Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Guest Blogger Reads Ferrante . . .

An article on the Sassi di Matera (the stone homes/cave dwellings in Puglia, Italy) in this weekend's Globe and Mail Travel section reminded me that I'd just learned about these remarkable buildings and the culture and people they sheltered for forty thousand years. I came across them in the book I'd promised to tell you more about, Paul Paolicelli's Dances with Luigi. Since I wrote that promise here, I've finished reading a few other titles I need to say a few words about here, so yes, I'm falling behind again.

Luckily, though, I have a couple of guest bloggers ready to jump in for me.  If you are one of the small but select group of readers here, I hope you take time to read the comments, which are often the richest part of a post. We have a salon of discerning readers here, and there are a few consistent voices you may have begun to recognise. Last fall, as it became increasingly obvious I might never find the time to write as much about Elana Ferrante's marvelous Neapolitan series as it deserves, I reached out to two of these commenters, Dottoressa and Georgia, to ask if they'd care to write a response to Ferrante.

Both of them kindly agreed, and while I'd initially thought to put their contributions together in a single post, it seems more appropriate to give a separate space to Georgia's post, as she's offered us an engaging introduction to Ferrante's earlier work. For any of you who are hesitating about making the commitment to a four-volume series, or for those of you (like myself) who, having read the Neapolitan series, now wish to read Ferrante's backlist, here is Georgia's compelling introduction for those titles -- she thoughtfully provided the photograph above as well.

Thank you so much, Mater, for asking for my thoughts on the earlier translated novels of Elena Ferrante.
A little background on me: I am/was an accountant, recently retired from a government management position, a reader, a traveller, art lover, gardener, animal lover (not the anthropomorphising kind) and mother of two grown children. I am a faithful reader of Mater's two blogs and have taken great enjoyment from the community there.
Last summer, when I realized I had written 'Elena Ferrante' several times in a notebook I keep for such reminders, I decided I should take action! I started with the local library intending to place holds on the first books in the Neapolitan series and resigned to a long wait.  I found there were three earlier books available, so I checked them out...and away I went.
Troubling Love (1999), Days of Abandonment (2002), and The Lost Daughter (2006) are small books (no more than 200 pages), each focusing on a female protagonist: Delia, Olga and Leda respectively.  Delia sets out to solve the mystery of her mother's sudden death. Olga copes with the aftermath of her husband unexpectedly abandoning the family for a younger woman.  Leda, well...Leda takes a vacation, she meets a large extended family who are holidaying in the same area, and she thinks a lot.
I haven't read much Italian fiction but I did watch a number of Italian movies when I was studying the language, in hopes hearing spoken Italian would help me.  (It didn't really, because of the subtitles.  I can read more quickly than I can translate what I hear.) Those movies often had a particular style, though, a kind of bleakness and introspection that I recognized in Ferrante's novels.  In fact, a few pages into Days of Abandonment, I realized I had seen the movie version I giorni dell'abbandono a number of years ago.
I have read My Brilliant Friend, and have the next two of the series waiting on the night table, but have held off so as not to influence my comments here. There are some themes that recur...the search for identity in the context of the influence of those who are in, or have been in our lives, whether wanted or not.  And smaller recognizable things: a frightening man in the neighbourhood.  Nicknames.  A cellar.  But although the earlier books have the essence of the later novels, the rich world Ferrante later created is not there.
Because we see Delia, Olga and Leda through their own self-critical eyes, I didn't find them particularly likeable. (I will confess I lost patience with them frequently.) They have stories to tell, though. And if anything in their stories bears a resemblance to something in your story, you might find a connection here. One passage from The Lost Daughter rang so true for me it left me absolutely shaken. Leda is dreaming of pursuing her own life, away from her family:
            "...I couldn't settle down; instead, a kind of disorder took over my imagination. With my husband I was silent; I never tried to violate our sexual habits, not even the erotic slang     we had developed over the years. But as I studied, did the shopping, stood in line to   pay a bill, I would become lost in desires that embarrassed and at the same time excited       me. I was ashamed of them, especially when they intervened while I was taking care of    the children. I sang songs with them, read them fables before they fell asleep, helped             (my younger daughter) eat, washed them, dressed them, and meanwhile I felt unworthy,    I couldn't figure out how to calm myself."
I have never read something before that came as close to what was going on inside me at a particular time in my life. I was on the bus the first time I read this and sat looking out the window for a while with the feeling I had narrowly escaped something. I am sure my heart was pounding, because it pounded again when I located the passage to quote it here.

I did eventually come to my senses, but I will leave Leda's fate, and Olga's, and Delia's, for you to discover. I'm going to settle in with The Story of a New Name...

Thank you so much, Georgia! What a great introduction to your own interest in Italian language, culture, and literature as well as to Ferrante and her work, and what a bravely chosen passage to convincingly illustrate what Ferrante can do to us, in her unflinching determination to write women's lives, beyond the mythically domestic mothers and wives we are too often purported (constructed) to be... 
I have Dottoressa's response to the 4-volume Neapolitan series and I'll do my best to post this soon, along with a few words of my own (at the very least, some links back to what I said about these books earlier). And who knows? Perhaps I'll even catch up on keeping a promise or two and recording a few titles. Already February and falling behind?! Tsk, tsk, tsk. . . 

Readers, as always, your comments are very welcome, and I think Georgia will probably be available and willing to answer any questions you might have, but I'll be here as well, facilitating the conversation if needed. 


  1. After having read the Neapolitan Quartet and Days of Abandonment, I am certainly pondering the role of relationship (both familial
    and neighbourhood) in the lives of women. In those books that I have read, the roles of wife and mother seem to be an uneasy fit for the female protagonists. I'd really like to read those other two earlier books for a deeper insight.

  2. Georgia,nice to meet you and learn something about you :-)
    Your insight of the first three Ferrante books is so good that you make me rethink again and again my opinions of Olga and The Days of Abandonment (the only one of her first three novels I have read).
    Rumour has it that Ferrante (who writes undercover,hidden...) may be even a man. I simply don't believe it,especially after reading The Days.....with Olga,abandoned woman on the edge of clinical depression and borderline,living through her pain,and after reading your review.
    And the part of recurrent themes....-perfect!
    I'm sure that I will read the other two,too,but after some time,their struggles are so overwhelming that I need a little rest
    Oh,I hope that one of these days I find time to refresh my Italian (I forgot a lot very quickly) and try to read something in italian

  3. Madame, I think you would find the other two interesting. Delia (Troubling Love) is not a wife or mother but faces similar struggles as a daughter. Her childhood neighbourhood in Naples figures prominently in the story.

    Dottoressa, I also read that Ferrante is rumoured to be a man. I think a man can write in a woman's voice as a story-telling device, but there is such repeated search for identity in Ferrante's work that it seems it must be coming from a place of truth. I wonder if we will ever know for certain!

    I forget a lot of my Italian too. Right now I am telling it to stay out of my mind so I can improve my French :)

  4. I love this -- it feels as if we're having a pleasant literary salon, and I should be pouring cups of tea as we chat! I do need to catch up with you three and read at least The Days of Abandonment -- or perhaps I'll be able to find the movie version to watch. I wonder if I'll ever get my Italian to a level where I could try reading a bit of Ferrante's work in the original. Georgia, this week I started listening to some French podcasts again and began thinking about getting a copy of the latest Goncourt winner -- up until now I've been worried about toppling my nascent Italian if I confused my brain with another language...

  5. I just signed up for this blog. I love to read. Much more inspiration for me....will go to library tomorrow and find these books.

    Thank you Francis....