While the third of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, didn’t quite live up to the excellence of My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, I’m still looking forward to the publication of the last part of the series later this year. In the meantime, though, anyone wanting to try more of Ferrante’s work can scratch the itch with some of her earlier books. I loved The Days of Abandonment when I read it last year, and today’s choice is another short, dark work, a novel which plunges the protagonist, and the reader, into rather familiar territory.
Troubling Love (translated by Ann Goldstein, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) begins with a tragic event, the drowning death of an elderly woman off the Italian coast. When her daughter, Delia, learns of the woman’s death, she makes the trip down from Milan to Naples, both to attend the funeral and to wind up affairs in the southern metropolis. Having lived in the north for some time, she is suddenly, and violently, thrust back into the mixture of chaotic city life and dialect she left behind many years before.
Once the funeral is over, however, Delia begins to look for reasons for the death of her mother, Amalia. Having received several confused calls shortly beforehand, the daughter suspects that someone else was involved in the drowning, a man her mother may have become involved with. This is the start of a journey into the past, and it’s an experience which will have Delia reconsidering what she knows about her mother and her own life.
For anyone who has read other Ferrante books, Troubling Love is extremely familiar in its style and content. Delia, the heroine of the piece, has much in common with Olga (from The Days of Abandonment), an educated, middle-aged woman whose life is thrown into turmoil by an unexpected event. Like Olga, Delia finds herself acting without thinking, racing around the streets and throwing herself at men, temporarily incapable of her usual calm control.
The reason for this behaviour, though, is perhaps less to do with any person, and more with the city she is forced to return to; one of the main characters of Troubling Love is the city of Naples, a place Delia realises can be left, but never forgotten:
So I was forgotten on the street. The crowd of relatives departed to the outlying neighborhoods from which they had come. My mother had been buried by insolent undertakers at the bottom of a pit stinking of wax and decaying flowers. I had a backache and stomach cramps. I made up my mind reluctantly: I walked along the burning-hot wall of the Botanic Garden to Piazza Cavour, in air made heavier by the exhaust from the cars and the buzz of dialect sounds that I deciphered unwillingly.
pp.20/1 (Europa Editions, 2006)
The city of her childhood is familiar and unwelcome at the same time, and gradually it sucks Delia back in, forcing her to drop her cultured Italian for her childhood vernacular, altering her behaviour, forcing her to become a part of the chaos around.
One rather unpleasant aspect of her hometown is its inherent masculinity, and Delia is forced to confront the male gaze at every turn. On the streets, men lust after her (and frequently attempt to touch her in passing); the family members she meet order her around, commanding her to change her clothes and adjust her make up. In Naples, women are subservient, daughters, then wives, then mothers – never independent beings. The modern-minded Delia struggles with this Neapolitan mindset:
I had trouble accepting that he (Delia’s uncle) put my father in the right and her in the wrong. he was her brother, a hundred times he had seen her battered by slaps, punches, kicks: and yet he had never lifted a finger to help her. For forty years he had continued steadfastly to declare solidarity with his brother-in-law. (p.47)
Amalia was never forgiven for her decision to leave her abusive husband, and even now, he and the people around him believe that he is the one hard done by.
In truth, though, the men of the novel are of little importance, for the heart of the story is about the connection between the two women. Delia is determined to solve the mystery of her mother’s last days, but the more she throws herself into the quest, the more she starts to reconsider her own identity. Seeing faces from the past forces her to think back to her childhood, and she realises that opinions she took for granted may actually be based on illusions – the two women are not as different as Delia likes to think:
My mother, who for years had existed only as an annoying responsibility, at times nagging, was dead. But as I rubbed my face vigorously, especially around the eyes, I realized with unexpected tenderness that in fact I had Amalia under my skin, like a hot liquid that had been injected into me at some unknown time. (p.86)
The time in Naples is unlikely to bring closure in terms of finding out about Amalia’s life; however, the frenetic few days roaming the streets of her youth will help Delia learn more about herself.
Troubling Love is an excellent short read, spiky, aggressive and compelling, a welcome reintroduction to Ferrante’s breathless manner of pushing her characters (and readers) along at a pace slightly faster than is comfortable. Once again, Goldstein’s prose hurries the reader along, never allowing them to settle comfortably into a rhtyhm. For the Ferrante admirer (and there are many of them around), perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel is the way in which it shows the roots of the later Neapolitan Novels, acting almost as an Ur-My Brilliant Friend. Amalia is a fascinating character, but one who never really ventures centre-stage, and it’s tempting to see her as the prototype for Lila in the later novels, where the writer gives herself time to look at the character’s life in detail.
Of course, most people will be more interested in Troubling Love as a stand-alone book, and it certainly succeeds on that front too. It’s a fascinating look at the world of women in a male-dominated society, with a story which twists and turns right until the last few pages. Here’s hoping that when The Story of the Lost Child (the final part of the Neapolitan series) appears in September, it contains some of the fire and magic of Ferrante’s earlier work 🙂