• The Brilliant Friend
• The Story of a New Name
• Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
• The Story of the Lost Child
Europa Editions, translated by Ann Goldstein.
The summer vacation of 2016 is nearly over, and so is my summer marathon of Knausgård and Ferrante. I did manage to read all the novels I intended in July.
The previous blog post was about Karl Ove Knausgård’s massive autofiction series My Struggle, which I finished in the second week of vacation. Without a pause I dived into the Neapolitan series of Elena Ferrante. The first volume, My Brilliant Friend, has been translated into Finnish and was published in March, so I had read that earlier already.
Summer holidays with no timetable at all are the perfect time to try and cover thousands of pages of fiction. Books 2–4 I read in English translation by Ann Goldstein. There’s been so much talk both about the author, who prefers to remain as a pseudonym, and about these novels that I wanted to create my own opinion of this literary bestseller in the first hand.
Today I finished the 4th novel, The Story of the Lost Child. I really liked it, as I liked the 3rd volume, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The 2nd novel, The Story of a New Name, however, wasn’t exactly the what I expected. Somehow I got bored at times while reading it: it did get better towards the end, though.
At the moment there’s a debate going on in the Finnish literary world about fiction and how it reflects the society in general. A journalist wrote an essay in Helsingin Sanomat (the biggest daily newspaper in Finland) a week ago about the middle-class tendency of contemporary fiction. The journalist referred mostly to anglo-american novelists’ way of narrating, but the debate since has concentrated on the novels written in Finnish and in Finland.
In Ferrante’s 4th novel of the Neapolitan series there’s something that echoes with the ongoing debate. Elena Greco, the narrator and the other of the two main protagonists, has created a career in fiction and as a journalist. At one point she has returned to Naples to live there with her three daughters. In The Story of the Lost Child Elena is living in the neighbourhood (as the suburb of Naples where she has grown up is called) and below her apartment lives also the childhood friend of hers, Lila Cerullo.
It happens so, that the magazine Panorama wants to write a cover story of Elena. They send a milanese photographer to take photos of her. Photos are taken at Elena’s home and in the shabby quarters of her childhood. ”She placed me on a broken-down bench, against a flaking wall, next to the old urinal.” Crimes and poverty have left their marks on the environment and Elena Greco is pictured on that stage as an author who escaped her low class and succeeded in career. (There’s also a photo in the magazine of her holding Lila’s daughter (instead of her own) with a false caption, but I won’t go into that now.)
Later Elena, who is having an age crisis, analyses the way writers use real life as a source for their stories. She also recognises the value of her childhood environment for her fiction. Naples is full of stories to be told.
What was I doing in the neighbourhood? If at first the image of the writer who, although able to live elsewhere, had stayed in a dangerous outlying neighbourhood to continue to nourish herself on reality, had been useful to me, now there were many intellectuals who prided themselves on the same cliché. And my books had taken other paths, the material of the neighbourhood had been set aside. Wasn’t it therefore hypocritical to have a certain fame, and many advantages, and yet to limit myself, to live in a place where I could only record uneasily the deterioration of the lives of my siblings, my friends, their children and grandchildren, maybe even of my last daughter?
Dissolving boundaries. That’s how Elena’s friend, Lila, describes her sudden attacks of losing touch of the reality. In the Brilliant Friend the metaphor for dissolving boundaries is an explosion of copper kitchen utensil. Lila suffers from this phenomenon of dissolving boundaries at times. I might diagnose it either as a panic attack or as a psychosis. Who knows. It’s not relevant, the diagnosis, but the rich metaphor it creates in this quartet. I might write more about it later.
There’s an abundance of motifs and plots in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. These novels are a wonderful account of a female friendship that lasts for better and for worse. Elena and Lila need each other (it seems Elena need Lila more, but I am not sure if that’s the case after all), and at the same time they live their separate lives in different cities only to meet again in various conditions. These novels are also a story of a woman making a career in writing, and novels give us a peek in the Italian publishing as well. The North and South Italy are very different what comes to lifestyles, wealth and living conditions. Elena marries an academic from Florence, Pietro, with eminent family history. She adapts to the new city and its requirements but Naples never leave her.
These novels recount the various choices the two protagonists (and some other women) make while living in the shadows of crimes and Camorra in Naples. Men are in supporting roles in Ferrara’s fiction, yet sketched in detail. Ferrante is a supreme narrator.
There are so many references to regional and social dialects of Italian in the dialogue that I wish I had had the time to read these novels in Italian. The narration, however, flows in standard language and thus reflects the literary and academic development of Elena Greco, the narrator.
I recommend Elena Ferrante’s fiction to all.
Take a look at the cover designs in the beginning of this post. There is the Anglo-American interpretation, the Finnish and the Swedish one. The designer uses his/her imagination to create a whole new visual form for the fictional world that a writer has invented. What a difference in interpretation! That’s why I love fiction. I, as a reader, can create a whole new world in my mind based on the things the author has written.