The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante tr. By Ann Goldstein … Neapolitan Tetralogy Book 2

The Story of a New NameThe second in the trilogy of books about two friends Elena and Lila, growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples. The first book My Brilliant Friend I reviewed here.

Both girls were bright students in primary school, and perhaps because the story is narrated from Elena’s perspective she often sees herself in the shadow of her friend Lila, as if she must strive to attain her success, while Lila’s comes more naturally.

Lila fights to elevate herself, suggesting Elena studies with her to help her friend, thereby attaining the knowledge herself and through imposing her will on her husband, her family and business associates, who need her input and influence which she uses to both help them and to ensure her often rebellious stance is understood by them all.

It is Elena who despite her family circumstances progresses through high school and at the suggestion of a teacher applies to a university in Pisa where she can continue her studies.

Lila whose beauty and bravado bring her more to the attention of local boys wanting to move themselves up in the world financially, becomes entangled in their schemes and part of their negotiations and is married at sixteen to Stefano the grocer, partly in order to avoid the attention of the Solara brothers.

“How difficult it was to find one’s way, how difficult it was not to violate any of the incredibly detailed male regulations.”

Through her personal notebooks that she entrusts to Elena for safekeeping and Elena’s inability to withhold from the temptation of what they offer, we too as readers understand more from within the bounds of Lila’s marriage and life than we might otherwise from the limited perspective of her friend, particularly during the frequent periods where the friendship was being tested and therefore withheld.

Though unwilling to be trapped inside marriage, Elena does envy her friend the space and luxury her new status as Signora Raffaella Carracci has given her and when Lila’s husband suggests a summer holiday on doctor’s orders to increase her chances of conceiving a child, Lila’s insistence that her friend accompany becomes Elena’s excuse to find a way to be in close proximity to Nino Sarratore, the brilliant student she has had a crush on for years. His arrival becomes a turning point in their lives, though not the outcome either of them were wishing for.

Pisa NormaleElena distances herself from Lila and from her family and moves to Pisa, where initially she struggles to brush off the ways of her neighbourhood, her origin, her accent, things that make it obvious to others she is not one of them. She throws herself into her studies and into becoming more like her contemporaries; a new boyfriend aids her transition.

“That day, instead, I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighbourhood. They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them….

They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labours or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings? Would Lila be misshapen like Nunzia?…

And would my body too, one day be ruined by the emergence of not only my mother’s body, but my father’s? And would all that I was learning at school dissolve, would the neighbourhood prevail again, the cadences, the manners, everything be confounded in a black mire,…”

Leaving Naples allows Elena to begin to reform herself, to blend in, the novel highlights the tension between the Neapolitan dialect spoken in her neighbourhood and the correct Italian spoken by the professional, educated classes. Dialect is associated with aggression, insults and anger, with all the negative emotions and difficult challenges of a repressed community, while the Italian symbolises upward mobility and refinement.

Napoletana“Be careful where all this studying leads, Lenu. Remember who you are and which side you’re on.”

I found Book 2 just as engaging as Book 1, more than just narrating the events that mould the two girls’ lives is the underlying philosophical question of whether one can rise above one’s origins via the attainment of significant wealth or education. Elena and Lila represent these twin avenues, in their attempt to escape their origins.

The novel continues to focus on the friendship of the two girls and their connections with others, both those from within their sphere and those they encounter outside, a measure of how far they have progressed in their aim to rise up and out of the confines of the neighbourhood.

The narrative is less dramatic than it might be by some of the omissions. Elena doesn’t recount much of her own dialogue with her boyfriends and much of the story is narrated or told, rather than putting the reader in the midst of the events as if to experience them. It is the psychological and philosophical elements of the placement of the two women in these situations that lend themselves a kind of accepted inevitability, we won’t be shocked by anything that happens, knowing their backgrounds, it is the lure of that question of whether either of them can or will escape their fate that entices us to read on.

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante tr. by Ann Goldstein…Neapolitan Tetralogy Book1

Elena Ferrante is already something of an Italian legend. An author said to spurn interviews, her pen name fuelling speculation about her real identity. Her work is said to be autobiographical and already capturing the attention of English readers in a similar way to the autobiographical series of novels by the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Being a fan of translated fiction I have had my eye on this series for a while and from the reviews and articles I have read, her work reminds me of Caroline Smailes, whose excellent novel The Drowning of Arthur Braxton was my favourite read in 2013.

My Brilliant FriendIn 2012, My Brilliant Friend, the first in the trilogy of Neapolitan novels was translated into English and the two subsequent books The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay were published in 2013 and 2014 consecutively.

The trilogy follows the lives and friendship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, two astute girls from a downtrodden suburb slum of post war  1950’s & 1960’s Naples, as they navigate the challenges and opportunities necessary to survive and overcome their upbringing.

My Brilliant Friend spans Elena and Lila’s childhood and adolescence years in their neighbourhood, one where aggression, tension and feuds reign and graduating from school is less of a priority than finding safety and protection from the inhabitants of their immediate environment.

The first pages begin with the naming of characters, a family tree of the neighbourhood, members of each family and their occupations. I often find these lists of characters overwhelming, so ignored them, telling myself, if the book is good, I’ll know who all these characters are by the end. And when I went back to look at it, sure enough, I knew who they all were.

The story then begins with a prologue when the girls are women in their mid-fifties and creates a mystery that won’t be resolved in the first book, as the girls only reach the age of sixteen by its conclusion. It intrigues and teases the reader to continue to read on and discover what it is Elena knows, that no one else does.

“It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means.”

A Naples Slum

A Naples Slum

Elena is angry and so begins to write this narrative, in an act of revenge-like competitiveness, a trait that has defined her relationship with Lila throughout their childhood and adolescence.

Narrated from the point of view of Elena, the girls first recollection of being together is around the fearful presence of Don Achille, the local grocer whose name is associated with a fairy tale ogre.

In their play, Lila’s actions are always decisive and with bold intent, Elena is less bold, yet more determined, she follows her friend but wishes to surpass her and learns how to cope with the sacrifices necessary to continue to be her friend. Starting with the day Lila dropped her doll through the street grating into a dark underground cellar.

“But that day I learned a skill at which I later excelled. I held back my despair, I held it back on the edge of my wet eyes, so that Lila said to me in dialect:

‘You don’t care about her?’

I didn’t answer. I felt a violent pain, but I sensed that the pain of quarrelling with her would be even stronger. I was as if strangled by two agonies, one already happening, the loss of the doll, and one possible, the loss of Lila.”

After her early years of passing well her exams, there is one year when Elena’s attention strays and as a result her parents are no longer willing to support her in school. They won’t pay for extra tuition but if she studies and resits the exams, they will allow her to continue.

Lila, who never fails, will have to leave school, regardless of her ability, her family isn’t willing to support her education. She has a hunger for education and follows Elena’s progress, increasing her knowledge, surpassing her friend, becoming more like her teacher, though never sitting another exam.

“She had begun to study Greek even before I went to high school? She had done it on her own, while I hadn’t even thought about it, and during the summer, the vacation? Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me? She eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels in order to pass me by?”

Snapshot 1 (09-11-2012 17-25)

Friendship by Allia

The book ends with a wedding, the girls paths seem to be heading in different directions, they continue to navigate their lives according to the expectations and threats of their community, yet their paths, in their different ways, potentially hold the seeds of their escape.

My Brilliant Friend is an emotionally charged coming-of-age read and the story held me riveted all the way through from the prologue that isn’t resolved through their early schooldays up to that wedding day.

Ferrante’s depiction of the two girls friendship bristles with vulnerable authenticity, igniting our curiosity in their interactions with their community, making the reader care about what will happen to them all next.

Next Book in the Series: The Story of a New Name

A Piece of the Mosaic

Thank you to inspirational talent Kimberly Sullivan who lives in Rome and has written ‘In the Shadow of the Apennines’ set in the mountains of Abruzzo. She tagged me in the ‘Be Inspired’ blog hop hosted by ‘Page After Page’:

All of our stories come from somewhere, whether it be a dream, another book, a life event…So, I thought why not give people the chance to talk about their inspirations as well as their stories?

To participate, I should answer 10 questions about my novel and then tag 5 writer’s:

1. What is the name of your book?

‘A Piece of the Mosaic’

2. Where did the idea of your book come from?

It started with a prompt in a creative writing class at the Groucho Club in Soho; the tutor asked us to spend 5 minutes writing about a character. It was the scariest part of the class, that compulsory, time limited plunge into the unknown with others furiously scribbling away.

Paralysed, I had a vision of the back of a young man standing on a pier smoking a cigarette, gazing out to sea . He was wearing black trousers and a black leather jacket, observed by two schoolgirls giggling on a bench. After the class finished, I could not get that man out of my head.

3. In what genre would you classify your book?

I hate labels, I hope this book crosses as many genres as possible, but if I had to guess I would say it is contemporary, cross cultural fiction.

4. If you had to pick actors to play your characters in a movie rendition, who would you choose?

I don’t know any current Italian actors, so I would suggest a young man of Mediterranean origin to play Alfredo and because this question is too hard, I’m going to adapt it and say I dream of music composed by Ennio Morricone and the film directed by Giuseppe Tornatore director of Cinema Paradiso and Ba’aria. Authentic it must be.

5. Provide a brief synopsis.

Alfredo’s home village – Liguria

Angry with his father after his mother’s death, young Italian chef Alfredo, abandons the fishing village he has lived in all his life and travels to England, eventually finding a job in the seaside town on the South Coast. In return for low rent, he agrees to an unorthodox request from his spinster landlady Claudette, to help her find the sister she has not seen for 30 years since she and her husband immigrated to New Zealand.

Alfredo discovers more than a long-lost sister and the search soon becomes his own, to find Claudette’s niece Amber; the journey leading him towards everything he has tried to avoid in order to learn the truth.

6. Is your book already published/represented?

The synopsis and first three chapters have been read by 3 agents in London, with encouraging responses but declining representation and the full manuscript was requested by the fiction editor at Penguin NZ, who enjoyed it and suggested I seek representation in the UK.

 In order to establish some credibility with my writing, I decided to write a blog before I send it out again, so here I am blogging away, sharing my passion for the written word.

7. How long did it take you to write your book?

The actual writing part probably took about a year, but I wrote it in two bursts, the first half when I lived in London and on a whim travelled to Liguria to spend a week in a fishing village imagining and writing of lives other than my own.

I finished it in the first six months of arriving in France unable to speak French – the best excuse in the world not to have a proper job and to finish a first novel.

8. What other books within your genre would you compare it to? Or readers of which books would enjoy yours?

There are many books about people from the English-speaking world going to live in a non-English speaking country, both fiction and non-fiction, Alfredo isn’t leaving to see the world, he is escaping.  It is a story that questions identity and confronts issues of adoption and family.

I think it will appeal to people who like books that take them to places they dream of visiting and that introduce them to issues from different cultural perspectives, if anyone has any suggestions as to any other book this sounds like, let me know.

9. Which authors inspired you to write this book?

Two authors come to mind immediately, ironically Stephen King influenced this book, because I read his excellent slim masterpiece ‘On Writing’ midway through writing.  After reading it I changed a few things, I stopped writing longhand, I set a 1000 words/day word count (his is 2,000 words/day) and I stopped editing as I was writing, I just wrote it out until the end – terrified it would be crap, but discovered how to create pace.

The other author who spent some time residing in my subconscious was Italo Calvino, it took me a while to figure out what he wanted; now I know – but it’s a secret.

10. Tell us anything that might pique interest in your book?

Here are two extracts that survived that very first writing exercise, sitting in the Groucho Club in London, searching the recesses of my mind for inspiration.

Looking out over the swollen sea, Alfredo smiled knowingly at how her moods changed, one moment bright and sparkling in her refinery, phosphorescence glittering like sequins in the moonlight, the next as she was now, irascible, dark and brooding, like a young lover scorned, beauty transformed into bitterness. He watched a fish jump momentarily from her clutch, as if trying to escape her volatile and uncompromising mood, then witnessed the force of gravity, the sea’s ever-trusting accomplice, toss the cold-blooded vertebrae back into the maelstrom from which it had tried valiantly to escape.

He threw his half-finished cigarette into the sea and she hissed at him in reply. He had never been a regular smoker in Italy and wished he could kick the habit, cigarettes had become a comfort since he came to England, he liked to roll them as much as he liked to smoke them, it gave his hands something to do when his mind was restless. Thoughts extinguished, he walked down the length of the pier, eyes front, not looking at two giggling teenage girls to his right but sensing their eyes following his footsteps, over the wooden planks, where if one’s gaze was concentrated enough, you could see the pregnant swell of the waves below, as the tidal ebb carried them to and from the shore.

And now to tag 5 writers, all of whom are an inspiration to me:

  1. Brenda Moguez – Passionate Pursuits
    – Brenda is a prolific, unique and inspirational blogger with a rich family and personal history to draw on, not to mention a gigantic imagination, it’s just a matter of time before we will be reading her novel, now doing the rounds of agents.
  2. Juliet GreenwoodJulietGreenwoodAuthor – Juliet lives in a traditional Welsh cottage between the romantic Isle of Anglesey and the majestic mountains and ruined castles of Snowdonia, she is living the dream, a published writer and avid gardener; she is an inspiration.
  3. Patricia SandsEveryone Has a Story to Tell
    – Patricia has published a book about friendship, fun and the complexities of relationships among women, drawing inspiration from her own experiences. Every Friday she blogs about France and her current WIP (work in progress) is set here.
  4. Julie Christine Chalk the Sun
    – Julie is a Francophile, she is a reading writer, travels often and writes a fantastic book review. Just waiting for her to plunge right into writing that novel, a WWII star-crossed romance between a young French girl and a German POW, inspired by true events.
  5. Jen ThompsonChronicles of Jen
    – Jen is another writer who loves to read and shares her thoughts when she does, she’s a talented writer, lives in a caravan and is out there observing characters and seeking inspiration while serving hotdogs and popcorn. She may not be able to participate because her idea is so great, someone might steal it J
  6. Nelle NelleWritesI’m going to add one more, because I couldn’t have a list of writers without including Nelle, who not only is a great writer, but is a loyal follower and comments on all my reviews, even though her book budget is severely restricted.

If This is a Man: The Truce

I only had to read the first sentence of a Scotsman in Exile’s blog post of this book to put aside what I was reading and start this almost immediately; his review entitled And Over Our Heads The Hollow Seas Closed Up… continues its first line:

…These are words from the canto of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno and they were quoted in the most moving book I’ve ever read, ‘If This Is a Man’ by Primo Levi.

I found a copy on the second-hand shelf of our local bookshop the very next day, a copy I now own that would have to be the most annotated, scribbled in, colour highlighted, dog-eared, pored over volume that I possess (thanks to the previous owner ZIMERI). When I was a student, we studied ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’; how fortunate that today’s students are reading and studying this equally important work.

I’m not sure if I so much as read the book as followed closely in the footsteps of Primo Levi as he recounted the events that unfolded during his journey and time in the concentration camp, due to the way he chooses to express himself, which can best be summarised in his own words:

I believe in reason and in discussion as supreme instruments of progress, and therefore I repress hatred even within myself: I prefer justice. Precisely for this reason, when describing the tragic world of Auschwitz, I have deliberately assumed the calm, sober language of the witness, neither the lamenting tones of the victim nor the irate voice of someone who seeks revenge. I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional; only in this way does a witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge. The judges are my readers.

Thus we absorb only that which he personally experienced and perceive not just the daily routine, the trivial yet so essential implements of his survival, the relentless toil and the near brokenness, but we view also the different strata of man in that direst of circumstances, a kind of perverse hierarchy.

Primo Levi was a young man of 24 years, a chemist and part of a partisan band hoping to join the Resistance movement when captured by the Fascist militia and sent to a detention camp at Fossoli. A few weeks later, all Jews in the camp were told they would be leaving for an unknown destination, revealed to be the camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau, part of Auschwitz.

650 people made the journey that day; on arrival, the majority were ‘swallowed by the night’ and 125 sent to the camps. Of those, only three made the return journey to Italy after liberation, Primo Levi being one of them.

He was fortunate to return and discover his family intact; we in turn are fortunate that he returned and wrote these two books to be read together, one the descent into darkness, the other the journey back towards an altered but real luminosity.

All I can really say is that if you haven’t read it, add it to your list and find the time one day to slow-read it, Primo Levi was an important chronicler of a difficult period in history and a man who was interested in and able to put into words his observations of humanity in all its capacity, something we all the better for knowing.

If on a winter’s night a traveller

If you have never read Italo Calvino this may be a misleading book to start with, it’s certainly not reminiscent of his short stories and I believe it is unlike his other novels, but it has a kind of cult status in that it is was an original and much talked about experimental work.

‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’ starts out as a conversation, Calvino entering and leaving the exchange within the pages of his novel in an unpredictable fashion. This is not a book to lie back and lazily escape into, it requires your attention and concentration to stay with where you are at and to understand what is going on and then just as you are spirited away by his seductive prose and enjoying the ride into the depths of one of his stories, you turn the page and Monsieur Calvino is back.

I enjoyed the diversions, although I was disappointed that he was unable to find a way to leave the sex of the reader neutral, having been almost convinced he might well be speaking to me, it becomes clear he is speaking to his male readers, political correctness not in full swing in the early 1980’s when this was published. But I readily forgive him, especially when assured by Lorna Sage, author of the memoir ‘In Bad Blood’ who wrote in the Observer:

‘devastating, wonderfully ingenious parody of all those dreary best-sellers you buy at the airport…It is a “world novel”: take it with you next time you plan to travel in an armchair’

Chapters are interspersed with stories, the titles of which are referenced in each preceding episode, the stories are the beginning of novels and you the protagonist are searching for the rest of the story while listening to Calvino expound on readers, reading, and writing. Best described in an extract from one of the stories themselves, where he writes:

I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion…I see something like a forest that extends in all directions and is so thick that it doesn’t allow light to pass…so it is not impossible that the person who follows my story may feel himself a bit cheated, seeing that the stream is dispersed into so many trickles, and that of the essential events only the last echoes and reverberations arrive at him…’

Playful, impossible to label, is it a…, it is a question, a poem, a collection of stories, a novel and a conversation with Italo Calvino. The author imposes himself and his voice within the pages and we as the reader also become involved in the action as Calvino switches into the second person narrative. If I were an academic I would probably be littering this text with a lot of technical terms describing the literary tools Calvino plays with, literature students are likely to come across it, or at least they did in the past, as David Mitchell, author of ‘Cloud Atlas’ reminisces about here, when he rereads it for a second time.

It’s an oeuvre that defies categorisation, which plays with the reader and will entertain some while annoying others, myself I am content that it has now stopped taunting me from the bookshelf, my curiosity sated, it can now be talked about with some knowledge of its interior. That curiosity won’t rest long however, no doubt it will soon find another dusty volume to settle on, another book I haven’t read by that author I have often read about but have yet to enter their imagined world.