“Have you ever been to the theater?”
“A few times.”
“Did you like it?”
“It was all right.”
“I’ve never been, but I’ve seen it on television.”
“It’s not the same thing.”
“I know, but better than nothing.”
And at that point she took out of her bag the book I had given her, the volume of Beckett’s plays, and showed it to him.
“Have you read this?”
Nino took the book, examined it, admitted uneasily, “No.”
“So there is something you haven’t read.”
“You should read it.”
Lila began to talk to us about the book. To my surprise she was very deliberate, she talked the way she used to, choosing the words so as to make us see people and things, and also the emotion she gave them, portraying them anew keeping them there, present, alive. She said that we didn’t have to wait for nuclear war, in the book it was as if it had already happened. She told us at length about a woman named Winnie who at a certain point announced, another happy day, and she herself declaimed the phrase, becoming so upset that, in uttering it, her voice trembled slightly: another happy day, words that were insupportable, because nothing, nothing, she explained, in Winnie’s life, nothing in her gestures, nothing in her head, was happy, not that day or the preceding days. But, she added, the biggest impression had been made on her by a Dan Rooney. Dan Rooney, she said, is blind but he’s not bitter about it, because he believes that life is better without sight, and in fact he wonders whether, if one became deaf and mute, life would not be still more life, life without anything but life.
“Why did you like it?” Nino asked.
“I don’t know yet if I liked it.”
“But it made you curious.”
“It made me think. What does it mean that life is more life without sight, without hearing, even without words?”
“Maybe it’s just a gimmick.”
“No, what gimmick. There’s a thing here that suggests a thousand others, it’s not a gimmick.”
From Elena Ferrante’s 2012 novel The Story of a New Name. English translation by Ann Goldstein.
Ferrante’s so-called Neapolitan Novels do at least two things successfully that so many contemporary novels of “literary” fiction attempt and fail to do:
One, Ferrante harnesses and demonstrates the intellectual force of her two protagonists/antagonists. Many contemporary novelists insist on the brilliance of a particular character, but fail to capture and convey any sense of brilliance.
Two, Ferrante uses metatextual literary references adroitly and meaningfully, where other contemporary writers often clunkily throw in references to greater works of literature as a means to offer ballast to an otherwise-lite offering.