CategoryFerrante Elena

Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name (2012/3)

Ferrante2I am relatively late to reading Elena Ferrante compared to many book bloggers I know, but here (in Ann Goldstein’s translation) is the second of her ‘Neapolitan’ novels, chronicling the friendship of Elena and Lila. The Story of a New Name begins where My Brilliant Friend left off, with Lila’s wedding; and treats the two women’s late adolescence in the 1950s and ‘60s. It’s a time when the friends’ paths start to diverge more solidly than before: Elena the steady narrator, full of self-doubt, who nevertheless gets into university; and Lila, dazzling to Elena from a distance, who married into money as a way to transcend her origins, but who never quite seems to find contentment.

It’s the emotional set-pieces that draw me the most to Ferrante’s work, especially the complexities of the protagonists’ friendship. Here, for example, is Elena after she has been invited to a party by Professor Galiani (a high-school teacher whom she admires), and Lila has offered to accompany her:

I was afraid that Stefano [Lila’s husband] wouldn’t let her come. I was afraid that Stefano would let her. I was afraid that she would dress in an ostentatious fashion, the way she had when she went to the Solaras. I was afraid that, whatever she wore, her beauty would explode like a star and everyone would be eager to grab a fragment of it. I was afraid that she would express herself in dialect, that she would say something vulgar, that it would become obvious that school for her had ended with an elementary-school diploma. I was afraid that, if she merely opened her mouth, everyone would be hypnotized by her intelligence and Professor Galiani herself would be entranced. I was afraid that the professor would find her both presumptious and naïve and would say to me: Who is this friend of yours, stop seeing her. I was afraid she would understand that I was only Lila’s pale shadow and would be interested not in me any longer but in her, she would want to see her again, she would undertake to make her go back to school. (p. 151)

This is quite a lengthy quotation, but it illustrates the density that Ferrante’s prose can reach, and the ambivalence that’s at the heart of Elena’s and Lila’s friendship. Elena doesn’t know whether to be more worried that Lila will embarrass or overshadow her; and, though so many of Elena’s thoughts on this party come back to herself, she’s also afraid that going there may end up with Lila losing what makes her brilliant.

Social and political change are in the background of The Story of a New Name, but decisively so: being exposed to new political ideas drives Elena down her career path; and a desire for betterment is behind Lila’s choices – though her position in society doesn’t make it easy. As with My Brilliant Friend, this second novel ends on something of a cliffhanger – a reminder that the story of these women’s lives will continue, and a suggestion that there are more changes to come.

Reading round-up: early December

Catching up on some of the books I’ve been reading lately…

FerranteElena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (2012)
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is the first of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym; the author’s true identity remains unrevealed), chronicling the lives of two friends: Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo. My Brilliant Friend follows the two girls through to their mid-teens in the 1950s; it captures the complexity and uncertainty of childhood friendships. Elena (the narrator) is by turns drawn to Lila and intimidated by her. Lila (whose viewpoint we never witness) remains a mysterious figure, moving towards Elena, then away, taking unexpected paths in life and love. The girls’ story is played out against the background of Naples at a point of change, and with the desire to escape their poor neighbourhood, ready or not. It’s an intriguing start to Ferrante’s series.

My Brilliant Friend is published by Europa Editions.

Tore Renberg, See You Tomorrow (2013)
Translated from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella (2014)

This hefty (550-page) novel chronicles three days in the lives of a varied cast of characters, including Pål, a civil servant mired in debt; his daughters; some of their friends and acquaintances; and the gangsters whom Pål has turned to in the hope of resolving his situation. Renberg creates a web of almost a dozen viewpoint characters, many with secrets to guard. See You Tomorrow feels to me a little too long for the story it’s telling; but it’s testament to Renberg’s skill that he manages such a large cast of characters and keeps up no small amount of momentum.

See You Tomorrow is published by Arcadia Books.


Judith Schalansky, The Giraffe’s Neck (2011)
Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside (2014)

In a school in the former East Germany, Inge Lohmark surveys her new class. She thinks she has the measure of them; indeed, she thinks she has the measure of most things. Lohmark’s worldview is informed by the biology that she teaches, and can come across as cold (she has little time for her colleague’s more informal, friendly approach to teaching, for example). But what The Giraffe’s Neck reveals is a character trying to hang on to what she has as the world changes around her. By novel’s end, we start to see through Lohmark’s façade, as she realises that perhaps even she must evolve.

The Giraffe’s Neck is published by Bloomsbury Books.

Andreas Maier, The Room (2010)
Translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle (2014)

The Room is a fictionalised study of Andreas Maier’s Uncle J. Exactly what might be fictional, and what real, becomes something of a moot point in the face of such a larger-than-life character as J – he’s smelly, prose to outbursts of temper, forever tinkering away at the machines in his room. Maier’s portrait of Uncle J can hardly be called sympathetic; but perhaps there is ultimately some light in this tale of a man and his place in a small community.

The Room is published by Frisch & Co.

Chuck Palahniuk, Survivor (1999)

This was a book group choice, and my first Palahniuk novel. Over the past year-and-a-bit, the book group has given me my first experience of Dave Eggers and A.M. Homes, neither of which I particularly enjoyed. Reading Palahniuk was better, but still left me feeling frustrated. Survivor concerns one Tender Branson, whom we first meet as he’s recording his story into the black box of a crashing aeroplane. Branson is the last survivor of a death cult, which led him to become quite the media concern. I appreciate how Palahniuk underlines the superficiality of the celebrity machine (fifteen years on, it feels right on the money in many ways). But I got annoyed that this ostensibly spoken text was peppered with repeated phrases that felt more like self-consciously ‘literary’ writing. I suspect I’m becoming more attentive to the prose of what I read, and reactions like this may be the price to pay for that.

Survivor is published by Vintage Books.

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