The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

 

Female-silhouette
Elena Ferrante is/might-be the pseudonymous name of an Italian writer. Publicity shy, she only accepts interviews by email. There are no photos of her online. James Wood, The New Yorker critic has deduced … a number of her letters have been collected and published. From them, we learn that she grew up in Naples, and has lived for periods outside Italy. She has a classics degree; she has referred to being a mother. One could also infer from her fiction and from her interviews that she is not now married…In addition to writing, “I study, I translate, I teach.”

the story of the facts has to reckon with filters, deferments, partial truths, half lies: from it comes as arduous measurement of time passed that is based completely on the unreliable measuring device of words.

That … what are writers stuck with? … the unreliable measuring device of words.

Every tone of voice, every possible meaning of words spoken, every possible meaning of words unspoken, the way they dress, walk, cry, smile, serve the pasta, look, and stand; all are analysed by Elena, the first-person narrator, in her attempt to understand what’s going on. It’s a Brugel-esque landscape of feelings colouring the lives of the Neapolitan working class in the 1960s and all seen through the eyes of Elena Greco  -“always fearful, always subordinate, always pleasingly willing”, the unmarried, bookish one with glasses.

Elena Greco:  I said to myself every day: I am what I am and I have to accept myself; I was born like this, in this city, with this dialect, without money, I will give what I can give, I will take what I can take, I will endure what has to be endured. This could easily be Lina’s creed too.

The title refers to Elena’s brilliant friend, Lina Cerullo and her new name now that she’s married, her married name, Lina Carracci, and, of course, Elena can’t be everywhere, especially in Lina and Stephano’s hotel room on their disastrous wedding night, but we get the scene, in the third person. Ferrante doesn’t need to justify how the narrator, Elena, knows what happened, she does (Lina told me) and clumsily so. However, there are other instances when the narration slips from the first to the third person unannounced. It’s OK. It’s a legitimate literary device, unnoticeable if attention is not drawn to it. It allows a flow of action or insight. This inconsistency is something the editor should’ve picked up. Ferrante is usually masterful at using these literary tools. Quotation marks, and ‘he said’, ‘she said’ are abandoned at times in the frenzy of verbal, sexual, or social violence giving the scene a filmic quality, making the action jump out of the flat page. This is good stuff, but doesn’t need justification.

The story is about Lina’s marriage that fell apart at the wedding at the end of Book One and how it continues on its downhill slide while Elena continues to bump against her upbringing and pursue an academic life, free – she thinks – from her stifling Neapolitan history; but Elena by this book’s end still believes Lina, despite her choices, is the more beautiful, the more intelligent.

Thank god there’s a glossary of families and family members at the front of the book. Ten families and their intra and extra familial relationships make up the fodder of the story and the glossary is well needed; and don’t be afraid to use it (no-one will know). Things get complicated especially with diminutives, family nicknames, and similarities; Alfonso, Antonio, Lina, Linu, which is a diminutive of Elena, not Lina whose real name is Raffaella. See? And don’t skip over the Italian family names, Cerullo, Cappuccio, Scanno, Solara. Say them out loud! You need to be familiar with them all and if you say them, you’ll be saying them a lot, right from the beginning so it won’t take long before you’re at one with the family, families. You’ll be in among them all. That’s the best bit.

The worst bit is the fate of the women. Not only are they treated like shit by all of the men – except when they want something, usually sex – their worst enemies are the other women: mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, and  friends. Shame, gossip, inference, innuendo, treachery, lies, superstition, and pride are all weapons these Neapolitan women use against their own. And Elena sails bumpily, battered and bruised, but defiant, through it all, but ultimately aware that she is a woman and people see her more clearly, listen to her more intently, talk to her more respectfully, when she is on the arm, even metaphorically, of a man. Have things changed?

And then the story splits: Elena goes to study in Pisa, and Lina’s messy life of deception, abandoned commercial success, and personal war-mongering continues to engulf everyone in her circle of destructive intent and selfishness. Here I wanted to hear more about Elena, but I had to wait.

And then this:

One morning I bought a graph-paper notebook and began to write, in the third person, about what happened to me that night on the beach near Barano. Then, still in the third person, I wrote what happened to me on Ischia. Then I wrote a little about Naples and the neighborhood. Then I changed names and places and situations. Then I imagined a dark force crouching in the life of the protagonist, an entity that had the capacity to weld the world around her, with the colors of the flame of a blowtorch: a blue violet dome where everything went well for her, shooting sparks, but that soon came apart, breaking up into meaningless gray fragments. I spent twenty days writing this story, a period in which I saw no one, I went out only to eat. Finally, I reread some pages, I didn’t like them, and I forgot about it.

This is Elena Greco explaining herself, describing what changed her life, but it is more; it is a confession from Ferrante: how to write a novel. It’s finding the ‘dark force’ that’s the tricky bit. However, it’s this notebook, hand-written, unedited, that she gives as a gift – despite “I reread some pages, I didn’t like them” – and it’s this notebook that finds it’s way into literary circles, someone types it and shows it to a publisher and …

When Elena and Lina finally re-unite it’s in the most unlikely of places; two women, one about to be hoisted aloft, the other about as low as she can go but united by a shared intellect, history, and belief in the other, no mater how sorely that belief is tested. One ignored the upbringing they both had no control over; the other gave in to it. And like the end of Book One, My Brilliant Friend, this, Book Two, has a sting on the last page that compels you, no matter what you might think, to move on as quickly as possible to Book Three, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Ferrante is a reading experience like no other.

You can purchase the book, in various formats including the ebook, here.

2 thoughts on “The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

  1. Hi Darling – just got round to reading this.

    A couple of queries: “That … what do writers stuck with? … *the unreliable measuring device of words*.” Is that meant to be ‘what writers are stuck with’ ?

    “This is good stuff, but doesn’t need justification.” ‘…stuff, and doesn’t…’

    It is a terrific and evocative review, however!

    Gxx

    Like

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