By that I mean that reading the second of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels is a bit like watching your favourite TV series or box set : while the main characters continue their relationships centre stage, minor characters creep out from the wings and blossom, and both inhabit our heads like old friends. ‘The Story of a New Name’ takes up the story of Lenu and Lila from the ending of ‘My Brilliant Friend’ – reviewed here. Lila has married Stefano, the successful grocer, at the age of 16 and is living a life of ease in a flat full of new appliances, while Lenu continues her studies, still seeing Antonio, a mechanic and boyhood friend, while thinking about Nino Sarratore, also from the neighbourhood, but now an student and intellectual.
To external appearances, their lives are developing in very different directions. Lila becomes necessarily involved in the management of Stefano’s grocery, her own family’s shoe business, both successful and involving the opening of new shops. However the price of success is the growing ‘chokehold’ of the Solara family on both businesses and indeed the personal and financial lives of many people in the neighbourhood: their creeping domination provides a sinister and chilling theme throughout the novel. At the same time, Lila’s marriage to Stefano is unhappy and characterised by constant rows and violence: Ferrante depicts violence as a part of several relationships in the neighbourhood, which the women accept without much comment. Meanwhile, Lenu is showing herself to be an exceptional student and is nurtured by her high-school teacher, Professor Galiani,who gives her extra books and newspapers to read. A high point for her is being invited to Professor Galiani’s house for a party and this is one of the first occasions in the book where Lenu ventures beyond her social milieu. She enters a house with books and conversation about world events, politics, personalities and is dazzled, almost overwhelmed- not least because Nino Sarratore is there-but as the boyfriend of Professor Galiani’s daughter, Nadia.
The story then moves to the island of Ischia, where Lila is sent by Stefano for the summer, to relax and swim and hopefully fall pregnant. She is accompanied by her mother, Nunzia, her sister-in-law Pinuccia and Lenu, whom she pays as a kind of companion. The plan is that Stefano and Rino, Lila’s brother, will come out at the weekends and the women will be on their own during the week. Ischia was Lenu’s choice and it was driven by the knowledge that Nino would be holidaying there as indeed he is with his friend, Bruno. The five young people begin to see one another daily, and there are cross currents of friendship and flirtation as well as considerable humour when they manage to outwit both Nunzia and their husbands to enjoy some more carefree days as unattached young people. For Lila, the holiday has a greater significance – she reconnects with the world of books and ideas through conversations with Nino and her life in the rest of the book is characterised by her attempts, at times desperate, to keep her mind and ideas alive.
The light and carefree tone of some of the scenes in Ischia is overturned inevitably when Stefano realises what has been happening and they return to Naples. The two young women have a period of estrangement during which Lenu studies for high school graduation and entry to the university at Pisa- the Normale- which she achieves with a full scholarship. Lenu leaves for Pisa and finds herself to be an oddity when she arrives- her accent, her appearance are all wrong and she reinvents herself to fit in and be accepted by the more sophisticated students from privileged backgrounds. Nevertheless, she works hard to achieve brilliant results, and returns to Naples at the end of her studies, unsure of what to do next. She meets Lila, now in very different circumstances, after some years of no contact. Both young women are in very different places in terms of outward signs of success than at the beginning of the novel but both have new projects ahead of them.
The characters of Lenu and Lila lie at the heart of the novel, told from the viewpoint of Lenu. She is a sympathetic narrator with very human foibles: jealous and resentful of Lila at times, she can be fearful and anxious, feels sometimes murderous and is not above manipulation to achieve what she wants. Yet she feels deeply indebted to Lila as we see in the scene when she discovers Lila’s childhood story ‘The Blue Fairy’ in her old exercise books, and realises Lila’s imagination has become part of her own. Lila is at times cruel and malicious to Lenu, ridiculing her after Professor Galiani’s party, and hurting her deeply. Yet this behaviour is not reserved for Lenu: Lila is an absolutely independent spirit, volatile and wilful, flying off the handle at the drop of a hat and even rude and aggressive to the ageing former primary school teacher, Maestra Oliviera.
The minor characters who move to the fore include the two mothers, Lila’s mother, Nunzia, who accompanies them to Ischia and Lenu’s mother who visits her in Pisa when she is ill. She is a woman who has never been out of Naples, barely literate, very poor and disabled, who finds the train to Pisa and gets herself to Lenu’s flat to care for her when she has a fever. Lenu finds her loud, gossipy, and irritating in her crowing over her daughter’s success because of the enhanced status it gives her in the neighbourhood. But at the same time she is aware of the ingenuity and sheer determination her mother showed in actually getting there and is moved by this. Antonio, Lenu’s first boyfriend becomes a more rounded character: at the beginning of the book he is preoccupied and anxious at being called up and leaving his mother Melina, who has mental health problems. When he returns, he is directionless and unfortunately ends up as a henchman for the Solara. Enzo, returning from the army, has financial worries and is responsible for his siblings. He becomes a good friend to Lila asking nothing of her, works by day and studies engineering by night.
These characters contribute to the portrayal of the working class Naples milieu where Lila and Lenu come from. Having passed through childhood, their friends too are facing the anxieties of adulthood: poverty, unrewarding hard labour, family responsibilities, the disappointments of love and marriage. Some, in desperation, become indebted to the family with power, the Solara. For some, these pressures result in mental breakdown, ill health and even suicide. Lenu cannot forget that she too comes from this milieu and, despite her brilliant academic success, she lacks what we would now call the ‘cultural capital’ to feel completely at ease in the academic environment.
Ferrante cleverly interweaves into her discussion of Lenu’s unease her awareness of gender politics : at Professor Galiani’s party ‘only the boys talked’ and in Ischia she is unable to converse with Nino on equal terms: ‘ I felt I had to pay attention to say what he wanted me to say, hiding from him both my ignorance and the few things that I knew and he didn’t’. Yet things changed between them on Ischia when Lila got involved in discussion and during those carefree days conversations went in all directions, people participating, saying what they thought without fear of treading on the others’ toes. Still, on graduating, her boyfriend, Pietro Airota is encouraged to study for a doctorate, while Lenu, also with brilliant marks, is seen as a future school teacher. This is a world, in the early 60s, where a brilliant young woman from a poor background can achieve a university degree, but arguably there is not a level playing field as regards future career. More interesting to me, perhaps because more subtle, is the social interaction between men and women shown here, the men holding forth in conversation, the women holding back, the men dominating with words as they do with fists.
I enjoyed this novel even more than the first: we are seeing the characters develop through time against the unsentimental backdrop of grinding poverty in a Naples neighbourhood. We see Lenu move away from this background and learn to function and work in the heady world of ideas. The plot is gripping- and I have skirted round major developments for fear of spoiling- and Ferrante has left us on a bit of a knife edge about where the two main protagonists will go from here. So maybe it’s more series than box set: rather than gorge myself on the next episode, so very available in its box, I’m letting this rich read settle, while looking forward to the next instalment.