January 9, 2015
Most of these blog entries have been about our sailing trip, but now it’s winter and we are spending much more time reading than sailing, so now you get a book recommendation…
Even since I learned how, I have read incessantly, even obsessively, and once in a while I’ve wondered why that is. Is it a failure of imagination, an inability to have a rich enough internal life without supplementing with the experiences of others? Is it laziness, a reflection of the fact that it is easier to sit with my nose in a book than to varnish the boat, or, for that matter, write something?
I think I know one answer now. It’s that every five or ten years, if one is lucky, it’s possible to run across a book that changes your view of the world, or of the experience of being human. I’ve just finished Elena Ferrante’s four “Neapolitan Novels” and each one of them qualifies as such a book.
They are “My Brilliant Friend,” “The Story of a New Name,” “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” and “The Story of the Lost Child.” The books, originally written in Italian but compelling in translation, tell the story of two women from their childhood friendship in a violent and chaotic Naples slum to a time in their sixties when contact between them has been lost. The last book in the series, “The Story of the Lost Child,” was cited by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2015. Elena Ferrante, by the way, is a pseudonym – nothing is publicly known about the actual author.
But it is obvious that she is a woman who grew up in Naples, and the books tell a story of that becomes universal – of the city, of friendship and attachment, of love, of Italy, of “justice,” and the tenacity of people who might seem ordinary in other ways.
Here’s a passage: I loved my city, but I uprooted from myself any dutiful defense of it. I was convinced, rather, that the anguish in which that love sooner or later ended was a lens through which to look at the entire West. Naples was the great European metropolis where faith in technology, in science, in the kindness of nature, in history that leads of necessity to improvement, in democracy, was revealed, most clearly and far in advance, to be completely without foundation. To be born in that city – I went so far as to write once, thinking not of myself but of Lila’s pessimism – is useful for only one thing: to have always known, almost instinctively, what today, with endless fine distinctions, everyone is beginning to claim: that the dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare of savagery and death.
But the books are far from pessimistic, instead they are touching, frightening, joyous, tearful, and above all, a detailed reflection of what it is to love. They begin in post-war Naples, still full of the thugs of Mussolini Fascism, continue through a short rise in prosperity (and the brutal conditions of meat-packing labor), through the rise of student and labor activism into the period of the Red Brigades and their repression, into the corruption and cynicism of modern politics. They are full of life, children, romances and betrayals, earthquakes, adolescence, and careful observation of them all.
I can’t recommend the books enough. I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to find them.