Tag Archives: Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante

After resisting Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan books for so long, I finally read the first – My Brilliant Friend – for an upcoming book club discussion. As with the Hunger Games series, after reading the first book, I skipped to the last, interested more in how the characters lives were resolved than how they got there.

It’s no spoiler to state one of the two women who drives Ferrante’s first book disappears, nor to note the other is writing about their lives; this begins  My Brilliant Friend – before backtracking to their lives as young girls who become best friends in Naples. With a cast of characters who all live in the neighborhood, the first book curiously ends either as a cliffhanger for the next book or as a despondant resolution for women of that era – depending on whether you see the book as a soap opera tale or a feminist cautionary note.

The last book – The Story of the Lost Child – on the shortlist for the 2016 International Man Booker prize, offers more introspection and additional wry skepticism of how intelligent women fare in the world, but it’s ending and that of the series, reawakened my interest in the author’s identity. Not so much who she is but how she could manage to hide who she is so well.

I had agreed with her statement in an earlier interview about a book being received based on its own merit, regardless of the author’s background, training, or education – an anomoly in today’s literature where the author’s credentials often drive the interest in the book. But I was reminded of a comment by Jerry Seinfeld, the famous comedian, who said people would come to see him because of his name but would leave after ten minutes if he did not deliver funny lines. Ferrante delivers with her story of a complicated friendship, with her commentary on the effects of politics, social norms, traditions and expectations, and with the flowing language evident despite the translation from Italian.

But why hide? Suddenly, I remembered the conceit in Stockett’s book “The Help.” An incident (contents of the pie) known to be true could never be acknowledged without revealing the embarrassment of the receiver. If fiction follows truth, would the real Lila who had threatened to erase her friend’s hard drive if she ever dared to reveal their lives, ever acknowledge knowing the author? If the author’s identity was revealed, an immediate pursuit of her background would follow, with speculation on others in the book. Authors often say their characters are fictional amalgams of many – but not always.

On the other hand, the solution could be simpler. The real friend is really dead and cannot speak out – or better yet, the story is entirely fiction – a clever vehicle for the author to make statements about the plight of women. I like the last conjecture the best.

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Elena Ferrante’s The Beach at Night

9781609453701_p0_v1_s192x300  Elena Ferrante’s children’s book The Beach at Night has magic, danger, and adventure, with scary episodes and somewhat raunchy language not usually found in a children’s book. Never fear, the story does have a happy ending.  Best known for her anonymity and her Neopolitan novel series, Ferrante weaves a simple but dark story, reminiscent of the original Grimm fairy tales, about a doll left behind at the beach.

When her father presents the little girl with a cat named Minu, the little doll finds herself abandoned and forgotten.  She is tortured by a mean beach attendant and his rake as they scavenge the night beach for bits of treasure left behind.  Although the main villain is the snarly Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset, the Rake, Fire, and Waves from the Ocean are personified and join in, as the poor doll tries to hang on.

Although the book is listed for children, the illustrations reminded me of Tim Burton caricatures – whimsically scary.  The subtexts of mother-daughter relationships, as well as the horrors of a deserted beach and the stealing of words out one’s mouth, seem targeted more for an adult audience. Adults, especially fans of Ferrante will enjoy the book, but beware – read it yourself first to decide if you want to share it with your young ones.

Children’s Books by Weighty Authors

After reading Alexandra Alter’s front page article for the Sunday New York Times – “Masters of Prose, Warming Up to Picture Books” – I thought about authors who have managed both adult and children’s books successfully.

Roald Dahl, famous for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and whose children’s book The BFG  (big friendly giant) is coming out in film soon, first attracted me with his short stories about World War II (Dahl was a fighter pilot in the war) with their eerie endings.  Dahl’s “Beware of the Dog ” is one of my favorites – you can read it here.

Alter’s article mentions famous authors crossing over into writing children’s books, including Jane Smiley, Calvin Trillin, and Elena Ferrante. James Joyce, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, and James Baldwin are also mentioned. I’m looking forward to reading Trillin’s funny book of poetry for children and the elusive Ferrante’s scary book.

Here is a list of the titles:

James Baldwin’s Little Man Little Man

Elena Ferrante’s The Beach at Night BN-ND310_FERRAN_DV_20160317134312

James Joyce’s The Cat and the Devil

Jane Smiley’s Twenty Yawns

NoFair-NoFair-coverCalvin Trillin’s No Fair No Fair  with illustrations by Roz Chast)

John Updike’s A Child’s Calendar

Kurt Vonnegut’s Sun Moon Star

And did you know Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the story of a magical car made famous by Disney, was written by Ian Fleming – the creator of James Bond stories?

Books in Translation

With the recent announcement of the Man Booker International Award shortlist for books in translation, I recalled some of my favorite books that had me grateful for the translator.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s  memoir In Other Words is an inspiration to learn to read (and write) in another language – but I’m not there yet. 

My favorite translated author, Carlos Ruiz Zafón has led me through many satisfying 9780316044714_p0_v2_s192x300quests from The Shadow of the Wind to Prisoner of Heaven.  I looked for the cemetery of lost books when I toured Barcelona.  A new adventure  – Marina – the novel Carlos Ruiz  Zafón wrote just before The Shadow of the Wind, is now available in its English translation – and I eagerly anticipate the thrills.

Haruki Murakami’s absurdist books can be difficult to follow at times, but the unresolved ending of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage still haunts me.

The Man Booker International Prize 2016 will be awarded in May.  Their shortlist includes two I have on my to-read list: 

  • 9781609452865_p0_v4_s192x300Elena Ferrante’s  The Story of the Lost Child (the last of the four book series by the elusive Italian author).  I may start with My Brilliant Friend and proceed in a binge reading fury. If you have read them, advise me – do I need to read all four or can I skip to the award winner?
  • Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in Their Mind by the Turkish winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. I meant to read his Museum of Innocence – maybe I’ll start there.   Have you read it?

 

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Anonymous Writers – Downton Abbey and Elena Ferrante

As Downton Abbey fades from the screen, the Dowager’s butler,  Septimus Spratt, lingers in my mind.  Seattle Times writer Moira Macdonald  suggested “crafting a proposal for a  series in which he runs off with Harriet Walter’s delightfully crackly-voiced Lady Shackleton (aunt of Henry Talbot, Lady Mary’s new husband)…”  Faithful viewers would watch any spinoff. Unknown-1   Unknown

Spratt’s anonymity as a writer for Lady Edith’s magazine has me wondering about other anonymous authors.  Who lurks among us, observing and noting incidents worthy of fiction?  Elena Ferrante, the Italian author of the four series novels, beginning with My Brilliant Friend, has successfully eluded exposure.  Recent speculation has the anonymous author as a college professor. Rachel Donadio wrote for the New York Times:

“Published between 2010 and 2014, Ms. Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels — “My Brilliant Friend,” “The Story of a New Name,” “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” and “The Story of the Lost Child” — have rocketed the novelist from near obscurity to international fame since the first appeared in English translation in 2012… the novels trace the friendship of two women, Elena and Lila, from their childhoods amid the poverty of postwar Naples through the political and social changes that swept Italy in the ’60s and ’70s, to the present day. In “The Story of a New Name,” Elena, who is the books’ narrator and becomes an accomplished writer, studies at Pisa from 1963 to 1967. In a dramatic scene, she throws some enviably strong youthful writings by Lila, who does not fulfill her own writerly talent, off the Solferino Bridge in Pisa into the Arno one November.”

9781609451349_p0_v2_s192x300The last line describing throwing writing into the sea prompted me to find the book.  I am reading The Story of a New Name, looking for clues about the author, but I understand the freedom of writing without exposure, so I am not looking very hard.

Beware of writers – they use everything you tell them…eventually.