Saturday, November 21, 2015

Neapolitan Lives

After having read a couple of reviews raving about Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels I decided to try the first volume, and quickly became hooked. A few weeks and some 1,700 pages later I've come to the end. Are they all they're cracked up to be? Close enough.

"Elena Ferrante" is the pseudonym of an Italian writer whose true identity is apparently known to only a handful of people. She has written a few other books, was born in Naples, and is probably in her sixties or thereabouts; she doesn't grant many interviews, although there is one in the Paris Review. There seems to be no particular reason why we need to know more than that, and she herself has bluntly declared "I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors."

The narrator of these novels, who must be at least roughly contemporary with their author, is named Elena Greco, but no one ever calls her that. She is known as Lenuccia or Lenù, just as her closest friend, who is named Raffaella, is always referred to as Lina or (by the narrator) as Lila. The two grow up in an inward-looking, tightly-knit, and often violent neighborhood in Naples. Lila, depicted as the more charismatic and gifted of the two, leaves school at a young age and enters into a disastrous marriage (few if any of the relationships in the book bring enduring joy to the participants). Lenù, on the other hand, applies herself to her studies, attends a university, marries a professor, and becomes a successful author, becomes, in fact, the notional "author" of the narrative we read. Through the course of the books, which span roughly fifty years or a bit more, the two women orbit each other like twin suns, often at a distance but never entirely escaping each other's gravitational fields.

The story the books relate is too complex to try to summarize here (William Deresiewicz's longer consideration in the Nation is worth seeking out); there is an Index of Characters at the beginning of each novel and if you are anything like me you will refer to it regularly. The books are not flawless (and see the pointed demurral from the Ferrante admiration society by Tim Parks). The narrative could have been tightened and several hundred pages cut without sacrifice, the prose occasionally resorts to summary instead of description, and much of the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, parts of which are set in a sausage factory, struck me as, well, a bit of a sausage factory itself. But in the end, these are quibbles. The books manage to maintain an intensity and integrity that are rare in the contemporary novel, while creating both a vivid (and uniformly dark) portrait of Neapolitan society and a meticulous delineation of a not untroubled friendship between two women.

All four books have been translated by Ann Goldstein. I don't read Italian well and didn't have access to the originals in any case, but the translations struck me as thoughtful and workmanlike despite the very occasional turn of phrase where the English and Italian languages seemed to have battled to a draw. The handsome, sturdy paperback editions shown here are published by Europa Editions. My only complaint with them is that the cover art lends the books a more burnished, lyrical tone than suits Ferrante's narrative. These are not comforting books.

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