Book Review: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels read like memoir, so why are they not shelved that way? Shouldn’t four books, emotionally and factually detailing the life of a woman in a first-person voice, with an author whose given name is the narrator’s, be considered memoir? The form of the books directly compare with Karl Ove Knaussgard’s six-tome memoir My Struggle or Simone de Beauvoir’s four chronological autobiographies. But Ferrante says she is writing under a pseudonym and has not revealed her true identity. Should we believe her?

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Ferrante’s novels follow the lives of Elena (Lenù), her best friend Lila and the people with whom they grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Naples. There is (of course) speculation that Ferrante is a man, but I’ve never known a man or writer so passionate about female friendship, the bones and meat and soul of the story. Lila and Lenù are competitive, jealous, resentful, spiteful and obsessed with each other, or in other words, best friends. Lila is a brilliant but troubled woman who Lenù cannot help but love for their formative memories and their intertwined emotional lives. In a way, Ferrante’s novels follow the narrative style whose most common reference is The Great Gatsby, wherein the narrator is more of a neutral observer of the much more interesting, evasive and irresistible main character. Maybe Ferrante doesn’t care to share herself with her readers because then we would want to find Lila too. Or maybe she is Lila. In any case, I find it hard to believe that whoever Ferrante really is, this all did not happen.

Maybe that is the mark of a good novel: the reader continues to suspend their disbelief even once the reading is done. I generally shy from books that preface with family trees. If the narrative is so complex that I need a reference document, I highly doubt I will lose myself to this world. That is not the case for this series; the world is there, all the characters heaped in and held together by this poor neighbourhood in Naples no one can truly escape. The Story of a New Name, the second book in Ferrante’s series, chronicles the teenage and early adult years of Lenù and Lila and all their friends. People follow or veer away from well-planned paths, and though the writer doesn’t develop characters like Ada and Gigliola enough that I could draw them for you or pick their voices out of a crowd, I can tell you the role they play in Elena’s and Lila’s friendship, which is all that matters.

What is maybe most remarkable to me about these books—what differentiates them the most from other books I’ve read—is the careful balance between divulging and holding back. Elena is not afraid to tell us that she is in love with Lila, or close enough to it, or to take each emotion and analyze it right down to its component pieces. But even then, the language never loses its consistent, delicate distance. This is something I’ve found before when reading a translated work. Maybe it is in the translator’s attention and care to each word, or in the flow that is lost or maintained from the original language. Or perhaps it’s in the translation from a culture whose emotional life I cannot so quickly access. We don’t just learn about Italy through this book, we learn the story of Italian women, of poverty in Italy in the 40s and 50s, and we learn maybe even more: the life of one Italian woman, whether living or not, still very real to me. It’s also only now, reading these works, that I realize how lacking my bookshelf is of Italian literature, and, in particular, Italian female writers. If this book has anything to say to this point, it’s that it isn’t because of a lack of brilliance or determination in Italian women.

Sitting, Spinning

Teaching is my jumping off point for everything these days. It’s where my consciousness sits, the place from which I have crazy dreams. But two days into a three day weekend I can’t help thinking  I’m also a human being. I also have a life. I also have this blog.

I have a theme for this year, whether the kids or anyone knows it or not, and that theme is connections. I suppose it’s something I should have shared with them, the theme of the year, but there’s only so much I can do in a day. I use the theme of connections to teach reading, writing, geography, science, and to create a positive social climate in the classroom. It seems rational, that you can learn something better by tying it to what you know already, that you can understand something better by seeing what surrounds it.

I’m somewhere in the middle of my life right now, the spider at the middle of the web, and though all my things – teaching, and writing, and reading, – come from me and through me, I feel like I’ve lost my connection to them. I’m being pulled too far one way, remembering – after a month and a half of forgetting – that I really, really like to read. I’m  looking at my things through new eyes, recognizing faults in the plot structure of my second chapter and phoniness in the language used in yoga classes. I’m placing more intention in reading and writing because I’m doing them less but with more of a focused mind. I see their place in my life more clearly, as I’ve spun another part of my web, and I’m taking care not to cut their line, recognizing now their fragile nature.

I’m scared of losing my writing voice, my reading passion and the blind confidence I had for why I write. I’m scared I sound fake when talking about it, that it has become obvious it was never my first path. I define myself as a writer, a reader, but what can I tell you if you ask? I’m teaching, I’m teaching every day. I’m thinking about teaching all the time. Am I writing enough to be a writer? Reading enough to be a reader?

Is it okay to connect yourself to something you are not at the moment, but for which you feel a deep connection? Do people who live with God live always with him, whether they’re living piously at the moment? Do you live constantly with yourself, even if you fall asleep at night, even if you’ve lost control of your body or your mind?

I think the answers are resoundingly yes, are shouting at me from the screen: yes! Yes you are a writer and a reader because you are that, that is you. Because you believe so fundamentally in the importance of those things (don’t forget it), but you’re just negotiating the importance of something else, too. Something else new. And it doesn’t make other things lose their spot. Yes, time exists, but so do spider webs, and those can get considerably bigger, longer, more spacious. And though they get more fragile as they grow, they stay the same shape, always meeting at the middle where you sit, spinning your web.

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Virginia Woolf’s Exclamation Marks

“In love!” she said

He was in love!

And there’s no flesh on his neck; his hands are red; and he’s six months older than I am!

“She is beneath this roof … She is beneath this roof!”

“Good morning to you, Clarissa!” said Hugh, rather extravagantly, for they had known each other as children.”

The way she said “Here is my Elizabeth!” – that annoyed him. Why not “Here’s Elizabeth” simply? It was insincere.

He had escaped!

I haven’t felt so young in years!

“Well, and what’s happened to you?” “Millions of things!” he exclaimed.

But it was delicious to hear her say that – my dear Peter!

“How heavenly it is to see you again!” she exclaimed. He had his knife out. That’s so like him, she thought.

Mrs._Dalloway_cover(from en.wikipedia.org)

The Reading Fad

I admit I walk around carrying a book in my  hand more than I used to, though I used to read more than I do now. I admit I don’t read as many classics as I should, but I always name classics as my favourite books. I admit I bought glasses that make me look like I’m reading and I get shivers in trendy used bookstores. But I will not admit that I am a part of this new trend called reading.

I’ve had a few different people lately tell me they are reading a book out loud as a couple. That’s great! I wish I was in a couple in which we read books out loud! But it also seems to signify something: is reading a becoming a novelty?

When someone walks by me wearing a Great Gatsby tee-shirt, I’m usually pretty sure it’s not an English Lit major. Why would someone who studied English feel the need to wear a tee-shirt announcing they like books? They decided that already, probably early in life, and it has since been their identity.

Second question: why am I so defensive of books? I didn’t write any of them! Maybe I’ve read more than some people, but I’ve also not read most of them, and I read them pretty poorly.

But books are my thing. They are a thing for people who don’t have many other things. But someone who rides a funny-looking bike and sketches and, like, has a horse, already has so many things! You can’t take books too!

So I propose this: we just all keep reading. Don’t stop when the other member of your couple has moved on to partner yoga (even though that’s so last year). Just keep reading until it stops becoming a trend. Until you missed the next trend because you were so busy reading.

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(from crazetees.com)

Until you become a real smoker, not just one who smokes at parties, you don’t know all the downsides of the trade. You don’t know that you slowly lose your eyesight. You don’t know that there are some books that will plague you, consistently looming over you to get you to finish them. And even if you’ve seen the Dracula movie and you read all of Atlas Shrugged except for the 100-page-long speech by John Galt, you know that one day you will just sit there, miserable, reading those two books instead of whatever book is on everyone’s tee shirt.

And it will become a part of you (not every book you read, but the fact that you do weird little things, like accidentally buy two copies of the same book or bring ten with you on a trip) and you will never stop reading, because it’s the best trend ever invented. It offers a way of seeing the world and of seeing yourself: through words, beautifully arranged, on these little sheets of paper you carry around in your hand for everyone to see.

HP Sauce

A couple friends and I are rereading Harry Potter. My friend did this a few years ago and I was so jealous – how did he have the time? He had the time, I realized, by letting Harry Potter and his childhood overtake his life. I grew up on Harry Potter. I left a best friend’s birthday party to go to the midnight release of the seventh book. I like being in on something so childish and esoteric. I like books!

Remember how big Hermione’s hair was in the first book?

And how you never see Scabbers coming?

Remember when you realize that instead of a murderer, Sirius Black is just a sex bomb?

Sirius-Black-sirius-black-7017004-1000-725 (sexy photo from images2.fanpop.com)

I don’t always remember that Professor McGonagall is an animagi!!

Wouldn’t there be some practices where you just don’t find the Snitch?

They don’t even know about the tournament yet!! People are going to DIE!!

Yesterday somebody had a portrait in their room that looked like You-Know-Who but it might have just been a deceased grandfather!

Did Joanne see the Ginny thing coming? Because Harry sure didn’t!

Is it just me, or does travelling by Floo Powder make no sense at all?

Who IS Dean Thomas??

I’m not Sleepy!

I don’t sleep around full moons or after late afternoon coffees. I continue to drink coffee on certain late afternoons and I continue to live through full moons. I know I’ll stay up at night but I think: how productive tonight could be! Maybe I could read a whole book.

But when night comes around, my heart beats in my chest and my mind runs everywhere. I lay there yawning, restlessly wishing for sleep. But this weekend (waning half moon and no coffee in the house) I just wasn’t sleepy. I never got sleepy!

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What I could have done this weekend, had I thought of it. Instead I lay there, peaceful in my thoughts. What happened? Have I changed people?

I remember studying Shakespeare at high school and university and getting quizzed on whether I knew that insomnia meant that the character was troubled. Well, I thought. Is there more to it than that?

But maybe there is. My thoughts at night weren’t troubled. I thought a lot about The Bachelorette, about Harry Potter, about where I would walk the dog tomorrow and would I go swimming before or after dinner? I was interested in a lot of different things but I didn’t feel like reading.

What I didn’t think of doing was writing. I’ve been writing one hour a day (which is great!) but when that hour is up, proud as I am, I move on. I read or I watch television or maybe I do my school work. Or, like, I leave the house! But I think I’m scared that if I go back to writing then maybe I’ll max myself out and I won’t do my hour tomorrow. And if I don’t do my hour tomorrow then will I do it the next day? I am so easily persuaded, so influenced by my worst self.

Maybe I’m up at night because I’m supposed to be writing. Maybe one hour a day has put me on some roll! Maybe the time I have invested in my writing is spawning more creativity – nervous energy that keeps me up at night because it wants to be used for something. And because I’m lazy and it’s dark in the room I am not reaching for a pen and am thinking instead. And yes, my dreams are really creative, but could I be using this for writing?

So I plan to never sleep again and write a lot! And with that decision is born a writer: insomniac, paranoid, probably alcoholic.

A New Philosophy on Owning Books

Become more liberal about buying and exchanging books.

Always buy used ones and give away those I have read and can part with to used book stores.

Search for good copies of my favourite books. Buy hard cover, smelly copies.

Lend out books on a whim. Don’t ask for them back.

Let books flow, always living and being read by new people.

This would allow for ever-changing book shelves and not hoarding.

It would give me more excuses to go into used bookstores and support them.

I would be better connected to books, more excited by them.

And think about how often I could alphabetize.

153 (photo from gelaskins.com)