So has anyone been reading Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels? The literary world is nuts for them: See her coverage at The New Yorker
, The Paris Review
, and Vanity Fair
, among others.
I finished reading the first novel, My Brilliant Friend
, last week, and am about halfway through the second, The Story of a New Name
, right now. (I feel it says something about popularity that I waited like a month to get the first book from the library because of the wait-list, and I got the second in less than a week.) I'm enjoying them more than I expected, to be honest; despite starting in the mid-twentieth century, Ferrante's writing about an anxious, studious girl constantly grappling with poverty, class, and worst of all, adolescence
, really resonates with me. I enjoy the writing, too, but I also have to wonder about how much, stylistically, is the author vs. the English translator. The book is published by Europa, a publisher that specializes in European translations, and I've read a number of their books (Muriel Barbery is probably the best-known because of The Elegance of the Hedgehog
, but also Amelie Nothomb and Laurence Cosse) and they all sort of sound the same, and I'm not sure if this says something about a contemporary "European" style or if it's only the "house style" of the translators. (And I'm slightly tempted to try to get one of Ferrante's books in the original Italian just to see.)
The story is told memoir-style by an older woman, Lenu, whose friend Lila has disappeared, and then rewinds to tell the story from their childhood. I really like how it's as much about the darker aspects of female friendship as it is the glowy stuff; the girls envy one another: Lenu covets Lila's beauty and her take-no-shit attitude, Lila envies that Lenu gets to continue at school while she has to work (one thing I think is poorly done is they don't explain how the Italian lycee
system is different than American schools, eg. elementary school is the basic school for everyone, middle school is functionally high school in that graduating it is pretty important, and high school is much more like an American college where you specialize in certain subjects with some general ed. requirements), even though Lila is the one who, as a girl, would check out books at the library and learn voraciously (like, for instance, Greek). There's a brutal bit where Lila has to leave school, and basically their teacher refuses to talk to her or acknowledge her again because she was smart and didn't continue her studies, never mind how her family made her go to work full-time so they could make ends meet
. Lila ends up marrying an asshole she can't stand for money, Lenu basically has a breakdown partway through high school because of the pressures of balancing school, work, and taking care of her family. There's a beautiful, painful scene when one of Lenu's teachers starts giving her newspapers to read about the wider world (because the 1960s, because she can't afford them on her own) and she wants to cry because as far as she's concerned this is more homework she doesn't have time for. And in the meantime there are familial rivalries that flirt with gangland, there's pining for the cute and smart boy who barely knows you exist while dating the perfectly nice guy who can't talk books or writing with you, etc. And also, because of the language itself, there's anxiety about speaking
: Lenu often talks about speaking in dialect with her family and friends, and proper Italian in school and with her teachers, and how if she slips and uses proper Italian with her friends and family they get angry and resentful, and worrying what the teachers will think if they ever heard her speak dialect, etc. (And this resonates with me too because I grew up in the rural South, and I never spoke with the local accents because, functionally, I was raised by the tv, and that was a source of bullying. Ugh.)
ANYWAY. So I'm enjoying the books, I get why people like them, but what I'm curious about is why these
books in particular are being heralded as this amazing thing? Because you know who else writes about stuff like this. MAEVE BINCHY. Binchy, who writes (well, wrote; she died two years ago) about a changing Ireland and class issues and national issues (Ireland v. England) and religion, and domestic violence, and fucking divorce and abortion because those are/were huge issues there. Maeve Binchy with the bright paperbacks sold in grocery stores, sometimes on buy one, get one free tables, mass-market paperbacks that retail for like $7 vs. Ferrante's trade books that are like $18 a pop.
It should perhaps go without saying that Binchy's books were never reviewed by the prestigious journals above, nor was she interviewed by them, but I'm going to say it anyway because I just checked. I also looked at the NYT, who reviewed a couple of Binchy's books in the late 80s and early 90s (the last one reviewed was in 1995), and republished some of her Irish journalism in the late 60s and 70s, and a couple of book reviews by her in the late 80s and early 90s; there's also her obituary from 2012. I'm not sure what happened in the mid-90s for her to disappear so, though I suspect it was a couple of things: 1) The popularity of Circle of Friends
which probably pigeon-holed that whole "women's fiction" thing (and probably also the dismal film of it, which surely didn't help with the change of ending); 2) the ever-widening prestige gap between popular genre and literary fiction, which was always there but I feel really hit new high (low?) points in the late 90s/2000s (Remember how people got so upset about Harry Potter being on the best-sellers lists that the NYT actually started a CHILDREN'S AND YA list so that grown-up reading wouldn't be sullied?); and possibly 3) shifting values in book review sections in the NYT generally, and more largely because in the late 90s/early 2000s a lot of papers eliminated them altogether or cut their pages so that space had to go towards "important" stuff.
(It now occurs to me that a study of linking at reviews and how they changed during these periods would be ~fascinating.~)
Anyway, so there are these shifting grounds of popular and literary reading, and women writers almost always get stuck in those bogs. Because Ferrante appears in translation she automatically has a higher prestige value, just because the translation market here is so tiny. Binchy wrote in English, albeit in Ireland, so the language/translation issue was never a thing, but she was always a best-seller in the Anglo-American market. She's even had a number of books come out posthumously, including In Her Own Words
which was a collections of her journalism and nonfiction I quite enjoyed. Binchy was also profoundly prolific; some thirty books of fiction, several plays, her regular columns. In contrast, Ferrante has published nine books since 1992, although she has also landed on TIME's Most Influential People List. There's also the mystery of Ferrante; the name is a psuedonym, and there are theories about who she (if she) may be but no solid conclusions.
I don't have any conclusions; I'm just struck by how women writers, especially popular
women writers, tend to get dismissed, and this isn't the case here. And I'm not sure why.