Elena Ferrante is one of the great Italian novelists. She is also notoriously reclusive – she might have given J D Salinger tips on avoiding publicity – and little is known about her beyond the fact that she grew up in Naples and once worked in academia. Inevitably, one is led to speculate on the extent to which her distinctive, psychologically acute writing draws on her life.
Perhaps significantly, the narrator of her 2012 work My Brilliant Friend shares her first name, and her Neapolitan childhood. Set in the late 1950s in a working-class suburb, the novel focuses on the bond between the narrator Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, a volatile cobbler’s daughter who is both “seductive” and “dangerous”. Lila is the more academically capable, but at 16 is pressured by her family into marriage with a wealthy neighbour, while Elena continues with her studies.
This sequel, The Story of a New Name, picks up the story in the 1960s, soon after Lila’s wedding. Her husband, Stefano, has turned violent, and her sense of self seems somehow diminished: she describes her wedding ring as “a glittering zero”, her unborn child as “an emptiness inside”.
Elena feels torn between loyalty to her troubled friend and the promise of freedom and intellectual fulfilment at university, and the novel traces with extraordinary subtlety the progress of their relationship.
The “Neapolitan Novels” – really one vast Bildungsroman, with a third instalment on the way – are less dark, less visceral than Ferrante’s previous work, though they retain its interest in the fate of women in a masculine society. Reflecting on Lila’s situation, Elena concludes that marriage leaves the housewife psychologically and physically deformed: “When [does] that transformation begin?” she asks. “With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?”
But there are moments of sweetness and beauty here too. The centrepiece of this volume is a prolonged sequence set on the island of Ischia, where Lila and Elena take a holiday away from Stefano, and vie for the attentions of a handsome scholar. Here, in a landscape framed by “sparkling sea and the long livid array of clouds”, Ferrante evokes the intensity of youthful romance.
Elena is to discover a facility for prose – a further clue as to the connection between author and protagonist. However, by the end of this elegantly composed and enormously affecting novel the question of whether the narrator is a version of Ferrante herself seems redundant; The Story of a New Name, like its predecessor, is fiction of the very highest order.