It is a fault of booksellers everywhere, I think, to feel like the proud parents of books we have championed, even though we are only the merchandisers and not the creators. I am especially guilty in this regard, so at first I took umbrage when I received a note from a friend in Virginia thanking me for turning him on to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but then adding, “If I have a small complaint, it is that her prose doesn't create envy in me. I rarely pause to admire an exquisitely crafted sentence or paragraph”
I have been an enthusiastic and unapologetic promoter of Elena Ferrante since the day I got home from the bookstore to discover that the book in my hand was not what I had meant to read but something called Days of Abandonment by an Italian woman I’d barely heard of. Too lazy to walk the long block back to the store, I thought, what the heck. Several hours later, even though I was completely drained, even though my muscles ached from the tension of journeying with Ferrante’s protagonist to the edge of madness, I was hooked.
Now it’s some five years later and the combined sales of Ferrante’s four Neapolitan Novels--My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child-- tops our bestseller list list by a wide margin. Parent-like, I beam when people rush in to pick up the next novel in the series, having finished the previous one the night before.
I must confess, however, that my Virginia friend is not the first person to comment on Ferrante’s prose style. He wondered if it might be a problem of transition from Italian to English, but the translator, Ann Goldstein, is one of the best, and bilingual Italians who come into the store say that Goldstein has done an admirable job. So, hoping that I do not sound too much like a defensive father, allow me to respond.
At a panel on the Neapolitan novels that we put together for last fall’s Brooklyn Book Festival, the novelist Lauren Groff observed that Ferrante’s reportorial, expository style can at first be jarring. Ferrante violates all the rules of fiction writing 101, said Groff. Her advice: keep reading. Stop fighting. Allow the propulsive force of Ferrante’s narration to take over.
I was standing in the back of a standing room-only-crowd nodding in agreement. To my mind, it is precisely Ferrante’s disdain for lyricism, her near-total disregard for simile or metaphor, that gives Ferrante her power. Her style borders on and sometimes crosses over into brutalist realism, as if she were describing a train wreck in explicit, slow motion detail.
When the first of the Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, was introduced to America in 2012, I made the mistake of recommending it to customers by comparing it to soap opera, albeit very literary, intelligent soap opera. I was trying to make a point about the book’s addictive power and compulsive storytelling but erred egregiously in two ways. First, I was reinforcing the notion that Ferrante appeals primarily to women, even though almost every man I have convinced to read her books (despite their--forgive me--”chick-lit” covers) has thanked me for it. Second, I wasn’t crediting the scope of the subject matter that Ferrante had taken on.
The through-line of the four Neapolitan novels is the fraught, tumultuous, on-and-off, 60-year friendship between two women, Elena and Lila. The word friendship hardly does their relationship justice. As Elena tells it, theirs is an unconsummated, decades-long affair, veering between love and antipathy, jealousy and comradeship. Nor does reducing the description of the Neapolitan novels to four books about a friendship begin to do justice to the scope of Ferrante’s work. Elena and Lila live through the tumult of the ‘60s, Italy’s long, vicious battles between the radical right and the radical left, and the rise of feminism. Elena’s childhood home, and the place Lila never leaves, is a violence-ridden slum in a Naples characterized by vast income inequality, and where the local mafia, the Camorra, affects all aspects of economic and communal life.
The books are about Elena and Lila, and vastly more. And even though we know very little about who Elena Ferrante really is--she chooses to remain anonymous, and writes under a nomme de plume--I don’t believe that this is a memoir disguised as a series of novels. She is reporting on a time as well as on individuals, and showing us how lives cannot be fully examined or explained outside their political, historical, and economic context.
If Ferrante had written these books in a more lyrical style--and considering, for example, the multiple mistakes Elena makes in her choices of lovers--I might have been right in comparing them to a high-brow soap opera, a literary Downton Abbey. Instead, she has given us four books that sweep us along through 60 years of the politics and history in which lives--all lives--are led.