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In The Margins – Elena Ferrante

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Elena Ferrante could write a long-form essay about making toast for breakfast, and I would want to read it. So, it was a pleasant bonus when Europa Editions (via Allen & Unwin) sent me In The Margins, a collection of her essays about topics I happen to love – reading and writing.

The collection contains four essays, originally written to be presented as a lecture series (by an actress, to protect Ferrante’s anonymity), translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Each essay offers rare insight into Ferrante’s own influences, struggles, and motivations in writing.

Even though the essays in In The Margins were ostensibly written for a generalist audience, Ferrante’s language, expression, and references still feel quite advanced and academic. It isn’t a TED talk.

Ferrante interrogates the origins of the ideas and themes she explores in her own work – as such, if you haven’t read through Ferrante’s backlist, be prepared for spoilers.

In The Margins requires a concentrated mind, and probably (like most of Ferrante’s work) re-reading. I found my mind wandering, in a way that it doesn’t when I read Ferrante’s fiction – I’m not sure if that’s me or her. The anecdotes from Ferrante’s reading and writing life, the tiny peeks behind the mask, were wonderful and memorable, but the rest will take more consideration.

Read my reviews of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, starting with My Brilliant Friend, here.

5 Books Recommended By Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante is as enigmatic as she is fabulous. She’s the world’s most famous living pseudonymous writer – you could pass her on the street and not even know it! One of the small glimpses she has given us into her “real” life is a list of books she recommends. You can check out the full list of forty here, but this post is dedicated to the creme de la creme, five books recommended by Elena Ferrante that are KUWTP-tested and approved!

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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It’s hardly a surprise that Elena Ferrante would love and recommend Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 best-seller. Like her Neapolitan novels, A Little Life is a biography of a friendship, following it from youth through to the end of life. Perhaps if it had been published, in its 800+ page glory, before Ferrante’s Neapolitan series went to press, her publisher might have conceded to printing all four books as a single volume (which, she has said, is how she wrote them and how they were intended). Ferrante’s recommendation also tells us that she must have plenty of reading time on her hands: A Little Life is an UNDERTAKING. It’s not slow moving, by any means, but it is LONG, and with a trove of detail on every page it’s definitely not skimmable. Read my full review of A Little Life here.

The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Joan Didion

I was surprised to see The Year Of Magical Thinking on the list of books recommended by Elena Ferrante, if only because I tend to associate it more with Didion’s millennial fans (Ferrante being, presumably, a bit older than that). Ferrante would probably have been introduced to Didion during her earlier hey-day, in the Slouching Towards Bethlehem era. Still, it’s wonderful to see that this memoir of grief and rumination resonates with Didion readers across the age brackets. If you squint, you can see some parallels between Didion as she represents herself on the page and Ferrante’s characters: women who are introspective, bookish, and intense.

Breasts And Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

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Elena Ferrante recommended a number of books in translation, but my favourite is Breasts And Eggs by Japanese writer Mieko Kawakami. My edition was translated into English by Sam Bett and David Boyd, but I assume that Ferrante read it translated into Italian by Gianluca Coci (Seni e Uova). I wonder what might have changed in the story, what might be lost or found in the translation that Ferrante read and loved. At its core, presumably, the story remained the same: three women reckoning with what it means to be a woman in contemporary Japan. (Psst: Ferrante’s not the only one who loves Kawakami’s work – Haruki Murakami called her Japan’s “most important contemporary novelist”!) Read my full review of Breasts And Eggs here.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

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Toni Morrison’s Beloved has become a classic of contemporary literature, and it’s rare that you see a list of books recommended by any author that doesn’t include it – Elena Ferrante’s list of book recommendations is no exception! It is a “towering achievement” of a novel that “stares into the abyss of slavery”, according to the blurb, but it’s also a heart-wrenching depiction of the grief and trauma of womanhood and the lived experience of the black body. Like Ferrante, Morrison’s prose is evocative in the extreme, and you’ll be transported by it. Read my full review of Beloved here.

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

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Of all the books recommended by Elena Ferrante, Blonde might be the one that surprised me most. After all, Oates’ oeuvre is huge (58 novels, plus plays and poetry and short stories and novellas and…) – why would Ferrante choose the fictionalised life of movie star-slash-sex symbol Marilyn Monroe? Because it’s brilliant, of course! Oates takes some imaginative leaps, sure, but that’s all in service of providing a whole new perspective on the life of Norma Jean, one that will unsettle and discomfit you in ways you couldn’t possibly expect. This is another tough read (seriously, Ferrante, what about a rom-com?!) but a very worthy one.

Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay – Elena Ferrante

I am gradually making my way through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (see my thoughts on books one and two, My Brilliant Friend and The Story Of A New Name). Today, I turn to book three in the series, Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay (or, in the original Italian, Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta), first published in 2014. It documents the “Middle Time” in the lives of Elena and Lila, their adulthood proper against the tumultuous backdrop of Italy in the 1960s and 70s.

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Elena re-introduces the story by describing the last time she saw Lila, skipping ahead briefly to 2005, when they were out for a walk in Naples and a body was discovered in a nearby garden, that of their childhood friend Gigliola Spagnuolo. “The old neighbourhood, unlike us, had remained the same,” Elena says. Then, her mind reels back to where The Story Of A New Name left off, at the reading of Elena’s debut novel.

Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay tells two very different stories – Elena’s and Lila’s – almost entirely separate from one another. Lila already has a child, she has left her husband and is living in sin with the kind-hearted computer student Enzo. She works in a salami factory where the conditions and pay are (needless to say) very shitty. That makes her a poster-child for the communists, who take up Lila’s supposed “cause” and cause a whole lot of trouble for her along the way. Her “brilliant” mind saves her though; her encouragement and enthusiasm for Enzo’s computer studies leads her to learn alongside him, eventually joining him as an assistant at IBM. Towards the end of this installment, she takes on a highly-paid well-respected technician role of her own, working for the Solaras family (Michele Solaras is in love with Lila, and determined to keep her in his orbit).

Meanwhile, Elena enters into married life, happily at first, but after a while not so much. She has two children of her own, and attempts to write a second book. She seems to feel an overwhelming frustration with her life, but lacks Lila’s willingness to take any action to change it. She doesn’t even know what the “right” action would be. Both women have found themselves in cages, beating against the walls of patriarchy and politics, forced into misery and submission. Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay depicts how they each find their own escape route. For Lila, that comes through employment and empowerment, and for Elena, it’s a plane ticket for a trip with a man who is not her husband. Yes, that’s right, she and Nino finally get it on. Woo!

There’s a lot more politics in Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay, compared to the earlier Neapolitan novels. I think that’s attributable to both the time period over which it’s set (with the sexual revolution and communist uprisings and whatnot) and Elena’s growing political awareness with age. As always, Ferrante has managed to distill the social unrest into the lives of her characters, without ever making Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay feel like an “issue” novel. Lila and Elena have to contend with pay disputes, domestic violence, state violence, contraception, and more, each in their own way. Ferrante’s subtlety is the master-stroke, with class distinctions cloaked in social niceties and language.

I must mention that in Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay, I found the very first (albeit small) faults in Ann Goldstein’s translation. Goldstein has translated all of Ferrante’s work, and done a spectacular job of it, but in this one she was ending sentences with prepositions (drives me nuts!) and I found the occasional bum note which disrupted the “flow” of the story. The translation is still lyrical and beautiful and compulsively readable, don’t get me wrong – just perhaps not as superb and faultless as the others have been.

Ultimately, it was a pleasure, once again, to immerse myself in Lila and Elena’s “furious friendship”. The story naturally progresses beyond the bounds of their Naples neighbourhood and the youthful concerns of the previous novels, a very logical continuation akin to a well-written biography. Except Ferrante’s subject isn’t an individual, it’s a friendship and a country and a century. Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay is perhaps not my favourite of the Neapolitan novels, but honestly, Ferrante could write a novella about the one time Elena stepped in dog shit, and I would devour it with glee.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay:

  • “It would require an exorcism to remove Lila and Lenu from my heart and mind.” – Miss Lee Lee
  • “Once again Lila is testing the limits of a fifth grade education by becoming a computer engineer and business manager. Elena is being boring feeling sorry for herself most of the time. Skip it.” – Barbara Lerner
  • “I felt the characters became repetitive and was very annoyed at Lenu’s irrational insistence that she loved her child crush. She hardly knew the loser.” – Leslie000
  • “Exhausting continuation of dysfunctional relationships” – Debra D. Bandera

The Story Of A New Name – Elena Ferrante

You should know that, as I write this, I am suffering a severe case of Ferrante Fever. Ever since I read My Brilliant Friend, I’ve been borderline-obsessed with the world’s most notable living pseudonymous author. That book was the first in the Neapolitan Quartet, a series of four novels (a “wildly original contemporary epic”) that follows the lives of Lena and Lila, two girls who grow up in mid-20th century Naples with all of the impoverishment, violence, and oppression that such a life entails. I can’t emphasise enough the delight of discovering an author who has such a glorious back-list to read through. I find myself spacing out my reading of Ferrante, trying to make the magic last as long as possible. Today, I share with you my thoughts on the second book in the Neapolitan Quartet, The Story Of A New Name.

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The Story Of A New Name was first published in the original Italian in 2013, and shortly thereafter translated into English by the imitable Ann Goldstein (always, always, always #NameTheTranslator). The story picks up after My Brilliant Friend leaves off, in the spring of 1966. Lila is a newlywed, and Lena is continuing her studies, exploring the world beyond the neighbourhood of their childhoods. Despite their diverging paths, their complex and evolving bond continues.

Lila gives Lena her Garner-esque diaries for safe-keeping, on the condition that her friend would never read them. Lena, of course, betrays that promise almost immediately (who among us wouldn’t? Come on, now!). Upon reading them, Lena is forced to re-evaluate her life, and Lila’s. Confronted by what she discovers (their childhoods being depicted with “ruthless accuracy”), she promptly throws the offending notebooks into a river.

I can’t even pretend that anything I say about The Story Of A New Name from here on won’t constitute “spoilers”, so proceed at your own peril…

Lila emerges from her honeymoon only to find herself living under a weight of expectation to become pregnant, though she doesn’t want to have children and she deeply resents her husband (he’s a dickhead, btw). Her first pregnancy is short-lived, and she miscarries at ten weeks. The town gossip suggests that her animosity kills any embryos that would embed in her womb (yep, that’s fucked). Given that her husband regularly beats and rapes her, who could blame her for being a bit ticked off? Their marriage is inherently political, intertwined with and influenced by their family business and their relationship with the Solaras brothers (basically the rich kids who have financed all their hopes and dreams… at a price).

Lila’s doctor prescribes “sun and swimming” (y’know, “for strength”) to facilitate her fertility, so she’s packed off to a summer beach holiday. Determined not to be trapped alone with her mother and her sister-in-law, she begs Lena to come with her. Lena has her own ulterior motive to accompany them: Nino, the unattainable intellectual object of her secret crush, will be “studying” at the beach, so Lena convinces Lila that’s the place to be for all this fertile “sun and swimming” business.

Most of The Story Of A New Name takes place on this beach holiday because, folks, it is full of drama – think your favourite reality show to the power of N. Remember how Lena harboured secret desires for Nino? Yeah, Lila – her best friend – hooks up with him instead. The affair is brief, but it still leaves Lila with a bun in the oven (gasp! pearl-clutching!), and she is forced to return to her husband who does not believe her (whether he’s deluding himself, or genuinely confused, who knows), when Lila says the child isn’t his.

Stefano – Lila’s husband – undertakes an affair of his own and his lover, Ada, becomes pregnant, too. Lila, quite understandably, is fed up with the bullshit and she leaves, despite the fact that she’s forced to move into a smaller, dodgier neighbourhood with her childhood fried, Enzo. Ada happily takes her place at Stefano’s side, with their kind-of-more-legitimate kid in their big house.

While all of this is going on, Lena – the actual narrator, though you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the story is “about” her because it’s really all “about” her brilliant friend – graduates from high school, and wins a scholarship to study at a university in Pisa. That’s all well and good, but she suffers from one of the most debilitating cases of imposter syndrome I’ve ever seen depicted in fiction. Lena doubts herself constantly: her intellect, her background, her aptitude…

And then there’s the fact that she’s sexually active. A young woman! Unmarried! Having sex! Can you believe it? Set aside the fact that it’s largely rooted in an earlier molestation: it’s scandalous! Eventually, she meets Pietro, a nice young bloke from an important family who doesn’t give a shit about her “reputation” (what a guy). He’s just happy to finally meet a girl he can talk to about old poetry and philosophy and politics.

When they graduate university, Pietro’s gift to Lena is an engagement ring, which she happily(?) accepts. In return, she gives him a hand-written novel. Unbeknownst to her, he passes it on to his mother, who uses her connections to have it placed at a publishing house. The book is released to popular success and critical acclaim, but Lena is disappointed and confused when she realises that no one from her old neighbourhood really gives a shit (her old teacher and former librarian, who fostered her young literary mind, are no longer around). The story ends with Lena attending her first public reading as a published author… where she realises that Nino is in attendance. Yes, that Nino, of the object-of-her-secret-desire-but-then-he-knocked-up-her-brilliant-friend fame.

Returning to the Neapolitan Quartet with The Story Of A New Name felt like picking up where I’d left off with old friends. I got to see how Lila and Lena “turned out”, what “happened next” for them. That might sound bleeding obvious to anyone who’s used to reading books in series, but mostly I read stand-alone novels, so for me it was wonderful. Lila was as manipulative and shrewd as ever, but still a sympathetic character – my feelings towards her were as ambivalent, contradictory, and ebbing as Lena’s own.

Thematically, The Story Of A New Name addresses many of the same issues as My Brilliant Friend: female friendship, class marginalisation, sexual expression, competitive relationships, the importance of literacy… The decisions of the girls’ parents in the first novel (Lena’s to allow her to continue her education, Lila’s to withdraw her from school at a young age) have ripple effects throughout their lives. The Neapolitan Quartet is effectively a Sliding Doors-epic. Both feel overshadowed and envious of the other, furious jealousy mingles with the unshakeable affection of shared experience… ugh. Ferrante is just too good for words. Too good.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Story Of A New Name:

  • “It was kind of confusing. I didn’t like the beating the women received but I finished the book and the ending was worth it.” – Sue Campbell
  • “I loved it, but it’s a book for women. Therefore I can’t give it 5 stars. I don’t see many men with patience to read it through…” – Amazon Customer
  • “Interesting, but redundant . Perhaps touch like life .” – j toby

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

Confession: I’ve been a bit apprehensive about posting this review, simply because I’m not sure that I could possibly do Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend justice. It is, quite frankly, one of the best books that I have ever read. Inside the front cover, there are three straight pages of adoring reviews, from the stock-standard “one of the greatest novelists of our time” from the New York Times, to the highly apt “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are” from The Australian, to the best (and most creative): “Ferrante writes with the kind of power saved for weather systems with female names, sparing no one”, from the LA Times. Of course, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were over-stating things just a smidge… but they weren’t. Ferrante’s writing is just that damn good.

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in the Neapolitan series of novels (published 2012-2015). It follows the lives of Elena Greco (the narrator) and Rafaella “Lila” Cerullo, as they pull themselves up from their humble origins in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. This version is translated from the original Italian by translator Ann Goldstein – and damn, she did one hell of a job! She somehow retained the rolling lyricism of the original Italian, with no awkward or stilted language – not a single hint to the reader that the work was not originally written in English. The translation is truly a work of art, in and of itself.

I had very determinedly not read anything about My Brilliant Friend or Elena Ferrante prior to opening the book (as is my custom: I like coming to new books with a clean slate)… but it was hard! Elena Ferrante is the darling of the literary world, and I have an unhealthy level of curiosity about her. Her name is a pseudonym, and the true identity of the author has been withheld to this day, which is incredible given that we live in the digital age and Time named her one of the most influential people of 2016! We know that she was born in Naples in 1943, she has a classics degree, she is a mother, and (we infer) she is no longer married. Speculation as to her true identity is, of course, absolutely rife, but Ferrante herself has repeatedly argued that anonymity is a precondition for her work. She says: “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”. Academics and literary critics have reached various conclusions as to who the “real” Elena Ferrante is, but I’ll leave it up to them – doesn’t all the guesswork spoil the fun?

Anyway, to the book: once you make it through pages and pages of praise and acclaim, My Brilliant Friend kicks off with an Index of Characters, which I thought was really interesting. It evoked the Genealogical Table in the front of my copy of Wuthering Heights, and – much like Brontë’s classic – the guide really came in handy, because the Italian names all look remarkably similar at times, and almost every character has multiple nicknames. Yikes! The prologue sets up the series’ premise: a woman (Elena) receives a phone call from the son of a friend (Lila), saying that his mother has gone missing. Elena suspects that the “disappearance” is deliberate, and she takes it upon herself to record the details of Lila’s life, a passive-aggressive attempt to stop her vanishing into thin air. Basically, it’s a fictionalised biography, written out of sheer stubbornness. From that moment, Ferrante had me hooked!

(Boilerplate spoiler warning, as much as I hate them: I figure My Brilliant Friend is good enough, and recent enough, to warrant at least a perfunctory heads-up.)

Elena begins the story with their shared childhood, in 1950s Naples. She and Lila grew up in poverty, surrounded by domestic violence, class struggles, community politics, and very little in the way of parental supervision. Neither set of parents expects the girls to receive much of an education, despite the fact that they both show remarkable academic talent. Their lives diverge when Lila’s parents refuse to allow her to continue with school, while their teacher convinces Elena’s parents to cover the costs of further education.

Ferrante’s writing is so beautiful, and chock-full of insight! She gives one of the most beautiful and articulate descriptions of a panic attack that I have ever read, describing it as “dissolving margins”. There have been rumours (of course!) that Ferrante may, in fact, be a male writer, but from reading My Brilliant Friend I find that hard to believe. Ferrante writes about developing breasts (and the male curiosity about them) in a way that could have been lifted from my very own pubescent head. The only male writer I’ve come across that has ever come close to reaching that level of insight into the female mind was William Faulkner, in a single chapter of As I Lay Dying. So, no, I don’t believe Ferrante is a man. And I could natter on about her literary mastery forever, but I’ll try to restrain myself…

Back to the story: while Elena continues with school, Lila works in her father’s cobbler business, and develops new dreams and schemes of designing her own line of shoes, with a view to making enough money to lift the family out of poverty. Lila grows disarmingly beautiful (of course), attracting the attention of every boy in the neighbourhood. A young man from a powerful local family takes it into his head that he wants to marry her, and her family puts the pressure on (after all, he’s rich enough to own a car, and he bribes them by buying them a television of their very own)… but Lilia – headstrong, determined, contrary Lila – digs in her heels. She convinces the local grocer, Stefano, to propose instead, and he gets the family onside by offering to finance Lila’s shoe project.

Now, you might think from this (very brief, I’ll admit) description that Lila is the “brilliant friend”. She is, indeed, incredibly smart – as well as beautiful, cruel, opportunistic, and ambitious, with just a hint of a soft underbelly. Ferrante flips this notion on its head, though, when Lila reveals in the moments before her wedding that she considers Elena to be her “brilliant friend”. It’s a really touching scene between them, and I was gripping the book hard and blinking a lot as I read…

Lila’s marriage doesn’t get off to a flying start, exactly. Her new husband, Stefano, betrays her trust completely, by inviting her former suitor (the young, rich, powerful guy with the car and the television and the bad attitude) to the wedding, and Lila discovers that her new hubby actually sold him the prototype of her shoe line – the shoes that Stefano told her he would treasure forever and never let go. As far as she’s concerned, he can get in the bin…

and that’s where it ends!

It is, honestly, the cruelest ending I have ever read. I mean, it’s fantastic (!), and this is exactly how a series should be done, but Jesus wept… it’s not a cliche cliffhanger, nor is everything wrapped up neatly in a bow. The story just stops! Ferrante has said that she considers the Neapolitan series to be a single book, split into four volumes primarily for reasons of length, which makes sense of the ending somewhat. But still! I wasn’t prepared! I didn’t have a copy of the next book (The Story Of A New Name) ready to pick up, and I’ve got dozens of books to go on my original reading list before I can add any new ones! Gah!

I want to emphasise that this Keeping Up With The Penguins summary skips over a lot, because My Brilliant Friend is incredibly complex and detailed. It covers everything – burgeoning womanhood, the politics of small communities, the ramifications of war, poverty, domestic violence, sexual violence, literacy, friendship, betrayal, revenge, how women’s lives are shaped by class and status, maternity, familial obligation, social responsibility, intelligence… heck, just listing all of the themes, with a brief description of how Ferrante handles them, would make for a prohibitively long review.

Needless to say, My Brilliant Friend is a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. In fact, I’ve recommended it to every single person I’ve encountered since I turned the final page. That goes double – triple! – if you enjoyed Looking For Alibrandi as a teenager. I am very sure that in fifty (or seventy, or a hundred) years, we will consider My Brilliant Friend a classic of our time, the same way we consider Austen and the Brontës. Get in early, and read it now!

Update: I’m continuing on with the Neapolitan Quartet! Read my full review of the next book, The Story Of A New Name, here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Brilliant Friend:

  • “Spoiler Alert: Nothing of interest ever happens.” – Laurien in Oregon
  • “Nice. But more relevant for women…” – Amazon Customer
  • “And this is book1 out of 4! I frankly don’t think the characters are so interesting that they need to be captured in eighty squillion words. Having had said this, the author is brilliant at capturing voices and the vibe.” – D O WilshynskyDresler
  • “I don’t think I”ll finish. Boring me to death. I’m about 30% through and it’s like listening to a grandma ramble about her hardscrabble childhood. Very repetitive and not my grandma, so I don’t care.” – calamityj
  • “I got to the end of My Brilliant Friend and felt like I was missing something. Perhaps it was the plot. It went like this: two girls are friends/enemies, they get their periods and grow up, one gets married and he turns out to be a jerk. And this plot starts out in the most bizarre way. These two girls start walking up these stairs which reminds her of another story and that story reminds her of a different story until you have this Inception-like mess of stories within stories. They don’t reach the top of the stairs until 10 chapters later and by this point I’m not even sure what’s going on anymore. Is this real or not real? Can someone get Leonardo DiCaprio to spin a top for me and tell me when we get back to reality??….” – Jessica B.

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