It’s books and roses day again tomorrow! Is it even possible to choose one book to celebrate?
Elena Ferrante’s The Story of The Lost Child has made both the Man Booker International Shortlist AND the three percent Best Translated Book Award 2016 shortlist. Only one other novel has managed that, but Ferrante has probably done more to popularise literature in translation than anyone else recently, and we still don’t know who she actually is.
Her translator, Ann Goldstein, has stepped in to fill the gap. Goldstein first presented her task as something she could just fit in around her ‘day job’ as copy editor for the New Yorker, but her recent interview with Asymptote gives a more nuanced picture. Just as well, since she would split the Man Booker prize money equally with the author, in recognition of how much the translator shapes the work we read in English.
The Neapolitan novels took off because people told other people that they told a great story. That’s how I found them, but when I beamed the first volume to my iPad, the cover looked so ‘chick lit’, it put me right off. Still, it was cheaper than a latte and a muffin (and zero calories) so I didn’t have much to lose – and was instantly hooked.
Since the sequels were just a click away, I binge read all four over last Christmas. I had my first solid food in Rome, where my maternal grandparents lived, so my Italian is all food-related and I can’t comment on the translation of anything else. I can only hope that the way a read them was more like wolfing down the best ever pizza napoletana than crisps-and-Netflix-on-the-sofa. It was heartening to find out that for at least one reader, The Story of the Lost Child was the ultimate slow reading experience: Sara Goldsmith’s mother sent her each chapter in installments as she translated them.
Do I think Ferrante and Goldstein should win? This saga absolutely draws you into another world very different from the clichés about Italy in books like Eat Pray Love. Apparently avid fans are getting out of their depth touring the rougher parts of Naples they never knew existed.
Ferrante’s analysis of friendship over decades is fascinating – how well can two people ever really know each other? – but she also has an important political and feminist point to make. I found myself getting extremely angry on her protagonist’s behalf at several points in the story – sexual harassment and violence, workers’ rights, access to books and education, childcare, and decision-making are all handled much more effectively by talking about real life, without didacticism. This is bread and roses for books and roses day.
If you still haven’t read them and want summer reading to sustain you, I thoroughly recommend the Neapolitan novels. If you’ve read them all already, here’s the original bread and roses song in my favourite recent rendition, sung by the next door neighbours – tomorrow is also St George’s Day, after all.