The Fourth Ferrante Neapolitan Novel

The fourth and final (I suppose, though one can always hope) book in the Neapolitan series – partly fevered nightmare and partly perfect resolution – delivers what we have come to expect, and more.

If you inhaled the first three, one after the other (and I know several of you did) – now you can read the newly released fourth volume, “The Story of the Lost Child.” (I read the third again to get primed, but you don’t need to.)

Bereft, because of the end of the series, I found solace in a Paris Review interview between Ferrante and her publishers. She discusses her decision to offer herself “to the public purely and simply through an act of writing – which is all that really counts.” She makes perfect sense, and makes one realize how different Elena Ferrante is from Elena Greco, and how different life is from art.   (Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 228: Elena Ferrante)

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Reading Knausgaard with the Sweet Baby

Mrs. Hughes and I read book after book in the “Game of Thrones” series with newborn Lady Baby. In the setting they seemed the most improbable books one could read. But I’m just as engrossed with the Sweet Baby – AND – in another unlikely series, the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume “My Struggle.”

A disjointed chronology upsets the bildingstroman nature of these autobiographical novels. The series begins with “A Death in the Family” when Knausgaard is 20. In the second volume, “A Man in Love,” Knausgaard is in his forties and a stay-at-home father. (All those details, nappies and naps, wrestling with strollers and recalcitrant children are familiar – though not a male story until this generation.) And he is a child in the third volume, “A Boyhood Island.” His father is cruel, a “house tyrant,” and the descriptions painful.

But outside the house, Knausgaard’s life in a Norway with such childhood freedom feels mythical – to ski and skate and ride bikes, to range the forests and village, to stupidly set fires and drop rocks on cars. Long summer evenings with packs of friends. And always the sheer terror elicited by his father. (Reading Ferrante and Knausgaard both, I marvel at the kind and good men I know.)

All six books have been published in Norway to much clamor – objecting and admiring – and now are being translated into English.

I had read references to Knausgaard, sometimes in terms of Ferrante, suggesting if one liked Elena, Karl Ove might not be one’s cup of tea. And vice versa. So I was skeptical, given my passion for Ferrante. But the first book had me on the airplane on the way to meet the Sweet Baby. Now I’m through the third and, like a lot of other people, awaiting the fourth (available this week).

I would not have predicted the mesmerizing effect of these books, written in language rooted in the here and now, the ordinary. While Ferrante rushes pell mell through her narrative, Knausgaard pauses to enumerate the contents of a pocket, the tasks in cleaning a filthy house, and interrupts with essay-like bits about art or philosophy. It’s addictive.

Holding a tiny baby and reading on the Kindle, makes for erratic note taking, but I keep remembering the “machine chuntered out a receipt,” exactly the sound of those odd credit card machines in a taxi. If you describe the banal and keep the attention of the reader as Knausgaard does, the magic is in the language (the translator, Don Bartlett, must get much credit).

Sometimes the detail piles up like a list of the everyday, and other times the seven-year old’s imagination takes off, returning home at night to familiar objects: “The shoes with grommets as eyes and the tongue as forehead, the chilly gaze from the white two-holed electric sockets above the baseboard, the hat stand in the corner with its back turned. And in my room: the pens and pencils assembled like a gang of school children in the pen stand….”

As a child Knausgaard is a seemingly “clueless know-it-all” who cries a lot – and observes. “Grandma took the coffee pot off the stove in the kitchen and the steadily increasing noise of the whistle died with a little sigh.” And his grandfather: “The eyes behind his glasses were sharp, but were totally transformed once [he] took them off. Then they were like two small children who had just woken up.”

Maybe because Knausgaard begins with death, everything, and I mean every little thing, the hard things and the small things, are more meaningful.

I have never read anything like this. Never ever.

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The Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante

One day, half listening to New Yorker “Out Loud” podcasts while doing something else, I heard Sasha Weiss, literary editor of, say that she adored “these books,” and always tried to tell people about them.

Speaking on the podcast with the translator Ann Goldstein and the writer, D.T. Max, Weiss referred to Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel cycle: “My Brilliant Friend,” “The Story of a New Name,” and “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.” Utterly fascinated with the novels, these three on the podcast struggled to describe the books – sometimes disagreeing (speculation abounds about the reclusive Ferrante’s gender – neither Goldstein nor Weiss, nor I, think she could be a man), but always agreeing on the vividness and power of Ferrante’s writing.

The novels trace the lives of two girls, Elena the narrator, and her friend Lila. The first book begins with a prologue set in the present when Lila is 66 and gone missing, but quickly shifts to the beginnings of this lifelong friendship in a hardscrabble, colorful, angry, and loving Naples neighborhood.

And now I am in the same spot as the podcast people! Wanting to say – read these stunning books, full of so much detail and life, an infectious, propelling read, unputdownable. Not just a coming of age story, but a described world to live in as the decades go by. I hurtled through the books’ pages and years, through the political turbulence of the 1960s and 70s, the evolving relationships of men and women, and above all absorbing this singular yet universal friendship.

For some, the novels parallel one’s own experiences (though plenty of men and younger women adore these books as well). And maybe this is the part Weiss grappled with, how to describe the glimpses, moments, of yourself and your friends found in both Elena and Lila. You keep reading for more, another scene or description, life with small children, the violence of a sausage factory, and sustaining moments of creativity.

The sole man on the podcast thought the narrator was full of self-loathing, but both women (and this reader) strongly disagree. Ferrante captures that way we often think and talk to ourselves, sometimes with ruthless honesty, other times with ebullient hope. And anger – anger can be fierce here – and Ferrante wields a master storyteller’s use of suspense.

Preparing myself to bid farewell to Elena and Lila, I felt such relief at the end of book three to realize there is another volume forthcoming. It’s scary to think I might have missed these books. I read on my Kindle – unaware of length – and at the end, wanted to order the “real” books to read again.

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