Recently I finished reading the Neapolitan Novels. Have you read this series of four books by Elena Ferrante? It’s about the friendship of two Italian girls, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, from their childhood in working class Naples beginning in the 1950’s and ending five decades later. In addition to following Elena and Lila, and their families and friends, the backstory is one of the evolution of crime and politics in gritty Naples and the rest of Italy through the decades. The books in the series are entitled: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of A New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child.
They say that all nonfiction is fiction and all fiction is nonfiction. I believe that’s true. I think that faulty memory involved in telling a non-fiction story can impact the ironclad truth of the tale. Or if no observers or first hand participants are available to lend their first person memories and perspectives to the story, certain aspects such as conversations or ruminations may have to be reconstructed to the best of an author’s ability. This brings an element of fiction to a “true” story. On the other hand in the case of fiction, the author will often use aspects of their real life experiences, introducing reality to enhance the veracity of the story. And as I read this series, I wondered if Elena Greco was really Elena Ferrante in whole or in part. Was it memoir or was it historical fiction?
As I was reading the actual books, though, I began to see articles in many publications about the author, and the actual identity of Elena Ferrante. Is “Elena Ferrante” a pen name of the translator of these books, is the translator the actual author of these stories, as described in a New Yorker article (“The “Unmasking” of Elena Ferrante”)? Or is it someone else? It does appear that the author has taken great pains to remain anonymous. He or she will periodically do an interview via email or issue a statement though the publishing house, but not in person. Whoever writes books under the name Elena Ferrante, I believe that person did a terrific job, capturing well the Italian family dynamics – both the working class families of Lila and Elena’s neighborhood and the more upper-crust family into which Elena marries. This is made all the more impressive since one of the theories about the identity is that the writer is not Italian at all, but may be married to someone from Naples. Was this story written by a man? I don’t know if we know the definitive answer.
The characters and the ebb and flow of the friendship between Lila and Elena are also well drawn and the story is insightful and very well represents the chaos and violence of their early and later lives, I thought. It also depicts the Italian working class culture well. What I found somewhat tedious was the author’s (translator’s?) penchant for writing paragraph-long sentences and some repitition and duplication through the volumes that I thought, while somewhat needed given the scope of the story, was a bit overdone. Charming and somewhat endearing for me is the awkwardness of some of the translations from Italian to English.
The reason I even started reading the series is that I have been stuck in the writing of the true story of my mother in law as a World War II war bride from Italy and her subsequent life here in America. I started writing the story in mid 2014 and eventually put it down in 2015 after growing frustrated with my portrayal of the very young Italian girl who became the bride, came to America and following her through the decades. I vastly synopsized her story for her birthday edition of my blog two weeks ago. Several friends recommended the Neapolitan Novels to me and thought it might help me burst through the writers’ block.
There are similarities between my own personal story, the War bride story and the Neapolitan story. First of all, Elena Greco’s lifespan and ethnicity are in lockstep with my own so I found it easy to identify with the Italian culture and high emotion of family, even though I was living it in the United States and she was living in Italy. We are members of the same age cohort so we questioned together the truths as the young did in the sixties and embraced feminism and equal rights in the seventies. In many ways, it was pretty easy for me to know and understand Elena. The very complicated Lila was much more elusive. The use of Italian language in the book along with the characters’ flip-flopping between proper Italian and use of the Neapolitan dialect of the neighborhood with those with whom they were extremely close, was familiar to me. There’s an intimacy and a secrecy that use of dialect conveys that I found very authentic. So I approached the story as a reader enmeshed in good storytelling, and as a writer looking for guidance in crafting the story I want to tell. I enjoyed the reading from both aspects.
All in all, although reading the four volumes one right after the other was a commitment of time, I found that I didn’t want to give up on it or put it down (what more can an author ask for?). In my opinion the writer created an epic with Elena and Lila’s relationship as a central theme around which a sprawling story is masterfully told.
As for the identity of the author, I came to realize that it is a work of fiction and, as long as I like the story, I don’t so much care about who wrote it. Now if it were non-fiction, that’s when the credentials of the author become important and, then, I care about the identity of who wrote it.
If you’ve read this series, what are your thoughts?
Until next time…..