Elena Ferrante, I apologise. Last summer I read the first of your Neapolitan Novels, ‘My Brilliant Friend’ and I was underwhelmed. I wrote about it in a round-up of my summer reading.
I am not usually worried by being out of sync with majority opinion but In your case something was nagging at me, so I went back to ‘My Brilliant Friend’ and re-read it. This time I read it in book form. My summer reading had been on a Kindle and I now realise that this had made it difficult (given my technological limitations) to flick back to the cast of characters you helpfully include at the beginning of the book. Even on second reading I still found it difficult to keep track but it was certainly much easier with my finger stuck in the front (it was a bit like how I watched ‘Dickensian’ – with an A-Z of Dickens characters open on my phone). And yes, Elena, I enjoyed it much more second time round – there were bits I really loved.
I was still, though, puzzled by that wretched comma splice, that thing where you need either a full stop or a semi-colon, where you run-on one sentence into another, that thing I have to correct in my students’ work (and, Elena, I have been teaching for over thirty years – can you imagine how many times in my life I have had to ring the comma and write ‘p’ for punctuation or ‘S’ for sentence or even, once I’ve explained the term, ‘CS’ for comma splice in the margin?). If anything, this feature of your prose (surely not a problem of translation) irritated me even more on this second reading.I still couldn’t buy my colleague’s helpful reference to the critic who wrote – ‘anyone who thinks innovation in prose is at an end should look at the use of the comma splice in Elena Ferrante’.
But then, Elena, with something still nagging at me, I started the second of your Neapolitan Novels, ‘The Story of a New Name’, and I was not far into it when I came across the following, in which the narrator is describing her friend Lila’s prose style –
‘Usually the sentences were extremely precise, the punctuation meticulous, the handwriting elegant, just as Maestra Oliveiro had taught us. But at times, as if a drug had flooded her veins, Lila seemed unable to bear the order she had imposed on herself. Everything then became breathless, the sentences took on an overexcited rhythm, the punctuation disappeared.’
The scales, Elena, fell from my eyes – everything suddenly made sense and I got the idea that you definitely knew what you were doing. So apologies from this English teacher pedant who loved, really loved, ‘The Story of a New Name’ and ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ and who is saving up the last of your Neapolitan Novels as a guaranteed future treat.
PS In between numbers two and three of The Neapolitan Series I read your earlier novel ‘Days of Abandonment’. In it I found this – ‘Hold the commas, hold the periods. It’s not easy to go from the happy serenity of a romantic stroll to the chaos, to the incoherence of the world.’
Apologies again, Elena. You clearly know what you’re doing.