Elena Ferrante: The Story of a New Name

As the title of this second volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolian Novels already indicates, it is centred around marriage, and more generally, the relationship between the sexes. That had already been a subject in the second part of My Brilliant Friend but is even more in the foreground here, as the lives of the two friends Elena / Lena and Raffaela / Lila move steadily more apart, with each of them representing one of the ways and shapes a female life in sixties Italy could take: marriage and motherhood for Lila, education and a profession for Lena.

It is however, a bit of a simplification to say that the friends are drifting apart – while they while their geographical and social situations do differ markedly, they still remain bound to each other, each the other’s mirror image and inverted double: while Lena goes to college and university she never stops to envy Lila who to her seems to have received the happier lot, a husband and family. At the same time it becomes increasingly clear to the reader (although not to Lena who either does not or refuses to notice, thus showing herself to be a rather unreliable narrator) that to Lila, Lena fulfills the destiny she never could have herself, her brilliant career that was nipped in the bud when her parents did not let her attend middle school. The friendship between the girls (and this is what the two still mostly are at this stage, marriage and an increasing number of sexual experiences not withstanding) is probably at it most intense as well as its most ambivalent here, and the varying shapes this friendship takes continues to be one of the most fascinating aspects of this series of novels.

There is (as far as I remember) no mention made of the frame narrative established in My Brilliant Friend in this novel, but The Story of a New Name continues to spin out the metafictional thread in different ways.Language plays an important in all four novels of the series – most noticeably in the Neapolitan dialect all characters start out speaking, either retain or lose when they grow older or more educated and  keep falling back into whenever they get emotional. It is a dialect that is consistently designated as ugly as violent – by the narrator Lena, who is clearly not all that reliable and who indeed herself strives to eradicate all traces of it from her own speech. We never get to read / hear the dialect ourselves, i.e. there is no attempt made by the author to render the Neapolitan way of speaking phonetically (and according to an interview with Elena Ferrante this is not due the translation but true for the original as well). The dialect, hence, remains a mystery for the reader, an unknown and inscrutable quantity – much like Lila for the narrator, in fact; and I think this does indeed constitute a strong parallel between the city of Naples and Lila, a parallel which will be made pretty much explicit in the third volume and which is a very important motif for the whole series.

“Elena Ferrante” is not the author’s real name; she is writing under a pen name and is as reclusive as any Salinger or Pynchon, avoiding any public appearances and carefully hiding her real identity. Apparently, and unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of discussion in the media, both in Italy and abroad, as to who may be hiding behind the pseudonym and just how autobiographical her novels are. Normally I would dismiss such debates as both futile and irrelevant, but things lie a bit different here: not only is the novels’ first person narrator called Elena, like their author, but she also publishes a novel and becomes a writer – in other words, there is a very strong suggestion coming from the novels themselves that they might be autobiographical and should be read as such. However, one will immediately have to ask, whose autobiography? For not only does the general reading public remain ignorant of the author’s identity, but since the name she and her character share is not her real one, i.e. is itself fictional – does that mean the “autobiography” is of a fictional person, too? It really is impossible to tell, and the only thing certain here is that there is another turn of the metafictional screw.

But what I liked most about The Story of a New Name is how unapologetically feminist it is. The main subject that Elena Ferrante returns to time and again is the way women live in the second half of the 20th century, and she never leaves any doubt that societal power structures are slanted very much in favour of males. Both Lila and Lena, as well as a host of minor female characters, try to cope with that in their different ways, but I do not think a single one among them actually succeeds in the end and patriarchy continues to maintain itself at the cost of women, their wishes and desires, their minds and bodies. While Ferrante is openly didactic, she never is preachy, and keeps her novels compulsively readable by making generous of the structures and tropes of high melodrama – questions of who loves who, whether they will get each other and overcome the obstacles of class or family rise at times to an almost soap-operatic level and drive the novels forward at a brisk pace. No doubt that this has contributed to the large world-wide success of those novels, but call me overly optimistic – I find it quite heartening that a series of novels with such an open and unashamed feminist bias ends up so very widely read. There may be some hope yet, after all.

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