“…I had made the whole journey mainly to show her what she had lost and what I had won. But she had known from the moment I appeared, and now, risking tensions with her workmates, and fines, she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.”
– The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante
I was on the fence with the first book in this series, but now I’m sold. The Story of a New Name is riveting, gorgeous, forceful, and rare. The main characters, Lila and Lena, switch roles. Shy envious Lena makes bold, passionate moves, and clever fearless Lila finds out what self-doubt and insecurity are. Parts of this series remind me of Isabel Allende’s work, in that they are always on the verge of being political but toss politics out the window repeatedly for the story of individuals- one person hurts another or helps another- these are the acts that actually make up the world, and all reform is rooted in them.
The story is dark and violent at times, but unerringly honest in its portrayal of urban poverty, womanhood, and the perils and small joys of the relationships we form with other people. Much of it concerns Lila’s early marriage, contracted at the end of the first volume. Lena, the narrator, continues to rise in the academic world as an escape from the brutality of her youth, but doubts the veracity and vitality of that world every time she encounters Lila. The two are fighting or distant for most of the book, but Lena is still unable to extricate herself from Lila’s (sometimes insidious, sometimes salvatory) influence.
I came away from this volume with a lot more respect for Lena than I had after the first novel, perhaps because she finally experiences and processes suffering instead of fleeing it. People have talked a lot about the amount of anger in these stories, but they are full of all types of passion. This is refreshing- emotion is so repressed and subtle in English/American culture and literature (especially in upper class, well-educated society) that we have ceased to notice its absence, but here it is impossible to miss. Even Lena notices it- when she returns from the polite, cerebral world of her school, she both bewails and longs for the visceral world of pure experience that Lila seems to belong to.
This book is intensely readable, but but must be read in small doses to fully take in the the huge amounts of meaning and conjecture that accompany each episode. It requires work and concentration to read, yet it is never drudgery. There is very little to compare it to in the literary world- I mentioned Allende, and yet her supporting casts tend to be flat tropes, while Ferrante’s many side characters are alive from every angle.
Ferrante has taken literature to a new place. The Story of a New Name is a masterpiece.