Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books In Translation (page 1 of 3)

Death At Intervals – José Saramago

Here we have yet another book I came to via the wonderful The To Read List Podcast: Death At Intervals (or, in the U.S., Death With Interruptions). Aside from their recommendation, it was the premise that had me hooked. In an unnamed country, on January 1 of a brand new year, death just… stops. “New year’s eve had failed to leave behind it the usual calamitous trail of fatalities,” the narrator explains on page one. Death is on strike. Come on, Keeper Upperers! Tell me that doesn’t pique your curiosity!

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People who are unwell or injured neither improve or deteriorate – they simply don’t die. Initially, the population is dancing in the streets. I mean, it sounds like great news, right? No death! Woohoo! But of course, before long, some unanticipated consequences take the shine off the apple. Undertakers and funeral directors face bankruptcy. Religion has to take a new approach. A black market emerges, a “maphia” (spelled that way to avoid confusion with the traditional mafia) who will smuggle the elderly across the border where they can “expire” naturally. All of the outcomes are logical, once Saramago lays them out for you, but they’re definitely not the first ones that spring to mind when you hear “eternal life”.

Although Death At Intervals isn’t a comedy per se, I found it hilarious how quickly the “disappearance of death” became a bureaucratic and administrative nightmare. Saramago dedicates a lot of time to pondering: what’s to become of all the life insurance policies? Would legislating the need for pet funerals save the floundering funeral industry? He also interrogates what this situation would mean on the household level. After all, if hospitals are overwhelmed with terminally ill people who won’t die, the logical next step is that they’d be sent home to their families. What’s to become of them? Can we just stick Grandpa in the attic until death starts up again? (That’s where the aforementioned “maphia” come in, angels of death as it were, offering a solution to families who can’t bear the financial and emotional burden of caring for the nearly-dead indefinitely).

Saramago also delves briefly(ish) into the philosophy of linguistics. See, the “disappearance of death” really throws all the philosophers into a post-modern tizzy.

“It seems you don’t understand that words are the labels we stick on things, not the things themselves, you’ll never know what things are really like, nor even what their real names are, because the names you gave them are just that, the names you gave them…”

Death At Intervals (Page 64)

In the second half of Death At Intervals, we transition from treating death (or the absence of it) as a phenomenon, and she (yes, she) becomes an actual, anthropomorphised character. She decides to get back to work (“The seven months that death’s unilateral truce had lasted produced a waiting list of more than sixty thousand people on the point of death,”, page 98) and she also decides to try something new: sending letters to the soon-to-be deceased, warning them of what’s to come. She also announces this new development in a letter written to the media, and then chastises them when they correct her spelling and punctuation.

The final twist comes in the form of one of her you’re-going-to-die-soon letters that is mysteriously returned. An otherwise-unremarkable cellist, against all odds, appears to have defied his mortal fate. This drives “death” up the wall, and she devotes all of her energies to unraveling the mystery of why this man simply won’t die.

Saramago wrote Death At Intervals in his native Portuguese (original title: As Intermitências da Morte) and it was first published in 2005. This edition was translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa (#NameTheTranslator!) and published three years later. Although it’s a short book, just a couple hundred pages, it reads like a far longer one, mostly due to the fact that… well, I hesitate to say this about a Nobel Laureate, but here goes: Saramago writes weird. There are almost no paragraph breaks, not even for dialogue. Oh heavens, the dialogue – not only does he not use inverted commas, he doesn’t even break the sentence! You’ve got to read each page a couple of times to make sure you’re really clear on who’s saying what to whom. Apparently, this is Saramago’s “thing” (eschewing the agreed-upon rules of grammar and punctuation), and that’s almost enough to put me off trying any of his other books.

Still, if you can grit your teeth and put your grammar-pedantry aside, Death At Intervals is a really interesting book. It’s a modern satire dressed up as magical realism. It might force you to confront all kinds of heavy questions you weren’t expecting – could humanity exist without mortality? what about religion or philosophy? not to mention what it says about euthanasia! – but Saramago manages to keep it fun.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Death At Intervals:

  • “Having a hard time reading this book. It’s implausible of course but dry and uninteresting” – sheri
  • “interesting look on life and death. i enjoy all of Jose Saramago’s take on life.” – Lauren
  • “Wonderful author, great story, too bad he has passed away.” – hdf

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler – Italo Calvino

You are about to begin reading a review of Italo Calvino’s novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade…

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Don’t worry, I’m not going to keep that up for the whole review! Yes, I shamelessly ripped off the famous opening line to Calvino’s “dazzling post-modernist masterpiece” If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler (in the original Italian Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore, translated into English by William Weaver, #NameTheTranslator). It’s one heck of an opener, clever and unsettling – which pretty much sums up the whole book, if I’m honest.

The introduction to my edition, by Peter Washington, describes If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler as “a treatise on writing and a treatise on reading”, which I suppose it is… in a way. Each chapter is split in two: the first part is a second-person narrative (you go here, you do this, etc.), while the second part is an extract from the book “you” are reading. Except that after the first chapter, “you” discover that the book was misprinted! “You” go back to the bookshop to get a new copy, where they tell “you” that there’s been a drama at the printers, and while “you” can’t get the book you actually wanted to buy initially, “you” can get the book you actually started reading, and…

Confused yet? Yeah, imagine actually having to read the thing. The story gets interrupted this way ten more times.

Along the way, “you” meet Ludmilla, for whom you develop an instant and impressive boner. She’s on the same quest “you” are, to find and read the book that captured your interest… and then the one after that… and then the one after that… It’d be a nice love story, except that “you” also end up investigating a translator for fraud(?), an unwitting participant in a book smuggling ring(??), and an early reader of the new manuscript of Silas Flannery(???) who somehow has fallen in love with Ludmilla’s sister(????). “You” are Alice, and the rabbit hole goes all the way down.

It’s clever, it’s interesting, it’s masterfully written… but I kept falling asleep. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler is the most soporific novel I’ve picked up since The Golden Bowl. When I wasn’t dozing off, I’d catch myself mentally reviewing my grocery list or wondering about what I might read next. I found it incredibly hard to focus on this “dazzling post-modernist masterpiece”; it wasn’t dull, but it wasn’t engaging. It’s like, I could appreciate that the writing craft was excellent, but I couldn’t ignore that the reading experience was so-so (at best).

Apparently, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler was inspired by Calvino’s involvement with the Oulipo group, a gathering of writers and mathematicians in France in the 1960s. They all wanted to interrogate the structure of art, or some shit. It’s all very post-modern (blegh). There are plenty of other gushing reviews by brainy types who are high on Calvino’s fumes (if you came here looking for one of those, sorry). I can see why they love it, but it ain’t for me.

Let’s revisit that blurb, shall we? “Dazzling”? Nah. “Post-modern”? Definitely. “Sardonic”? Hardly. I’m sorry to say that If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler didn’t make any real impression on me, favourable or otherwise. If someone were to ask me whether it was worth reading, all I could do is shrug. The most memorable part was the final chapter and epilogue, absolute crackers – but maybe I was just glad to be done.

My favourite Amazon reviews of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler:

  • “A total waste of time, and after such a beguiling page 1. Like, so what!?” – Mark Wiklund
  • “I think the reader would have to be smoking whacky tobaccy to get anything out of this book. The White Pages would have a more interesting plot. And to those who assert that the book is esoteric, therefore only the intellectually elite will be able to resonate with it, I say CODSWALLOP! I’m all for brave, bold outside-the-box literary attempts but this book is completely outside comprehension. Words fail me when it comes to describe my distaste for this novel, indeed in much the same way that words failed Mr. Calvino I hasten to add. I’m disappointed that I had to give this book one star. Zero stars would have been more appropriate.” – Raelene Newall
  • “As expected, well packed” – Filipa
  • “Only managed 100 pages , which was pretty good compared to rest of book group.” – berniejon

The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Prior to reading The Little Prince (or, in the original French, Le petite prince), I would have told you that I was “familiar” with it. I would have simply left out the fact that my familiarity only extended to the bits they quoted in One Tree Hill voice-overs and epigraphs of famous novels. Turns out, there’s a lot more to this children’s book than quaint aphorisms…

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The Little Prince has a strange history (like most timeless classic children’s books). The author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was a French aviator, childless, and (at the time of writing) living under grueling war-time exile. How he managed to both write and illustrate such a perennially popular moral allegory, a “spiritual biography”, under those circumstances, I’ll never know…

It was first published in New York, in April 1943, but not published in France – or French, the language in which Saint-Exupéry wrote – until after Liberation, as all of the author’s writings had been banned by the Vichy regime. “The unusual bilingualism of the story’s publication,” explains the introduction to my edition, “means that the first translation, by Katherine Woods, is properly speaking as much the original work as the French text from which it was drawn.”

From that stumble start, The Little Prince has gone on to become the most translated French book in the world, appearing now in over 300 languages and dialects (my copy was translated into English – again – by T.V.F. Cuffe). Over 140 million copies have been sold worldwide.

Another note on my particular edition (the Penguin Modern Classic): it also contains another work by Saint-Exupéry, Letter To A Hostage. It’s an open letter to a friend of the author’s, a Jewish intellectual who was in hiding in occupied France. They make for strange bedfellows, I thought at first, but reading the dedication of The Little Prince (one of the most beautiful I’ve ever encountered), it made sense:

To Léon Werth

I ask children who may read this book to forgive me for dedicating it to a grown-up. I have a genuine excuse: this grown-up is the best friend I have in the world. I have another excuse: this grown-up understands everything, even books for children. I have a third excuse: this grown-up lives in France, where he is cold and hungry. He needs a lot of consoling. If all these excuses are not enough, I will dedicate the book to the child whom this grown-up used to be, once upon a time. All grown-ups started off as children (though few of them remember). So I hereby correct my dedication:

To Léon Werth when he was a little boy.

The Little Prince (Page 3)

Could somebody please pass the tissues? *sniffle*

Ahem, to the story: The Little Prince begins with the narrator describing grown-ups, specifically their natural inability to perceive or understand the things that are truly important. He explains that, as a child, he’d hoped to become an artist, but none of the grown-ups understood his drawings and they encouraged him to pursue more “reasonable” lines of work.

So, from the beginning, you can see the magic of The Little Prince: as with all great children’s books, it addresses the reader on their level, with respect and empathy. The fantasy to follow in The Little Prince works precisely because it employs the logic of children, and celebrates their imaginative capacity, without getting bogged down in making things “realistic” for the grown-ups.

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children always and forever to be giving explanations.”

The Little Prince (Page 6)

So, the narrator grew up to be a pilot, and one day his plane crashes in the Sahara desert (clearly drawing on Saint-Exupéry’s real-life experience, because believe it or not, that actually happened to him – more than once!). As he’s trying to fix his plane, and worrying about running out of water, a young boy – the titular “little prince” – appears as if by magic, demanding that the pilot draw him a sheep. They become fast friends, and over the course of the following eight days, the little prince slowly reveals the story of his life.

The little prince came from a very tiny “home planet” (which the narrator identifies as a house-sized asteroid), with a few very small volcanoes and a variety of plant life, including one very special rose that the prince treasured above all else. He left the rose, and his home planet, to explore the universe. Along the way, he encountered a series of satirical caricatures of grown-ups (including the “king” who had no subjects, forced to issue commands to the sun to rise and set in order to exert his power, and the “businessman” who claimed he owned all the stars and proved it by counting them).

When the little prince landed on Earth, at first he assumed it was uninhabited, as he landed in the middle of stark desert. Eventually, he met a snake, and then some flowers, and then a fox (who begged the little prince to “tame” him, so that they might become friends).

At this point, the character of the fox offers perhaps the most often-shared gem of wisdom from The Little Prince. It is the story’s keynote aphorism: “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux,” (“One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”) Judging by the drafts and notes, Saint-Exupéry reworded and rewrote that line at least 15 times before settling on this version.

Despite making all these new friends, by the time the little prince meets the pilot, he is dreadfully homesick, and by the time he’s told his story, the pilot is dying of thirst. The little prince finds the pilot a water well and then tells him that it’s time return to his home planet (which might “look like” him dying of a snake bite, but actually he’s simply leaving his shell behind).

The Little Prince ends with a drawing of the landscape where the little prince and the narrator met, and where the snake took the little prince’s corporeal life. The narrator asks the children reading the book that if they ever find themselves in that place, and they meet a little boy with golden curls, that they contact him immediately so that he may be reunited with his friend.

Do you need a(nother) tissue? I don’t blame you. It’s an incredibly moving ending, holy heck – unlike anything I’ve read in contemporary children’s book.

But here’s the clincher (take a deep breath, this is going to hurt): The Little Prince is a very strange case of life coming to imitate art. Saint-Exupéry disappeared without a trace on his eighth high-level reconnaissance flight on 31 July 1944, just over a year after The Little Prince was published. He was never found, nor does anyone have any clue what happened to him and his plane. Léon Werth, the dear friend to whom the book is dedicated, did not learn of Saint-Exupéry’s presumed death until a month later, via radio broadcast (remember that he was in hiding). Even then, it wasn’t until November that year that he learned of The Little Prince, the book his friend had written for him. Ugh, I can’t – it’s just TOO SAD!

Sad as it may be, I suppose it’s fitting: almost everything, every symbol and every character, in The Little Prince was drawn from some aspect of Saint-Exupéry’s life. As I mentioned earlier, there’s the pilot and his crash landing in the Sahara, but there’s also the little prince’s rose (reportedly inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s wife), the small home planet with volcanoes (inspired by Guatemala, where Saint-Exupéry recuperated from another crash), and so on.

The Little Prince might be a short and simple story, but don’t be deceived: Saint-Exupéry poured his whole heart and soul into it. He wrote and illustrated the manuscript over the summer of ’42, working “long hours with great concentration”, usually at night (when he felt most creatively “free”), spurred on by truly scary quantities of black coffee. His biographer, Paul Webster, said: “Behind Saint-Exupéry’s quest for perfection was a laborious process of editing and rewriting which reduced original drafts by as much as two-thirds.” He would often wake up in the morning still at his desk, with his head on his arms over the pages. Unsurprisingly, he also suffered from a number of stress-related health problems, and marital strife.

Initial reviewers were a bit flummoxed by the multi-layered story of The Little Prince. The book found only modest success at first, spending just two weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. I think (or hope) we’re now more accepting of books with complex messages, ones that can appeal to multiple age groups – given that The Little Prince now sells almost two million copies each year and has become a cultural icon, it would seem to be the case. Still, don’t go into it if you’re looking for something twee and lighthearted. Every copy, in all the languages across the world, should probably be sold with a big box of tissues.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Little Prince:

  • “there’s something about reading this book that makes you feel at peace with yourself and the whole world. The Little Prince knows whats up” – Malanie Beverly
  • “What can be said about this little story. It is timeless. It is as fresh as spring water. Thank you” – Bea

One Hundred Years Of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

Much like a piano player in a bar, on occasion I’ll take requests – and I can’t think of a book review that has been requested more often by more Keeper Upperers than One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. This landmark novel was first published in García Márquez’s native Spanish (as Cien años de soledad) in 1967, and this edition was translated into English by Gregory Rabassa. Here we go…!

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One Hundred Years Of Solitude covers seven generations in the life of the Buendía family (don’t worry, there’s a helpful family tree in the front of most editions if you lose track of who’s who along the way). It has a cracker of an opening line – the famous one about Colonel Buendía facing the firing squad – that echoes throughout the story, like a drawn-out version of a life flashing before your eyes.

The story really begins, however, with the patriarch of the family, José Arcadio, deciding to move his family out of their hometown after an… unfortunate incident (he stabbed a mate at a cockfight, over some nasty accusations of limp dick). The family settles by a river and establishes the town of Macondo, which José Arcadio envisages as a “city of mirrors”, a paradise for his growing brood.

The town remains isolated, almost entirely disconnected from the world, save for a band of gypsies (I don’t know if that’s cool to say or not, but that’s the word García Márquez used so that’s what I’m going with) who visit them each year. They come to hawk their incredible technologies – magnets! Telescopes! Ice! And José Arcadio is more than willing to hand over every dollar he has for their gizmos and gadgets.

In fact, José Arcadio goes full mad scientist, trying to figure out how to save the world with magnets, while his wife – Ursula – simply has to put up with his bullshit, for lack of any other option. She keeps the kids fed and the clothes clean and the house in order, while José spirals deeper into his delusions.

Joke’s on him, though: in the end, he invents squat, while his long-suffering wife lives to be well over 100 years old, reigning over six of the seven generations of Buendías. This brings me to what I consider to be the central moral or message of One Hundred Years Of Solitude: men are stupid, and it’s always up to the women to clean up the mess.

“They’re all alike,” Ursula lamented. “At first they behave very well, they’re obedient and prompt and they don’t seem capable of killing a fly, but as soon as their beards appear they go to ruin.”

One Hundred Years Of Solutide (156)

Oh, but that’s not all! García Márquez has more than one row to hoe. Bureaucracy is from the devil. War and jealousy are pretty bad, too. A propensity towards sex with your sisters and cousins will probably end in tears (it turns out Game Of Thrones didn’t invent incest, who knew?).

It’s all this in-family rooting that seems to be the cause of most of the Buendías’ troubles. Ursula and José were cousins before they were married, and their kids inherited both their fondness for other branches of the family tree and their fear that their family will be supernaturally punished for these abominations. The recurring example is the Buendía cousin who was born with a tail; he bled to death and died after asking his butcher mate to chop it off, because he was worried he wouldn’t be able to lose his virginity if girls kept laughing every time he pulled his pants down.

That’s an example of the “magical realism” we’ve all heard so much about. Mostly, One Hundred Years Of Solitude is grounded in recognisable reality – there are people and they have problems that have a tangible worldly basis. But, now and then, weird stuff happens. García Márquez blurs the line between the literal and the metaphorical. People are born with tails. Ghosts hang out in your backyard. A beautiful woman levitates off her bed and straight up into the sky, never to be seen again. All of this is accepted as normal (or, if not normal, at least not all that mystifying) by the characters involved. The banality of these magical events is reinforced by the narrator’s lack of interest in them, too – they are related in the same tone as one might describe what they had for breakfast.

And circling back around to the incest for a minute (c’mon, you didn’t think I could leave it alone for long, did you?), it seems to me to be a way of manifesting two of the major themes of the book: solitude (duh), and the cyclical nature of time. Because the town the Buendías founded and inhabit is so isolated, they really don’t have much choice but to start boning down with others in the same gene pool. And that’s why they see the same problems, the same dramas, the same events playing out time and time again, too.

In the end, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Macondo (and, by extension, the Buendía family) falls apart. The last surviving son discovers a manuscript left behind by one of his forebears, which depicts all of the family’s struggles and triumphs. Meanwhile, a wild wind whips up and away all remaining traces of the town that they founded.

Reading One Hundred Years Of Solitude is a lot like listening to a drunk person tell you a story when you’re five pints deep yourself. It’s sprawling, and tangential, and you can be sure they’re taking a bit of creative license, but you can still follow what they’re saying and you’re curious enough not to excuse yourself to go to the bathroom mid-sentence and never return. There’s not much tagged dialogue (as in “blah blah blah”, he said), and the timeline feels fluid and circular, so it really does read as though the story is being told to you second-hand. It’s not unenjoyable, but it’s not a straightforward story, either.

One Hundred Years Of Solitude, in the fifty-odd years since its release, has been translated into over forty languages and sold over 50 million copies. It’s widely considered to be García Márquez’s magnum opus, the shining jewel in the crown of the Latin American literary boom of the ’60s and ’70s. When García Márquez won the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, One Hundred Years Of Solitude was widely touted to be one of the main reasons why. It is now recognised as one of the most significant books of the Hispanic literary canon, and a survey of international writers deemed it the book that has most shaped world literature.

(If it’s so good, why hasn’t it been made into a movie? Find the answer here.)

So, what’s the verdict? I didn’t love-love-love it, but I didn’t hate-hate-hate it, either. I wouldn’t breathlessly thrust it into the hands of a fellow booklover, but I wouldn’t crinkle my nose if they picked it up of their own accord. I’m going to reserve my judgement on García Márquez until I’ve read more of his work – I’ve got my eye on Love In The Time Of Cholera next…

My favourite Amazon reviews of One Hundred Years Of Solitude:

  • “Was forced to read this lengthly exercise in tedium by my freshman English teacher at Yale. Oh, I know, it’s “great literature,” but trust me, the pages do not turn. On top of that, Marquez’s Marxist leanings are all too apparent. Bleh.” – vonhayek
  • “I have no idea what all the fuss regarding this book is about. I found this book irritating in its repetition of the name Jose Arcadia Buendia in virtually every paragraph, or every other paragraph in the first 60 pages. Call the guy Jose and move on… sure, it’s normal and it’s approach of the tribes and villages represented here, but the writing seems so basic. But I guess somebody thought it deserved a Nobel prize. I would prefer that they hand out an ice pick to everyone that reads it, as I wanted to use one on my brain to end the torture of this novel.” – SmilingGoodTimes
  • “I’m so pissed this has Oprah’s logo on it, I wouldn’t have bought if it was on the cover in the picture. Way to cheapen the experience OPRAH” – Ryan Stapleford
  • “A hundred years is a little too much solitude” – The Dwighter

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

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