I read My Brilliant Friend (2011), the first of Ferrante’s quartet, The Neapolitan Novels, on the train from Milan to Naples in 2017. Spent a few hours there with my daughter and grandkids as they waited for the ferry to Ischia, and then by taxi and train continued heading south. But still, I like that I am able to imagine bits of The Story of a New Name (2012), the second in the quartet, in the places they occurred.
Ferrante apparently conceived of L’amica geniale as one novel, but chose to publish in four volumes for ease of reading. Certainly she makes no concessions; vol.2 takes off exactly where vol.1 ends, and if you have forgotten all the names and family relationships in the interval between reading 1 and 2, then you must resort to the look-up tables placed at the beginning of vol.2 for that purpose.
A number of you in the comments to my review of My Brilliant Friend said that you were put off by the hype, and the same was/is often said of Sally Rooney and Normal People. But Ferrante and Rooney are both excellent writers, as thoughtful about writing as they are about relationships, and I think this thing about hype leads to them being underrated (no doubt as they laugh all the way to the bank).
Also, I think being made into popular TV series has done both books/series no favours. Separating the stories from the writing reduces them to their ordinary coming of age and romance elements and leads most readers to overlook the literary elements of the writing – to a large extent the Neapolitan novels are a discussion of what it takes to be a writer. Lila and Lenu are two sides of the same coin, brilliance and hard work.
I can’t see Ferrante’s year of birth anywhere, nor her ‘real’ name. There are a couple of hints early on that the author/narrator, Elena Greco, is now in her 60s looking back, but apart from that the action and Elena’s thoughts are in the novel’s present, the late 1960s.
The ‘new name’ of the title is Lila’s married name, at 16, Signora Carracci, the wife of grocery shop owner Stefano. In my review of My Brilliant Friend I wrote that the final scene, their wedding breakfast, leaves us hanging. Stefano is meant to have broken with the feuding and gangsterism of the neighbourhood’s immediate past, but the presence of the Solaro brothers, Marcello and Michele implies that Stefano is beholden to them. As indeed the early chapters of the new book confirm. More, Stefano has given Michele Solaro the shoes designed for her shoemaker family by Lila.
The gentle Stefano Carracci, the grocer, who out of love had wanted to buy the first pair of shoes she had made, vowing that he would keep them forever. Ah, the wonderful moment when, at fifteen, she had felt herself a rich and elegant lady, on the arm of her fiancé, who, all because he loved her, had invested a lot of money in her father and brother’s shoe business: Cerullo shoes.
At 470pp this is not a small book, and at the story-telling level there is always a lot going on. From the very beginning, Lila is constantly at odds with Stefano, swinging wildly between seducing him and denying him sex, apparently defying both her husband and nature by not getting pregnant, and then when a son finally comes, claiming that Stefano is not the father.
Stefano builds a second, new, grocery within the neighbourhood and gets Lila to manage it, which she does unwillingly but well. And he goes into business with the Solaros, with a smart store in the city, which he largely prevents Lila from being involved in, though it is selling Cerullo shoes.
Lenu meanwhile makes her way through the middle and final years of high school. Though they’re often at odds, still Lila uses Stefano’s money to buy Lenu’s schoolbooks and Lenu is able to get a respite from the dreadful poverty of her own parents and younger siblings, by going each afternoon to study in the backroom of the new grocery.
There are a couple of summer interludes on Ischia, firstly with Lenu working as a governess, and then, later, paid by Lila to be with a party of young married neighbourhood women. On the island she runs into the Sarratore family, formerly from the neighbourhood, who have a small house there. Lenu has always had a crush on Nino Sarratore, a brilliant student, a couple of years ahead of her at school. He, it turns out is dating the daughter of her favourite teacher. Lenu thinks she can win him, but Lila is in the way …
Lenu completes high school so successfully that she is offered a scholarship to university in Genoa, and there she does well, gets herself a nice, upper middle class boyfriend, and writes a novel which may be My Brilliant Friend. (Though, unlike Miles Franklin and My Brilliant Career, the neighbours do not read it and do not get offended).
So, in the first place, all the drama in The Story of a New Name is Lila’s. Which Lenu purports to tell, almost first hand, using the clumsy device of Lila’s diaries which are entrusted to her and which she reads and destroys. The underlying story of course is Lenu’s own growth as a woman, as an educated Italian, and as a writer. Lenu is to some extent an ‘unreliable narrator’, at least of her own story, and it seems to me that she overrates Lila’s flashy brilliance, as she underrates herself, her attractiveness, her intelligence, as of course, most young women do.
The underlying, underlying story is of language. I have been fascinated in the past year or so by the Japanese/American An I-Novel, Minae Mizumura, and Jessica Gaitán Johannesson’s How We Are Translated, both about women moving backwards and forwards between languages. Lenu must do the same, between the dialect of the ‘neighbourhood’ – widely spoken throughout Naples – and the formal Italian of her education. When she goes to Genoa she finds she must navigate a third language, colloquial Italian, with which she has apparently had no prior experience. The translator does not attempt to reproduce this, and I wonder if Ferrante herself does.
I enjoyed this story at the relationship level, though I know a lot of you became exasperated with it, but at another level is a very good writer talking about/showing us developing her craft, and at this level it is fascinating.
Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name, first pub. 2012, this edition: Text, Melbourne, 2015. 470pp. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.
Coincidentally, as I finished writing this, a review appeared in Inside Story of the HBO series of My Brilliant Friend. Jane Godall writes at length about the fidelity of the filming to the story and to Naples, but of course, all the literary element is lost (here).