The Story of a New Name is the second novel in the widely acclaimed series of so-called Neapolitan novels by Italian enigma Elena Ferrante. Set in the suburbs of post-war Naples, the series centres largely on the relationship between childhood friends Elena and Lila growing up in a harsh, male-dominated Italian society hostile to their ambitions and dreams. This second instalment of the series follows the two girls from the end of their adolescence through to their early twenties, and begins immediately from where its predecessor, My Brilliant Friend (reviewed here), left off. We are at the wedding of 16-year-old Lila, who has married a wealthy local businessman, and Elena, our narrator, perceptively remarks on the details of the day that foreshadow the troubles due to erupt for the newlyweds over the coming years. While Lila spends large sections of the novel precociously fumbling with the troubles of married life, The Story of a New Name is Elena’s coming-of-age novel. Her first-person narrative evidences the self-doubt that afflicts her throughout these years; as she continues along the academic pathway she has chosen, Elena begins to feel like an outsider alongside the highbrow people she meets and becomes unsure of her decision in the wake of her best friend’s seeming submission to follow in the footsteps of their mothers by becoming consumed by their local Naples.
“She chose a different path and one can’t go back, life takes us where it wants.”
In one of the most important early developments in The Story of a New Name, we discover that Lila has trusted Elena with a number of notebooks kept during her youth, given to Elena out of Lila’s fear that her husband might lay his hands on them. Elena decides to dispose of the notebooks by throwing them in the local river, but not before becoming absorbed in reading their contents. Elena’s reading offers a significant glimpse into Lila’s world, and we find that beyond the stern, harsh façade she presents to her peers, Lila also experiences some of the self-doubt and fears attributed to Elena through the novel. The empathy developed by this insight into Lila’s psyche remains with the reader in the early sections as Lila is subjected to violent domestic abuse by her husband Stefano. Yet Lila remains difficult, restless and courageous despite the blows she continues to take; she refuses to surrender her independence, and attempts as much as possible to make her own decisions and live her own life as she wishes. With time, however, she has to bend increasingly to her husband’s will. Yet her body remains insistent and refuses to bear Stefano a child, and, after consulting a doctor, Lila is prescribed a summer of sun, sea and sand on the island of Ischia, where Elena first met the man she desires in My Brilliant Friend.
While Lila toils with consolidating her personality with newly married life, Elena’s hard work and strong will have kept her on the academic path along which she continues for the most part of the novel. Her narration is marked by her thoughtfulness as she takes this route, which juxtaposes the new life of her friend. There are moments when she is envious of Lila’s luxurious new life, in which she is the mistress of her own large home which offers her comfort, free time and her own personal space, something neither of the girls have ever had in their lives. Lila’s marriage and what that brings with it also poses doubts in Elena’s mind: shouldn’t she be married by now? Is it not also her role to elevate her family from poverty by marrying a rich local suitor as Lila has done? How is it that at the same time Lila is expected to provide her husband with a child, Elena is solely burdened with her homework and insignificant house duties? Yet as time passes Elena becomes more assured with her fate, although some doubt does remain until her success at the novel’s end. Observing the trials and tribulations Lila is subjected to in her life, Elena fears how the city of Naples seems to consume people caught up in its cycle:
“…would my body, too, one day be ruined by the emergence of not only my mother’s body but my father’s? And would all that I was learning at school dissolve, would the neighbourhood prevail again, the cadences, the manners, everything be confounded in a black mire, Anaximander and my father, Folgoré and Don Achille, valences and the ponds, aorists, Hesiod, and the insolent vulgar languages of the Solaras, as, over the millenniums, had happened to the chaotic, debased city itself?” p.103
Elena understands that she must escape the city, and her education offers her the easiest way out. After dalliances with boys and thoughts of abandoning her studies, she renews her efforts and is finally offered the opportunity to study at one of Italy’s finest universities in Pisa.
“I said to myself every day: I am what I am and I have to accept myself; I was born like this, in this city, with this dialect, without money; I will give what I can give, I will take what I can take, I will endure what has to be endured.”
Elena and Lila’s childhood friendship understandably grows increasingly more complex and difficult as they grow older, but there still seems to be a close bond between the two that is endearing to read about. Despite Elena’s recurring doubts and Lila’s moments of apparent heartlessness or thoughtlessness, Lila demonstrates scattered beautiful, touching moments of friendship in which she shows her love and care for Elena. When Elena’s interest in her studies begins to wane and she is bogged down at home, for example, Lila offers her friend the peace and quiet of her home so that she can progress and succeed in her work. Towards the end of the novel when the two friends haven’t seen each other for a long while and meet up during one Elena’s returns from university, Lila’s “eyes shone with tears and her whole body trembled, I had to hold her tight to quiet her” (p.398). Whereas in My Brilliant Friend Lila is almost a pin-up for the modern independent woman, strong willed, ambitious, passionate and full of zest for life, the Lila of The Story of a New Name is more humane, with feelings and frailties like anybody else, and she is a woman who bestows incredible value in her friendship with Elena, one that she doesn’t ever want to lose:
“I realized that, no matter how she struggled, worked, proclaimed, she couldn’t get out of it: since the day of her wedding she had been pursued by an ever greater, increasingly ungovernable unhappiness, and I felt pity… she said, “Even if you’re better than me, even if you know more things, don’t leave me.”” (p.145).
This week I read a short piece online by the fantastic Brain Pickings about what art does for the soul. Essentially, it discusses philosopher Alain de Botton’s writing on Proust’s great novel In Search of Lost Time and how de Botton writes that Proust, in his work, attempts to strip away everyday habit to recover the beauty and mystery of life:
“For Proust, the great artists deserve acclaim because they show us the world in a way that is fresh, appreciative, and alive… Artists are people who strip habit away and return life to its deserved glory.” – Alain De Botton, originally quoted at Brain Pickings.
For the most part when reading the first two novels of Ferrante’s Neapolitan series I have struggled to pin down the exact essence of their beauty. The prose is simple, understated, the characters are fascinating, but real, yet there is still a quiet beauty to the novels that, for me, puts them above most contemporary novels. When I read de Botton’s words, I felt that they precisely captured the beauty of Ferrante’s prose. In My Beautiful Friend, The Story of a New Name and, I hope, in the final two novels of the series, Ferrante is able to evoke a world that—to use de Botton’s words—is both ‘fresh’ and ‘alive’, full of mystery and beauty, and one that deserves to be read and re-read.
“Words: with them you can do and undo as you please.” p.43