Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 15, 2013

The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

The Story of a New NameI had a million things to do this weekend but I have spent most of it reading this compelling novel instead!  It’s only a week or so since I read Book One in the trilogy, My Brilliant Friend (see my review) and I am now tormented by impatience to read Book Three which isn’t available yet.

The Story of a New Name follows the story of the complex friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo.  Lila is now married and living in style with Stefano’s money, but the intimation that all would not be well in Book One turns out to be true.  Lila’s easy contempt for anyone who might thwart her meets its match when Stefano uses his fists to make her do his will.  Elena, torn between jealousy over Lila’s social elevation and her own determination to transcend the poverty of Naples through education, discovers just how bleak Lila’s imprisonment as Stefano’s wife is.

The causes of Lila’s disenchantment are complex, but they revolve around the influence of the Solara brothers.  Stefano’s association with these wealthy neighbourhood thugs offends her, and she hates her family’s dependence on them for the success of the shoe factory which makes the shoes she designed.  Her intellectual accomplishments are irrelevant in a world where she is expected to work in the family business and design more shoes for the hated Solaras and to make babies within the expected timeframe.  Her pride makes her cease to care and whereas in My Brilliant Friend she continued to compete intellectually with Elena even after her family made her leave school, now she no longer bothers with books at all.

Not, that is, until she and Elena take a holiday on the island of Ischia, which becomes a kind of idyll.  Having lost two babies to miscarriage, Lila is sent to Ischia to build up her strength in the sunshine, and Elena takes the opportunity to go with her because Nino, the boy she has fancied from a distance since their schooldays, will be there.  Lila can’t bear to be left out of conversations about books and politics and philosophy so she helps herself to the books that Elena has brought with her…

An unhappy bride, a jealous friend, handsome young men and the freedom of the beach … in the hands of a less skilful author, this plot could easily have degenerated into a torrid romance, but Ferrante never falters.  This novel is not a turbulent romance about young lovers.  The Story of a New Name traces the social and cultural divide between wealthy Italy and its poorer southern states, a fissure captured with great sensitivity when Elena, flushed with success as she finally achieves her ambitions, realises that

Merit was never enough, something else was required, and I didn’t have it nor did I know how to learn it. (p. 410)

Ferrante also captures the emergence of modernity in Naples.  (Helpfully catalogued by family at the beginning of the book in case the reader loses track), there is a huge cast of characters, all interconnected as if living in a village, and living in their assigned roles as grocers or shoe-repairers even as the local economy modernises around them.  The entrepreneurial younger generation industrialises the making of Italian sausage and starts up grocery stores with ready-made cannoli.  Hand-made shoes are replaced by factory-made designs of lesser quality but they sell anyway, and the shop that sells them is more like a boutique than a shoe shop.  But it is the shifting pattern of women’s attitudes that is most interesting: it’s not just that Elena sees that education is the way out, it’s also that she begins to see a different role for herself.

For no obvious reason I began to look closely at the women on the stradone. Suddenly it seemed to me that I had lived with a sort of limited gaze: as if my focus had only been on us girls.  Ada, Gigliola, Marisa, Pinuccia, Lila, me, my schoolmates, and I had never really paid attention to Melina’s body, Giuseppina Pelusi’s, Nunzia Cerullo’s, Maria Carracci’s.  The only woman’s body I had studied, with ever-increasing apprehension, was the lame body of my mother, and I had felt pressed, threatened by that image, and still feared that it would suddenly impose itself on mine.  That day, instead, I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighbourhood.  They were nervous, they were acquiescent.  They were silent, with tight lips and stopping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them.  Extremely thin, with hollow eyes and cheeks, or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged  shopping bags and small children who clung to their skirts and wanted to be picked up.  And good God, they were ten, at most twenty years older than me.  Yet they appeared to have lost those feminine qualities that were so important to us girls and that we accentuated with clothes, with makeup.  They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands. fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labours or the arrival of old age, of illness.  When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?  (p.102)

There is a seminal moment when Elena breaks through into the dominant discourse of men: she is at a party, feeling intimidated by her inferior social position and anxious that Lila will say or do something to embarrass her, and there is a lively conversation about contemporary politics.  According to custom, the girls listen respectfully to the boys, and then, to her own astonishment, Elena speaks up:

Then I heard myself utter sentences as if it were not I who had decided to do so, as if another person, more assured, more informed, had decided to speak through my mouth.  I began without knowing what I would say, but hearing the boys, fragments of phrases read in Galiani’s books and newspapers stirred in my mind, and the desire to speak, to make my presence felt, became stronger than timidity.

Later, she recognises that she has been neglecting her own intellectual interests in order to conform to what Nino liked  – she reads the same books as him so that she can discuss them with him.  It is Lila who makes herself attractive to him by talking about other books, igniting his interest in other topics, and herself.

IndonesiaAnd, dear to my heart, towards the end of the book she tells her mother that no, she will not be changing her name when she marries because she would lose the professional recognition she has achieved in her own name.  (A publisher tracked me down to commission my first little book, because I had kept my maiden name.  She would never have found me if I’d changed it.)

Though their paths diverge in this period of their adolescence, Elena and Lila are inextricably linked.  Elena as narrator shares with painful honesty both her envy and her disdain, her attempts to cut loose and her inability to put Lila out of her life.  Even when Lila’s life seems to be entrapped in a turbulent mess she manages to make Elena feel inferior, and even when Elena through a combination of luck and hard work accomplishes financial independence and a measure of fame, the neighbourhood doesn’t acknowledge it and Lila isn’t interested.   Elena, who has tempered her behaviour and learned to adapt, to speak Italian instead of dialect and to fit unobtrusively into a different milieu, is forever upstaged by the sheer passion of Lila’s rage about the constraints of the patriarchal society she lives in.

I can’t wait to read Book Three!

Author: Elena Ferrante
Title: The Story of a New Name
Translated by Ann Goldstein
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781922147684
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Availability

Fishpond:The Story of a New Name
Or direct from Text Publishing,


Responses

  1. I also read The Story of a New Name this past month and loved it. I finished My Brilliant Friend only a couple months ago, although it had sat on my tbr shelf for quite some time.

    Yes, I am so looking forward to the third book!

    • I’m going to hunt out her other novels too…

  2. Yep, a wonderful book (two wonderful books!). Interesting to see that Text brought them both out this year – not too long after they appeared elsewhere through Europa Editions. Hopefully, Text is going to continue with a focus on translated lit…

    • I think Text have brought out quite a few: I’ve reviewed Let the Games Begin, by Niccolo Ammaniti, The Last of the Vostyachs and New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani, Lenin’s Kisses, by Yan Lianke, The Corpse Walker, by Liao Yiwu and there must be others that I haven’t picked up on.
      I’m about to start God’s Dog too…

      • What I mean is that in the past those books have come out long after the UK editions while with this one and ‘God’s Dog’, they appear to be (almost) up to date. That’s something that needs to happen if they are to attract people to their editions.

        • I think Text probably know that many people will buy cheaper overseas editions online; they would be looking to supply domestic bricks-and-mortar bookshops where the immediacy of publication is probably not so critical?

  3. text have been bring out some interesting books last few years ,it seems every time I here one on abc it is from them ,I’m looking forward to this one loads ,all the best stu

    • Text is one of our best publishing houses:)


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