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Il Figlia oscura as translated by Ann Goldstein (a rare pleasing cover for women)


Jessie Buckley as the young Leda Carusa in the film by Maggie Gyllenhaal

Friends and readers,

The writer (or writers) of the novels who uses the pseudonym Elena Ferrante has become a more complicated person (or two persons) and her books better or more widely appreciated since last I wrote about her and them. I’ve come to some conclusions about the people, the books, their translator, and the now at least five film adaptations made. I think it important to know the true author, context, and helps to have films meant to convey a book in trying to understand, and enjoy that book. I laid out the choices of author and stances we are presented with in the author controversy when I reviewed the first novel of The Neapolitan Quartet, My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale). I’ve finished the Neapolitan Quartet, read and re-read a couple of the novellas, and then a couple of good books of criticism: The Ferrante Letters by five women authors, and In Search of Elena Ferrante by Karen Bojar as well as the obfuscating hostile statistical essays on the books as a scam by Domenico Starnone (Anita Raja’s husband, also a novelist).

What decided me the author, the person who wrote all the material in Italian is Anita Raja are her Italian translations of Christa Wolf, the famous brilliant German, whose novels and memoirs I’ve been reading over the past two to three months while reading chunks of Ferrante’s novels in the Italian.  First, Ann Goldstein is (to my mind) a misleading translator of Raja’s books: Goldstein (like many another recent commercial translator) has turned dense, difficult and ever so richly suggestive Italian prose (very long sentences) into the kind of modern simple-to-read lucid English publishers press translators of older and recent more difficult books to use. Literally it is hard to accuse Goldstein of inaccuracy, but as to the experience of these novels you are losing much that makes her one of the important women writers of the 21st century. I was chuffed when late in Bojar’s book she says how alike are the characters and a number of the plot-designs in the Neapolitan Quartet and Wolf’s Quest for Christa T; Raja’s Lila (Raffaelle Cerullo) is in type and meaning a recreation of Christa T. What’s more the Italian in both books is close in style, feel, sentence structure, and that indefinable thing called presence.

I also read Domenico Starnone’s Ties (Lacci) and, as Bojar claims, it reads like the male’s answer to Raja’s Days of Abandonment (see my review). I felt like I was meeting Nino, the cad-villain of the Neapolitan Quartet, whom both Lila and Lenu (Elena Greco) fall in love with, have babies by, who rises in life to high positions in academia, parliament (with a stint in jail that ultimately does him no harm). Here is this man who thinks so well of himself, and treats women so dismissively (whatever he might say of them when their lover). I could not compare style since the translator is Jhumpa Lahiri (who has left her husband and children and made herself over as a writer of Italian, living in Italy): Lahiri make a hard book, nothing like the flexible fluid style of Goldstein but as to outlook it is a contrast to Raja’s: Ties is a witty book, often sarcastic and ironic; it moves quickly and simply one story at a time; rearrangements of time are clarified; the author is guarded. All very unlike Raja. I am not at all convinced by the statistical studies’ walls of numbers; such studies when applied to Shakespeare have concluded 17-18 of his plays are collaborations, or not written by him at all. But I do think this “answer” to one of Raja’s books, and what I’ve read of his other books and life suggests he has had input: mostly his childhood in Naples, his male outlook. Neapolitan Quartet is so much more outward, and more in control, more mainstream, polished, less raw and openly vulnerable.

It’s my view that Ferrante ought to come out and protect her name and her work – the way George Eliot was forced to when a male claimed he had read it. Perhaps some of the denigration, the condescension, and sheer resentment would be controlled. She is in the unfortunate position of Anne Radcliffe, the later 18th century gothic writer who is today still ridiculed because she could not bear to acknowledge, much less answer her critics.

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Gaia Girace as Lila Carracci (nee Cerullo) in film by Staverio Costanza (among others, Elena Ferrante too)

To the last of The Neapolitan Quartet (Storia della bambina perduta) and Lost Daughter. The closeness in title is true to the content of the very long fourth book and the novella. All four of the novels (very mainstream with two central heroines who correspond to one another thematically) are one continued story (like Winston Graham’s Poldark books) and by the time we get to this fourth, there is so much to resolve, so many ongoing stories (see My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name [Storia della nuove cognome] and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay Away [Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta], that I can’t begin to cover them here (see supersummary and the New York Times review ).  What I’d like to dwell on is the central event (though it comes about 2/3s of the way into the book) that determines the final outcome of Lila’s life: her daughter is kidnapped from her, probably murdered at the behest of the Solares. On “an ordinary Sunday” she and Enzo and Lenu and (for just that day) Pietro are cavorting outside, and they suddenly realize Tina has gone missing.

The disappearance of Tina ruins the rest of Lila’s life. She just never gets over it, partly because despite her many successes in business (making money selling, conquering digital techniques) and her finding a real man worthy of love, Enzo; despite all this, I say, in comparison to all Lenu or Elena achieved (the education, the book writing, the belonging to more upper class and therefore interesting, enlightened, enjoyable worlds), Lila has been defeated. She was turning to her children’s futures vicariously. Her son, after all by Stephano, Rino, is a deep disappointment to her: he could not escape his patriarchal brutal and anti-intellectual environment; and she poured her hope and dreams into Tina. At the same time that Lila gave birth (child by Enzo), so too Elena, truly pregnant by Nino (this cad they have both over-rated), has had a daughter, who comes to be called Imma (Elena’s mother’s name abbreviated). When Tina, Lila’s daughter is (presumably) kidnapped and killed, and enough time goes by that Lila realizes she will never have Tina back, Lila discards the business; and causes (by her angry behavior) her loving partnership with Enzo to break up.  There is only so much punishment Enzo can stand.  Lila estranges herself from everyone but what she finds in her computer and the library. It’s poignant to me how she turns back to the library (so have I, more than once), now to read and learn and write of Naples. Elena/Lenu does try to get Lila to produce a typescript that she, Elena, can edit and give to a publisher.  But Lila will or cannot conform enough.  How I felt for Lila.

Towards the end of Perduta Bambina, in another permutation of this mother-daughter paradigm, Elena finds herself caring for her mother in her mother’s old age, and forgiving her mother, her cruelty, denseness, jealousy of Elena (which but for Maestra Oliviero would have precluded Elena’s education ticket out of working class women’s lives).  We also see that part of the reason for Elena’s success as an author is her mother-in-law’s nurturing of her, a mother-as-mentor – a very ambivalent relationship.  Maestra Oliviero, the spinster elementary school teacher, is responsible for getting Elena’s parents to send her to junior high (this is a US term so I refer to its equivalent in Italy).  Prof Nadia Galiani encourages and introduces Elena to the right people; and lastly, Adele, Pietro’s mother mentors her and publishes Elena’s first novel.  In contrast, no one takes an interest in Lila once she is taken out of school at fifth grade (her father throws her out a window when she demands at age 10 to go); her mother, Nunzia means well but is very weak.  Nunzia dies off-stage.  This mother-daughter paradigm is central to all Ferrante’s work, while the friendship exploration remains almost unique to the four books, however thoroughly gone into — there are other women friends in these books, sister relationships.


Margherita Mazzucolena as Elena — when my daughter Izzy is in her usual skirts, with her glasses on she reminds me of this actress in this part and I am so proud of her

I found myself more than any of the other three identifying with Elena. This changed after I read Christa Wolf.  I finally after I had read Christa T: Christa T is Christa Wolf as open angry rebel, deeply alienated, hurt, striking out, and I can understand that and indirectly have acted that way myself (to the point of destruction of friendships), but the character who came closest to me is Elena. Consequently I got angry with her as I rarely do for characters. I could not understand how she could leave Pietro, a good man, supportive and economic support; yes he did not help her with her work, sabotaged it in part, with him she began to lead the dependent wife-life, but I felt that was forgivable as there was still room for her to go to a conference say, have a temporary liaison.


Jack Farthing (Warleggan in Poldark) as Gianni-Joe in Lost Daughter would also be perfect for Pietro in the Neapolitan Quartet

I found The Ferrante Letters so satisfying to read because all four authors (Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards) are open about this bonding; I had not come across this kind of talk about a woman’s book by women since reading Sheila Kaye-Smith and G. B. Stern’s Speaking of Jane Austen. There is not only such a thing as l’ecriture-femme, one of its signs is the woman reader gets into sincere earnest dialogue with the characters and reflects on central issues of her life.


Audible set of the four from the BBC

The end of the fourth book brings us right back to the beginning of the first; we return to the two small girls and their dolls; either Lila or someone else leaves one of the original dolls (or a facsimile) in Elena’s post box, a sign that Lila has not been murdered but chosen finally to find peace in retreat (rather like Mary, Lady Mason, in Trollope’s Orley Farm, which I am now engrossed by). The second book, Nuove Cognome, opens with Elena shockingly and beyond retrieval, throwing Lila’s hard-fought for box of diaries in the Arno, whence her writing of these four books. She acknowledges or believes that all her fiction writing comes out of Lila’s ideas, first child’s book, talk. I think the fourth is aesthetically the sloppiest and overlong. It meanders and repeats itself. It stops and starts — my feeling is Starnone was too much in it, making it too “normalized” with Ferrante struggling for ambiguity, circularity. I know I need to re-read all four and will discover so much more prepared for and anticipating what is to come and see so much more than the first time through. I am prepared to buy a full subscription for HBOMax when the third season of My Brilliant Friend finally comes to US TV.

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Movie Poster


Olivia Coleman as Leda Carusa now 48 at the end of the film (one of the best reviews I’ve come across of book & film by Kayti Burt)

The Lost Daughter is not a satisfactory translation of the Italian title: much closer is The Depressed or Saddened Daughter and it refers as much to Leda and her relationship with her crude unsatisfactory inarticulate mother (it reads like a precis for Elena and her mother). Leda is also identifying far more strongly with Nina, the beautiful young woman on the beach with the spoilt daughter, Elena (the name keeps coming back), whose doll it is that Leda takes away and plays with, abuses, dresses all summer. Nina (played by Dakota Johnson in the film) is headed for a frustrated life with a dense bully of a violent husband, watched over and controlled by the sister-in-law, Rosalia (actress not listed), who is ecstatic at having become pregnant after many years of marriage; Nina is too mindless, and has not begun to break away from a lying culture, so one might say she is a lost daughter too.

The book opening:

Leda is having, or in the middle of a car accident, as the book opens. She is exhausted, wearied (her teaching job is like that of a US adjunct, she never achieved any high appointment as did her husband from whom she is separated) and needs a break. To the hospital come friends, her two daughters, Bianca and Marta and even her husband, Gianni, whom they live with, and who, she says, was a wonderful tender father when he had time to pay attention to his daughters. He won their love far more easily than she has. She remembers as she decides to go to the shore (an Ionian beach, probably middle class, and for privacy), her mother working on her (through fear) to stay safe by issuing threats of how she’s going to get drowned if she goes too close to the water. At the close of the book as the film she comes near to drowning herself.

One there she sees this huge clan of a family, Neapolitan, they are part of the clan she has escaped from. She recognizes they are enjoying themselves, but also that they are godawful in their manners and the whole thing a powder keg waiting to erupt. They push other families to give them more room; she refuses she’s not quite sure why. They become hostile to her and when she leaves someone throws a hard thistle at her back, leaving a painful wound (it is also a plant which, for the superstitious, carries ill-wishes). Soon after she has made a habit of this morning “rest” (she brings papers and books), Elena goes missing; Leda finds her because she remembers the hat that Elena is wearing, her mother’s. Bu the child carries on whining (I find myself using this word for once) and vexing everyone because her doll has gone missing.
We learn in a last sentence of a section, Leda put said doll in her bag. She tells herself she’ll bring it back to the beach tomorrow, put it out there and it’ll be taken as found but she cannot get herself to give up this doll.

We then get a weaving of present time adventures with many memories. Here the book is much more successful because Gyllenhaal will not use voice-over and fears offending conventional women in the audience who have given up their lives to their children and now perpetually lie to themselves to make it seem a far happier and fulfilling choice than it ever can be.

Some of these memories:

An academic truly upper class woman named Lucilla (Dagmara Domińczyk in the film) visits and can cater to Leda’s daughters and win them over because unlike Leda, Lucilla doesn’t have to cope with them 24/7. “The woman did her enormous harm” Leda thinks now. Her children start to hit her and at first she doesn’t respond, then says stop it, and then hits them lightly but repeatedly. They do prey on her. They want her to be their doll, and I’m astonished at her that she permits this. They are jealous of one another and nag at her. At one point she becomes so over-wrought as she tries do her work, she puts Marta outside the room and then somehow the glass shatters in the door. Child not hurt, but the text quivers with her intensity of trauma and upset, she feels herself in continual crisis. But the woman also knew how to network and had connections and sent one of Leda’s papers to a Professor Hardy and at a conference, he praised her highly, got the paper published (of course they went to bed together). She remembers the difficulty of using opportunities at the university to work towards being considered for positions – how hard that is. Tell me about it. I never knew how. She wanted to act out rage but nowhere to act it.

Present time:

One day she actually tells the older pregnant woman, Rosaria about abandoning her children for 3 years. The woman of course is shocked. She actually longs to confide in Nina because she (mistakenly I feel) bonds with Nina and thinks Nina could be someone she could confide it. How wrong she is she discovers at the film’s end when Nina stabs her with the hat pin she bought for Elena. The older handyman, Gianni (Lyle in the film, Ed Harris) has come to visit and they discuss wives and husbands and their children. He offers to cook a fish he has caught; he is a good cook. He stays at first (she thinks) so he can lie to his friends about having sex. They end up confiding in one another about their relationships with their children, he boasts about how good his has been despite his early separation from his wife. He sees the doll, recognizes it, but chooses not to tell. Leda talks of how her own mother would disappear once in a while and scold the harder when she returned (this is a memory in the book transposed into this dramatic scene). In both book and film Leda tries to watch a movie one night and is made fun of by the young men who ridicule the film (one I couldn’t recognize, a sentimental one Towards the end of the story there is a dancing sequence with Nina dancing with her boor of a husband after having spent the afternoon having sex with him, and Leda, first Giovanni and then Gino (the young man who wants to go to bed with Nina and for whom Leda is ready to give up her room). It’s strange that Leda should see herself as in competition with this woman or even reach out to her –- it is so useless. But such is life.

The book returns us to the beach for her last day; she is warned that as she has produced the doll and given it back, she should get away as now the Neapolitan family will feel they have a right to have a grudge against her. The film has the near car accident that occurred at the opening of the book occur now, together with a near or acted-out suicide (to spite her mother who so threatened her not to go near the shore). In both she rolls back, and the very ending has her calling her daughters (or they call her) and we see the intense relief she experiences when they say they were worried about her. She is cheered, gladdened, and finds strength to sit there and gather herself together emotionally once more to return home to her apartment, probably in Turin — where Elena ends up, nowadays a center for Northern writers. Either way as in life nothing is resolved though much experience inwardly and some outwardly has been traversed, considered, perhaps understood better.


Naples, Old Neighborhood in My Brilliant Friend


The two girls as children reading Little Women together (same film)

Ellen

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