Mirabile Dictu

Doubles in Elena Ferrante’s “The Story of a New Name” & Erica Jong’s “Fear of Dying;” And Books I’ll Never Blog About

I am far, far behind in blogging about books. Will I ever catch up?  Well, no.  I write Mirabile Dictu four to six days a week (whew!), so I sometimes choose only marginally bookish topics.

But today I had a brainstorm: doubling up on two novels about doubles, Elena Ferrante’sThe Story of a New Nameand Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying.

In 2013 I read the first book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy, My Brilliant Friend.  I enjoyed it, but it was a bit like reading  an Italian version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And I didn’t continue with the series, till every publication in the world had praised the tetralogy. I finally read the second novel, The Story of a New Name.

It is easy to see why these books are best-sellers. Ann Goldstein’s translations are elegant, and they are very fast reads.  There is something for the literary reader, and something for the reader of pop fiction.   On the Sept. 20 New York Times Best-Seller list, My Briliant Friend is No. 6 and the latest book, The Story of the Lost Child, is No. 7.

The Story of a New Name is a delightful realistic novel.  Still, I quickly sussed out that it is about doubles, and even possession,  rather than a literal friendship.   Elena, the novelist narrator, and Lila, the troublemaker, are childhood friends who squabble, compete, adore writing, read the same copy of Little Women, and grow up in a poor neighborhood in Naples.  Lila breaks all the rules, but is ultimately the least fortunate: she drops out of school to work in her father’s shoe shop and marries the grocer’s son at 16, while  Elena achieves their childhood dreams by graduating from secondary school, going to college, and becoming a writer.

The Story of a New Name begins with Elena’s destroying Lila’s secret childhood notebooks.  Lila, fearful that her husband will  read them, entrusts them to Elena.  Elena reads them, memorizes her favorite parts, and yet is disturbed by a certain artificiality.  She  pushes the box of notebooks off a bridge because  “I couldn’t stand feeling Lila on me and in me, even now that I was esteemed myself, even now that I had a life outside of Naples….”

Later in the book, when they are on vacation at the beach without Lila’s husband, Lila swipes Elena’s boyfriend, Nino, seemingly because she has to have whatever Elena has.  She also reads the books Nino lends to Elena and talks more intelligently about Beckett and politics.  She trumps whatever Elena or Nino says.

Elena is furious.

I couldn’t take it anymore.  What I already knew and what I nevertheless was hiding from myself became perfectly clear:  she, too, now saw Nino as the only person able to save her.  She had taken possession of my old feeling, had made it her own.  And, knowing what she was like, I had no doubts:  she would knock down every obstacle and continue to the end.

By the end of the book, Elena has written her thesis on Book IV of the Aeneid, graduated from college, and published her first novel.  At home in Naples, she receives her own package of  childhood notebooks from the sister of a dead teacher. The notebooks are charming, and Elena smiles at the spelling mistakes and the “good”s and “excellent”s in the margins.  But in the midst of her notebooks, she finds Lila’s little book, The Blue Fairy, which Lila wrote as a child.  And then she realizes that Lila’s The Blue Fairy had inspired her own novel. Their lives are parallel.  They are almost like one person.  Are Ferrante’s books autobiographical, as everyone speculates?  Yes, perhaps:  we all have difficult friendships; but these also seem to be about different aspects of the same person.  Elena and Lila are like Catherine and Heathcliff inWuthering Heights.

Don’t underrate Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying a brilliant little novel about aging, sex, and death.  Jong, 73, is one of the old-style feminists who believe in power and sex for women.  She is often compared to Henry Miller, that risk-taking novelist whose lively, philosophical, autobiographical novels about sex were banned until 1964.

I thought this was a sequel to Fear of Flying, Jong’s first novel, the story of Isadora Wing, a writer in search of the “zipless fuck.” Alas, Fear of Dying is not about Isadora, but it hardly matters, because the narrator, Vanessa Wonderman, is Isadora’s friend.  They are so alike they might as well be doubles.

Vanessa, 60, is a retired actress, best known for her role as a villainess in a soap opera.  The daughter of two actors who owned a rare bookstore, she wears $1,000-shoes and is a believer in plastic surgery.  But ignore her wealth:  her feelings are the feelings of any older woman, hating the thought of moving beyond her prime.  Her rich husband, Asher,  is in the hospital after an aneurism.  When she is not at the hospital with Asher, she visits her parents, in their nineties, who are not always cognizant of who she is, and are dying in their apartment, with 24-hour caregivers, when they are not in the hospital.

Vanessa hates the prospect of losing her parents.  She also hates getting older herself.  She is losing her looks: now her daughter has them now.  Vanessa, who misses the days when men ogled her, badly needs sex. Can we blame her for looking for it at Zipless.com?  She meets a normal-looking man who takes her to a hotel and wants her to wear a rubber suit.  When she says no, he calls her a bitch.

Vanessa’s and Isadora’s sharing of women’s wisdom at frequent meetings is one of the highlights of the book.At a coffehouse, Isadora joshes her about the rubber suit.  “HOw do you know you wouldn’t like it?”

But then…

“At one point in my life I may have been a love junkie, but it taught me a lot–and I would never be fooled by a site like Zipless now–even though I named it.  Sex on the internet is much overrated.”


“Because most people drawn there are confusing fantasy with reality.  They think they know what they want, but they don’t.”

“What do they really want?”

“Connection.  Slow sex in a fast world.  You can’t get that from a woman in a rubber suit.  Or a man.”

I think about it.  Isadora is right.  We all want connection, and the velocity of our culture makes it harder and harder to find.

And I think that both Isadora and Vanessa are right.

Surprisingly, the book follows the trajectory of a Jane Austen novel.  Marriage is stability, and we learn whether or not the sex can be repaired.  It’s a sad book, but a very good one.  Vanessa finds what she is looking for.

Before I go, here is a  short list of books I loved but will not be blogging about.

  1.  Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, a brilliant 1920s satiric novel about Bright Young Things, with a huge cast of characters, writers, artists, scientists, anarchists and suicides.  So many miserable love affairs!
  2. Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy.  Often compared to Hamlet, this Jacobean revenge tragedy makes Hamlet’s meditation and play within the play seem tame.  Vindice chats to his dead girlfriend’s skull, vowing revenge on the Duke who poisoned her when she refused to sleep with him. That skull is really creepy.  Vindice and his brother get so carried away that almost everybody dies!  (This fascinating play, which I’d love to see, used to be attributed to Cyril Tourneur.)
  3. Margery Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse.  A classic mystery, said by A. S. Byatt to be her favorite.  She wrote the intro to the new Folio Society edition.
  4. Jean Kerr’s Penny Candy.  A delightful collection of humor pieces by the author of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.  I laughed hard when she goes to a play and  is wearing the same dress as the transvestite on stage.

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