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  • Adam Tye

The Story of a New Name: The Truth, In Flux

Contains Spoilers for The Story of a New Name.

Looking back on my feelings towards 'My Brilliant Friend' - the first novel in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet - I realise that, over time, I have condensed my admiration for that book towards a singular focal point: the telepathic quality of Ferrante's writing. So often we laud prose for its technical ambition, but 'My Brilliant Friend' opted for something more personal, and in doing so became one of the only books I've read that felt as though I was strolling through the mind of another; that the words are coming to you without strain or hindrance. From how beautifully it is written, I am sure that Ferrante laboured over her manuscript extensively, but not a trace of that tension remains on the page.

That approach to writing is so startling, so deceptively hard to pull off, that it's become the primary feature I associate the book with in my mind...eventually overwhelming any thoughts I ever had regarding how this prose connects to the kind of story it is in service of. Finishing 'The Story of a New Name' offers me another chance to tackle this issue, and hopefully expand upon a couple of points that I touched in my previous review, but didn't find time to give them their proper due.

Picking up the very same day that 'My Brilliant Friend' left off, Ferrante takes no prisoners with an exceptionally bleak depiction of deuteragonist Lila's wedding night. Piece by piece, Ferrante dismantles Lila's perception of her husband, taking him from a wealthy, kind-hearted community worker, to an abusive man who echoes his monstrous father more and more with every passing second. For a book that is often characterised as historical fiction, these horror-inflicted opening chapters do a ruthless job of disabusing the idea that Ferrante is writing according to any genre guidelines:

"He was never Stefano, she seemed to discover suddenly, he was always the oldest son of Don Achille. And that thought, immediately, brought to the young face of her husband, like a revival, features that until that moment had remained prudently hidden in his blood but that had always been there, waiting for their moment. (...) But now the limits that he imposed for so long were about to give way, and Lila was seized by a childish terror (...) Don Achille was rising from the muck of the neighbourhood, feeding on the living matter of his son."

It seems pithy to claim that 'change' is the primary theme in any piece of fiction, but hopefully even this extract alone shows that 'The Story of a New Name' is worthy of the observation. Lila's name changes the very night that her husband morphs before her eyes. And so, from this moment onwards, her place in the world, and the limits with which she can interact with it, are forever shrinking, growing, then shrinking again; diverging further and further away from that of Elena - the narrator of the tale who will move to Pisa, become a lauded academic, and publish a book whilst Lila remains in Naples. In Ferrante's world, as in life, nobody stands still for long.

But Elena and Lila's state of change goes deeper than this. It's not enough to note that Lila starts this book an enraged newlywed and ends it in the bleary furnace of a sausage factory - these are only changes in circumstance. What's really incredible - and the reason I love 'The Story of a New Name' more than any book I can remember - is how precisely the story is able to track each characters' violently oscillating perspectives on the world around them.

In character writing, something you come to learn very quickly is that a realistic transcription of a person does not always make for a convincing character. Copying down someone's conversation verbatim can be enough to reveal this: yes, you'll capture an accurate picture of their inflections and vocabulary, but you'll also likely find yourself holding a page of dialogue that is erratic, rambling, and at odds with itself. This is because, in real life, people are a mess of contradictions - constantly adjusting our personalities and opinions from day to day, room to room, minute to minute. Meanwhile, a character in fiction can contain multitudes, but they have to do so with a level of consistency, or the audience is lost. The more you try to create a multi-dimensional character, the more you battle for a sense of verisimilitude, desperately wrangling to keep the protagonist's psyche in check.

The Neapolitan Quartet is possibly the closest I have seen an author come to vaulting this quirk of drama. A large part of this is down to Ferrante's decision to write in the first person, thereby giving us direct access to Elena's thoughts. This POV isn't just our access into the narrative: in a sense it is the narrative. Even when events reach a relative standstill, Elena's inner monologue will transform them into battlegrounds, and her reactions to others' behaviour never settle for long. We watch as Elena repulses at Lila's actions time and time again, and yet only a page later she is backtracking, evolving, justifying her friend's behaviour (and vice-versa). It feels impossible to pick on any one example, given that this endless to-and-fro is baked into every chapter, but the one that comes to mind most immediately is Elena's reaction when Lila asks for her help in maintaining an affair with Nino - a boy who Elena has been in love with for years. Just note the gulf between page 275:

"I came to think that to support her in this undertaking, besides being an important milestone for our long sisterhood, was also the way of manifesting my love(...)for Nino."

and page 277-278;

"I felt chained to an intolerable pact of friendship. How tortuous everything was, It was I who had dragged Lila to Ischia. I had used her to pursue Nino, hopelessly. I had put myself in her service and now I was playing the role of the servant who comes to the aid of her mistress. I was covering for her adultery. (...)

I stared at the sparkling sea (...) and I could barely see them, Nino and Lila, black dots. (...) I wished that they would drown and that death would take them from the joys of the next day.'

Again, this kind of paradoxical thought is apparent throughout every page of the novel, and extends to virtually every subject matter. We aren't just gaining access to Elena's mind - we are locked within it, caught in a state of flux from which it is impossible to escape.

A lesser book would look at these endless contradictions and propose nihilism as the conclusion - if a character can change so radically from one page to the next, then what meaning can any of it it possibly have? But a knack for psychology is powerful, and empathy is stronger still, and it's only through a mastery of both that Ferrante is able to paint Elena's crisis of thought not with the brushstrokes of a cynic, but someone who is able to look at these emotions and recognise the validity in each of them. Never before has a writer been so careful as to trace the steps between the points of change and justify each and every one of them. No sentence is unwarranted, and every anxious train of thought is rendered with such delicate explanation that you can only think to yourself, "damn, of course it could only go this way".

It's a beautiful portrayal of psychology that merges perfectly with that telepathic quality of writing I mentioned at the beginning: proof that the quality of Ferrante's prose isn't separate to the theme of the story, but is in fact inextricably tied to it. This is a book that could only exist this way, with these words in this order. Any other approach and the story falls apart at the seams. I can imagine a weaker version of this book where Elena and Lila remain inscrutable; where their actions are presented to be puzzled over, and it is up to the audience to decide which of their statements are 'correct', and which are not. Instead, every statement in this book feels like it contains truth. Lila is brilliant. Lila is the destroyer. Elena is kind. Elena is hateful. The Story of a New Name is dedicated to dragging you between these extremes by your hair. What makes it transcendent is how it compels you to believe in every single one of them.

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