Elena Ferrante is a name steeped in mystery. The author of the bestselling Neopolitan novels wants to remain anonymous and so far has managed to do so. An incredible feat in this digital age. Ferrante explains this in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, conducted by email, writing that “physical absence from the public sphere makes the writing absolutely central”. Which is true. To a point. The obsession over Ferrante’s identity is becoming almost as prominent in the public space as the obsession with the books themselves.
The Story of a New Name is not a comfortable book. It is quietly sombre in its depiction of Lila and Elena, friends who live in Italy in the 1960s. It chronicles their tangled lives in detail, smoothly picking up the threads from My Brilliant Friend. Neither book strives to give you great pleasure, or fill you with the joy a simple story can bring. Instead the intricacies of female friendship at times overwhelm you with a sense of recognition and maybe even a little trepidation. Recognition of the complexities of female friendships – the quiet competition, the constant comparisons, the love for each other often amplified through pain. And the trepidation from a clear sense that this isn’t going to go smoothly for either character. Sometimes I feel that female friendships can be like running a race, only you are completely unaware of it until it you realise you have in some way lost in the other’s eye. Much of this disappointment is born in your own mind, but much is born empathetically or just entirely obviously. The subtlety of this relationship is the key here. Thats’s where the true beauty of Ferrante’s writing lies.
I will readily admit I’ve only read the first two Neapolitan novels since the series gained popularity last year. To be honest, while I enjoyed the first one, I didn’t rush to pick up the second. They are books that should be savoured, but they are also books that weigh heavily when you’re reading them. I need a break in between. I need to gather my strength to pick up the next one. I don’t know why they resonate so strongly, but I do know I’m not alone in feeling that way, and there is some comfort in that.
Ferrante’s writing is truly eloquent; once you start you ride a wave of underlying emotion so strong that you power through each novel. I feel we have so much to learn from her – or him – particularly on the intricacies of human behaviour. Elena and Lila are like two sides of the same spinning coin, each trying to land face up.
Much credit must go to Ann Goldstein who translated the stories from their original Italian, without losing any of the delicacy of the writing. I think translators are often so under-appreciated, don’t you? It must be so difficult to get beneath the skin of a story enough to rewrite it so beautifully in another language. There is great skill there.
There is much skill in this series and I’m grateful for it. Even if you shy from the popular books, try and read these. There’s something in them that makes you understand yourself a little better.
P.S. Jody, these books have that little (t) on the cover that I know you love to see.