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.
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .