Elena Ferrante Vs. "KO" Knausgaard: Texas Style Cage Match

After word of mouth drove me to the killer first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, frustration with a library waiting list longer than a movie theater concession line necessitated my cash forkover for the next three (shout out to the Mysterious Bookshop, NYC). To say they didn’t disappoint understates overstatements. Sadly, a fifth volume is impossible in a narrative sense — taken together, all four make a cohesive Neapolitan novel, and had she been American, publishing for a larger press, and a man, Ferrante probably would have been pushed to make it a “big book” one-off to satisfy the publishing industry’s occasional doorstop jones.  Because of Ferrante, I now follow Europa Editions like I used to follow music labels. They’re my Drag City (Gene Kerrigan‘s crime novels set during the Celtic tiger: get them post haste).

Philip Roth’s “When She Was Good” came to mind often while I read Ferrante. I wondered what she would think of him, in that many of her male characters seem to be plucked from his list of first-person narrators. If she hates him, he deserves it; she’s his equal or better as a writer, at least in translation -which is so good as to almost be questioned; add in that Ferrante is a pseudonym, and she gives only one interview per country … nah.

And dig: oh how Ferrante buries Knausgaard as far as the Bildungsroman zeitgeist; unforgettable characters the least of her gifts. Book one of his “My Struggle” (I know it’s a sly joke to name a book “Min Kamp” but I’m not sure how funny, for a book set in Norway, Axis country during WWII) included a harrowing and unsurpassed, for me, depiction of an alcoholism-related parental death. Book two had me rolling…over, snoring.  Without a the grounding of a sensible tragedy, like in book one, the fictional Knausgaard is kind of a tool. I sort of knew this, I suppose, but it’s hard to care about the type of sophomoric lout Kafka would have strangled if he had the time. To Knausgaard’s credit, he’d probably agree. For a portrait of the struggle Knausgaard only shadow boxes, check out Asene Seierstad’s “One of Us,” if you can get through it without the panic attacks and nightmares that almost made me stop.

At the same time, I occasionally vacationed from Knausgaard and Ferrante by losing my Donald Westlake virginity, starting with his Parker books, written as Richard Stark. There’s no greater polar narrative opposite for Knausgaard, short of Proust, than the Stark novels. But I’ll be damned if there isn’t a link between Ferrante’s titular friend and Parker. They’re both sociopaths. Maybe both murderers, in a utilitarian sense. The Stark books were the reprieve I’d wanted from the Knausgaard books, but they also had me realizing there was a bit more noir to Ferrante than she lets on. It’s even more evident when you take her prior novels “The Lost Daughter” and “Troubling Love.” No wonder I found them at the Mysterious Bookshop. Shout out again.

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