Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Wot I'm reading: See Naples - and live

ELENA FERRANTE: Troubling Love

Elena Ferrante was written up in two articles I saw as a 'must read' author, so I ordered this. My own novel Lillian and the Italians (set in Venice, Amalfi and Provence) has been going the rounds of agents and editors - you can guess the response I'm getting (or not getting). Troubling Love is at the summit of the mountain I'm trying to climb.

Delia returns to her native Naples following her seamstress mother's sudden death from drowning in an apparent suicide. Investigating a mysterious figure from her mother's past, she also trawls her memory for clues to what might have driven her mother to such a step. The figure of her estranged, brutal father looms over both mother and daughter.

This may sound like a thriller - and I suppose it is a "psychological thriller" - but Elena Ferrante is not writing a piece of crime fiction, she's writing a highly literary novel where style is as important as substance. Delia's 'journey' is full of visions in which past and present merge discomfortingly. Her cast of weird characters is vividly sketched, and the city of Naples, teeming and yet lonely, is as powerful a presence as any of the characters.

Her translator has made a recurring error. People's apartments in high rises are referred to as "my house", "her house" etc. In Italian "casa mia" can mean 'my flat' as well as 'my house' (like "chez moi" in French, but a house on the fifth floor sounds very bizarre in English!

I haven't read any literary Italian since Moravia decades ago. I think his novels were less challenging than this. Ferrante's prose reminds me of Anita Brookner - lucid and dense at the same time - but there's an attention to detail that also evokes E.M. Forser and Virginia Woolf. Not a book for someone looking for a Montalbano-style caper, but a very worthwhile read for anyone looking for a new pure vision of the Mediterranean mindset.