Monday, May 30, 2016

Finally, More Ferrante . . .

I can't tell you how much I'm regretting some of the promises I made around here. Neck deep in packing and everything else that goes with moving, I'm more inclined to read murder mysteries* than to write about literary novels I read months ago. . . But having made those promises, and having had readers generous enough to send me their notes on said literary books,  I'm going to try -- finally! -- to consolidate some of my thoughts on Ferrante's Neapolitian series here, with links to what I've said about the novels in earlier posts.

The easiest part first then, is to sum up and point to what I've already written elsewhere about the series
At the end of 2015, I briefly mentioned finishing the last novel in the series:  "For now, though, just popping in to say that I've finished Elana Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child, and while I will save my response to this last volume, and the series overall, for another, more considered, longer post, I have found every one of the four books compelling and absorbing. I've been mesmerised by the microscopic examination of a female friendship that is suffused with rivalry, and by the way that friendship holds our attention while we consider the many social, political, economic, and cultural changes that have shaped women's lives -- in Italy, yes, but beyond that, across European borders and with obvious resonance for North America as well (at the very least).  This balancing of the very particular and the sweeping global, this fascinates me, and the way it's held in the conversational, if confessional, tone of one of the two central characters, the over-abundance of some detail while there is so much we cannot or will not be told...."

Before that, back in August last year, preparing for a trip to Italy, I wrote about Books 2 and 3 in the series,

And the last paragraph in this post from May 2015 is about having just finished the first volume in the series.

My chronology is awkward here, scrolling backwards through the series. The most recent post on Ferrante here, a lovely guest post by our Manitoba commenter Georgia, brings us into 2016, February, but it also throws us backward in Ferrante's oeuvre, usefully sketching out the Italian writer's earlier writing. Georgia makes some very perceptive and intriguing connections between Ferrante's backlist and the Neapolitan series, and she convinces me that I must get to some of those titles before too long.

First, though,  I'm determined to finish writing about the Neapolitan novels here, and to do that, I was sure I had brought them to Vancouver with me so that I could refresh my memory before trying to share my responses. Indeed, when I unpacked, I found Books Two and Three, but I've already told you something about those; Book Four, the one about which I've only written that brief paragraph above? Nope. Not here. Aargh!

The preceding portion of this post, above, took me two weeks of writing and procrastinating and since I was stopped by not having Volume IV with me, another week during which Pater brought the book over for me. Today, I'm supposed to head back to our island home, and I'd planned to take the early ferry, but packing up my stack of Ferrante once again made it even more clear how inefficient this continual postponement has become.


I'm going to stay right here in our Vancouver apartment, with the stack of Neapolitan novels to the right of my computer, and I'm not leaving until the post is done.  The 8:30 ferry will just have to sail without me, and with luck and commitment I'll be feeling a little bit lighter when I board the 10:30 boat.

I haven't left the computer, but I did lean back in my chair for a few minutes to pick up my iPad and open my Kobo (eReader app) to read again the opening pages of the 1st volume of the series, My Brilliant Friend. I have often regretted that in my impatience to begin the series, I bought a digital edition rather than waiting to get to a bookstore for a hard copy.  And over the past year or so, reading and thinking about the third and fourth volumes, I've wanted to thumb through those introductory chapters, to remember exactly the context in which the narrator-protagonist Lenù (Elena Greco) begins writing. So much easier to do so with a "real book," although I've had the digital copy only a minute or two away, if I'd pushed through the annoying clicks and navigations and waiting for screens to fire up . . .

Doing so just now confirms what I've remembered -- that, in her late 60s, Lenù begins to write out of resentment and competition, perhaps even revenge, after her childhood friend -- her alter ego, one might have to say, even, the antagonist of the story, except that the two are too intertwined to be oppositional -- has disappeared. That is, Rino, the (lazy, parasitic, weak-willed) son of her closest friend and fiercest rival, Lila, has called her to say that his mother has not been seen for weeks and, furthermore, there is not a single trace of her left in her home, nothing in the closets, no digital trace in her computers, not a single image left in any photograph.

In Lenù's words, "She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind." In response, Lenù "was really angry" and says to herself, "We'll see who wins this time," as she "turn[s] on the computer and beg[ins] to write -- all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory."

Reading those opening pages again and then flipping to the last twenty or thirty pages of The Story of the Lost Child confirmed several other things I've thought while postponing the writing of this post. First of all, it's shocking to once again confront how quickly I can forget important details. I'll be considerate here and avoid spoilers for those of you who still have to read this, but suffice it to say that to do the novel justice, I would have to at least skim it again to recover some of the intricacies of plot, the machinations of the various characters in the vivid small world of the Neapolitan neighbourhood, the entanglement of families and businesses and politics, the persistence of that entanglement over decades, the way the politics and the social relationships played out on a micro scale against those national and global developments they paralleled, at least temporally.

As well, reading the opening pages again and juxtaposing them with a quick study of the closing ones, some 1800 or so pages between them, confirms that the novels require a careful second reading. The attention these opening and closing pages pay to the role of memory, to the competing claims of those who remember, to the ephemeral evidence that supports that memory, invites -- demands? -- a more careful examination of Lenù's narrative. At the most immediate level, for example, I'm puzzled by what seems a discrepancy: she claims to be writing her story because of Lila's elimination of "the entire life that she had left behind" (including, of course, Lenù herself). However, reading the closing pages, she writes that Lila's disappearance had actually begun in response to Lenù's having retrieved some of her celebrity as a writer by publishing a novel based on their lives, on very painful experiences they had shared.

Lenù writes, in the closing pages of her huge narrative, that "I was violating an unwritten agreement between Lila and me. . . she wouldn't tolerate it." After writing the first draft, she deliberately chooses not to show her lifelong friend the novella she's written about them, and she makes the decision "out of fear," knowing, as she writes, that "if it were up to her I would never publish a line." Once the book is published, and it revives Lenù's career as a writer, keeping her "from joining the list of writers whom everyone considers dead even when they're still alive," she first considers it "the best I had written." Gradually, though, she comes to hate it, and she blames Lila for that, blames her "refusing in every possible way to see me, to discuss it with me, even to insult me and hit me," so that, finally, Lenù has to "acknowledge that our friendship was over."

The dolls -- their retrieval from their burial in the basement of patriarchy that governed all lives in that hermetic Neapolitan neighbourhood -- reappear at the fourth novel's close, recalling the early incident that bound the two young girls together and became emblematic, in so many ways, of their relationship. I won't tell you how, but their appearance throws doubts -- her own and ours -- onto Lenù's rendition of their story.

And then my daughter texted: Could she and my one-year-old grandson come visit? And as much as I wanted to finish this post, I couldn't bring myself to say "No." And instead of the 10:30 ferry, I got to the 12:30 one, but that was a week ago, and since then I've bought my next home via some stressful offers and counter-offers. All legitimate reasons for not finishing this post, don't you think? But I haven't posted anything here since April 22nd, and although I'm quite sure I only need another hour or two to round out my thoughts about the series, I'm going to publish this as it is and promise one more final post on it. That next post will also include some notes that Dottoressa sent me months ago (sorry to take so long, D, with sharing these), and I would love to think it will be up within the month, but this next little while may be hectic. I appreciate your patience.

Meanwhile, though, if anything I've written here resonates, please comment. Have you finished the series yet? Did you pick a favourite volume? Have you found yourself going back to reread sections and compare what was said in Volume Four with details from earlier in the series? And how important do you think the role of the narrator is to the way the story is told? What does the narration suggest about memory and its filters? 

*It's the public library's fault, honestly. Both of Patricia Cornwell's last two titles, the only two I hadn't yet read of her Kay Scarpetta series, were displayed on the Recent Aquisitions shelves, my last two respective visits, practically shouting "Take me Home!"  Cornwell's writing has been uneven across the seasonseries, sometimes suggesting onerous publishing contracts -- bloated, under-edited writing, odd voice shifts. But when she's good, oh, she's good, and as with so many mystery series, I've formed connections with several of the characters, surprisingly, as they're all rather unlikeable at first glance...Very graphic, often gruesome, I have to warn you. If your mystery preference is for "cosies," don't read these!


  1. Ferrante seems a lifetime ago. I devoured everything I could get my hands on in Oaxaca. The tale of the friendship (from Lenù's
    point of view) was fascinating to me. So often we see friendships through rose-coloured glasses. The rivalries between the two women over boyfriends and the doubts about who really was smarter resonate with me. Insecurity...If Lila were to tell the story, I wonder how it would be different. Ferrante does an excellent job of weaving the politics and the idealism of 70's youth into the narrative. I donated my books to the Lending Library in Oaxaca but I would like to re-read now. Two book-clubs has meant re-reading a couple of books:The Purple Hibiscus and Light Between the Oceans. Purple Hibiscus sparked a lot of serious discussion in both book-clubs. I read Half Yellow Sun a few years ago and I find that I know very little about Nigeria. Light Between the Oceans
    is a first novel, not so well-crafted as Hibiscus, but it poses a moral dilemma which we will discuss on Wednesday at Book Club.
    I have a load of books to return to the library (I'm decluttering so I can't buy books!!!). The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows was an enjoyable read. I didn't know about The Writers' Project during Depression times in the United States. Ordinary people were paid relief money to write histories and guides to U.S. towns. A number of well-known authors got their starts during this time.
    Take care and enjoy your last few days on the Island.

  2. I finished the series a month or two ago (sometime after you 'threatened' ;) to post your thoughts...I didn't want to be left behind!).

    My favourite volume of the series was My Brilliant Friend, although overall I am partial to the short, sharp shock of those three earlier books. Why MBF? Hm. Thinking of my fondness for Boyhood Island, maybe a preference for tales of childhood? Or maybe, just maybe, it's because all I have to do is look at the cover of that book and I am back in the Rome airport, hopefully digging through a box under the table...yay! success! then on the plane reading, then sleeping a little with the book in my hands...then reading some more...holding on to the Italian heat and the smell of hot and cold stone, smoke, plane trees and perfume...

  3. I even have forgotten what I did written for this blog! I'll re-read the books one day for sure-and they are "in cloud",as almost every book in english I read. Croatian books or translations are in real.
    Yes,I agree with Georgia,My Brillant Friend is my favourite! The excitement of new book and characters mixed with harsh environment and family life where only struggle exist-you have to fight for your place,identity,education,respect,role in life and among people-for everything! Or to surrender and loose! Bluntly and brutal (some more subtle fights came later )-but more simple than in other books!
    And,as Madame said-we often see our frienships through rose-coloured glasses! My glasses just became transparent in one case-I'm still thinking how to deal with it!
    And thanks for the recommendation,always welcome :-)
    I have read recently The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Miniaturist is set in Golden Age Amsterdam,very atmospheric,like stepping in one of Vermeers paintings
    And A little Life from Hanya Yanagihara......- still recovering!

  4. I just read The Nightingale last week. I think you may have mentioned it. I enjoyed it although it was a quick read and the story seemed familiar. Someone else recommended The Miniaturist so I will reserve it from the library. There are so many books to read that I am always grateful for suggestions. Merci.

  5. Madame: So many books, so little time, right? Quite a few years ago, I belonged to two book clubs at cone, as you do now. I had to leave them, eventually, as I was working full-time, but I do remember that occasionally overlapping, rereading. At least yours are choosing some very good titles. Have only read Adichie's Americanah, but I do want to read more titles by her. As for Lila telling the story, it might be worth wondering if she could even do so coherently. She'd be a frustrating narrator to work with, I suspect!
    Georgia: Whoops! So sorry to have whipped you on to finishing the series and then let you down here. I'll try to do better next promise ;-)
    I love the way you link your preference for MBF with all the sensory memories it evokes, all of them, deeply saturated with Italy. This is what my e-edition will never, obviously, copy, and it's part of an ephemeral whole that book readers almost universally understand, it seems to me. (also seems to me that Boyhood Island and MBF would make for an interesting comparison in many ways -- I loved that Knausgaard as well, so perfectly placed as it is in that series)
    Dottoressa: Your comment reminds me that while I might miss the tactile joys of print books, I should remember how wonderfully accessible the ebooks make work in other languages. Whereas it probably used to be tedious and difficult to track down and order English titles, now you have them literally at your fingertips. So, another vote for MBF. I'm not sure that it would be my choice, but neither am I sure that I have to, or could, choose a favourite. I'm going to have to reread it, I think, with what comes later resonating to make it a whole new novel for me. . .So sorry I delayed so long with your comments. It's been more distracting than I realised it would, this moving.
    So sorry to hear you're rose-coloured glasses have been removed -- I hope you weren't too hurt and that you're able to sort out what to do about the friendship without too much damage.
    And speaking of damage, Oh My! A Little Life -- yes, that's one it takes a while to shake off. I'm still not sure what I think, resenting a bit some of the manipulation and some elements of the novel that really demand incredulity yet which we were assumed/expected to accept (the foundling child, adopted by abusive monks, hmmmmm). And yet . . . and yet. . . I couldn't help but like, care for, some of the central characters and be mesmerised by the unfolding of their lives.
    Mme. I'm guessing you're talking to Dottoressa here re The Nightingale. So far, I haven't picked it up, and right now, I'm just trying to decide which few books to keep out of the packing boxes.

  6. Thank you ,Madame,me too! I have discovered a lot of new books and authors here.
    Let me know your thoughts on The Miniaturist- her first book- (yes,Nightingale was predictive,I agree,but it always put a lot of dilemmas in front of the reader,living in extreme times and circumstances and it is always hard-although,when I was young, life was so black and white and everything seemed so easy to decide (in books,of course :-))
    Mater,I share your thoughts about A Little Life! My vocation is always to mend,to help,to make it right-such unhappiness,series of sexual,physical,emotional abuse,unjustice......too much to endure and stay normal! Living in the dark and no ond to notice,to ask questions
    It is like crooked fairytale without happy ending,with much too many villains for very long time and than a lot of good fairies (a lot of best friends,perfect loving father and mother,movie star best friend/lover.....!) who couldn't help .......
    So many questions- I was unhappy and I read comments that she was exaggerating-did she? Or are we superficial and move too fast from the problem?
    But,she is the writer,she can describe her characters as she wishes. Could it be possible,could it be real? But ,things happens that are so wrong,so bad- some people went through the hell during the war and during the peace.....
    I don't know.....

  7. No one,sorry