Monica Carter curates Salonica World Lit. She is a writer and reviewer. Her most recent critical piece appeared in World Literature Today (September 2013). She is also a reader for Tin House Magazine.
There is something about Elena Ferrante as a writer that is difficult to ignore. She never misses a beat. Her novels, as varied as they are, don’t waver; they are consistently thoughtful, provocative, smothering and honest. This novel was my personal pick to be put on the longlist. She has been brilliant for so long and deserves the Oscar. Her brilliance isn’t limited to her mechanics, her finesse or her creativity as a writer, but it’s her willingness to continually address the psychological machinations of women who have very unfeminine feelings.
The Story of a New Name is the second installment in the Neapolitan novels, which follows the lifelong friendship of Lila and Elena. This topic of female friendship may seem prosaic and even fertile ground for melodrama, but Ferrante is too gifted and too smart to reduce her own psychological observations to dramatic extremes. Instead she mines the emotional gamut of friendship through success, poverty, betrayal, abuse, and resignation.
Although Ferrante repeatedly takes on “issues that women have,” they are the verboten. Mothers who don’t like their children in The Lost Daughter, the manifesto against domesticity by a wife spurned in The Days of Abandonment, and the jealousy the exists between friends who both want to succeed albeit in different ways in The Story of a New Name. The Story of a New Name is a departure from her previous novels in that it is much longer and involves a multitude of characters that intersect, overlap and weave seamlessly in and out of the narrative.
Most importantly though, it examines the role of femininity, how it represses, constricts, judges and becomes currency. Even though the novel is set during the 1950s and 1960s in Italy, the issues Ferrante confronts are just as polemic and endemic as they were then. Just as I cringe when I see a Miley Cyrus licking a foam finger, Elena feels and expresses aptly when she accompanies her recently married sixteen-year-old friend, Lila, on a return to her old neighborhood:
Walking next to her I felt embarrassment and also a sense of danger. It seemed to me that she was risking not only gossip but ridicule, and that both reflected on me, a sort of colorless but loyal puppy who serves as her escort. Everything about her—the hair, the earrings, the close-fitting blouse, the tight skirt, the way she walked—was unsuitable for the gray streets of the neighborhood. Male gazes, at the sight of her, seemed to start, as if offended. The women, especially the old ones, didn’t limit themselves to bewildered expressions: some stopped on the edge of the sidewalk and stood watching her, with a laugh that was both amused and uneasy…
What’s even more impressive is that Ann Goldstein, whom has translated her last four works, deftly renders the intimate, nuanced and complex nature of Ferrante’s prose. (P.S. Europa, could you give credit to the translator on the cover of the novel? Just asking.) Fellow judge, Elizabeth Harris, gave me a quick translation of a page or so of the original Ferrante and Goldstein handles it so well, that it’s difficult to ignore her role in making Ferrante as potent as she is in Italian as in English.
Ferrante and Goldstein deserve to win this award not only because of the quality of The Story of a New Name but because of the quality of every work they have put out. Because they are committed to exhausting every possibility that language can communicate to best state what is closest to the truth of each character. Ferrante does this over and over again with excellence and precision. It’s not just a woman thing, it’s a great literature thing.
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .
There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .
In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .
I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .