m close to the most painful part of our story, I want to seek on the page a balance between her and me that in life I couldn’t find even between myself and me.” “Her” here refers to Lila Cerullo, as Elena calls her, and these four novels, arguably one large masterpiece, chronicle the lives of and friendship between these two women set against the backdrop of Italy’s charged sociopolitics. Elena’s desire for balance here is representative of the intricate balance and boundary between the self and the other that exists in these novels. Their friendship becomes a continual process of blurring what is imagined and what is real to achieve a sort of truth, a mutual constitution of self and other.
The friendship is both tender and antagonistic, deeply intimate and full of spite, and Elena reflects on the difficulty of telling her own story without Lila in it. There is Lila’s story and there is Elena’s story, but Elena realizes the two are inextricable. The “very nature of our relationship,” Elena notes, “dictates that I can reach [Lila] only by passing through myself.” Lila, however, is adamant that her own story is not interesting, but Elena cannot admit that she is right, nor can she admit that “as the years pass, the less [she knows] of Lila.” And, perhaps, the less she knows of herself.
Rachel Donadio, in her New York Review of Books review of Ferrante’s novels (published before The Story of a Lost Child was released in English) eloquently argues that these books are about knowledge: “What kind of knowledge does it take to get by in this world? How do we attain that knowledge? How does our knowledge change us and wound us and empower us … ? What things do we want to know and what would we prefer to leave unknown?”
It’s a smart, astute observation, to which I would add that these novels feel less about knowledge as a goal and more about its flux, how knowledge not only changes us but how we might have a role in creating that knowledge. New knowledge creates new possibilities, after all, fulfilling certain needs that were limited by its previous lack. This lack of knowledge, and of power, can work as a catalyst, and writing is a way to claim both: “I loved Lila,” Elena notes. “I wanted her to last. But I wanted it to be I who made her last.”
There are boundaries to knowledge, of course. Elena struggles with the fact that “as the years pass, the less [she knows] of Lila.” Knowledge isn’t always absolute, and truth, these novels suggest, isn’t either. The books are about being perpetually in between, about hovering near the borders, about becoming. The story of the complicated friendship explores the idea of boundaries and balance: of narration, of knowledge, of the body, and of the self. A friend is, as Aristotle would say, one’s other self.
So when Lila goes missing, at the age of sixty-six, Elena takes it as a personal affront and a personal loss. “It’s been at least three decades since [Lila] told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means.” Her whereabouts — the novel’s great unknown, drives the novels forward, but the best suspense comes from what we know, not what we don’t. And we know Elena’s need to write it all down is hardly simply an act of memory or preservation. It’s one of spite, a continuation of a constant battle, and balance, between them; it is also one of desire. Elena muses:
How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport: you pick them up, you put them on the page, and it’s done.
What she means is: without Lila, there isn’t much of a story, or much of herself.
And if in order to know Lila she must more aggressively pass through herself, the boundaries between these two women are blurred and porous. As Montaigne has said of friends: “souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found.”
Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ Goes From Page to Stage
You have to love a novel that starts with the disappearance of one of its protagonists. When Elena discovers that Lila, her childhood friend, has not only disappeared, but also removed all physical traces of her existence, she gets angry. She resolves to write a novel in which she will record all she has found out about Lila over the past sixty years. Story-telling as a corrective, an act of vengeance.
Having thus framed the novel in the prologue, Ferrante takes the reader back to 1950s Naples, a gritty and at times violent urban environment, where being male is a distinct advantage, and being streetwise a necessity. Enter the unlikely protagonists: two six-year-old girls.
Lila Cerullo is one of those fictional characters who stay with you long after you have closed the magnetic flap over your iPad. She is intelligent but taciturn, determined, self-assured and brave. Elena Greco, the narrator, matches her intelligence, but it is Lila who is the natural leader, always taking the initiative.
Ferrante conjures up tension and suspense from mundane events: a test in class, a teacher falling against a desk, women quarrelling in the street, two girls skipping class. From the opening scene she displays her story-telling skills. The terror is palpable as the girls creep up the stairs to the apartment of Don Achille, a shadowy character who is disliked and feared in equal measure. Elena imagines him as ‘a huge man, covered with purple boils. (…) A being created out of (…) iron, glass, nettles, but alive, alive, the hot breath streaming from his nose and mouth.’
Education is of crucial importance in Ferrante’s world: it imparts benefits to cognitive and social development. It provides a gateway to self-determination. It offers an opportunity to escape fate and a destiny mired in family feuds or the internecine politics of postwar Italy – what the girls call ‘what came before.’ When Lila is made to work in her parents’ shoe shop while Elena is allowed to continue her studies, it seems as if Elena may outgrow her friend. But Lila doggedly, furtively, shadows Elena by studying Greek before trundling off to work, using textbooks borrowed from the local library. Her persistence goes beyond friends being competitive – this is educational stalking.
The novel tracks the ebb and flow of this special friendship until the girls are in their late teens. Lila’s persona, headstrong and contrarian, means that the novel never veers into sentimentality. This is a story about girls growing up and struggling for self-determination. They use their intelligence, initiative and native wit to counter the influence of family and community expectations and peer group pressure. The girls’ alliance is shaky at times, and not everyone comes out a winner… It is refreshing, though, to read a coming-of-age novel where learning is embraced by the protagonists and plays such a liberating role.
At times the grotesque threats as perceived by the girls reminded me of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. At other moments the novel reminded me of how Emile Zola used his Rougon-Macquart series as a sociological laboratory, a tool for tracing the impact of the environment on his characters. But these echoes are superficial, and Ferrante’s book is in no way derivative. She has found her own voice and conveys her message with confidence, wit and humour. I am not the first to say this is a great novel, and I won’t be the last.
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels read like memoir, so why are they not shelved that way? Shouldn’t four books, emotionally and factually detailing the life of a woman in a first-person voice, with an author whose given name is the narrator’s, be considered memoir? The form of the books directly compare with Karl Ove Knaussgard’s six-tome memoir My Struggle or Simone de Beauvoir’s four chronological autobiographies. But Ferrante says she is writing under a pseudonym and has not revealed her true identity. Should we believe her?
Ferrante’s novels follow the lives of Elena (Lenù), her best friend Lila and the people with whom they grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Naples. There is (of course) speculation that Ferrante is a man, but I’ve never known a man or writer so passionate about female friendship, the bones and meat and soul of the story. Lila and Lenù are competitive, jealous, resentful, spiteful and obsessed with each other, or in other words, best friends. Lila is a brilliant but troubled woman who Lenù cannot help but love for their formative memories and their intertwined emotional lives. In a way, Ferrante’s novels follow the narrative style whose most common reference is The Great Gatsby, wherein the narrator is more of a neutral observer of the much more interesting, evasive and irresistible main character. Maybe Ferrante doesn’t care to share herself with her readers because then we would want to find Lila too. Or maybe she is Lila. In any case, I find it hard to believe that whoever Ferrante really is, this all did not happen.
Maybe that is the mark of a good novel: the reader continues to suspend their disbelief even once the reading is done. I generally shy from books that preface with family trees. If the narrative is so complex that I need a reference document, I highly doubt I will lose myself to this world. That is not the case for this series; the world is there, all the characters heaped in and held together by this poor neighbourhood in Naples no one can truly escape. The Story of a New Name, the second book in Ferrante’s series, chronicles the teenage and early adult years of Lenù and Lila and all their friends. People follow or veer away from well-planned paths, and though the writer doesn’t develop characters like Ada and Gigliola enough that I could draw them for you or pick their voices out of a crowd, I can tell you the role they play in Elena’s and Lila’s friendship, which is all that matters.
What is maybe most remarkable to me about these books—what differentiates them the most from other books I’ve read—is the careful balance between divulging and holding back. Elena is not afraid to tell us that she is in love with Lila, or close enough to it, or to take each emotion and analyze it right down to its component pieces. But even then, the language never loses its consistent, delicate distance. This is something I’ve found before when reading a translated work. Maybe it is in the translator’s attention and care to each word, or in the flow that is lost or maintained from the original language. Or perhaps it’s in the translation from a culture whose emotional life I cannot so quickly access. We don’t just learn about Italy through this book, we learn the story of Italian women, of poverty in Italy in the 40s and 50s, and we learn maybe even more: the life of one Italian woman, whether living or not, still very real to me. It’s also only now, reading these works, that I realize how lacking my bookshelf is of Italian literature, and, in particular, Italian female writers. If this book has anything to say to this point, it’s that it isn’t because of a lack of brilliance or determination in Italian women.