The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Picking up almost immediately from where the first novel of Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy concluded, The Story of a New Name traces the lives of Elena and her friend Lila from ages 16 to 23. Superficially they are on utterly disparate trajectories. Lila, married at 16, undergoes humiliation after humiliation, beatings and abuse from her husband, scurrilous gossip and innuendo from relatives and neighbours, and financial ruin. A brief summer of adulterous love spirals out of control and leaves Lila with an infant son, no husband, no lover, and, ultimately a need to re-establish her name as Cerullo, scrubbing away the years she has had to endure as Signora Carracci. By contrast, Elena goes from one academic triumph to the next, obtaining both her high school diploma, and, after gaining a scholarship to the university in Pisa, eventually her university diploma as well. To top it off she writes a much-praised short novel that is published not long after she finishes at the university. But we would be wrong to think that Elena and Lila’s lives are any less entangled than they were in their first youth. The ‘Elena Greco’ on the cover of her novel is as much a constructed name and identity for Elena as the, now, ‘Signora Cerullo’ is for Lila.

I couldn’t help thinking of the relationship between Elena and Lila as comparable to an elaborate dance. Ferrante has structured their lives in such an intricate formal pattern (even their sexual relations are matched), yet the wonder is that the novel never once becomes forced or contrived. Each step in the dance seems both compelled and entirely free. It is so well done that it can take your breath away.

Ferrante’s writing matches her two protagonists. At times it becomes almost formal and argumentative, as when the increasingly educated Elena tries to think through her emotional confusion. At other times it soars with near poetic and existential angst. And yet again it can be as basic as the most basic functions of life in the poorer neighbourhoods of Naples. Riveting. The only disappointment is that I will now have to wait impatiently for the final volume to appear. Highly recommended.

See also

Canada by Richard Ford

Is a man born a bank robber? Is he born a murderer? And if not, at what point does he become a bank robber or a murderer, such that in describing him we might, rightly, note that his bank robbery or the murders he commits were there in him all along? That transition, the border between what might be and what is, fascinates the narrator of Canada as he looks back over 50 years to his life as a fifteen year old boy in Great Falls, Montana. Dell and his twin sister Berner are the children of Neeva and Bev Parsons, who, in the course of a very few days transform themselves from ineffectual parents to ineffectual bank robbers. Dell struggles to see where or when precisely the transformation took place. It is almost a metaphysical transformation, something abstract, yet with real consequences. Those consequences include further transformations for Dell and Berner and their flight from Great Falls – west for Berner on her own, and north to Canada for Dell where he will learn that having bank robbers as parents is not the worst thing that can (and does) happen to him.

Ford’s writing here is lean and awkward, like the boy in whose voice he recounts these events. Only later, when we realize that Dell is really narrating his story from his vantage point as a 65-year-old high school English teacher, do we begin to appreciate how subtle Ford’s narrative has been. In the first third of the novel Dell sounds like a stilted, backward, child, almost implausibly naïve. When does he himself transform into the man he will become? Is it when he crosses the practically non-existent border into Canada (these events take place in 1960)? Or does it take something more, something definite? At one point a character tells Dell, “Doing things for the right reasons is the key to Canada.” And that might be our cue. It is actions themselves that make things what they are. We see this in Dell’s fascination with the game of chess, whose rules he has studied and stratagems imaginatively exploited, but which he never gets to play. But it is in the playing, one move following another, that a game becomes what it is.

Canada draws deep on Ford’s Montana stories (e.g. Rock Springs) and in so doing sets a markedly different tone to his Frank Bascombe novels. Thoughtful and deliberate here, as against frenetically immediate there, one can only admire Ford’s range and mastery. I think this is a novel that bears rereading and that it will become more significant on each pass. And on that basis, I recommend it.

Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

Sometimes the characters a writer pursues take on a seeming life of their own, wresting control of a tale from the hand that holds the pen. In Alone in the Classroom, the narrator, Anne, sets out to write about her mother but gets diverted into the lives of her father’s older sister, Connie, an unsettling sexual predator named Parley, a traumatized dyslexic boy named Michael, and the disturbing events that tie them together over the course of more than sixty years. Anne’s mother still appears but she has become a minor character, and ultimately what sets out as biography reveals itself as autobiography. Or maybe that is always the case in some respect. And, if so, does it have its analog in fiction? Has Elizabeth Hay, herself, suffered the same befuddling as her narrator? Certainly the results here appear jumbled, moving forward (or back) in fits and starts. What appears to be the centre of the story collapses or suddenly shifts out of sight. As the details begin to emerge, connections between characters become clearer but their significance is obscured. And what you are left with is the muddled mess of lives lived. Only a writer with the expressive power and observational talent of a fine poet could turn such a muddle into a compelling narrative. A writer like Elizabeth Hay.

The story turns on the relationship between Connie, who is 18 in her first teaching post in a small town in Saskatchewan, her sadistic and frighteningly self-absorbed school principal, Parley, and the severely dyslexic (at the time dyslexia is not a recognized condition) student, Michael, who is, in Connie’s eyes, clearly intelligent and sensitive. Both in this initial encounter and when Connie crosses paths with Parley again eight years later, Connie’s strength and Parley’s weakness are revealed. But the tripartite construction continues to re-emerge again and again, in different forms and often with different participants. What does it all mean? For Anne, the narrator imposing narrative order on disordered lives, its significance is rich. But Anne’s need for order is just a further hue for Hay’s palette, so the meaning for the reader remains open.

Writing that so faithfully brings its characters to life, escaping the simplifying tendency of art will, I think, naturally be at times confusing. At least I was confused at times. Certainly this writing forces the reader to slow down, to work things out, to make connections, even to reread sections. (I wanted to reread the book from the start numerous times as I went along, realizing that I had missed vital aspects on my first pass.) It’s like the difference between reading a longhand letter from a dear friend and a scrabbled email; the former gives you pause, gladly. Elizabeth Hay’s writing gives me pause. Highly recommended.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

A novel that deserves and demands the full attention of the reader, it is hardly surprising that To the Lighthouse might be described as a novel of and about attention. As the narration flits between Mrs Ramsay and her husband, their eight children, and their numerous guests all gathered at the Ramsay summer house on a Hebridean island, one thought leads to another, one observation spills into the next, one emotion peaks and subsides as another peaks and subsides like the waves endlessly rolling in upon the shore. And then there is the question of lighthouse on a crag of rock across the bay, whose light pierces the summer house and its inhabitants, ceaselessly. Will James, the youngest Ramsay, be taken to the lighthouse the following day?

If Mrs Dalloway is the quintessential stream-of-consciousness novel, then Woolf’s next novel, To the Lighthouse, must surely be the start of something new, something even more intense, more challenging. Attention, or perhaps perception would be a better term, or even, as Lily Briscoe terms it “vision”, is the challenge. For it seems clear that it is almost impossible to really see someone, anyone. Even Mrs Ramsay, who is as much the centre of all that is as anyone could be, even for her, Lily thinks, it would take at least fifty pairs of eyes. And yet, the wonder of it is, that for some—the poet Augustus Carmichael, the painter Lily Briscoe, even the still beautiful wife and mother, Mrs Ramsay—the thing itself can be achieved. And it is an achievement when it comes. Even though it may disappear as quickly as it came.

If you are willing to engage with this novel fully, if you can focus your attention sufficiently (don’t be surprised if you find you need to read it in small chunks), if you let the consciousness of the novel guide you as it sparkles across the minds of those characters arrayed before you, then this novel will repay your effort manifold. If not, then set it aside for a few years and try again later. It’s worth it. Highly recommended.

Women with Men by Richard Ford

The three lengthy short stories in this collection have all the hallmarks of Ford’s early brilliance as well as his middle period introspective anxiety. His writing is never less than compelling, at times thought provoking, and at others unsettling. He has a remarkable ability to turn a story on a dime, either through external events or through misplaced introspection. Yet these shifts never seem extraordinary once they have occurred. The reader just accepts them, possibly even saying to themselves, “that’s what I was expecting all along.” And then another shift takes you off in a different direction.

“Jealous” is set in Montana and feels like an extension of the stories in Ford’s first collection, Rock Springs. The bleak landscape, lives lived on the edge—the edge of despair, alcoholism, and violence—family disruption, and the transition to manhood. It’s all there. Here the narrator, a boy of 17, is a touchstone for the other characters—his father, his aunt, his absent mother. Both a means to highlight their stories and their sadness, and to reflect that back onto the vast emptiness of the prairie.

Depending on the Ford you prefer, “The Womanizer” may appeal more. Here is the Ford of the Frank Bascombe trilogy. In this case, the protagonist is a man in Paris for a few days. He is intelligent, in his way. He is worldly, unafraid to partake of opportunities that arise before him. And he is introspective. Incessantly. Argumentatively. And without any clear grip on reality. It is an enthralling effect. A bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion. And unsettling as well, since introspection is more typically associated (from Socrates to Descartes) with rational thought and behaviour. Here, not so much.

The final story in the collection, “Occidentals”, feels transitional. Again we are in Paris. Again we have the hyper-introspective male protagonist. Again we are on the cusp of something, some kind of transition perhaps heralded by the couple’s hotel being located on the border of a cemetery. And Paris, or at least Ford’s imagined American Paris fully mediated by his character’s encounters with it through literature (the protagonist is a novelist who recently had been a literature professor), is significant. Perhaps Paris plays the role that Canada played in Ford’s Montana stories—a far-off imaginary space (even if you are a tourist in it) where much is possible.

These stories will, I think, captivate any reader interested in how Richard Ford handles the longer short story form. Recommended.