Closing 2015 with The Story of the Lost Child

Little girl statue edited

Little girl at Casa Guidi

 

Opening 2016 with a poem

I ended 2015 reading Elena Ferrante’s fourth and final Neapolitan novel, The Story of the Lost Child, and this first week of 2016, a poem of mine, “At Casa Guidi,” was published in Loveliest Magazine.

Italy. Children. Creativity. I hadn’t planned this, but the poem and Ferrante’s novel have these in common. (The similarities end there – Elena Ferrante is a world-renowned author; I’m a novice poet.)

First, the poem. Some years ago I traveled to Florence with my sister-in-law, and we visited Casa Guidi, the home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning in the Oltrarno quarter, where many artists and writers lived. Later, recalling our visit, I was inspired to write “At Casa Guidi.”

Loveliest Magazine, a new venue “for storytelling and togetherness,” caught my eye when I read the words “slow-lifestyle” and “literary” to describe its cross-genre purpose. That’s me, for sure, so I thought my poetry might be a good fit. Beautifully written and produced independent literary and lifestyle publications such as Loveliest often look for good fiction, poetry, and essays; if you’d like to see your work published consider submitting to these in addition to traditional literary journals.

 

Little boy statue edited

Little boy at Casa Guidi

 

If you are ever in Florence, be sure to visit this quieter part of the city, the Oltrarno, which literally means “beyond the Arno River.” In addition to the must-see attractions and many great works of art, Oltrarno streets are lined with stationery stores featuring the things writers love: Italian-made note papers and leather journals, ornate fountain pens, inks in every shade and color. When I was there, I bought a small, leather-bound copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese, and my sister-in-law bought a print of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Closing 2015 with Elena Ferrante

I’ve written about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels in a previous post.  The Story of the Lost Child is Ferrante’s fourth and final novel in her Neapolitan series. The books are a probing look at the inner life of a writer; a family saga; a soap opera; a history of Italian feminism, culture and politics; and more.

So much has been said about these singular, internationally bestselling novels and their mysterious author, who publishes under a pseudonym, that I’ll simply add my thoughts here. (That we don’t know the identity of the author adds to the power of her work, in my opinion.)

If you look at the book covers you’ll see dreamy, idealized illustrations that are misleading: the story of the lifelong friendship between Lila and Elena, born in Naples just after World War II, can often be raw, brutally honest, and bleak. The book covers belie the content, but perhaps that was intentional, as if to say: think again if you expect a story filled with roses and happy endings….

I wouldn’t say I was always entertained by the books, because they can be relentless in their depiction of Napoli poverty and the battle between the sexes in an era when feminism blossomed. But, as many readers do, I became obsessed with Lila and Elena and had to keep on reading to see what became of them.

  • Ferrante’s work is especially meaningful to me because my father was Sicilian. Now I better understand the values, traditions, and struggles of my Italian ancestors and how these may have had an impact on my own childhood. The cultural history of Italy and its focus on family reminded me of one of my favorite Italian movies, The Best of Youth. Although I have not yet read My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgard, it sounds as though Ferrante’s penetrating look at the psychology of growing up and growing older may have similarities with Knausgard’s autobiographical series.
  • As a writer, I was especially taken with Elena’s love/jealousy/hatred of her friend, Lila. Though Elena was the outwardly successful one, with several novels published and lauded as a scholar of literature and culture, she always believed Lila was the more talented of the two, the one with wildness, fire, and true originality.  It’s often a struggle when I write to break out of my safe, everyday self and give creativity free reign. The genius of the Neapolitan novels is that Elena and Lila’s story can be read as the author’s own creative struggle with a psyche split in two.

 

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Elena and her friend, Lila, are strong women, survivors. Here is Elena during the earthquake in Naples, 1980:

“I felt that fear in me could not put down roots, and even the lava, the fiery stream of melting matter settled in my mind in orderly sentences, a pavement of black stones like the streets of Naples, where I was always and no matter what at the center. Everything that struck me–my studies, books, Franco, Pietro, the children, Nino, the earthquake–would pass, and I, whatever I among those I was accumulating, I would remain firm.”  – The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

 

My Brilliant Friend book coverThe Story of a New Name book coverThose Who Leave and Those Who Stay book cover

Literary Blog Hop Book Giveaway

Literary Blog Hop logo

 

Welcome to The Literary Blog Hop!

My Giveaways: The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

(I will ship to international addresses.)

Books Can Save a Life is participating in the 2015 Literary Blog Hop, hosted by My Book Self.

Between now and midnight on Sunday, April 12, you can hop over to a dozen or so blogs, all offering giveaways of books, book gift cards, or bookish items. Click HERE to see the many fabulous blogs participating in this hop!

My Giveaway

I will be giving away two works of literary fiction by renowned authors. (One book each to two lucky winners.) Just leave a comment about books on my blog (see left sidebar) between now and April 12 and you’re eligible. Winners will be notified via email and will have 48 hours to respond or an alternate winner will be selected.

The Story of a New Name book coverAccording to The New Yorker,Elena Ferrante is one of Italy’s best-known least-known contemporary writers.” An international literary sensation, Elena publishes under a pseudonym, so her identity remains unknown. I’m pleased to offer The Story of a New Name, the second in Ferrante’s best-selling Neapolitan trilogy. You’ve just got to experience her remarkable voice! Click HERE to read a previous post about Ferrante.

Ian McEwan has long been one of my favorites. The Children Act is the haunting story of a teen-age boy with a life-threatening disease who refuses medical treatment on religious grounds.The Children Act book cover

Anyone can enter The Literary Blog Hop. You do not need to have a blog or follow my blog, but if you find Books Can Save a Life of interest, please become one of my followers by email or on Facebook or Twitter.

Oh, and please share this post on your favorite social media!

The Literary Blog Hop ENDS:

MIDNIGHT EST April 12, 2015

Thank you for visiting Books Can Save a Life. Remember, leave a comment if you want a chance to win, and then start BLOG HOPPING!

Mysterious Elena

“I concluded that first of all I had to understand better what I was. Investigate my nature as a woman. I had been excessive. I had striven to give myself male capacities. I had thought I had to know everything, be concerned with everything. What did I care about politics, about struggles. I wanted to make a good impression on men, be at their level. At the level of what, of their reason, most unreasonable. Such persistence in memorizing fashionable jargon, wasted effort. I had been conditioned by my education, which had shaped my mind, my voice. To what secret pacts with myself had I consented, just to excel. And now, after the hard work of learning, what must I unlearn. Also, I had been forced by the powerful presence of Lila to imagine myself as I was not. I was added to her, and I felt mutilated as soon as I removed myself. Not an idea, without Lila. Not a thought I trusted, without the support of her thoughts. Not an image. I had to accept myself outside of her. The gist was that. Accept that I was an average person. What should I do. Try again to write. Maybe I didn’t have the passion. I merely limited myself to carrying out a task. So don’t write anymore. Find some job. Or act the lady, as my mother said. Shut myself up in the family. Or turn everything upside down. Home. Children. Husband.”      Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend book cover

 

I don’t often read books in translation, but when I visited Sicily this summer I decided to bring along a contemporary Italian writer. I chose Elena Ferrante and her trilogy of Neapolitan novels – a fourth novel will be published next year – not realizing what an incredible reading experience it would turn out to be.

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. The author of My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay does not grant in-person interviews. She does not do book signings or promotional tours. Even her translator, Ann Goldstein, has never met this international literary sensation.

There is a rumor that Elena Ferrante is a man, which many female readers find absurd. A myth, they say, spread by condescending males who think a woman wouldn’t write about male-female relations in the way that Ferrante does. I would be surprised and disappointed if Ferrante is ever revealed to be male. Certainly, such a thought never occurred to me as I read her novels. To me, she seems authentically female, though one who is remarkably uninhibited and self-revealing: a kind of brutal honesty born of the harsh, corrupt city where her novels are set.  It could be that professional anonymity gives Ferrante the freedom to write in this unfettered way. But I have the feeling that Ferrante’s strong, unusual voice would prevail regardless of her circumstances.

The Story of a New Name book coverThe Neapolitan novels span the 1950s to the present, depicting the fraught friendship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, who live on a violent, poverty-stricken Naples stradone, and the fates of their neighborhood friends. Elena manages to become educated and lift herself out of poverty. She writes a bestselling novel, marries an esteemed professor of literature and “escapes” the old neighborhood. Lila, who Elena views as the more brilliant and talented of the two, is not permitted to attend school beyond the fifth grade. She fashions a very different kind of life that remains enmeshed in the corruption and conflict of Napoli.

The friendship between these two women is arresting, electrifying. Lila and Elena love each other but visit treachery and betrayal upon one another, too.  Lila takes the lead with bold, unconventional action; Elena reacts, making important life decisions almost in the wake of Lila. Elena senses Lila is the true, more talented writer, the one more deserving of success; she consciously crafts her own writer’s voice from a story Lila wrote as a child. No one knows Elena better than Lila, and vice versa. If one woman were to die, the other would lose her identity, and her life would be stripped of much of its meaning.

These novels remind me of the movie The Best of Youth in its depiction of an Italian family caught up in the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s. Feminism is a strong theme, but as the decades pass, in these Neapolitan novels, men and women do not seem to make any progress understanding each other. Do you remember the vitriolic scene in The Godfather when Connie (Talia Shire) hurls the wedding china at her husband, Carlo (Gianni Russo) and they scream at each other? I thought of them when I read Ferrante’s riveting depiction of Lila’s wedding night. Returning from her honeymoon with a black eye, Lila visits her mother, who looks the other way, saying nothing. Such a thing was not out of the ordinary.

If you appreciate complex psychological portraits of women and female friendships, you will like these novels. I enjoyed them, too, for their depiction of Elena’s emotional and creative challenges as a writer, and because they helped me better understand the problematic history of women’s roles in Italian family and culture. The novels will resonate for anyone who has reinvented themselves through geographical distance or education or immersion in a different stratum of society.  We see Elena renouncing the rough dialect of Naples for cultured Italian, yet reverting to the aggressive language of her childhood when she’s angry or upset. Elena hovers between two identities: alienated from her people and place of origin, yet never really at home in her new life.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay book coverThis article in Slate is one of the better reviews I’ve read of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. There is an excellent discussion of Elena Ferrante by her translator Ann Goldstein and others in this New Yorker: Out Loud interview.

I plan on reading the fourth novel next year when it is published. Have you read any novels by Elena Ferrante? If so, what do you think?

 

 

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