“Elena Ferrante” is what James Wood called her. Apparently we don’t know if it’s a real name or a real person or what. I don’t much care.
Ferrante is the author of a bunch of novels, including the lauded Neapolitan series, which catalogues the lives, from childhood, of two friends from an impoverished corner of Naples starting in the 1950s and progressing through their adulthoods.
Ok. I’m into it. I listened to My Brilliant Friend over a couple of days off, cleaning and running on the treadmill in the workout room of my apartment building in between the two garage modules. I love audiobooks, since I’ve realized that I’m an incredibly slow reader because I basically read everything out loud to myself, in my head, and pretty much can’t process anything non-aural. I continually despaired at my inability to finish books, from childhood onward, until I discovered that you could have people read them to you, while you did mundane shit like wash dishes and shop for groceries and walk to work and back. Things that don’t really need your full attention, and that would otherwise be occupied with your obsessive negative thoughts, anyway! Since this realization, I’ve finished a whole bunch of books that I’d have otherwise thought too long or boring to consider. Just ASK me about the Plantagenets! Somehow, just having someone keep going with the story, no matter what random thoughts also pop in to visit, is an amazing help. Go figure.
I’m five hours into The Story of a New Name, and though I repeatedly think, whenever I have to stop Hilary Huber’s electrifying voice in my ears to go to work or have a conversation, I can’t help thinking that the book is a bit soap-opera-y, a bit tawdry, though shot through with existential insights, and above all, profoundly “female,” which is something I can hardly stop thinking about since as my brother is the owner of the audiobook account I use and he recently told me he was listening to volume 1.
“Female” is something I have always struggled with. Not so much in theory as in practice. A militant feminist I have always been, since the elementary school days of soccer league boys doubting my goal-keeping abilities getting a swift kick from behind to reassure them of my strength and awareness. A trouble-maker. Yet, as I’ve written embarrassingly in the past (no link provided, it’s too embarrassing) the nuts and bolts of being female–moods, periods, anatomy, etc.–have always made me cringe, as if to acknowledge these things was to acquiesce to being less-than, susceptible to the kind of criticism I railed against. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a product of my mother being raised among boys, and being taught that in order to keep up, you conform. Any hint of sensitivity or vulnerability is hidden, is joked about.
Recently I’ve made an effort to become more at ease with my gory female reality, and not unsuccessfully. I no longer blush when my coworkers talk about being on the rag. It’s a work in progress.
Still, imagining my BIG brother, the one who vetted my musical taste since I was eight and continually told me in college to “get those humanities requirements out of the way and get to some hard science,” listening to Lenu and Lila’s minute tribulations in love and poverty was a stretch. It might be good for him, now that he’s the father of two small girls, but still, it was hard to imagine him getting into it. Yet to be resolved.
Something that strikes me about the books is how much they make me think about Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye in particular, just for the subject matter, but other works, as well. Even the masculine-centric Song of Solomon, with its magic and lore and hard, hard reality, anticipates a lot of Ferrante’s themes. Of class, caste, what you can rise above and what you can never shake. Of speaking different languages for different people in one’s life. Maybe I should finally get around to reading Beloved instead of just perpetually referring back to the Oprah movie.
Regardless. I like these books. Even more than I liked Downton Abbey before it used up all its plots. Yay, books! I hope everyone on my bro’s audiobook account hears them.