The Story of a New Name
The Neapolitan Novels: Book Two
Ann Goldstein, Translator
(Europa Editions)On the first few pages of The Story of a New Name, like a Tolstoi novel, or a Shakespearian play, all the characters are listed --- although not in order of appearance. Don't be put off by the fact that there are over fifty names here, and ignore the somewhat inept notes about them. Melina Cappuccio ("washes the stairs of apartment buildings,") Nino Sarratore ("He hates his father. He is a brilliant student,") Enzo Scanno ("shows an unsuspected ability in mathematics.")
You'll mostly be concerned with Elena Greco who narrates the whole, and her childhood friend Lila Cerullo. They are the center of the action, and you'll be meeting many, maybe too many characters in their families. Like Elena's mother (unnamed), a genuine nag; or Lila's mother Nunzia, a sweetie (a good cook too).
Then there's Stefano Carracci who marries Lila and proceeds, in good Neopolitan fashion, to blacken her eyes when she doesn't do what he wants (which is most of the time). She doesn't budge. There are Lila's various extracurricular boyfriends and lovers: Antonio, Nino, Enzo, and about ten or fifteen others, cousins or no, who want to bed her, along with Pietro, Bruno and Donato, all of whom are smitten by Lila rather than simple plain-Jane loyal Elena. I figure if I lay out the plot for you, you'll end up being as confused as I am, what with the endless love affairs, plots, lies, insults, conjoinings, disjoinings, schemes and rages that will float away for you as they did for me. Quickly.
Despite this evanescence, I think you might get swept up by The Story of a New Name, perhaps somewhere around page fifty ... knowing that it's something you can lay down and pick up and get immersed in no matter what's going on in your life: life, death, joy, terror; one of those interminable times when you are waiting to get on or off an airplane, a train, a bus, or a passion-bust.
Don't be dismayed: it will take you a week or two to plow through the whole steamy entangled sweat-love life there in Naples ... knee-deep in the muck and bickering and inter-familial rivalries along with flirtations and murderous impulses that probably lie bubbling about in all of us, Neopolitan or no.
Because author Ferrante knows how to pile it on; and you too may find yourself falling for Lila ... or, better, Elena, the author's namesake who like any sixteen-year-old can change her mind in a trice, suddenly hate those she loves, then turn around and love those she hates ... even give away her own passionate heart-throb Nino Sarratore, offered up as a present to friend Lila.
§ § §
Go figure: Elena is in love with Nino, the student intellectual. She likes his "speeches on capitalism, on neocolonialism, on Africa, on Latin America, on Beckett, on Bertrand Russell." But then Lila falls for Nino, and she asks Elena to help her plot how she can get away from Stefano her wife-beating husband for a weekend for a weekend ... so she can make hay with Nino.
Elena says no.
"Aren't we friends anymore?" asks Lila.
"You're not Nino's friend anymore?"
But Lila knew how to draw me in. And I was unable to resist: on the one hand I said that's enough, on the other I was depressed at the idea of not being part of her life, or the means by which she invented it for herself ... The two of us together, allied with each other, in the struggle against all.
Lila may be Cleopatra, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary as she bewitches us (Elena, Stefano, the reader) ... sucks us into her dreadful schemes, no matter who gets wrecked, sacrificed, debilitated, or ruined. Elena finally concludes that going along with Lila, "besides being an important milestone for our long sisterhood,"
was also the way of manifesting my love --- she said friendship, but I desperately thought: love, love, love --- for Nino. And it was at that point that I said,
"All right, I'll help you."
Even so, she is convinced that if she helps to set up a two day love-fest between Nino and Lila, that Stefano, Lila's husband, just might find out. And that he would "bash her head in."
Forget it: this one boils with the explosive excitement of Young Love.
Just to add a dollop of the unexpected (out-of-the-blue) events of the weekend: while Lila and Nino are off cavorting in bed, she, Elena, allows herself to be seduced by Nino's father despite "the ridiculousness of his trained voice, the rudeness of his poeticizing, the sleazy lyricizing behind which he concealed his eagerness to put his hands on me." Elena --- and, possibly, the reader --- will go to the moon for sultry Lila.
So Elena makes out and gets on not only with Donato, but with her life. She wins a scholarship to the university in Pisa, comes to know and envy the Airota family --- he's a professor of Greek, his wife is a charming intellectual --- and ultimately makes son Pietro her lover.
Poor Lila, on the other hand, having escaped Stefano, finds work in a sausage factory(!) where Elena visits her one last time: "The swill ... the bad smell ... stuffing skins with the rosy pink paste mixed with bits of fat, or where, with sharp knives, they skinned, gutted, cut, using the blades with a dangerous frenzy."
§ § §
This is the second volume of Ferrante's Neapolitan epic. We couldn't help but compare it to three extraordinay films written and directed in the 1930s by Marcel Pagnol, The Cesar Trilogy (also called The Fanny Trilogy or --- just to confuse us --- The Marius Trilogy) with Raimu and Pierre Fresnay. It's a drama that encompass three generations, encompasses us, mixes us up in family loves, misunderstandings, confusions, joys, moments of insanity, tristesse.
But great novels (like great movies) must offer diversions that get us safely from episode to episode. The Story of a New Name is chock-a-block full of touches that keep us going, wanting more. Lila rarely tells us what she is thinking or feeling, but she conveniently leaves behind a diary for Elena, which provides a counterpoint to the events as they happen.
"I learned from her notebooks how much her wedding night had scarred her and how she feared the potential distortion of her husband's body, his disfigurement by the internal impulses of desire and rage or, on the contrary, of subtle plans, base acts." Then there comes a paragraph of pure Dada, a surprise in the midst of a novel that is nothing if not built on workaday language:
Especially at night she was afraid of waking up and finding him formless in the bed, transformed into excrescences that burst out because of too much fluid, the flesh melted and dripping, and with it everything around, the furniture, the entire apartment and she herself, his wife, broken, sucked into that stream polluted by living matter.
When we see Lila after the wedding night, Elena tells us that "the skin around her eye had a yellowish color, and her lower lip was a purple stain with fiery red stripes." And what do her family and friends say about this?
That there was no one in the neighborhood, "especially of the female sex, who did not think that she had needed a good thrashing for a long time."
So the beatings did not cause outrage, and in fact sympathy and respect for Stefano increased --- there was someone who knew how to be a man.
We are not here reading a story from medieval Italy, nor even Naples of the early years of the 20th Century. This is Naples in the late 1960s. And this is the courtship and marriage of a girl who is but seventeen years old. This barbarity becomes an integral part of New Name. For it is not only the chain of passions of two girls growing up (Lila the smart one, the fetching tantalizing beauty; Elana, with her books and her fantasy life and her plague of doubts).
Before Elena leaves for Pisa, she and Lila fret about Lila getting pregnant in the midst of her dalliance with Nino. "Anyway," says Lila, "He knows how to manage."
"Nino. He would use a condom."
"I don't know, he called it that."
"You don't know what it is and you trust it?"
"It's something that he puts over it."
§ § §
Thus, real life --- or rather, the life of literature and ideas --- does manage to intrude. And because of Nino's strident intellectualism, the two girls go off to hear lectures, one by the director Pier Paolo Pasolini. They read "All That Fall," even though Lila manages to misquote it, doesn't realize that it is Samuel Beckett's play, in which blindness features heavily (and well) in the plot (it's a radio play after all.)
Often Lila is just too much. Elena says that she "erases herself." And everyone else, too: her husband, her lover, and finally Elena and the reader.
I kept being drawn in to this, to the point that I was neglecting my studies, my friends, my husband. For this is a first-rate tale of marriage, and being young, and the tangles of spite, contempt, and love. It is also a writer named Elena writing about a writer named Elena who admits that her best friend was responsible for the first draft of her book ... presumably this one. She tells us that "Lila's childish pages were the secret heart of my book."
Anyone who wanted to know what gave it warmth and what the origin was of the strong but invisible thread that joined the sentences would have had to go back to that child's packet, ten notebook pages, the rusty pin, the brightly colored cover, the title, and not even a signature.--- Francis Winter