The second chapter in the Neapolitan Quartet
Translated by Ann Goldstein
2013, pp. 480, Paperback
$ 18.00 / £ 10.99
Elena Ferrante‘s The Story of a New Name is the second chapter in the series, following 2012’s acclaimed My Brilliant Friend, featuring the two friends Lila and Elena. The two protagonists are now in their twenties. Marriage appears to have imprisoned Lila. Meanwhile, Elena continues her journey of self-discovery. The two young women share a complex and evolving bond that brings them close at times, and drives them apart at others. Each vacillates between hurtful disregard and profound love for the other. With this complicated and meticulously portrayed friendship at the center of their emotional lives, the two girls mature into women, paying the sometimes cruel price that this passage exacts.
“[Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels] don’t merely offer a teeming vision of working-class Naples, with its cobblers and professors, communists and mobbed-up businessmen, womanizing poets and downtrodden wives; they present one of modern fiction’s richest portraits of a friendship.”
—John Powers, Fresh Air, NPR
Read it now:
“We can’t stop talking about Elena Ferrante” we said to each other throughout 2016—on social media, in the classroom, in pressing the Neapolitan novels upon friends and relatives. This collection of essays on Ferrante emerges from a conference panel at the Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia in January, 2017, convened by the Prose Fiction Division. The pseudonymous Italian writer, who chooses not to reveal herself beyond her writing, had come to new popularity in the US in the past few years, and we found we had a lot to say about feminism, rage, women’s friendships, genre clashes, and bad sex, amongst other topics. We still can’t stop talking about Ferrante, and we trust that when you read these lively, provocative essays, you too will join the chorus.
—Hester Blum, MLA panel moderator
“I’m always surprised when someone points out as a flaw the fact that my stories contain no possibility of transcendence.”1
Behind this short essay hovers a general question about what two brilliant, cranky novelists, who are simultaneously feminist and uncompromisingly critical of feminism; bitter and enabling of hope; grounded in historical realism and radically experimental, might have to offer an audience at this terrifying political moment. This moment for me, is characterized by the structuring misogyny of November 2016’s election season. (For me this boiled down to: boasting about sexual assault does not make you unelectable. In fact, it probably gets you a few more votes.) I find myself returning to the image of women, in the privacy of voting booths, voting for Donald Trump. I know there are comprehensible reasons why women voted for Trump. No one needs to explain this to me; I read those articles too. But that image will not leave my mind. A Lessing or Ferrante could make something out of this voting booth scene. They are good on women making bad mistakes about men, and on how the outside becomes the inside—how the publically sanctioned state of subjection to masculine culture is internalized, even by strong, politicized, self-critical women. Writing this paper, for me, meant engaging with the voting booth scene. Thinking about Elena Ferrante and Doris Lessing after Trump’s election means asking questions like what the hell happened to feminism?
I remember feeling similar things watching the TV series Mad Men a few years ago. At some point I realized Mad Men was actually Waiting for Godot, but for feminism. First feminism doesn’t arrive, once, and then it doesn’t arrive again. Ferrante’s and Lessing’s novels, amongst other things, are great guides for the business of trying to understand the ways in which feminism keeps not arriving.
In this essay, I offer a few brief points of contact between Ferrante and Lessing. The connection I will address least explicitly here is how their writing has been represented as coextensive with their lives, not just by critics who make the wearily familiar collapse between a woman writer’s life and her work—but also through explicit moves on both of their parts—moves which simultaneously fend off and invite this collapse. Although they appear to be polar opposites—Lessing mined her life for her work over the years, and novels such as The Golden Notebook invite speculation about which real life people characters are based on, while Ferrante explicitly tried to avoid having her identity exposed—they also share a skilled manipulation of the masculinist critical assumption that all women’s writing will inevitably be autobiographical. They make lemonade from essentialist lemons.
Other obvious connections: Ferrante and Lessing both focus on women involved in radical politics and radical sexual relations whose strongest primary relation is with another woman, and who may or may not be “free women” as the ironically titled embedded novel in The Golden Notebook proclaims. As Margaret Drabble writes in a review of Ferrante:
“Ferrante takes on many of the issues raised in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962) . . . . Lessing’s novel was a heady mix of feminism (a label that she disclaimed), Marxism and madness. Ferrante takes us into similar territory, as she, too, endeavours to combine the personal with the political. (Her descriptions of Lina’s crazy moments of ‘dissolving boundaries’ recall the passages evoking Anna Wulf’s madness.)”2
Ferrante and Lessing are both fascinated by hallucinatory states that break down the boundaries and structures that uphold imprisoning, conventional social forms, including relations between the sexes, or adherence to the Communist party line. The threat of madness is central to The Golden Notebook but I’m also thinking of the strange fugue-like interludes exploring the ghostly house in The Memoirs of a Survivor, and many other moments in Lessing’s work.
The dissolution of these boundaries, although dangerous to the individual, can also be productive, even revelatory. In The Golden Notebook, Anna says to her Jungian analyst, Mother Sugar:
“If I’d said, Yesterday I met a man at a party and suddenly he said something, and I thought, Yes, there’s a hint of something—there’s a crack in that man’s personality like a gap in a dam, and through that gap the future might pour in a different shape—terrible perhaps, or marvellous, but something new—if I said that, you’d frown.”3
This is, of course, tentative because hypothetical—Anna is here ascribing a visionary state of being to an imaginary man (one who is also met in a scene of an imagined pick-up at a party; revelation is eroticized, and not dependant on the woman’s own agency. It is the man here who has the power to break the social order). Further, Anna says this to her analyst who she knows will disapprove of this allegory of self-destruction as new creation. However, Lessing and Ferrante are both drawn to these gaps. They simultaneously valorize and fear a violent and disturbing experimentation with the self. For Ferrante Lila is the main carrier of this possibility; in Lessing by contrast, the gap emerges from the impasse of the heterosexual relation. The break that ignites a different future, at the end of The Golden Notebook, involves the lovers, Saul and Anna, going mad—but their shared madness, and their support for each other works to gets them past their writers’ blocks—makes it possible for them to split up (or maybe split apart) and to write again. Amanda Anderson in Bleak Liberalism uses the passage I’ve just quoted as one example of the tension in The Golden Notebook between modernist experimentation and a humanist recuperation of the self in Lessing’s work.4
Ferrante also speaks of this kind of creative and debilitating madness, calling it frantumaglia, a word she says she takes from her mother:
My mother left me a word in her dialect that she used to describe how she felt when she was racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart. She said that inside her she had a frantumaglia. . . It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain . . . The frantumaglia is an unstable landscape, an infinite aerial or aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self. The frantumaglia is the storehouse of time without the orderliness of a history, a story.5
The frantumaglia is the part of us that escapes any reduction to words or other shapes, and that in moments of crisis dissolves the entire order within which it seemed to us we were stably inserted.6
It is important that Ferrante claims the word that describes this destabilizing, personal, but also politicalcrisis, as a maternal legacy, tied in to women speaking and the dissolution of speech. Frantumaglia is connected to maternity in the books via an old, by now perhaps almost critically exhausted, dichotomy between maternity and writing (which also maps loosely on to other familiar gendered dichotomies, such as that between the body and representation, or altruism and ego). This split claims that one precludes the other: you can be a good mother OR a good writer; you can have a novel or a baby, but not both. This structuring dichotomy was critiqued by, but also replicated in, some of the 1970s and 80s psychoanalytic and poststructuralist feminism that interests Ferrante. (One can imagine we might find it in Lenu’s book that becomes a feminist classic). Lessing and Ferrante, engage this division in interestingly productive ways, even as they apparently resign themselves, and their characters, violently, even shockingly, to its dictates.
In a central scene of the Free Women section of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, the character Molly’s unhappy, unanchored son, Tommy, in his early 20s comes to see Anna, who is in the position of a second mother to him. Anna lets him read her writing notebooks / diaries that are on her kitchen table. After reading one section—a suicide fantasy, Tommy says:
“Do you realize the whole of this notebook, the blue one, is either newspaper cuttings or bits like the blood and brain bit, all bracketed off, or crossed out; and then entries like buying tomatoes or tea?”7
Tommy’s intervention dramatizes the ongoing aesthetic-generic-political problems the left and the novel itself face: What can constitute the best that art can do for this historical moment? Anna cannot decide whether there is any point to writing novels rather than engaging with politics; those who do keep writing novels grapple with formal question of representing the chaos and dread of modern existence amidst the collapse of the Communist ideal and postwar nuclear fears. Do the times call for modernist experiment and fragmentation, or realism? (The Golden Notebook, of course, provides both.) But more starkly still, Tommy’s reading of Anna’s notebooks provokes an action beyond an aesthetic-political crisis. Tommy leaves Anna, goes home, and shoots himself. Although he survives his suicide attempt he is blinded. Are Anna’s notebooks to blame for this in some way? Does women’s writing drive children to suicide? The novel seems to want its readers to ask this question, even as it defuses the answer both by redeeming Tommy (he becomes happier, more self-sufficient, more political, living as a blind person—he even finds love) and by revealing that the Tommy story was fictional—part of an embedded novel rather than a framing narrative.
There is a parallel between this incident and the complex dynamics in Ferrante around women, writing, and motherhood. The Neapolitan Quartet focuses on the expropriation of women’s writing in various forms (by men, but also by Lenù). Numerous examples abound: Lenù’s conviction that everything she writes has been stolen from Lila; Lenù destroys Lila’s notebooks that Lila has given her to protect, but she also watches in horror while Lila burns the rescued manuscript of her story “The Blue Fairy.” Men also often steal women’s writing or systematically ignore it: Nino, jealous of Lenù’s skill with words, makes sure her article is never printed in the paper; Pietro doesn’t read Lenu’s novel, etc.
Writing, then, and maybe even moreso, stolen writing, is of central importance to identity in the books. For Lenù, Lila, is the woman who doesn’t write or rather who is suspected of writing secretly, a writing that would be magical if it existed—that would be more like life than writing, like presence. For Lenù writing matters, but Lila matters even more. As Lenù’s daughter Dede says:
“It’s impossible to have a real relationship with you, the only things that count are work and Aunt Lina; there’s nothing that’s not swallowed up inside them.”8
With Dede’s accusation it seems that children always must be secondary. They, like women’s writing at other points in the books, are easily expropriated, passed along to others or lost (even as the hard material work of maternity and housekeeping in the poverty stricken neighborhood, is also brutally represented). This expropriation happens most obviously and tragically, in the mysterious disappearance of Lila’s daughter Tina that gives The Story of the Lost Child, the final novel in the quartet, its title.
Tina’s disappearance is also connected by Lila to women’s writing. Toward the end of the book Lila tells Lenù that she thinks Tina’s kidnapping was a case of mistaken identity—that the kidnappers might have thought Tina was Lenù’s daughter because of a newspaper story about her novel that exposed the criminal Naples of their upbringing. In this newspaper story Lenù was photographed with Tina, mislabelled as her own daughter. “They thought they were stealing your daughter and instead they stole mine.”9 In Lila’s version of the story of the Lost Child—not definitive by any means—women’s writing is deadly for the child; it eclipses her, makes her become forgotten, makes the bad mother (the mother who writes) a target for revenge. Lenù’s novel, then, in Lila’s telling, kills a child, or at least makes her disappear. Does women’s writing, then, in Ferrante and Lessing, threaten the reproduction of the social order by erasing children? A kind of No Future gesture?10 How might we relate this question to the lost dolls that arrive, mysteriously, at the end of the book, after Lila has absented herself from Lenù’s writing, and from her life? Another way of putting this question might be: are the dolls more like novels or more like children in the economy of the novels? And does our answer to this question affect how we understand the source of Lila’s enthralling power for the novels and for Lenù?
Despite the obvious differences in class, in nationality, in the historical situations from which they write, Lessing’s and Ferrante’s works have a lot in common. They demand to be read in contradictory ways: as romance, as feminist how-to books, as inspiration, as histories of radical politics that fail, and fail in relation to feminism, as books that people love with a passion that may at times seem excessive. In Ferrante and Lessing we can recognize a version of Lauren Berlant’s cruel optimism; every woman in the novels lives with and desires objects or structures, or perhaps, genres, that prevent her from flourishing, objects such as heterosexual romance, maternity, publishing novels, or party politics.11 As these appear to be the only structures on offer, Ferrante’s and Lessing’s novels act out the breakdown of the structures that hold up their characters’ worlds when they gesture towards frantamuglia. But if in The Golden Notebook, at the end, women’s writing might be one tentative possibility for a portal through which the “future might pour in a different shape,”—the shape of the novel The Golden Notebook—in the Ferrante (of no transcendence) the stakes of writing for women are not so clear. Lila, and Lila’s lost child, will continue not to be there; or perhaps, like feminism itself, not to be there yet.
I grew up in a beach town; the salt water is in my blood. I like to read “beach reads” (whatever they are) all year round. But now that it’s summer, I feel free to shine some sunlight on all the books I love that take place at the beach!
From board books to wordless picture books, from classic middle grade novels to contemporary YAs, from evocative literary fiction to adult thrillers, there are beachy books for every type of reader. So even if you’re land-locked this summer, you can feel the sand in your toes when you pick up one of these titles.
Here are some of my all-time favorite books that take place at the beach:
(…) And Julia chose Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Much of the second book, The Story of a New Name, takes place in an Italian beach town. (See my note above about Italian beaches!) Julia says, “I love Ferrante’s writing because she can sustain long periods of intense human emotion for hundreds of pages, and it’s riveting and exhausting. There’s no better example of this intensity than during Lenu and Lila’s summer on the beach in The Story of a New Name.”
The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels #2-4) by Elena Ferrante
I really, really liked Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which is an incredibly blase way to compliment a book so raw and confrontational and, well, brilliant. The remaining three books in the Neapolitan Novels series build on the strong momentum established by the first and, in the process, continue to be some of the most poignant reading I’ve experienced in ages. The feelings that these books provoked in me were strong and visceral, inflamed and tender in their ebb and flow. These are not feel-good stories, but they don’t feel gratuitous in their misery, either. As a woman, my vicarious anger has an undercurrent of resignation, because each injustice and pointed strike at Lila and Elena — the character — (but also, all of the other Neapolitan women in the books) rings a little too true to feel like emotional manipulation.
Taking place from the 1950’s all the way through the 2010’s, beyond coming of age into mature adulthood, the series chronicles the personal and professional achievements and failures of two very intelligent women who are both products of their time, but who also rise above the expectations of the era and of the microculture in their misogynistic, violent Naples neighborhood. For all that they are exceptional, though, the neighborhood has indelibly tagged them. Lila, despite her potential, is never able to leave, while Elena, despite a fancy education and a high-class marriage, is still condescended to because of her background, never allowed to forget how she is different.
The Story of a New Name takes place immediately after Lila’s marriage to the neighborhood grocer, the young man in charge of one of only two of the neighborhood’s prosperous families. Getting bogged down in the details of the plot of each book is kind of missing the point, so I will try to avoid doing it, but I mention the marriage because this is the single moment that changes the two women’s lives. It is the first and most concrete piece of evidence that the lives they are “meant” to have, as women, are not for them. Lila begins chafing at her vows and new identity (her new name) before the ceremony is even over, and the rest of this installment is, for her, about how she struggles to carve out necessary freedoms for herself, both inside and outside of her marriage. Meanwhile, Elena has left the neighborhood to attend secondary school and university. Academically, there is no denying her talent, but she has what we would, now, instantly identify as impostor syndrome, in spades, and she is nearly undone on multiple occasions by a crippling sense of inauthenticity. When she speaks among her educated friends, she always feels like she is pretending at intelligence, only hiding her poor vulgarity; when she as at home in Naples she simultaneously desires to impress with her accomplishments and be accepted as one of them, unchanged. It’s the story of moving within of two communities, but not truly being a part of either.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is a masterful thesis on the feminist axiom “the personal is the political.” It puts a point on the inseparable bond between the women’s professional endeavors and the sociopolitical mores they engage with. Discovering feminism in an official capacity, Elena incisively observes the relationships between women and men in her writing and is struck by the messiness of applying what should be clear-headed logic on the subject to her own relationships with men. As much as this book is about Elena and Lila’s marriages and families, though, it is still at its core very much about the friendship between the two women. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, it is an undeniably strained relationship, but the strength in their bond is something beyond amiable appeasement and shared interests. There is something deeper and more elemental that binds them. At times, you wonder why they still bother being friends, with the various trespasses, minor and otherwise, that they commit against each other. But Elena is forcefully inspired by Lila; she’s an unyielding, driving specter in Elena’s creative mind and she represents the well of genius that Elena is only able to access when she’s at her most honest and candid.
A notable condition of the second and third books is that Elena and Lila are separated, so a lot of what Elena reports about Lila’s life is second-hand information, information she finds out much later and is writing in retrospect, or information that was taken straight from a diary that Lila gives Elena for “safekeeping.” This all worked for me to keep Lila involved in the story and to keep Elena connected to her, but finally in The Story of the Lost Child the women are together again, living in Naples. The official reunion is ostensibly a happy one, but many of their interactions remain terse. Elena, who has always written from the perspective of someone who is constantly compared to her friend and found wanting, now feels increasingly compelled to justify herself and her choices to Lila in the flesh. Raising their children together, Elena struggles with how, despite their wildly different paths, they have still ended up in the same place. She interrogates the decisions that led her, a moderately successful woman with her own notoriety, to still have been so moved by men that her and Lila, now both raising children as single women, appear on the surface level to have minimized themselves and their ambitions so to remain comfortably in the neighborhood, just as all of the other girls without the same intelligence and drive did. It’s too reductive to say that it’s merely sad, or disappointing, that Elena winds up where she did, or that Lila’s growing position in the neighborhood seems to come at the direct expense of Elena’s current popularity as an author, as if they sit on opposite ends of a see-saw and one is always looking down on the other if either of them is to be much off the ground.
Ferrante’s character Elena is a writer, and she writes a lot of this meta-criticism about the flaws in her writing. Primarily, despite Elena’s formal education surpassing Lila’s by several stages, Elena attributes to Lila’s writing an unparalleled quality of natural brevity. Elena is always struck by her own writing having a false affect, while revering the clarity of Lila’s unstudied prose as the epitome of skill. As a reader, I’m struck by Ferrante’s skill with language, and — with this feeling possibly being magnified by Ferrante being a pseudonymous author, and wondering how much of this work is auto/biographical — I can’t help but notice that the lauded qualities of Lila’s writing appear to more or less describe Ferrante’s. (Or Elena’s voice, as depicted by Ferrante. How meta is this exactly? Is this Ferrante suggesting that Elena more successfully adopted those attributes of her friend’s writing than she gave herself credit for? Or that it was Elena herself whose writing had those characteristics, but her bouts of inferiority blinded her to it? Or is it Ferrante, herself, at the top line, voicing her authorial insecurities through her character?) In any case, the writing is magnificent. As I’ve seen it said, the pages practically turn themselves. The language is frugal but expansive inside the reader’s mind — a true case of “leaving it to the imagination.” I’m continually astonished at how much Ferrante does with so little, syntactically.
If you weren’t put off by this unhelpfully vague review, I urge you to read these books. I have tried to touch on a few reasons why I find them so excellent, but even more than those definable things there is just something about them overall that makes them unforgettable.
The Godfather Award for Best Sequel: The Story Of a New Name – Elena Ferrante
I really liked My Brilliant Friend but I loved The St0ry of a New Name. I felt as though MBF did all of the grunt work of establishing place and characters (so, so many characters), so that TSOANN could really get going with telling a focused, atmospheric story. Lena and Lila are some of the most complex and fully realised female characters I’ve ever come across, and I felt myself copying Ferrante in everything I wrote, for a good while after reading this. Whoever the real Ferrante is, she gets female psychology. And she gets that it’s not always men we’re mooning over.
I love the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series My Brilliant Friend (you can read my review of it here), so I was very excited to read the second novel in the series – The Story Of A New Name.
Though I loved My Brilliant Friend, I was hoping to see Elena move out of her friend Lila’s suffocating sphere of emotional and psychological influence in Book 2, and I was not disappointed. Though Elena and Lila will always be connected, I thought that Elena really came into her own and established an identity separate from Lila in this second novel, which made me really interested to see how much further they develop separately in the third and fourth books as well.
The end of the book provided a pretty good cliffhanger in which one of the two protagonists is at the start of a great success and the other one has sunk into abject conditions. It really made me want to pick up Book 3 asap, even though I’m not reviewing it until early February. Meanwhile, read my review of The Story Of A New Name below.
This is the second book, following last year’s My Brilliant Friend, featuring the two friends Lila and Elena. The two protagonists are now in their twenties. Marriage appears to have imprisoned Lila. Meanwhile, Elena continues her journey of self-discovery. The two young women share a complex and evolving bond that brings them close at times, and drives them apart at others. Each vacillates between hurtful disregard and profound love for the other. With this complicated and meticulously portrayed friendship at the center of their emotional lives, the two girls mature into women, paying the cruel price that this passage exacts.
What I Liked
Seeing Elena come into her own. In the first half of the novel, Elena is still living in her childhood neighborhood with Lila, though she does see less of Lila due to Lila’s marriage. At first, Elena continues to seem to be mentally and emotionally subjected to Lila’s influence even when Lila is acting in a way with which Elena does not agree or that hurts Elena’s feelings. By the end of the novel, however, Elena has spent several years away from their childhood neighborhood, forming a new though faltering adult identity for herself as a person distinct from her parents, siblings, childhood friends and former acquaintances. Elena still has moments in which she does not believe in the solidity of her new hard-won success and independence. However, I could tell by the end of this installment in the series that in the next books she would be able to depart from the impoverished social reality she grew up and experience more opportunity in her personal and professional life.
The fluid and complex portrayal of romantic relationships. For the first time in this novel we see the protagonists, Elena and Lila, grappling with the often unsavory realities of actual grown up romantic relationships, whether in first person or through the entanglements experienced by their friends. Across engagements, marriages, affairs, casual sexual encounters and every nuance of romantic involvement in between, Ferrante explores complex themes like the ephemeral nature of love, the blight of domestic violence, contradictory jealousies, traditional and atypical gender relations and the convoluted ties that exist between love, money and happiness. There are so many different kinds of involvements between the characters as they turn from teenagers to adults, and I really appreciated that Ferrante did not produce idealized and unrealistic romances that would have felt inaccurate due to the difficult reality in which her characters grew up.
The importance given to language in the form of dialect versus ‘proper’ Italian. Italy has a plethora of dialects and accents through which you can identify someone as coming from a particular region or even city. In this second novel in the series, we see both Lila and Elena struggling to speak ‘proper’ Italian in an effort to elevate themselves above their origins and the other people of their neighborhood. In particular, Elena experiences living in another city in Italy, among mostly middle class people who naturally speak the ‘proper’ Italian she has to consciously fake. She even struggles to hide her Neapolitan accent so as not to be ridiculed for it. Ferrante doesn’t only identify the use or avoidance of dialect with social class and education, but also with morality, in a way that I found riveting. Some of the most violent and raw scenes in the novel occur with the characters yelling at each other in dialect, as if there was violence intrinsic in the local language itself. The dialect becomes part of the desperation and lack of opportunity experienced by the characters – something they can’t hide that brands them as excluded from the changed and advancements of an Italy that is modernising around them and without them.
What I Didn’t Like
The length. I love Ferrante’s style of writing and I’ve grown attached to her characters, so I thoroughly enjoyed the second book in this series and am looking forward to the next two. However, I think that the portions of Elena and Lila’s life that Ferrante covers in this installment could have been addressed with equal depth and complexity even if the book had been say 100 pages or so shorter. Certain segments dragged or seemed relatively unnecessary both to further character development or to move the plot forward.
In the series’ second book, Ferrante poignantly explores Elena and Lila’s late teens and early twenties, as their destinies diverge and they struggle to create a meaningful adult life for themselves out of their bleak origins.
The programme will be broadcast Sunday 15th on January and Sun 22nd January.
From one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, Elena Ferrante, the continuing story of Lila and Lena, two bright young girls who have grown up in the tough, rough streets of post war Naples.
Striving to make a better life for themselves, they work hard at school but Lila is stopped in her tracks when forced to give up her education and work for the family shoe making business. It’s not long before their worlds are pushed apart and Lila ends up marrying a local businessman and son of the murdered local loan shark Don Achille.
Written by Elena Ferrante
Dramatised by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Producer: Celia de Wolff
A Pier production for BBC Radio 4.
For anyone who hasn’t already delved into Ferrante’s series, I won’t spoil the plot; but the tale of friendship between two smart girls, trapped in the economics and misogyny of a poor neighborhood of Naples, is some of the best character-building I’ve ever read. I preferred this volume to the first (more sex, more violence, and the women are becoming real adults), but its definitely part of an ongoing tale and requires starting at the beginning.
Last year, I finally joined the Elena Ferrante fan club. I thought ‘My Brilliant Friend’ completely lived up to its name, and I knew its sequel would have to be included in my 2016 reading. Then, as tends to happen, I started to doubt myself. Would I enjoy ‘The Story of a New Name’ as much as its predecessor? Would my reading pleasure be diminished by the fact that, as the months moved on, I was forgetting the numerous character names that took me so long to get to grips with in the first volume?
I needn’t have worried; as always, Ferrante was one step ahead of me. Not only was the writing so compelling that fears of being let down were immediately forgotten, but ‘The Story of a New Name’ politely assumes you have left a gap since finishing ‘My Brilliant Friend.’ At the start of this second book, Lenù, our narrator, receives a pile of notebooks from the infinitely attractive and enigmatic Lila. Through summarising their contents, Lenù reminds us of all of the key events in the friendship so far. Also, because these things are always complex, we get hints that Lila’s version is somehow better, more engaging, more powerful, more brilliant than Lenù’s telling. The lives, the relationships and the central web of competition and companionship that made ‘Our Brilliant Friend’ so wonderful were all back and I felt as if I had never left the enthralling world of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.
For the rest of the story, it’s business as usual. The endemic abuse within the friends’ tight-knit community touches them more closely than ever as they grow up from childish observers to women and wives. Once again, it is Lila who appears to suffer the most, and yet who remains an aspirational figure, effortlessly talented and captivating. Meanwhile, under the surface we’re given a contrasting narrative, one which deals with Lenù’s own attempts to forge a life for herself and escape into the middle-class milieu forever barred to her uneducated childhood friends.
In some ways, ‘The Story of a New Name’ was a comforting read; it gave me everything I was hoping for from an Elena Ferrante novel. A part of this is that the novel contained reassuringly surprising twists and revelations. Consistently powerful and unexpected, I’m so pleased to be only half way through Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy – with ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ to look forward to in 2017!
In Elena Ferrante’s second Neapolitan novel “The Story of a New Name,” Torregaveta makes an appearance when one of the characters tells her husband she wants to go to the beach with her small son, and her husband, who no longer loves her, tells her to take a bus to Torregaveta.
The bus ride starts from a Naples train station one stop removed from the main train station; the dead end last stop with rows of worn graffitied regional trains parked side by side almost in the dark. The seats in these regional trains are metal and miniature like cable car seats making them hood on the outside but dainty and refined on the inside. Once you leave Naples, the Naples-Torregaveta bus ride is almost entirely along the coast, like the Almalfi Coast route but less winding and less steep. This bus ride requires almost no attention from the bus driver, who frequently had his eyes off the road.
While I was stranded there for 20 minutes, I saw three different wedding groups having their photos taken and as the novel relates, it was not a Capri crowd. From a distance, I saw a little girl in a white dress constantly fluffing a bride’s gown. It was the best image I took in Naples, during my last few hours there. At the time, the only reference I had was to the book cover of the first novel, which I had not yet read, and so I had no idea the location would also signify something in the novel. What’s even more weird is that I had entertained the idea of being a mother with a child on this bus and wondered what it would be like.
The Story of a New Name is a whirlwind of a novel, which may seem unusual, in that nothing particularly revolutionary happens in its pages. Two poor girls grow up in a crime-ridden, violent neighborhood of Naples in the 1905s, using their intelligence, street skills and friendship with each other to fight their way through a rough childhood and adolescence. And yet, the writing is so fierce, the plot lines weave in and out so tightly, the characters are so life-like yet mysterious that you cannot help but return often to this bleak and often unforgiving working class world that Ferrante describes so well.
The two main characters of the novels, Elena and Lila (Lina), forge a friendship that is unlikely and at times unlucky.
-Lina is a capricious figure, endowed with artistic intelligence and psychological insight that is too much for her to handle at her young age, especially when coupled with her fiery temper and seemingly contradictory emotions. Crippled in her hostile environment by skills that in another context would be gifts, she careens through her life seemingly blithely oblivious to her destructive, compelling force, intent on accomplishing goals that only she knows about. This force is what brings her environment -and indeed her friend Elena, the narrator – to oscillate between heedless devotion and uncomprehending animosity towards her. The reader too is pulled into this seesaw of emotions, as frustrated as her environment yet compelled to try to understand her, unable to leave her and return to peace.
Elena, the porter’s daughter, her best friend since childhood, seems to have her stars better aligned, with more support to her studies and ambition to better herself, to educate herself, to pull herself up and out of their neighborhood and its poverty. And yet, one feels as Elena self-deprecatingly puts it herself, that she is but a mere shadow of Lina’s personality, an incomplete reflection of the rollercoaster of her passionate friend.
The world the books describe is ugly, mostly chaotic, often violent. It is a world where nobody is surprised if a woman is beaten by her husband; he is only continuing the corrective work her brother and father have started. A mistress cast-away by an aspiring poet and father of many goes mad and is only fit to wash stairs. Children are not protected from violence or deprivation, teenage girls marry for the status it will convey, and the local mafia, sure of their impermeable status, walks the streets harassing young women. And yet the world of those Neapolitan streets is also vivacious, alive, smelly, ugly, and real. The naturalistic bent of Ferrante’s writing does not come across as preachy or vindictive – the language, at times vulgar, does not aim to shock. It simply seems to be an absorbing, fascinating account of two intertwined female lives. It will exhaust you and annoy you, but you will sail through until the last page and then heave a sigh of relief. And get yourself back to the library to check out volume three.