THE STORY OF A NEW NAME
by Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions, 471 pages
by Ezekiel Tyrus
Hardhead Press, 283 pages
Reviewed by Nathaniel Popkin
Two Cities, Two Outsiders, Two Novels
My thirteen-year-old daughter Lena got a hold of my review copy of Elena Ferrante’s new novel The Story of a New Name and the pencil stuck inside it for jotting notes in the margins. “Your journey starts now! Ready….go!” she wrote at the beginning of chapter 59 (of 125). On page 251, and then every so often to the end of the book, she wrote, “Pit Stop,” and drew icons for a bed, a cup of coffee, and the bathroom. At the start of chapter 75, she sketched stick figures of people lined up, as if along the edge of a marathon route. “Yay! You can do it! Come on!” she wrote, in a speech balloon above their heads.
I didn’t need this sort of encouragement to get through the book, a striking, deeply felt, and fully imagined psychological portrait of two young women raised in a poor, particularly parochial Naples neighborhood in the early 1960s. But Lena was on to something. The book is powered and the narrative sustained by the single, galloping, almost breathless force of the narrator’s voice, in expert translation from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. The reader, to be sure, may feel he too is racing along, eager to escape the cruelty and dumb brutality of the gray, filthy place as much as Elena Greco, the narrator, and her closest friend, Lila Cerullo.
Here they are seventeen years old at the precipice, about to enter a party at the house of Elena’s erudite teacher Professor Galiani, on Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Naples’ relatively cosmopolitan center, far away from their neighborhood with its “tangled skein” of madness and betrayal. On the other side of the door: a world of infinite possibility.
We smoothed our skirts, I pulled down the slip that tended to rise up my legs, Lila straightened her hair with her fingertips. Both of us, evidently, were afraid of escaping ourselves, of erasing in a moment of distraction the mask of self-possession we had given ourselves. I pressed the bell. We waited, no one came to the door. I looked at Lila, I pressed the button again, longer. Quick footsteps, the door opened. A dark young man appeared, small in stature, with a handsome face and a lively gaze. He appeared to be around twenty. I said nervously that I was a student of Professor Galiani, and without even letting me finish, he laughed, exclaimed, “Elena?”
It’s an apt question, for in the neighborhood she is known as Lenú, short for Lenuccia. By calling herself Elena, she has declared a new identity—one she will earn through self-exile and self-creation. Elena will soon leave Naples to attend a university in Pisa and later she’ll find herself in Milan, the hopeful author of The Story of a New Name.
We are to presume that this book, Ferrante’s eighth and the second of her “Neapolitan novels,” is a work of autobiographical fiction. That may or may not be true. Little is known of the author aside from her birthplace of Naples; she herself may be a fiction.
Like Elena Greco, the narrator of Ely, Eli, Eli Trocchi, has given himself a new name and new identity, changed after moving from Florida to San Francisco. But this book about a struggling writer who just lost his job and his girlfriend by San Francisco provocateur Ezekiel Tyrus, feels like it’s fallen right out of the author’s personal diary.
Eli is a kind of misfit, an outsider who swaddles his discomfort in drugs, alcohol, tattoos, and anti-social behavior. He frequently exposes himself and gets in fights. Like Elena, he also writes—tragic, self-deprecating stories about abuse and sex. “I’m the long-suffering, oft-tortured writer! I’m the employment-challenged, money-nothing artist! I’m the tattooed San Francisco performance-artist-slash-storyteller!” Eli quotes himself. “I’m the hard-drinking, body-abusing macho man, and why, why, among the hipsters, the punk rockers, the San Francisco bohemians, the bar denizens, can I not find a place to belong?”
“Write clear and hard about what hurts,” says Ernest Hemingway. Eli aspires to meet Papa’s expectations. The problem is he takes the advice all too literally: the narrative—far more reliant on telling than showing—indeed hits too hard. Complexity, contradiction, even pathology—even drunkenness—are all kind of lost to the need to write clear, to take the pain on directly. Eli—Ezekiel—might be better off with Malcolm Lowry.
While Eli, Ely is a brave and honest—and ultimately a big hearted book—it can’t live up to literature’s need to transform real experience into something else more sublime.
“I am part of the universal terror,” says Elena Greco, “at this moment I’m the infinitesimal particle through which the fear of everything becomes conscious of itself; I.” That very “I” is what’s so convincingly at stake, and then doubted, in the closely observed co-dependency of Elena and Lila. Does Elena lose herself in forging a new identity? Does she steal from the needy, manipulative Lila? Does Elena’s aspiration even matter?
Does yours or mine? A great work of fiction—and surely The Story of a New Name is one—gives us a touchstone for our own tiny selves.
Cleaver fiction review editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of three books, including the 2013 novel Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and senior writer of “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” an Emmy award-winning documentary series. His essays and book reviews appear in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, and Fanzine.