It was the perfect reading environment and as it turns out I developed a fever, Ferrante fever.
As is the case with many fevers, it crept up on me gradually. For a long time, I believed I was strong enough to put these books down, to abandon the story, give up on the characters, move on to some other supposedly more satisfying, more enjoyable, less demanding read.
I was wrong.
I first read about Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series on Felicia’s Blog Love.Life.Eat. It was obvious that Felicia was impressed. For a while she wove quotes from Ferrante into her posts, even ones ostensibly about a visit to the dentist.
Elena Ferrante’s name began to pop up everywhere.
Susan from A life in Books observed: The novels
took the literati Twitterati by storm last year and it’s still raging, although rhapsodising would be a better word.
Claire McAlpine at Word By Word has reviewed the first three books in the series: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Check them out, if you want a precis of each of the novels.
Ferrante eschews almost all of the promotional activities expected of writers today, and has done so since her first book was published. She does have a website, but it’s best described as minamalist. She does do some interviews, but very few.
There’s one in The Paris Review of Books.
She’s an author who knows how to get out of her own way, who believes in letting her work speak for itself. Some have suggested she could be male. After all, Elena Ferrante is a pen name. Even her translator, Anna Goldstein, has never knowingly met her. You can listen to a discussion hosted by The New Yorker with Anna Goldstein here.
My money is on her being a woman – she’s got the inside know how on how women think. She writes the truth of women’s experience unlike any other. At times I’ve gasped at her willingness to explore territory few, if any, have ventured into so unflinchingly.
The series is about the friendship between two women, Elena, the narrator and her childhood friend, Lila. They grew up in a poverty stricken and violent post-war neighbourhood in Naples.
Near the beginning of the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, the narrator has this to say about her doll, and the doll of her friend Lila:
“The two spied on each each other, they sized each other up, they were ready to flee in to our arms if a storm burst, if there was thunder, if someone bigger and stronger, with sharp teeth, wanted to snatch them away.”
It was clear this was not going to be an account of an idyllic childhood where children were kept safe, their talents fostered by benevolent adults. Or, for that matter, an account of two friends who have each other’s backs.
Elena Ferrante knows that friends are not always friendly. She knows that the ground shifts. She shows us that self-interest, competition, the very struggle for survival, are all at play, most of the time.
I nearly abandoned My Brilliant Friend at this point. I could see it was going to be a grim read; that relief, let alone redemption, would be unlikely.
What kept me reading? It would be easy to say it was the plotting, the characters, the delivery of one carefully timed cliff hanger after another. All of which did help. But, more than all that, Ferrante tells the story of these two women with an authenticity that brought it alive, so that in the end I was there in the book, living those lives.
She describes it best herself in the Paris Review interview.
Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it. It reanimates, revives, subjects everything to its needs.
Although it took me a while to get to know her characters, as is usually the case with relationships that have developed over time, I care about them deeply. I want to know, must know what happens. For the first time in my life, in the grips of Ferrante Fever, I read all the books available in the series one after the other.
And now I have to wait until September for the release of the fourth and final volume, The Story of the Lost Child.
Can’t wait. Have to wait.
Do you have Ferrante Fever? Or a favourite series?
Categories: On Books