I actually hadn’t intended to read The Story of the Lost Child. By the time I finished Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, I felt that three long volumes of minutiae (however intense) and interpersonal angst (especially between two characters who never seemed either particularly plausible or particularly interesting) was plenty. It’s not that I didn’t think the first three Neapolitan novels were any good. They are good — probably better than most recent novels I’ve read. But after a point, it was impossible to read them without sky-high expectations, because their overall reception has been both so positive and so uncannily uniform. Raw! Honest! Confessional! Brave! (I wrote about the critical phenomenon already in some detail, in a piece that I thought might generate some self-conscious discussion among the feverish Ferrante fans or just people interested in the general issue of women’s writing and its reception. It didn’t.) And how many novels are really that great?
I got a tempting invitation to review the fourth volume, though, and so I did end up reading it. I’m not entirely sorry that the review has ultimately dead-ended, as during the editorial back-and-forth it was turning into something I didn’t really care for, that didn’t even sound like me. (That’s undoubtedly because it also didn’t start out very well, at least for its intended purpose: I’m not blaming anyone but myself.) I’m not entirely sorry I read The Story of the Lost Child either, though, because like its predecessors, it is pretty good, and after the investment of reading the first 1000 pages of a series, it is nice to know how it all wraps up. At this point, though, especially after two frustrating weeks immersed all over again in her work, I’m fed up with both thinking and writing about Ferrante. Anyone who wants to read a deep, thoughtful commentary about her should read Alice Brittan’s “Elena Ferrante and the Art of the Left Hand” in this month’s Open Letters. Alice loves the novels, but she also comes at them, as she comes at every book she writes about, from an unexpected angle, so though there’s plenty of enthusiasm on display, it’s not of the “these books are the awesomest, bravest, most honest, truthful, confessional, searing, epic portraits of women’s lives and female friendships ever” variety. (I’m sure not every other review is like that either, but that’s certainly the general flavor of Ferrante criticism.)
Here is the short version of my ‘take.’ The Neapolitan novels are good books, but to me they represent novels as blunt instruments. They have a lot of detail, but not a lot of nuance, especially stylistically. (Requisite caveat: maybe in the original Italian, they are different, better, more subtle.) In particular, the first-person narration is ultimately a disappointment, both artistically and thematically. Elena is not much of anything: she is neither unreliable nor interestingly retrospective (by which I mean, though she is remembering and reconstructing her past, her narration does not show her learning or developing from it). In the review you won’t ever read, I compare her unfavorably to Pip in Great Expectations (and why not, since every much-hyped novel these days seems to explicitly invite the comparison). Reading Great Expectations, you realize early on that Pip the character is not (until the end) Pip the narrator. There is great artistry in that palimpsestic effect, as well as real moral significance in his changing perspective. I did not find any comparable achievement by (either) Elena. As a Kunstlerroman, also, which is what the Neapolitan novels could (perhaps should) be, the series is unconvincing, or at least not compelling. Elena talks a lot about her writing, about its deficiencies and changes, and especially about women’s writing and women in writing as creatures of the male imagination and aesthetic. Her chronicle of her life, of Lila’s life, and of their friendship does not strike me as a powerful or empowering alternative: it’s too linear, too literal, and in its own ways, too reductive. If it is (as, say, Aurora Leigh is for Aurora Leigh) the culmination of her artistic development, then for me (despite all its emotional power, and the richness and complexity of its historical and sociological description) it’s underwhelming. (Maybe if I’d been this blunt in my draft review, we would have gotten somewhere!)
Lots of readers disagree with me, and plenty of critics have written at length about what they see as the brilliance of the series. Every major critical outlet (well, except one, I guess) has or will have an opinion on offer and I have yet to see one that isn’t pretty much ecstatic. So you have lots of support if you think I’ve read uncharitably or stupidly. My review, however, would have been mixed, for the reasons I’ve given. I found Nicola Griffith’s Hild a much more exciting literary experience: I’m really looking forward to reading its second volume. I’m keen, too, to read Adam Johnson’s new collection of short fiction, because I thought The Orphan Master’s Son was extraordinary. I will read anything else that Helen DeWitt publishes, because The Last Samurai was brilliant on every level. Having given Ferrante my best shot as a reader and critic, here and elsewhere, though, I think I’m done with her.
I wouldn’t even care — or bother saying anything — about this except that if you want (as I sometimes want, or think I want) to participate in ‘the literary world,’ the books everyone is talking about exert a certain pressure on you. (Recent exhibit A: The Goldfinch.) Sometimes, that’s fine: it’s a good book, it’s a good conversation, it’s a good intellectual exercise. Even when I write what I think is a really good piece of criticism about a current hot title, though (Life After Life, say — and there‘s a review I’m proud to have my name on), I often end up feeling a bit disappointed in the process. What (as Dorothea says) could be sadder than so much ardent labor all in vain? Because there’s always another, and another, and another good but probably not great book coming down the pipe that we’ll all feel we have to read and talk about.
The joy of blogging is the total freedom it brings from publishers’ schedules and publicists’ blandishments. I’m sure my current feelings of exasperation will abate, but you can probably expect a lot more Dorothy Dunnett around here for a while, until they do.
I really appreciate this article. I’ve heard a lot about Ferrante’s novels but haven’t yet read one of them. I’ve picked them up now and then in the library, skimmed through, and put them back on the shelf, concluding I could wait. Now I’ll wait longer.
You might find them mesmerizing – many people have! They really are quite good. But from the brouhaha, you’d think they were unbelievably brilliant, and I just didn’t see it. I found myself wondering how much this kind of critical tumult becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, including among critics: who wants to be the one who didn’t get it, who missed the train?
I’m so glad to see and read all these comments and the above article. I really wondered why I wasn’t ‘touched’ ‘mesmerised’ ‘enthralled’ at what seemed to me to be boring, ultimately pedestrian writing: this happened and then that happened and then the other…on and on and on.
Thankyou for helping me realise that hype is hype and that my criteria for judging excellence aren’t mistaken.
Thank-you. You have written almost exactly what I felt after reading one Ferrante novel (the second), but you put it so much better than I could ever do. And, funnily enough, those are almost exactly the same words I used in a comment on Jamesreadsbooks’ post on another book everyone’s writing about: ‘A little life’.
I feel one must try these books, but now I want my life back. Trollope beckons!
I’ve not read Ferrante but there has been so much glowing praise for her lately I feel like I must be missing out on something really important. Thanks for tempering that! I will wait for the buzz to die down and then decide whether to read or not.
I’ve only read an earlier novel, way back when she hadn’t been translated yet and I thought it was very good but not better than other Italian or French – even German authors I’ve read and who have never been translated.
Maybe it’s the lack of comparison that turned this into such a hype in the English speaking world. I’ve read your earlier review as well and actually feel that in her case the critics have turned themselves into marketing tools.
I’d like to read some of the Italian reviews (if I get the time). I’ll let you know what I found out.
Although her earlier novels have been available in French and German – these books haven’t been translated yet and aren’t as successful in Continental Europe. Interesting, no?
That is interesting.
I don’t necessarily think critics who rave about her over here are tools: I believe that they are perfectly sincere in their enthusiasm. But I do think their reaction says as much about what they are looking for in what they read as it does about Ferrante herself — clearly, she met some craving or standard — for an unapologetically angry woman writer, for instance — that served the critical zeitgeist at this particular moment.
Since I am James of JamesReadsBooks, I should comment here. I’ve only read the first book so far, but I am a big fan. For me it was like reading an Italian Realist movie circa 1950. I love the movies of that period, so I found the book especially enjoyable. I’m not sure how she can keep it up for three more volumes but I do have books two and three on my night stand and plan on getting to at least one of the before the end of the year.
The book I was really comparing them too was My Struggle by Kral Ove Knausgaard which is also one of this year’s “It” books, full of minutia and the first in a long series. I read 100 or so pages of My Struggle, loved it, but found it very easy to put down. Ferrante keep me reading through four very intense days of reading.
But, I’m not really seeing the big themes, the huge brilliance, that I see in every re-read of Great Expectations. An, honestly, Trollope is more fun than just about everyone. Everyone’s so serious these days.
My view of Elena Ferrante is eerily similar to yours. I haven’t even read the last one because I react so strongly against the hype surrounding it. I enjoyed the first 3 but I think they are overrated and oddly enough, given that Ferrante claims not to care about publicity at all, it is her very elusiveness that has made her interesting. The whole project seems strangely old-fashioned to me, like a twenty-first century version of those big cosy nineteenth century novels, or that big series by Olivia Manning. Well done for going against the tide.
I’m really glad to read your take on Ferrante! It echoes with a conversation I recently had with a friend about My Brilliant Friend. I had recommended it highly, and she wasn’t really buying it. She couldn’t find anything to latch on to, either in terms of an emotional truth that resonated with her, or in terms of literary artistry.
It ended up in a fascinating conversation about Elena-the-narrator. While I see why one might say that she’s not very interesting, neither unreliable nor a ‘grower’, I found myself thinking of Ishiguro and his stealth-bomber narrators: everything’s hunky-dory, straight accounting, and them boom! Everything is upside down or at least badly cracked. Elena-the-narrator has these moments where, despite herself, she lets you see that your picture of her, based on what she’s told you, is hardly shared by the other characters. And here’s where I think Ferrante is great: Elena-the-narrator doesn’t get it. For example, you can see that Elena-the-narrator is clearly puzzled by her reception by her former teacher after she publishes her article in the newspaper, which Elena doesn’t realize is cribbed.
I think another Ishiguro-like motif is narrating reticence, telling us that she had something to say (usually to Lila) but didn’t, and didn’t know why. This rang so true to me – I think it’s part of why Ferrante’s explorations of relationships seem so honest.
In general, I think that Elena *is* one of the most interesting narrators in recent literature, not despite the fact that there seems to be nothing special about her, but because of it: on the one hand intelligent, perceptive, and on the other hand, plenty of self-deception and self-justification. It’s a picture of the early 21st century psyche, with its need to come off well and somehow navigate the fact of being hurt by and dealing out hurt to one’s family and friends.
Anyway, great piece, thanks!
It’s not really a “great piece” — it’s really just me venting. (My piece on her critical reception at Open Letters is, if not necessarily “great,” at least much more fine-tuned.) But thanks. I have written much more patiently about other books — at this point I just can’t give Ferrante any more of my critical energy. You make a good case for a different, more appreciative reading of her, though, as have many others.
I’m struck by the originality of this review. The reviewer begins only reluctantly, announcing her distaste for the writer, and finishes by conceding that she’s “not entirely sorry” she read the book. The commenters hasten to approve, though some of them admit proudly they haven’t read anything of the author, others that they have read one of her several books. I sense a new breakthrough of reviewing on the way. The reviewer won’t have to read the books if the hype surrounding them displeases him. He will simply work up the drama of his displeasure, exercising his own creativity.
This post is not a “review,” of course (though it was inspired by two weeks spent working on one). Neither are my other more detailed posts about Ferrante’s novels here (if you’re curious you can find them by clicking on the “Ferrante” tag), though they are closer to what we usually mean by that term — and neither, really, is my essay on Ferrante’s critical reception! So it turns out that although I have written at some length about Ferrante, I have never reviewed her books, in the usual meaning of the term. I’m not sure if that furthers or complicates your theory about how this post heralds a new critical era …
thankyou for this piece, I was despairing of my apparent inability to detect the ”brilliance, originality, honesty etc etc etc ” that everyone seemed to be raving about.
I found the books plodding and dull, nowhere did I ever glimpse any inner life, just an endless enumeration of thing after thing after thing. Found myself completely uninterested in any of the so-called turmoils of the protagonists.
I (meanly) hoped James Wood might eviscerate her, (especially after his review of that other much over-hyped boy’s own story the Goldfinch,) but even he waxes lyrical about Ferrante’s writing.
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