Sunday, January 18, 2015

Elena Ferrante's Extraordinary Neapolitan Novels

If you haven't heard or read people raving about these brilliant Italian novels then you're either living on the moon or a complete moron - shame on you!

First published in their Italian versions in 2012 and 2013, and well-translated and published in English a year later, these three are part of a four book series to be completed in 2015.

Belonging to the genre of confessional fiction - part autobiography, part fiction - Ferrante tells the story of the intense friendship between Lila and Elena as they grow up in a poverty stricken neighbourhood in Naples mid last century and develop into strong, fiercely independent women confronting the challenges of love, sex, bad marriages, children, work, frustration, exploitation and desperation.      

It's a relationship exquisitely dissected with surgical precision. But there's so much more to the story than this. The setting is Naples but it could be any provincial Italian town or neighbourhood. The men, the parents, the powerful families and their businesses, the limited job opportunities and abusive workplace conditions, the schools and teachers, the ambitions and aspirations, the ignorance, the stunted lives, the vulgarity, the emergence of the middle class, the destructive power of love and passion. It's all there and more, and the story is beautifully told. And as it unfolds it becomes more and more encompassing, fascinating and thoroughly absorbing. 

It's the drama of our post-war development. It's a story of political and social development, ugly domestic violence, poverty, power, unions, class division, privilege, influence, sexism, abuse. Friendships are riven by the passionate tapestry of Italian politics: the Christian Democrats, the Communists, the Fascists, the youthful rebellion of the 1960's and terrorism. Running through all this are the personal narratives: the confronting relationships, the lovers, the marriages, and importantly the underlying drama of Nino - his beauty, intelligence and sexual attraction: 'the swift, brilliant, even cruel aggressions of Nino Sarratore, my schoolmate, my friend, born in the neighbourhood, like me.'

This is a rich, hard nosed, critical, unsentimental, unforgiving, relentless, dynamic and frequently savage story of ordinary but proud people in a proud and passionate country desperately searching for a way forward or a way out. 

I can't wait for the final book in the series.

(Dear publisher: These books have been copy-edited by a comma-illiterate editor: the run-on commas in virtually every second sentence of the first book are annoying. The second and third volumes are not so bad).

The covers are uninspiring too. The same female model is used for all three books and the reader has no way of knowing whether it's meant to be Lina or Elena. And it matters because their physical appearance is frequently described throughout the series. It all could have been done much better.) 

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