When I read Elena Ferrante’s novels, I feel like my nerves are on edge, like I’m in a world of complicity, that they are – through strangers in a strange land – saying what I feel, telling my story. For the one and a half day or so it takes me to inhale the novel, I am in a fog, emerging only reluctantly to the ‘real’ world. V senses this, maybe I get a certain look, and he gets angsty. This too mirrors the world of the novels.
I was predisposed to like Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Books about the strong bond between two girls – it sounds quotidian like this, but I know from experience that it is always more – sign me up.
But it was The Story of a New Name – which ironically is the story of an old name, the names that both girls keep – that really swallowed me. My Brilliant Friend seems almost like backstory, the childhood of poverty and the family and neighbourhood connections that made these women who they are. I did not love the writing, which I suspected would be better in the original Italian. There were powerful sentiments in that novel and the writing conveyed it, despite itself.
The Story of a New Name yanked me in from the start. I’m glad it began where My Brilliant Friend ended – at Lila’s wedding. As we learn what happened to her in excruciating detail, I have flashbacks of my own. No, I was not beaten bloody on my wedding night, but I did have a similar sense of disconnection, this idea that the one one had chosen for stability, for being different, after a heady and charmed courtship that only soured towards the date, was more of the same and the only way to cope, was to detach emotionally if not physically.
Which one am I? is the obvious question, the question a female reader would ask, a tradition at least as long as Little Women, a book Lila and Lena too discovered and that triggered their ambition to write themselves to a better place. The two girls are distinct and yet their names lend themselves to blurring. Lila is Lila only to Lena; she is Lina to everyone else, just as Lena is Lenu.
I identify with Lila’s cold rages more than Lenu’s self doubt. But overall, I’d say I’d identify with Lenu, the bookish wallflower who slowly discovers her place in the world. I’m not sure I had a longstanding Lila. I did have one friend who would qualify in terms of both looks and impetuosity if not intelligence (Lila is a prodigy). In a sense, it is both their intelligence and their emotional complexity that defines the two girls.
In the matter of love, I am more Lila. Lenu stays with and makes out (for want of a better word since they significantly did not have sex) with Antonio although she considers him her inferior. She likes and is attracted to him but balks at committing to him forever. Been there done that.
But Lenu has her sights on the cultivated, intellectual type symbolised by Nino, and it has always puzzled me how I do not share this attraction. From early on, I saw Nino for the self/absorbed brooding intellectual male that he is and hoped Lenu would not pursue him. I was almost relieved that he met his match in Lila, though I empathised (somewhat) with Lenu. Why she didn’t just tell Lila early on or even a bit later what her feelings were is one of my frustrations with her, but I guess that’s how people are. They don’t always do the logical thing and sometimes the face-saving gesture turns into quicksand. But apart from disliking the arrogance and essential selfishness of the intellectual male type, I’m also rarely attracted to that type at a baser sexual level. It’s like a mind body split with me. Or maybe at some level I’m just scared of a competition I will lose and prefer to be the admiree not the admirer in love?
Like Lila in her choice of Stefano, I tend to choose the classically masculine and seemingly safe type. That this safety does not always last is probably part of the package and our (Lila and my) outsized drama at its crumbling is also of a piece.
I am all about female friendships and yet I have only once had that kind of intense singular bond with a woman. Maybe the intensity of it is why I have usually deflect the possibility of such relationships with women, because the potential heartbreak so much more searing.
The thing that set me apart from these characters is of course their poverty. The book makes the reader identify with Lenu and so with her struggles to make it through the upper middle class milieu or academia. Her realisation is of lacking what Pierre Bourdieu called the cultural capital of the middle class; her experience is akin to that described by Dalit students in India, the feeling that no matter how hard you try, you lack something undefinable that is essential to success. Ironically, the reader would have to be of the privileged class, just to be reading the book.
This book engulfed me so totally that having digested and spat me out, my nerves tingling, I’m actually holding back from reading the next one. For one day at least.