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Margaret Ann Spence > BLOG > 2016 > October

The Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein My Brilliant Friend The Story Of A New Name Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay The Story Of The Lost Child Europa Editions, 2012-2014 When investigative journalist Claudio Gatti unmasked the identity of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante this month, he set off a storm of protest. He claims it was in the public interest to reveal that the writer was in fact a translator named Anja Raja – or so he thought. Ms. Raja is not the only contender, however. In March, another writer claimed that Ms. Ferrante was really a professor named Marcella Marmo – on the basis that the books revealed details of a university at which Ms. Marmo studied. Such thin “evidence” was overturned by the latest theory. But the real reason Mr. Gatti is so reviled is that he claimed to show Ms. Raja’s bank accounts had upticks in income corresponding to the releases of the Neapolitan novels. What? Since when did a journalist have a right to poke into anyone’s bank accounts? (Except of course, if the target is a politician running for high political office and if it is customary for them to make such financial disclosures.) And how did Mr. Gatti get access to these accounts? The furor – and sympathy for the author -made me want to read the four novels that have garnered do much attention. The stories follow the lives of two girls born to working class families in 1944. They live in a close-knit, poverty-stricken community. The two girls are uncommonly bright, but their opportunities are, to say the least, constrained. Scarcely less constrained are the opportunities for their brothers and male friends, although as the nineteen fifties progress to the sixties, gradually rising prosperity drifts down to the Neapolitan grocers, shoe-makers, construction workers and loan sharks that Ferrante portrays. I found the novels riveting. The issues of class and the life-changing power of education thread through the stories. But without ever using the word feminism, Ferrante shows how the continual repression and frustration of women leads either to their passivity and premature aging, or to rage which invites a violent response. Ferrante’s novels are both page-turningly plotted, and rich with emotion. In fact, the emotions of the characters are rendered so intimately it’s like reading a memoir. For that reason alone, given the fact that Ms. Ferrante gives her protagonist the name Elena, and, like her characters, was born in Naples, I can understand why she’s fearful to use her real name. I can’t wait to read all four books.

Ghost Songs

By Regina McBride Tin House Books, October 2016 Advance Review Copy When Regina McBride tells a psychiatrist she has seen the ghost of her father, he looks skeptical. By the end of this wonderful memoir, I was quite convinced she had. Set largely in New Mexico and Ireland, McBride captures the mystical atmosphere of both places. Each holds remnants of ancient cultures in which the boundaries between the living and the dead are murky. Regina and her three siblings were only teenagers when their parents committed suicide within months of each other. Told in short paragraphs, alternating between the past and present, Regina tries to capture the essence of her parents’ struggles. She remembers happy times, her father’s love of singing and music, his conviviality, and his drinking. His sense of failure, and his inability to get ahead at work sends the family from New York to New Mexico. There, Regina’s mother descends into depression and bizarre behaviors. Regina invokes Nanny, her maternal grandmother. Nanny despises her son-in- law. Witch-like, she deliberately burns holes in his shirt with the iron. Over the story, the reader sees that Nanny has developed dementia, but in a story told in flashbacks, we understand that the children could not grasp this. We see that these four children were already abandoned by the grown-ups before their parents ended their lives. What horrifies Regina most is the idea that her parents will forever be doomed to hell, because suicide is the most unforgivable sin. Despite its teachings, Regina never leaves the Catholic church and its mysticism and rituals sustain her. Her grandparents had immigrated from Ireland, but their children had never seen it. In Regina’s mind, it was a place of magic, and towards the end of the book, she goes to live there. This last part of the memoir reads a bit like a travel diary, as Regina recounts her random meetings with people. A potential relationship with a man called Denis never actually happens. Regina wonders if he has been turned off by her revelation about her parents. Somehow, this seems to begin her healing process. Perhaps she can keep the ghosts of her parents at bay by not recalling their tragic deaths at every moment. She starts to move forward. Ghost Songs meditates on the permeability between life and death. McBride’s evocation of grief, a father’s failure, a mother’s madness, children left abandoned, is stunning.