Posts Tagged ‘Elena Ferrante’


(Beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein)

The circle of an empty day is brutal and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.”

Having read all four of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet last year, I thought I knew what to expect from The Days of Abandonment. Chosen by my very small book group for our May read I was very much looking forward to a book I had suggested, however I was completely taken by surprise by the tone of this novel . In time, I am glad to say, I came to love The Days of Abandonment, but it did take me a little while to be convinced. The Days of Abandonment is on the face of it the story of a woman’s descent into despair following the ending of her marriage; however it is much more the portrayal of her actual breakdown, in all its ugliness and misery. I was ill prepared for the anger and gut wrenching raw intimacy of this novel – at times that anger is almost visceral – and there are moments when the reader really would rather look away.

One day just after lunch Olga’s husband Mario tells her he is leaving her. Olga; abandoned by her husband though not really believing he means to stay away permanently – having the rug ripped away she is left floundering. Left in the apartment with her two children and the family dog, Olga experiences a dark and frightening descent into a loss of identity. Haunted by the memory of a woman from her childhood who earned herself the name the ‘poverella’ she too was a woman abandoned, left destitute. Trying to maintain a good relationship with Mario, not ready to face up to the realities of her marriage, she recalls the flirtation her husband had with the young daughter of her friend some years earlier. Olga walks the streets of her city, at odds with who she is and where her life has taken her. Becoming a distant, distracted mother, Olga is often rather neglectful while she is locked into her own despair. She clings to her children , selfishly thinking more of her own wants than their needs.

“Even if I tried to tell myself that I had given him nothing, that the children were mostly mine, that they had remained within the radius of my body, subject to my care, still I couldn’t avoid thinking what aspects of his nature inevitably lay hidden in them. Mario would explode suddenly from inside their bones, now, over the days, over the years, in ways that were more and more visible. How much of him would I be forced to love forever, without even realizing it, simply by virtue of the fact that I loved them? What a complex foamy mixture a couple is. Even if the relationship shatters and ends, it continues to act in secret pathways, it doesn’t die, it doesn’t want to die.”

It is soon apparent that her husband has another woman, and fury and bitterness consume her. Taking her anger out on whoever is in her path, Olga’s behaviour spirals out of control. Olga must still try and cope with daily life – but her children have to make their own way home from school, the dog has to be exercised but Olga is struggling to maintain normal everyday life. She can’t accept at first that her marriage could be over. She imagines that she can make Mario return to her, first by demonstrating how without him the family is unable to operate as normal, then later by showing how they are coping well. Olga enlists the children’s help in her deceptions but the children just seem to become more bewildered by the situation, more distrustful of this new mother. When Olga comes home one day to find her husband has let himself into the apartment and taken away earrings which he had bought for her, Olga rashly arranges for the locks to be changed. Despite having been – as her young daughter later reminds her – rather stupid about locks in the past, Olga consents to the fitting of a complicated double lock. Bills go unpaid, the phone no longer connects to the outside world, a mobile phone gets broken, and an infestation of ants must be dealt with.

Carrano, the solitary musician who lives in the apartment below is drawn into Olga’s fragile existence when she finds his wallet and returns it late one evening. The awkward, mutually unsatisfying sexual encounter the two have on this occasion testament to Olga’s need to have somebody want her.

So when her son and the dog both fall ill at the same time, and she finds herself literally locked into the apartment Olga must draw on reserves which she doesn’t even feel that she has in order to look after her family. Olga has to face up to the fact that things have changed, that her life won’t simply return to how it was before.

There is so much to admire in this novel, Ferrante’s writing is extraordinarily good, there is an uncomfortable honesty in her depiction of this abandoned wife. I have read – since finishing the book that the novel was greeted with some controversy upon its publication in Italy in 2002 because Olga is often hard to sympathise with, her behaviour as a woman and particularly as a mother makes it hard for us to like her. In time Olga faces up to an entirely new view of Mario starting to see him through the eyes of others, she is surprised at what she finds.

“What a mistake, above all, it had been to believe that I couldn’t live without him, when for a long time I had not been at all certain that I was alive with him.”

I am looking forward to discussing this with my book group there is in this slight novel much to talk about. I can’t help but wonder about the anger which oozes from this novel, where it might have come from – and whether the story of Olga is that of the author about whom we know so little.


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the story of the lost child

“In what disorder we lived, how many fragments of ourselves were scattered, as if to live were to explode into splinters.”

The fourth and final novel of Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed Neapolitan series of novels; The Story of the Lost Child was published in the UK in September to great anticipation. For me the third novel –Those who Leave and those who Stay – although still good and very readable had been a little weaker than the first two novels.

The Story of the Lost Child picks up the story where the previous novel left off.Lila and Elena are both in their mid-thirties as the novel starts, their lives thus far have taken them in different directions, though the unspoken competitiveness between the women remains. Both these extraordinary women have been shaped in some way by the place they grew up in, and as we have watched them grow and change across four, fairly big novels – we have watched the world change too. At the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, those two little girls tripped up the steps to Don Achille’s apartment in the 1950’s. The world Lila and Elena grew up in was a very traditional one, domestic violence was accepted and expected and rarely cried much over. In The Story of the Lost Child we have come to the 1980’s – the world is changing, divorce is almost acceptable, and it’s possible to live somewhere other than the neighbourhood of streets where you were born. Of course ‘the present’ to which we return fleetingly in each novel is the early part of the 21st century – when Elena is in her sixties and Lila has apparently deliberately disappeared.

“It’s only and always the two of us who are involved, she who wants me to give her what nature and circumstances kept, I who can’t give what she demands; she who gets angry at my inadequacy and out of spite wants to reduce me to nothing, as she has done with herself, I who have written for months and months to give her a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve, and defeat her, and calm her, and so in turn, calm myself.”

I sat down today, feeling rather tentative about writing this review, firstly so much has already been written about this novel in the short time since it was published I’m not sure what I can add to it (although I have been avoiding reading reviews I was aware there were many). Secondly I am reluctant to say too much – there are still people who have to read it for themselves. No spoilers though I promise.

At the end of ‘Those who Leave and those who stay’ – Elena was contemplating ending her marriage to academic, Pietro, her continuing infatuation for Nino leading her to selfishly pursue her own long held desires. Leaving her daughters and husband in Florence, she travels to Paris with Nino for a conference – and returning home it is obvious her marriage really is at an end.

Elena returns to her native Naples, ‘living in sin’ with Nino who refuses to leave his wife, Elena is thrown back into the tumultuous world of the neighbourhood where she grew up. It is a world that brings her back into more regular contact with Lila. Having embraced the newly emerging world of computers, Lila is still living and working with Enzo, her son Gennaro is growing up fast. The Solara brothers still hold the neighbourhood in their grasp, although it begins to appear that their long obsession with Lila may be at an end. Elena is still writing; and travelling extensively with her work, revelling in her success. Another successful book under her belt and an article about the neighbourhood infuriating the Solara’s, her publishers are pressurising her for more. Underneath all her efforts, all her successes lay that old fear that Lila – who left education after middle school – was always the more brilliant.

“From childhood I had given her too much importance, and now I felt as if unburdened. Finally it was clear that what I was wasn’t her, and vice versa. Her authority was no longer necessary to me, I had my own. I felt strong, no longer a victim of my origins but capable of dominating them, of giving them a shape, of taking revenge on them for myself, for Lila, for whomever.”

In their late thirties both women become pregnant again, their babies due at around the same time, this shared experience helps to bring them together even more, their friendship always fragile and volatile impacting enormously on their children too, as everybody seems to drift in and out of both homes.

I really don’t want to say too much more about the story of this fourth novel – which running to 480 pages is intricate and detailed as it chronicles the complex, ever changing relationship between these two brilliant women. For me this particular instalment started off really well, then about half way through became completely compelling and hard to put down. This series of Elena Ferrante books are hard to review – perhaps to really appreciate them one can only read them. I loved the delicate, poignant way Ferrante concluded this novel – the subtlety and brilliance of which will stay with me for a long time I think. These novels are big and vibrant, the prose luminous and satisfyingly complex – I have come to love both Lila and Elena – and neither of them are perfect (who of us is) – but they are at least – and more importantly – real.

Layout 1the story of a new namethose who leave and those who stay

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those who leave and those who stay

Ferrante fever is about to go into overdrive again when the fourth and final part of Elena Ferrante’s extraordinarily successful series of novels is published in a couple of weeks (and yes I have it on pre-order).

Those who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third novel of the four part Neapolitan series begins in the present – 2005 – with a reminder of why Elena is telling this story of hers and Lila’s lives. In 2005 Elena and Lila are in their sixties when Lila disappears – Elena knows Lila better than anyone, and she understands that Lila has both the will and the resourcefulness to vanish completely if she so desires. This disappearance so annoys Elena that she begins to write the story of their friendship through the changes that childhood, adolescence, education, marriage and ambition bring to their lives. Elena knows how furious Lila would be at her writing their story, perhaps angry enough to crawl back out of the woodwork. This series of novels (for anyone who doesn’t know) is the story of a complex, competitive often destructive friendship between two intelligent women who grew up in a volatile, vibrant neighbourhood of Naples.

Returning to the past, Elena picks up the story of Lila and Elena where the second novel ended, with Elena visiting Lila at the sausage factory belonging to Bruno Soccavo. Having left her husband Lila works at the factory while living with childhood friend, Enzo away from the neighbourhood where the girls grew up. Elena meanwhile, having originally left for university, is still living in Pisa, engaged to Pietro Airota a brilliant young academic; she has recently published a controversial novel, and is planning to move to Florence after her marriage. At an event to publicise her novel Elena sees Nino Sarratore, and all her old feelings come flooding back. Nevertheless, Elena intends to go ahead with her wedding which will see her part of a well thought of academic family, she has a determination to escape the Neapolitan streets where she grew up.

Lila becomes heavily involved in the violent confrontation that blows up between student activists, communists and fascists. Lila seeks to expose the harsh working conditions in Soccavo’s factory, even at great risk to herself. Resurrecting that fierce intelligence with which Elena always competed, Lila speaks openly and scathingly at meetings about the daily practices at the factory, and Elena using her newly acquired contacts writes and publishes an article about the working conditions at the factory.

“Can you imagine what it means to go in and out of refrigerated rooms at twenty degrees below zero, and get ten lire more an hour – ten lire – for cold compensation? If you imagine this, what do you think you can learn from people who are forced to live like that?”

Lila’s health had suffered during this volatile period of conflict, and during one of Elena’s visits home Lila had sent for her. This is typical of Lila and Elena’s relationship – they drift in out of one another’s life, frequently they are physically separated from each other through living now in different cities, their friendship existing in the connection of their shared past, and occasional phone calls. Yet the women come together at times of great crisis and when Lila is suffering and in need Elena is there. Lila returns to the old neighbourhood where they grew up, living with Enzo still, the feud with her estranged husband seemingly at an end. Elena, marries her professor and moves to Florence, intending to write another book.

“People died of carelessness, of corruption, of abuse, and yet, in every round of voting, gave their enthusiastic approval to the politicians who made their life unbearable.”

Ferrante is particularly adept at portraying this late 60’s early 70’s political radicalising among certain sections of Italian society. The world is changing in many places, yet in the old neighbourhood where Lila and Enzo return to – many things stay the same. Where once the feared Don Achille ruled, the Solara’s have taken over; Michele is still trying to induce Lila to work for him, his old obsession for her never quite forgotten. Marcello Solara however, much to Elena’s disgust has taken up with Elisa – Elena’s younger sister.

In Florence, Elena is soon a mother; the writing she had planned takes a back seat to her domestic duties as she struggles with a young baby, while her husband spends his days at the University, waging strange battles of his own, and his nights writing an important academic book. Marriage is difficult for Elena; Pietro is self-absorbed and often selfish. Nino Sarratore; Lila and Elena’s friend from childhood is never far from her thoughts; Elena can never quite free herself from her once great, unrequited love. So when Nino turns up in Florence, Elena’s world is thrown into confused disarray.

“Marriage by now seemed to me an institution that, contrary to what one might think, stripped coitus of all humanity.”

Those who Leave and Those who Stay – is more about Elena than Lila, focussing on her struggles with marriage and motherhood, her sense of having lost something of herself as her ambitions are thwarted by the realities of her new life. I really did enjoy this third instalment, it remains very readable, so well written, characters are explored in depth and Ferrante recreates the times in which they live brilliantly. The one thing that stops this instalment being quite as brilliant as the first two novels is that Lila and Elena are together much less. The first two novels are driven by the complex, ever changing relationship of Lila and Elena, their competitiveness with each other, and their tendency for each of them to assess themselves by comparison with the other. However this novel is vital to understand these two women as they move from very young women to women in their early thirties. The changes that take place in their lives because of work or motherhood are the changes which many women find take them away from the people, places and dreams of their adolescence.


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the story of a new name

It was only a few weeks ago that I read My Brilliant Friend, happily immersing myself in the sometimes brutal Neapolitan world of Elena and Lila. Before I had finished that much talked about novel I had already ordered books two and three in the series. Last weekend – a long bank holiday weekend here in the UK – seemed a great time to start The Story of a New Name, these books aren’t small.

“Everything in the world was in precarious balance, pure risk, and those who didn’t agree to take the risk wasted away in a corner, without getting to know life.”

As The Story of a New Name opens Elena recalls how in the mid 1960’s Lila gave her a box of diaries which recount the story of her life with Stefano. From there Elena takes up the story of herself and Lila – exactly where My Brilliant Friend left us – at the wedding of her sixteen year old friend. The opening couple of chapters recount some quite horrible domestic abuse, which transports the reader immediately back into this tough Italian neighbourhood, where women often grimly accept the most terrible treatment at the hands of the men in their lives. Lila has married local business man Stefano Carracci, the son of Don Achille, who had inspired such fairy-tale fears in the two girls when they were children, and who had been murdered several years earlier. On her wedding day, Lila is made aware that her husband has done a deal with the Solara family – whom Lila passionately detests. Elena watches from the side-lines, immediately aware that Lila’s marriage is in trouble before it has even begun.

The treatment that Lila is subjected to by her husband is horrific, and I didn’t much like reading about it, but Lila is tough, her will seemingly tougher than the blows and brutality she receives. Strangely enough I don’t always like Lila – she is a fascinating character, selfish, wilful and unwise – she’s not always sympathetic. She is a truly complex product of the environment that she grew up in, and the things that happen to her, and so she remains fascinating to read about and ultimately you can’t help but cheer her on. Had Lila been written as some kind of tortured saint, she would have been far less interesting.

“We had grown up thinking that a stranger must not even touch us, but that our father, our boyfriend, and our husband could hit us when they liked, out of love, to educate us, to reeducate us. As a result, since Stefano was not the hateful Marcello but the young man to whom she had declared her love, whom she had married, and with whom she had had decided to live forever, she assumed complete responsibility for her choice. And yet it didn’t add up. In my eyes Lila was Lila, not an ordinary girl of the neighbourhood. Our mothers, after they were slapped by their husbands, did not have that expression of calm disdain. They despaired, they wept, they confronted their man sullenly, they criticized him behind his back, and yet, more or less, they continued to respect him (my mother, for example, plainly admired my father’s devious deals). Lila instead displayed an acquiescence without respect.”

While Lila is adjusting to married life; living in an apartment with hot running water and four or five rooms – sheer luxury to Elena and Lila – Elena is finishing high school. Lila was always the more brilliant, natural student, but her studies stopped with elementary school, Elena has carried on, an intelligent girl, success doesn’t come without a lot of hard work for Elena. There has always been a fierce competitiveness between the girls that drives Elena ever on. This one of the key elements of their relationship is a recurring theme.

Following Lila’s marriage there is a time when Elena doesn’t study as hard as she usually does. Spending more and more time with Antonia her boyfriend, trying to ignore her infatuation for Nino Sarratore, the railway porter poet’s brilliant son, Elena’s concentration suffers. Lila is expected to have an heir – and it seems everyone is waiting for the happy news, but as Lila continues to attempt to resist her husband – fruitlessly – she believes her body refuses to carry his child. The doctor prescribes sun, sea and rest.

naples2Some wonderful summer weeks holidaying on Ischia are among the happiest that Lila and Elena spend together, but they are weeks which demonstrate to Lila how wrong for her the life she is leading is. Lila takes incredible risks in her behaviour; Elena and Lila’s mother are both terrified that Stefano – who arrives on Ischia each weekend – will hear of how she spends her time when he isn’t around. Lila and Elena’s relationship has always been one of rivalry as well as friendship, and it is on Ischia that Lila takes from under Elena’s nose the one thing she wants. Ischia heralds a huge change in the girls relationship – when they return to Naples, Elena throws herself into her studies again, and she doesn’t see Lila much for a while. Lila’s life is complicated by secrets, domestic disharmony and the business interests of her husband and the Solaras.

“she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.”

Elena works hard, and following the suggestion of a visiting teacher; applies to a university in Pisa where she can study for free. Here she will have a room of her own in which to put books, and work in peace, for Elena the world is opening up a little. However Elena finds herself in a world she is not quite fitted for, here her Neapolitan accent is ridiculed, and she shields herself by associating with those who are an accepted part of the new society in which she moves.

Along with the intense and ever changing relationship between these two young women, society is very much at the heart of these novels. Questions of education and the aspirations of leaving behind the place you come from, are juxtaposed with the fates of those who never stray far beyond the street they were born. This is a superb sequel to My Brilliant Friend, a big vibrant (470+ pages) noisy novel peopled with unforgettable characters.

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Layout 1(translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

I feel that Elena Ferrante by now really needs no introduction; she is the pseudonymous Italian novelist who has had the most extraordinary success. Reviews of her novels appear continually on book blogs, so much so I feel I probably have nothing to add – her novels having even gained their own hashtag #Ferrantefever. I came fairly late to this particular party, late perhaps but enthusiastically on the back of all I had seen and heard.

My Brilliant Friend is the first novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series of novels, the fourth of which is due to be published in English in September. I confess that only a hundred or so pages into this book saw me buying the next two – well sometimes you just know! This is a novel of friendship and discovery, a coming of age novel in which two girls grow up to young womanhood with an ever gradually expanding realisation of their potentialities.

The relationship between the two central characters in My Brilliant Friend is immediately captivating, with the world they inhabit, vibrant, real and frequently dangerous. I think the reader cannot help but carry the memory of Naples with them each time they lay this book aside. The sights, smell, noise and sun bathed roof tops of that poor neighbourhood are richly rendered by Ferrante, and I look forward already to returning to it.

The novel opens with a prologue, immediately captivating, in which Elena – now a woman in her sixties, receives a telephone call unexpectedly from the son of her lifelong friend Lila. Rino informs Elena that Lila is missing, has in fact completely disappeared. The story which follows, the story of their friendship, their childhood and adolescence, is Elena’s furious reply to her friend’s deliberate disappearance.

“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”

naplesWhen Elena and Lila become friends as young children in the 1950’s, the neighbourhood in which they live is their whole world, a place beyond which they cannot imagine and never venture. It is a place of poverty, a place of fragile allegiances and dangerous feuds, with practically all the adults having an unexplained fearful respect for Don Achille. In their young, imaginative minds Don Achille assumes an ogre like status, causing them to dare each other to mount the steps to his apartment. It is on this day that their true friendship really begins.

“My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment. I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage.”

Both girls are very bright, their teacher is soon made aware of Lila’s almost prodigious intelligence, and where Lila leads, Elena is determined to follow. In her emulation of Lila, Elena explores the possibilities of her own mind, going on to ever greater lengths to keep up with up brilliant friend. Lila’s education stops after elementary school, her family refusing to pay for her further education, but as Elena moves on through middle school and later high school, her achievements waxing and waning as they are wont to do in all of us, Lila never stops learning. Lila uses the library, taking out books on the tickets of each member of her family teaching herself Latin and Greek at the time when Elena is studying those very subjects. In time, though it is Elena who continues to get a conventional education – it is Lila’s education of herself which drives Elena forward. The rivalry between the girls which started when they were so young propels Elena to fulfil her full potential, with Lila, still very much leading the way. It is Elena however, who first begins to see the world beyond their neighbourhood.

When adolescence hits, Elena’s childhood prettiness is replaced by acne ridden awkwardness, a discomfort in her own body, while Lila’s childish gawkiness is replaced by a beauty that stops the local men and boys in their tracks. Lila is courted by rival young men, fights break out over her honour and by sixteen she is marring a local business man. As the novel comes to an end, the roles of the two girls have almost reversed from where they started.

“At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer. They were all laughing, even Lila, with the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost.”

For me there is an intriguing ambiguity in the title My Brilliant Friend, who is the brilliant friend? Is Elena the brilliant friend of Lila – or is Lila the brilliant friend? I assumed at first that Lila was the brilliant friend of the title, but like so much in the relationship between these two young women, nothing is that clear. Perhaps, each is really the brilliant friend of the other.

There has it seems been a good deal of speculation about Elena Ferrante’s identity – but in a sense it doesn’t matter, this novel certainly speaks for itself – but the mystery does add a certain frisson of fascination (although no author photo for me to use at the end of this post).


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