Friday is Wash Day for the people of Naples, Italy, July 1956.

Friday is Wash Day for the people of Naples, Italy, July 1956.

The “Neapolitan novels” are a series of four books written by Italian author Elena Ferrante. They trace the fierce, decades-long friendship between Lila and Elena, two working class girls from Naples. The English translations began rolling out three years ago. Since then, Ferrante has developed somewhat of a cult following that unexpectedly pushed her books onto the bestseller list. Critics have called her “the best contemporary novelist you’ve never heard of.” And, in fact, nobody knows her true identity, as she publishes under a pseudonym. For our November Readers’ Review, a discussion of the first of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: “My Brilliant Friend.”

Guests

  • Maureen Corrigan Book critic,NPR's Fresh Air; author, "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures"
  • Louis Bayard Author, "Roosevelt's Beast." His other books include "The Pale Blue Eye," "The School of Night" and "Mr. Timothy," a New York Times Notable Book. He teaches fiction writing at The George Washington University.
  • Laura Benedetti Professor of contemporary Italian culture, Georgetown University; author of "The Tigress in the Snow: Motherhood and Literature in Twentieth-Century Italy" and of the novel "Un Paese Di Carta"

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt from MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by Elena Ferrante. Translation by Ann Goldstein. Copyright © 2012 by Edizioni. E/O First Publication 2012 by Europa Editions. Used with permission.

My Brilliant Friend

The Historical Truth Behind Ferrante's Novels

Transcript

  • 11:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In life, Italian author Elena Ferrante holds readers at a distance, publishing under a pseudonym while keeping her true identity a mystery. In her books, Ferrante draws readers close with strikingly intimate portraits of her characters and their lives. For our November Readers Review, a discussion of "My Brilliant Friend," the first of Ferrante's series about two working class girls growing up in Naples.

  • 11:07:32

    MS. DIANE REHMHere with me, Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's "Fresh Air," Louis Bayard, novelist and writing teacher at George Washington University and Laura Benedetti, professor of contemporary Italian culture at Georgetown University. We do invite you to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you.

  • 11:08:10

    MS. MAUREEN CORRIGANThank you, Diane.

  • 11:08:11

    MR. LOUIS BAYARDGreat to see you, Diane.

  • 11:08:12

    MS. LAURA BENEDETTIIt is a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

  • 11:08:14

    REHMThank you. It's good to have you all here. Lou, talk about the two main characters in this book.

  • 11:08:23

    BAYARDWe have -- there are two girls from the mean streets of Naples. Their names are Lila and Elena and they meet in, I think, it's first grade when they first meet and they strike up this friendship, which will carry them all the way through the torments and terrors of adolescence and they'll emerge at the other side of that still friends, but in a very complex and fraught way and their lives go in directions that neither of them expects.

  • 11:08:54

    BAYARDSo they wind up having completely different notions of what their lives are going to be and who they are and where life is going to be taking them.

  • 11:09:05

    REHMAnd at times, they separate, then they come back together. Laura Benedetti, how realistically portrayed is life in Naples for these two girls?

  • 11:09:21

    BENEDETTII think it's very realistic. You know, Naples is a city that was a really -- that went really through tough times during World War II. It was very heavily bombarded. You actually have a interesting interview with Paula (word?) on your website about that. So Naples, after the war, is a devastated city that is trying to get back to its feet and that's where the narration begins and therefore, the portrayal of that was very realistic.

  • 11:09:58

    BENEDETTIIt's a tough city to this day and there is this very pervasive atmosphere in the novel of lawlessness and violence with some hints at the organized crime, the camorra, which is the Neapolitan version of the mafia.

  • 11:10:14

    REHMInteresting. And to you, Maureen Corrigan, just to help us know who these girls are, could you read for us from page, I think it's 46?

  • 11:10:29

    CORRIGAN46, certainly, Diane. This is a scene in which Elena, who is the narrator of the novels, and she's narrating the novels as a woman in her 60s. She remembering back to their childhood in this book. This is a scene in which she realizes that Lila, her friend, who turns out to be the queen bee, has displaced her in the eyes of their teacher. Lila knows how to read and Elena has, up until this day, been the favored student.

  • 11:11:02

    CORRIGANSo here's Elena's memory of that day. "What that demotion caused inside me, I don't know. I find it difficult to say today, faithfully and clearly, what I felt. Perhaps nothing at first, some jealousy like everyone else. But surely it was then that a worry began to take shape. I thought that although my legs functioned perfectly well, I ran the constant risk of becoming crippled. I woke with that idea in my head and I got out of bed right away to see if my legs still worked.

  • 11:11:35

    CORRIGANMaybe that's why I became focused on Lila who had slender, agile legs and was always moving them, kicking them, even when she was sitting next to the teacher so that the teacher became irritated and soon sent her back to the desk. Something convinced me then that if I kept up with her at her pace, my mother's limp, which had entered my brain and wouldn't come out would stop threatening me. I decided that I had to model myself on that girl, never let her out of my sight, even if she got annoyed and chased me away."

  • 11:12:09

    REHMAnd Lila is very thin, she's wan and Elena is hale and they're such different girls in so many characteristics.

  • 11:12:26

    CORRIGANYou know, one of the things Ferrante does so smoothly is to show almost day by day how -- the power relations between the two girls and especially as they enter adolescence, Lila, who is thin and wiry and is not the bombshell that Elena is -- Elena is blonde and plumb and, you know, kind of in that '50s Marilyn Monroe model of womanhood. But you begin to see through Elena's eyes that something is happening with her friend Lila that is attracting all the men in the neighborhood, that she's got some kind of power, some charisma that is growing month by month as she's in adolescence.

  • 11:13:12

    CORRIGANAnd, oh, I mean, it reawakens memories in me as, you know, an adolescent girl where you begin to see the hierarchies shift in middle school in terms of who is on top, who was prettier, who was more developed or else who had that magical something.

  • 11:13:30

    REHMAnd which of the two girls begins menstruating and doesn't know what's happening, Laura?

  • 11:13:40

    BENEDETTIYes, that's Elena or (word?) She's our narrator. And that's the time, puberty's also the time where Elena becomes even more afraid of becoming like her mother, which is another powerful element in the passage that Maureen just read. There is a kind of almost hatred. Actually it is called hatred in the novel that Elena feels against her mother. And her friend Lila is a way for her to escape that destiny.

  • 11:14:13

    BENEDETTISo that's why she models herself on her brilliant friend.

  • 11:14:18

    REHMAnd why is there such hatred by Elena for her mother?

  • 11:14:24

    BENEDETTIWell, it's -- the mother is a very opaque character and I think what Ferrante does she does not over analyze Elena's feelings toward her mother. So in other words, we often have this remarks about the mother's physical appearance so the mother has perhaps astigmatism. There is one eye that doesn't work properly. She also has a problem with one of her legs. And Elena really insists on those elements and I think Ferrante does a beautiful job of not over-analyze Elena's feeling of staying at that level almost visceral, instinctive repulsion.

  • 11:15:10

    BENEDETTIIt is called repulsion in the novel towards the mother.

  • 11:15:13

    REHMPretty strong language.

  • 11:15:15

    BENEDETTIVery strong language. She's a writer who doesn't show much sentimentality towards her characters.

  • 11:15:22

    REHMYou know, it's so interesting. We don't even know if Elena Ferrante is a woman. Do we?

  • 11:15:33

    BAYARDWell, there are lots of theories on that. I think she has -- well, we should say, first of all, that she has never posed for an author photo. She has never made any kind of public appearance. Elena Ferrante is almost certainly not her real name so there's a great mystery about who she is. She's one of the rare authors in today's culture who is declining to take advantage of all the social media and all the various ways that authors promote themselves.

  • 11:15:56

    BAYARDSo because of that, and in that vacuum of knowledge, all these theories rise up and one of them is that maybe a man is really writing. There's even a theory that a group of men is writing it in the manner of the Bible, you know, in the manner of the King James Bible. So to me, this reads like the work of an extremely self-aware, culturally situated woman of this generation.

  • 11:16:21

    BAYARDAnd we don't have to -- we look at the character Elena has the same first name. You know, we can make a facile link there. But to me, this is so much a woman's book because it's about -- yeah, it's about girls. They are the important characters in this.

  • 11:16:35

    REHMTell us about the theories about the author, Laura.

  • 11:16:41

    BENEDETTIYes. Well, although Elena Ferrante has become famous in the U.S. only now with these four books, the series, but in -- she has been famous for quite awhile in Italy and as soon as she published the first novel, "L'amore Molesto" translated as "Troubling Love" in 1992, rumors started to come out about her real identity. And in particular, there was a journalist, her name was (word?) who published an article saying that a computer program has found a remarkable similarities between "L'amore Molesto," "Troubling Love" and a novel by Domenico Starnone called "Via Gemito."

  • 11:17:21

    BENEDETTINow, I must say that very recently had a chance to read a book by Starnone titled "Lacci" and I was also struck by the stylistic similarities between the two.

  • 11:17:32

    REHMHow interesting.

  • 11:17:34

    BENEDETTII must add that another theory is that Domenico Starnone's wife is also involved in that because she works for the publishing house that published Ferrante's novels.

  • 11:17:50

    REHMI see. Oh, my goodness, such intrigue. We are, for our November Readers Review, we bring you "My Brilliant Friend," by Elena Ferrante. Short break. We'll be right back.

  • 11:20:03

    REHMIf you've just joined us, we are in the midst of our November Readers Review. This month, Elena Ferrante's first in the trilogy she has written about this friendship. It's titled "My Brilliant Friend." It takes place in post-second-world-war Naples, a rough area, and two girls from very different backgrounds form a very close and yet strained relationship. Here's our first email from Tonya in Tacoma Park. As an avid reader since childhood myself, she says, I was struck by the shared love of reading that Lena and Elena bond over. Do your guests think that thread within the story is one of the reasons the series has charmed and hooked so many bookworms? What do you think, Maureen?

  • 11:21:13

    CORRIGANWell, certainly speaking as an aging bookworm, who can remember? Yeah, of course, one of the books that the girls bond over is "Little Women," a translation of "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott. And then of course Elena grows up to be a writer. You know, I'm looking ahead to the other books because there are four novels in this series, but there's a quick moment in this first book, "My Brilliant Friend," where Elena is out walking with a boyfriend, and she realizes there's something missing, and they can't talk about books the way she can talk about books with her friend Lila.

  • 11:21:55

    CORRIGANAnd, you know, you just, you just know what she's talking about.

  • 11:21:59

    REHMDo we know how Elena learns to read? Do we know how Lila learns to read?

  • 11:22:13

    CORRIGANLila seems to be an autodidact.

  • 11:22:13

    BAYARDYes.

  • 11:22:15

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:22:16

    CORRIGANShe teaches herself.

  • 11:22:17

    BAYARDShe, I think it's her brother. While her brother is learning to read, she kind of gloms on to him.

  • 11:22:21

    REHMShe dips in, yeah.

  • 11:22:22

    BAYARDWhile he's learning to read and surpasses him very quickly.

  • 11:22:24

    REHMAnd then the whole question of school and after the elementary grades whether these two girls will be permitted, or whether their parents can afford to send them on to the next level, Laura.

  • 11:22:43

    BENEDETTIYeah, absolutely. There is a point at which Elena kind of discovers that the school doesn't stop with middle school, that she may have a -- there is such a thing as high school, and it's kind of a discovery for her. So what we have now, it's two very promising, two brilliant friends, really, who have the great potential, but then we see one of them who moves forward and is able to keep on studying, and the other one who withdraws more and more into her social reality, into her neighborhood.

  • 11:23:22

    BENEDETTIAnd this is a problem of opportunities, but it is also a problem of attitudes. There is a passage I like very much in the novel. The first time they venture out, they have this idea they want to go and look at the sea for the first time. So already we know that they live in a city like Naples, on the Mediterranean, but they have never seen the ocean. And so they venture out, but at some point Elena is thrilled, she'd like to keep going, while her friend Lila gets scared, and she wants to go back.

  • 11:23:59

    BENEDETTIAnd this different attitude really marks the different developments.

  • 11:24:02

    REHMAnd that's surprising because indeed Lila is the more adventurous. She is the greater risk-taker. And I was surprised to see her want to turn around, go home again.

  • 11:24:21

    BENEDETTIAbsolutely, and in fact even Elena is very surprised. She -- later on, she says that it took her a while to understand what had happened in that particular, in that particular instance. If I may read a short passage...

  • 11:24:40

    REHMCertainly.

  • 11:24:42

    BENEDETTIShe says, right after this adventure, she says, all night I tried to understand what had really happened. We were supposed to go to the sea, and we hadn't gone. I had been punished for nothing. A mysterious inversion of attitudes had occurred. I, despite the rain, would have continued on the road. I felt far from everything and everyone in distance. I discovered for the first time extinguished in me every tie and every worry. Lila had abruptly repented of her own plan. She had given up the sea. She had wanted to return to the confines of the neighborhood. I couldn't figure it out.

  • 11:25:20

    REHMAnd do you figure it out?

  • 11:25:24

    BENEDETTIWell, there is -- it's not clear. It's not completely clear, I think, why Lila gives up all her ambitions. In other words, it's not clear whether she hopes that by staying in the neighborhood, she wants to have -- she may have a stronger role, a stronger influence. So it's not completely clear whether the decision to stay in the neighborhood here and later throughout the four novels is based on courage, or it is, on the contrary, based on fear, fear of the unknown, fear of what may happen outside, outside the neighborhood.

  • 11:26:01

    BENEDETTIIncidentally, one of -- I think it's the four, no, the third, novel in the series, it's titled, in Italian, "Storia Di Chi Fugge E Di Chi Resta." In English, it has been translated as "Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay." But the original Italian is "Those Who Flee." So there -- which is not as neutral a word as leaving, right.

  • 11:26:26

    REHMVery interesting.

  • 11:26:27

    BAYARDOh yes, that's a key distinction, yes.

  • 11:26:30

    BENEDETTIExactly. So there is almost an element that Elena is almost guilty of something for having left the neighborhood.

  • 11:26:40

    REHMI feel as though I'm listening to music when I hear you speak. It's just wonderful. The idea of shoes comes into this novel rather strongly.

  • 11:26:53

    BAYARDOh yes, absolutely. Lila is the daughter of a shoemaker. She's impoverished. It's hard not to think of Cinderella in this context, the poor girl who finds her prince. He's the local grocer, but he's pretty wealthy by the standards of their neighborhood, and she agrees to basically let him take care of her. But the shoes figure in all through the book. The Cerullos, Lila's family, are trying to get out of poverty through the use of Lila's designs, and it's a constant struggle.

  • 11:27:24

    REHMIt is Lila's design. She's trying to move her father into thinking larger.

  • 11:27:32

    CORRIGANShe is, and you -- when you read about her plans, her ambitions for these handmade, beautiful shoes, you think, oh, if she were only doing this a couple of decades later, she'd have a beautiful boutique on some street in Naples, right.

  • 11:27:47

    BAYARDExactly.

  • 11:27:48

    CORRIGANBut that's not to be.

  • 11:27:50

    REHMBut her brother is supportive of her desire to do something.

  • 11:27:57

    CORRIGANHer brother is supportive, and she's also trying to take care of her brother. Even though she's younger, she can see that he's going off the rails and that, you know, part of the dangers is that he's going to become involved with the organized crime, the gangs that are so powerful in the neighborhood. So she's almost like a mother figure to him in some ways, a stern one.

  • 11:28:21

    REHMLou, talk about Don Achille.

  • 11:28:24

    BAYARDAh yes, Don Achille. He is -- he is the father of Stefano, the local grocer, and sort of the great man of the neighborhood, you know, at least in this context. He exercises a kind of mythical power over these two little girls when they're young. They think that's some -- that he's some ogre-ish type who is taking their dolls and committing sort of unspeakable acts. And at one point, this terrifying moment, these two little girls, you know, creep up and try to break into the house. But it's interesting, and again it's part of Ferrante's subtlety is that Don Achille really was guilty of crimes. He was a black marketer who exploited his fellow citizens, who takes away -- is it the carpenter's shop, who takes away -- the man who eventually kills him, sort of puts him out of business.

  • 11:29:12

    BAYARDSo he is a kind of ogre in his own way but not in the way that a childish mind will understand.

  • 11:29:18

    REHMBut that childish mind, those two young girls, here is Lila, who takes Elena's doll and drops it into an area that -- and then, and then Elena turns around, does the same thing to Lila's doll.

  • 11:29:44

    BENEDETTIYes.

  • 11:29:44

    REHMSo both dolls are lost.

  • 11:29:46

    BENEDETTIAbsolutely.

  • 11:29:48

    REHMWhat is the symbolism there?

  • 11:29:52

    BENEDETTIWell, that's the first episode, really, of that friendship. I mean, that's the way the narration opens. Well, the book begins with Elena to recollect the story of this friendship and doing so almost as a revenge, actually. That's the way the beginning of the narration is presented. But then the first episode is precisely the episode of the dolls. So right from the beginning, we have a sign of the strong ambivalence that marks this friendship.

  • 11:30:30

    BENEDETTIAgain, Ferrante's lack of sentimentality. They are friends, but they are also rivals, and they don't hesitate to do mean things to one another. And so the two dolls disappear, and when they disappear into this black hole where the two girls have thrown them, and when they cannot find them, they decide that it must have been Don Achille who stole them because Don Achille is a black marketer, but in Italian the word is the borsa nera, the black bag. So the dolls landed into Don Achille's mysterious, you know, phantomatic black bag.

  • 11:31:09

    BAYARDThat's wonderful.

  • 11:31:10

    BENEDETTIWhich must own, you know, must hide everything that disappears in the neighborhood to the eyes of two six-year-old girls because at the beginning they are that young

  • 11:31:22

    REHMAt the same time, the handling of that episode, it seems to me, is the perfect setup for the tension and the love within that friendship.

  • 11:31:35

    CORRIGANYes, and as Laura has alluded, it's a constant game of checkmate between the two of them, and in fact once you read all four books in the series, I'm not spoiling anything, you go back to the first novel, and you say oh, so that was what was going on, as Laura said, this revenge. I'm thinking to a passage later on again in the series, the last novel, where the adult Lila and Elena are walking through their old neighborhood.

  • 11:32:07

    REHMTogether.

  • 11:32:09

    CORRIGANTogether, and Elena is now somebody in the larger world. She's got a reputation as -- certainly a literary reputation. And they walk through the old neighborhood, and Elena notices how people are looking still at Lila and says I'm the one with the reputation, and still she's the powerful one. It just, you know, it keeps -- you keep having those moments where certainly Elena is trying to get ahead of Lila, and she's always checkmated.

  • 11:32:40

    REHMHow much, Maureen, do you believe that the series portrays friendship between young girls, teenagers, women, into their 60s accurately?

  • 11:32:57

    CORRIGANYeah, I think it does a beautiful job of portraying a certain kind of friendship.

  • 11:33:06

    REHMWhat is that certain kind?

  • 11:33:09

    CORRIGANThrough Elena's eyes, it's a friendship that's very much born out of admiration and fear and need.

  • 11:33:18

    REHMCompetition.

  • 11:33:18

    CORRIGANCompetition. You know, Lila will always be the person who, in a sense, knows Elena the best. But -- and -- but Elena doesn't know -- does anybody know Lila the best? Lila is a little -- she keeps her power by being removed. And I certainly think that that kind of relationship exists out in the real world.

  • 11:33:45

    REHMMaureen Corrigan, she's book critic for NPR's Fresh Air and the author of "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures." And you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Also here, Louis Bayard. He's author of several novels, including "Roosevelt's Beast" and "Mr. Timothy." He teaches fiction writing at George Washington University. And Laura Benedetti, she is professor of contemporary Italian culture at Georgetown University. She has just published her first novel in Italian. What is the name in Italian, Laura?

  • 11:34:41

    BENEDETTIThe title of the novel is "Un Paese Di Carta," which could be translated as "A Country on Paper," or "A Country Made of Paper." And it's the story of three generations of women between Italy and the U.S.

  • 11:34:54

    REHMHow wonderful. All right, let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Karen in Silver Spring, Maryland. You're on the air.

  • 11:35:09

    KARENHello, thank you very much. I just finished reading "My Brilliant Friend" with my book group. We all enjoyed it very much. I was slightly disappointed that the story did not focus more on the immediate history of Naples during the war. It is alluded to in a couple of places. I'm wondering if it is more fully explored in the later books. Thank you.

  • 11:35:30

    REHMMaureen?

  • 11:35:30

    CORRIGANIt is, but I think, Ferrante is trying to keep -- keep things to the bounds of what these characters would know at that age. And she does a beautiful job of showing, especially through Elena's eyes, this gradual widening of her comprehension of the world. So this book ends when they're about 16. Lila's ahead of Elena, as always, in terms of what she knows about the war and the organized crime and the Fascists, but still their knowledge of that world is limited by their age.

  • 11:36:09

    REHMWhat about the economic conditions of both households, Laura?

  • 11:36:13

    BENEDETTIThey are both -- they are both very poor households. They both struggle to make ends meet, and they go through similar hardship. Perhaps Elena's is slightly better off, Elena's family is slightly better off than Lila's family, though.

  • 11:36:33

    REHMWhy?

  • 11:36:35

    BENEDETTIBecause the father works for the government. He's a porter. So he's a low-paid employee, but still that seems to be, from what emerges in the novel, a better job than being a shoemaker.

  • 11:36:53

    REHMAnd Lila's father is the shoemaker. He owns a shop?

  • 11:37:01

    BENEDETTII think so. I think he does so.

  • 11:37:03

    REHMWe're not sure. We just know he makes shoe repairs.

  • 11:37:08

    BENEDETTIAnd he makes shoes. He makes shoe repairs, and in fact what Elena tries to do is -- Lila tries to do is to turn that into an art form, in a way.

  • 11:37:17

    REHMExactly. All right, we'll take a short break here. The book, "My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante. I look forward to hearing from you. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:01

    REHMAnd now it's your turn. We're going to open the phones, hear your comments about Elena Ferrante's book, "My Brilliant Friend." It is part of a series -- I said three-part, but it's four-part. And this, "My Brilliant Friend," is the first. Let's open the phones now. First to Cedarville, Va. Ginny, you're on the air.

  • 11:40:35

    GINNYHi, Diane. Very interesting discussion.

  • 11:40:37

    REHMGood.

  • 11:40:38

    GINNYI just finished listening to book -- the first two novels in this series on tape. And one is better than the next. But the question I'd like your panel to maybe address a little is, in -- throughout the books Ferrante alludes to possibly Lila having some, like, mental imbalance. I think in the first book at least she described Lila having sort of fears of her boundaries with people dissolving.

  • 11:41:14

    GINNYAnd, you know, they both are from the same sort of low-income, tough neighborhoods. And they both are brilliant, but it seems -- I always felt a little bit that maybe Lila's mental issues might have impeded her, where for Lenu, that was not -- she was just a more stable personality.

  • 11:41:38

    REHMWhat do you think, Laura?

  • 11:41:39

    BENEDETTIIt's hard to tell. It's hard to tell. What Ferrante does here and in her other novels is to try to find a name to describe some kind of psychologic discomfort. But I'm not sure that's strictly pathological. I'm not sure there is a specific mental illness behind that. I'm giving you another example from her previous novels, from "Troubling Love," she talks about fragments.

  • 11:42:14

    BENEDETTIAnd she describes -- she says that her mother used that word, (speaks foreign language), so going into fragments, to describe some sense of discomfort. And Ferrante describes that as debris on the murky water of the mind. And the mother -- when the mother does something that she cannot explain, something out of sheer impulse, she attributes that to this kind of malaise, to this kind of discomfort. So in the -- in "My Brilliant Friend" we find this idea of dissolving marches.

  • 11:42:49

    REHMYes.

  • 11:42:49

    BENEDETTIThis fear that things cannot be contained, that people might just dissolve. It's a feeling. I'm not sure that there is some precise mental illness behind that.

  • 11:43:01

    REHMLou?

  • 11:43:01

    BAYARDWell, I think it's also a nice description of the friendship between Lila and Elena. The margins are always dissolving, it seems like. Particularly for Elena. She has very little sense of herself as an independent, autonomous being. So much of what she does is driven by what Lila wants and what she thinks Lila wants or by Lila's achievements. So there's this sense that Elena is always kind of dissolving into this friend of hers.

  • 11:43:26

    REHMWhat do you think about mental illness?

  • 11:43:29

    CORRIGANI think it's a possibility. I think it's also true that a source of Lila's power is that you can't predict that she's gonna stay in bounds. And I'm thinking of one scene late in this novel where two young men sort of try to grab Elena and pull her into their convertible with them. And there's Lila with this kind of handmade knife in her hand and she's at the throat of one of these guys in a second, you know, because she doesn't -- she's not constrained.

  • 11:44:05

    REHMSo you would say it's not a matter of mental illness, but it is her boundless personality?

  • 11:44:15

    CORRIGANHer boundless personality and her refusal to think like a good girl and to behave the way she's being told to behave. Yeah, I mean, as Laura's saying, it's ambiguous the way…

  • 11:44:30

    REHMYeah, absolutely.

  • 11:44:30

    CORRIGAN…Ferrante writes. So it could be mental illness, but it could be something that we celebrate, too.

  • 11:44:36

    REHMHere's an email from George, who asks us to "please comment on the differences between the original Italian language version of the series and the translation into the English." Laura?

  • 11:44:57

    BENEDETTIYeah, I felt the translator did a beautiful, a brilliant job.

  • 11:45:02

    REHMGood, good.

  • 11:45:03

    BAYARDMy brilliant translator.

  • 11:45:05

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:45:06

    BENEDETTIA brilliant translator for a brilliant book. So absolutely I think -- I, you know, I went back checking a few passages in the original, especially when the dialect was -- there were some expressions in dialect to see how the translator had dealt with that. And I felt she did an impeccable job, you know, it was…

  • 11:45:25

    REHMThere is violence throughout this book. Lou, read for us from -- I think it's page 37.

  • 11:45:35

    BAYARDYes. It starts at 37. And this is Elena addressing the reader directly. She says, "I feel no nostalgia for our childhood. It was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened at home and outside every day. But I don't recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that. That's all we grew up with. The duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.

  • 11:45:58

    BAYARD"Of course I would have liked the nice manners that the teacher and the priest preached, but I felt that those ways were not suited to our neighborhood, even if you were a girl. The women fought among themselves more than the men. They pulled each other's hair. They hurt each other. To cause pain was a disease. As a child I imagined tiny, almost invisible, animals that arrived in the neighborhood at night.

  • 11:46:17

    BAYARD"They came from the ponds, from the abandoned train cars beyond the embankment, from the stinking grasses called (word?), from the frogs, the salamanders, the flies, the rocks, the dust, and enter the water and the food and the air, making our mothers, our grandmothers as angry as starving dogs. They were more severely infected than the men. Because while men were always getting furious they calmed down in the end.

  • 11:46:41

    BAYARD"Women who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end." I love that passage. And I also love the metaphor of assiduous, which is always sort of off in the distance. Right? They see it on the horizon, this idea of volcanic rage always ready to erupt. And periodically does in fairly shocking ways. At one point Lila is thrown out a window by her father, thrown out a window. You know, she breaks her arm in the process. We talked about the Solara boys.

  • 11:47:12

    BAYARDAt one point one of them brings -- just reaches into the trunk of his car and brings out this, basically, iron bar that's been sharpened to a point to engage in a standard street fight. Violence is always present. And fathers are beating their children, their wives. It's always there.

  • 11:47:27

    REHMSo in that regard, Maureen, as a book reviewer, what age would you say this series is appropriate for?

  • 11:47:39

    CORRIGANOh, gosh, I don't think that I would recommend it pre-college to readers. I think -- and it's not particularly because of the violence and there's really no overt sexually, just under the surface. It's more that this is writing that's so layered. And you really -- I think we all said, in speaking before we began the show, we had to slow down when we were reading this novel. You have to appreciate the layers of meaning, even in all the passages that we've read. I -- and no insult to high school students or younger, but I just don't think that they -- a younger reader would appreciate all the references, all the layers of possible meaning.

  • 11:48:27

    REHMAll right. To Maryann in Chevy Chase, Md. You're on the air.

  • 11:48:33

    MARYANNGood morning.

  • 11:48:34

    REHMHi.

  • 11:48:35

    MARYANNI'm so glad you're talking about this book.

  • 11:48:37

    REHMGood.

  • 11:48:38

    MARYANNIt's really, really a remarkable book. What struck me -- and I've read the first two -- is the role of competition. How these two girls handle the competition between themselves. You get more from Elena about how it affects here because I guess she's the narrator and she's giving you more a sense of that. And you don't get as much from Lena, at least in the beginning.

  • 11:49:05

    MARYANNBut I also thought it was a great book about mentoring. Because there were various characters in the book, the one professor, (unintelligible), and then also the professor that Elena has in high school, who is there for her at various points…

  • 11:49:22

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:49:23

    MARYANN…when she needs a pickup, when she needs encouragement, encouragement that she'll very rarely get anywhere else. And I thought that was just so beautifully laced in with all of the violence in the neighborhood and all of negativity about why are you wasting your time on school and why are you devoting so much to school when you could be doing something, you could be working, you could be making money.

  • 11:49:50

    REHMInteresting points, Maureen.

  • 11:49:51

    CORRIGANIt's true. That's a lovely point. I am also thinking, as the caller talked about mentoring, how that mentorship is removed from Lila at a certain point, that the one teacher who Lila looks up to decides that she's not worth it anymore and how devastating that is.

  • 11:50:11

    REHMYou know, we talked a moment ago about the translation and we should mention Ann Goldstein by name, because people have raved about the kind of translation she's done.

  • 11:50:28

    BENEDETTIAbsolutely. Absolutely. And in a way, her role is even more important since we don't know the real identity of Elena Ferrante. So in a way…

  • 11:50:35

    REHMI wonder if she does. I wonder if she does. Do you…

  • 11:50:38

    BAYARDI doubt she would. I doubt she would.

  • 11:50:40

    REHMYeah, I was gonna ask, does a translator necessarily collaborate with the author?

  • 11:50:48

    BAYARDI've been translated. Only one translator has ever collaborated with me. And I've actually found errors in some translations. So it's hit or miss. And it makes you realize just how dependent we are on translators, if we're not speaking the original language.

  • 11:51:00

    REHMWhat's your best guess, Laura?

  • 11:51:02

    BENEDETTII'm not sure. That's such a well-kept secret. I would be surprised. They may have communicated in over email or without Elena Ferrante disclosing her real identity.

  • 11:51:13

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Carol in Boston, Mass. You're on the air.

  • 11:51:20

    CAROLThank you. I'm a psychologist. I'm in -- almost finished with the third book. And my feeling is that the mental problem is manic depression. She goes from, you know, euphoria to deep need and depression and she just cycles very quickly. And I was wondering what your panel thinks about that.

  • 11:51:49

    BAYARDThat's an interesting theory. My first thought when I was reading it was that it was some form of epilepsy, which can be treated as various (unintelligible) in folks, as a kind of second sight and ability to see things that other people can't see. But bipolar works for me, too. I, again, I take the point that both Laura and Maureen have made, is that I'm not sure that she's trying to define a neurological condition so much as an epistemological condition, a way of just seeing the world differently than other people see it.

  • 11:52:14

    CORRIGANYeah, and really, in literature, any woman who can't be confined, who changes quickly is always the powerful woman. I'm thinking even in fairytales. It's always the enchantress who changes shape or personality, who's got the power. So I guess maybe I'm coming at it from a literary point of view. But it makes sense to me that Lena would be the uncontrollable one, the one you can't quite figure out, the one who changes quickly, and that she would hold most of the cards.

  • 11:52:46

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." One question I had, and it goes back to going to the sea. Do you believe that Lena knew she was powerful? You do?

  • 11:53:08

    CORRIGANOh, I do. I'm nodding seriously. I do. And even that passage that Laura read about the girls taking that illicit walk to the sea and then Lena deciding to turn back. And you think, this is so uncharacteristic. She's the daring one. Well, there's another take on that decision to turn back. Elena, later that night, thinks, well, maybe Lena wanted to get me in trouble by luring me along on this adventure to go to the sea. And in getting me in trouble, make my parents so angry that they wouldn't give their consent to further schooling.

  • 11:53:52

    CORRIGANIn order to be discovered, they had to return at a certain time. And I think that maybe the returning of -- at an earlier time, Lena deciding let's go back, is tied in with that discovery.

  • 11:54:05

    REHMInteresting. We're going to now hear from Ron, in Gaithersburg, Md. You're on the air.

  • 11:54:15

    RONThanks, Diane, for taking my call.

  • 11:54:16

    REHMSure.

  • 11:54:18

    RONLet me, first of all, just respond to this last remark that was made about going to the sea. I think in fact Lena has decided pretty early on -- maybe in this very moment -- that the neighborhood is where her life is. Everything is there. Her entire life, her power is in the neighborhood. Lenu, on the other hand, is gonna flee the neighborhood, but Lila is there. And so I'd like to have your correspondents respond to their personal reactions to these novels.

  • 11:55:00

    REHMPersonal reactions.

  • 11:55:01

    CORRIGANPersonal.

  • 11:55:02

    BENEDETTIThe -- well, I don't know whether this is a personal reaction, but there are many things. I mean, this question really brings us back to many things. We have been discussed, such as the importance of mentoring, of education, basically Elena is a little, you know, window of opportunity. And she's very brilliant at taking advantage of that, that escaping the neighborhood. And Lila, as I said earlier on, Lila, it's not clear whether it's an act of courage to stay in the neighborhood or on the contrary, it's an act of fear.

  • 11:55:39

    BENEDETTIBy the end of this first novel -- I don't want to give too much away -- but we kind of discover that she has made a mistake in her calculations. That, you know, that perhaps she's been -- she has been misled in thinking that she can really change things in the neighborhood.

  • 11:55:57

    REHMLou, how were you affected personally?

  • 11:56:01

    BAYARDWell, I loved the novel. And I found it, at one level, kind of inspirational. Somebody wrote recently about how Ferrante is writing the American novel. She's writing about the American dream, just transposing it to Naples. We see upward mobility of a kind that used to be possible in American society and is less so now. We see these two girls, from very hard scrabble origins, and they achieve upward mobility, in Lana's case through her mind, through education.

  • 11:56:28

    REHMMaureen?

  • 11:56:29

    CORRIGANI loved the novels. And to tag onto Lou's point, I think that especially "My Brilliant Friend" and the novels that follow also show us the cost of that upward mobility, what you pay, especially in Elena's case, for leaving the neighborhood.

  • 11:56:45

    REHMWell, I'm going to tell you how I felt. I saw a great deal of myself in this book, in both Elena and Lila. And therefore it's been a very powerful read for me. Thank you all so much…

  • 11:57:06

    BAYARDThank you, Diane.

  • 11:57:06

    BENEDETTIThank you.

  • 11:57:07

    CORRIGANThank you.

  • 11:57:07

    REHM…for being here. And let me thank you all for listening and wish you a happy and safe Thanksgiving. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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