The Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of a Lost Child
We don’t even know if Elena Ferrante is a woman. It’s a pseudonym. Her, or his, last novel, which I haven’t read yet, is on the short list for the Man Booker Prize. Would winning that bring her, or him, out of the shadows? 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 ordinary of lives is unimaginable.
The translator, Ann Goldstein, knows who he or she is – I’m glad Goldstein has gone public; she is surely one of the finest contemporary translators. For example, one of the trademarks of the Ferrante novels is the Neapolitan dialect used by the group of friends who grew up in a poor section of Naples. 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. The fictional writer of this series of books 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 fit in linguistically. As a speaker of everyday Italian, I can sense the nuance, color and idiosyncrasy that is lost in translation, but it could not have been translated better. In America, we know lots of people who have studied to lose their regional accents in order to fit into the mainstream elite, but we all have native linguistic tendencies. I still say “dawg” and “cawffee,” even though I know it marks me as from New Jersey, or near New Jersey.
After reading three of the four books, I am drawn 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. It is the musty claustrophobia, the strangling dependence on others, the lack of hope which gnaw a hole in every person who grows up in poverty.
The characters are as unpredictable as real human beings. You know that Lila is going to disrupt things, but you could 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 this story are so tight 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. (As I said, I haven’t read the last book yet.) Endings are dropped throughout the story, killing off familiar characters as an afterthought attached to some other event.
Yes, the storytelling is skillful and solid, the translation and language are fluid and inventive, the social commentary is dead on. None of these facts can touch the way Ferrante shows us what it feels like to be poor. Poor. Really poor. Hopeless poor. Inhumanely poor. You know, the way millions of people live in America. Other authors, like Charles Dickens, have tried to show us poverty, but he reverted to happy endings – it was too painful to show 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. Nobody escapes responsibility in this book.