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BOOK REVIEW: My Brilliant Friends & the Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante

We don’t even know for sure if Elena Ferrante is a woman. It’s a pseudonym.  Her work has been on the short list for the Man Booker Prize. The should have brought her out of the shadows, but no. Maybe the author knows that these works are so scathing, so troubling, that he or she would lose a job or prestige in a certain community. By now he or she is so rich and lauded that it’s hard to imagine how that could be a problem, but anybody who reads these novels knows that imagining can take you only so far. The matter of these ordinary lives is unimaginable.

The translator, Ann Goldstein is surely one of the finest contemporary translators.  For example, one of the trademarks of the Ferrante novels is the Neapolitan dialect used in a poor section of Naples.  The fictional writer of the piece goes on, by dint of luck and persistence, to university and changes the way she speaks. When she returns to Naples it is difficult for her to remember how to fit in linguistically.  In America, we know lots of people who have studied and lost their regional accents in order to fit into the mainstream elite, but few of us have gotten rid of all our native linguistic tendencies. I still say “dawg” and “cawffee,” marking me as from New Jersey. Goldstein simply states that this or that character is speaking in dialect – so simple, yet deceptively difficult to slip into the text without a little bump.  No bumps for Goldstein – the language is smooth and bumpless. As a speaker of everyday Italian, I can sense the color and idiosyncrasy that is lost in translation, but it could not have been translated better.

The storytelling is skillful and solid, the translation and language are fluid and inventive, the social commentary is dead on. None of attributes can touch the way Ferrante shows us what it feels like to be poor. Poor. Really poor. Hopeless poor. Inhumanely poor, like millions of people in America. Authors like Charles Dickens have shown us poverty, but he reverted to happy endings – it was too painful to see the truth of what was happening inside. The scorching eye of Ferrante does not spare us the pain – “pain” is not the right word. Pain is sharp, localized. The poverty in this book is the relentless force of the rack, slowly tearing apart normality, perpetrated by the victims as fully as the torturers. Nobody escapes responsibility in this book.

I was drawn heart and soul into the harrowing discovery in the novel’s real time that poverty disfigures and distorts everyone it touches. Children barely notice it – it’s just the way things are. As they grow up they are shamed and deprived of much more than a juicy lamb chop, abundant electricity, the privacy of one’s own room, and parents with hope. Their intelligence, pride, convictions, and ambitions are skewed and tangled irretrievably. Money is irrelevant here – in every poor community there are comparatively rich people, accessible by marriage, who hold power, and thereafter, money. The musty claustrophobia, the strangling dependence on others, the lack of hope—all of these gnaw a hole in every person who grows up in poverty.

The characters are as unpredictable as real human beings. As a reader, you know that Lila is going to disrupt things, but you never predict how. Yeah, Tony Soprano’s gonna whack somebody – we all know that. What if you took whacking off the table, and lying, and false tears, and blame, and made the game subtler? The sinews of the story are so tight and strong that they carry much heavier stuff.

Ferrante establishes the time line by beginning at the end, and then leaving that dangling over four books. The reader is always aware of not the very, very end, but the beginning or middle of the end. Several endings are dropped into the story, killing off characters as an afterthought attached to some other event. You will remember every one of them.