A Year in Reading: Charles Finch

December 22, 2014 | 7 books mentioned 13 3 min read

I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy this year.  I read it twice, actually.  It made me want to quit writing.

coverThat sounds like the kind of cutesy thing you could say about any book you love, but in fact the reality of it was terrible, a sensation that lasted for days, a blend of nausea, fog, and loss.  How can I explain it?  Reading those books — My Brilliant Friend, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of a New Name — it was as if I had spent my whole life training to be a world-class swimmer, waking up at dawn to do laps, eating the right stuff — and then, all of the sudden, swimming in the ocean one day, I had been joined briefly by a dolphin and realized, oh, of course, that’s what swimming actually is.

coverThat is: There’s a difference between naturalism and naturalness.  Naturalism is still a mode.  Ferrante’s early books are great, but they’re modal, full of the effects a novelist can use, beautifully deployed, but effects.  By the Neapolitan trilogy, those effects are gone.  As a consequence it has less immediate line-to-line dazzle than what we’re used to calling great fiction these days, The Flamethrowers, for example, or even The Days of Abandonment, but what she buys with the sacrifice is a consuming naturalness.  There’s not a single moment of falseness across all the thousand pages of the books. In general, even the best novelists enter their texts; the great ones do it almost imperceptibly, but still, behind Walter’s love of birds in Freedom, for instance, you just sense Jonathan Franzen’s love of birds, a weak but noticeable magnetic draw from character to author.  Whereas Ferrante works so closely to her characters’ motivations, more closely than any novelist I’ve ever read, that it means the books are not so much realistic as that they are a reality.  The result is intoxicating, art with all the beauties of a made thing and the authenticity of a discovered one.  It’s like a garment without seams that fits perfectly, or like those Vija Celmins rocks.  It’s like the opposite of the Pompidou Center.

coverThe last 20 years have seen the ascent of James Wood’s idea that what the novel offers uniquely is an encounter with another consciousness, and now we’ve arrived at the cultural triumph of his particular theodicy, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Ben Lerner.  Those (wonderful) authors get rid of the problem of the novel by entering it overtly, and while that allows an magical nearness to them, it’s a solution that’s also an impoverishment, because it foregoes plot.  An acceptable loss, you might say.  I wonder.  Wood’s pressure toward interiority almost seems to me to forget the structure of life, which is so crucially at once internal and external.  Life has actions in it.  In reading a novel, it’s profound to experience the self-in-other in memory or contemplation, but it’s sometimes just as profound to experience the self-in-other during moments of decision.  In Ferrante, we have both — they’re told in the first person, but they’re the story of more than a single person, of many equally weighted people.  The plotting of their stories is so skillful, indeed so unplotted, in the sense that life is unplotted, in the sense that we don’t know the future, that as readers we suddenly exist both in other actions and in their actors’ consciousness of them.  Not the latter alone.

I read a lot of things in 2014, and I would like to imagine I’ll look back on the year and remember rereading Patrick O’Brian, whose achievement as an author of historical fiction I consider as great as Hilary Mantel’s, or Six Memos for the Next Millennium and Mythologies, which have both been rattling in my mind since winter, or the mysterious and beautiful 10:04, or the funniest book I read all year, a fantastic self-published novella that if there were justice in the world would upend pro sports, Goodell vs. Obama by PFT Commenter, or the fifth volume of Marcel Proust, finally I’m almost done.

But realistically, Ferrante is who will stay with me.

It’s considered unsophisticated to be normative about authors.  Leave it to Buzzfeed, leave it to the Mike Trout zealots.  I get that, but at the same time I also think it’s important to believe in greatness, and I don’t think it’s always wrong to calibrate it.  I don’t know if Ian McEwan is greater than Don DeLillo, or whatever.  What I do know is that before 2014, I thought Philip Roth was the greatest novelist alive.  Now, for me, he’s second.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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is the author of the novel The Last Enchantments (St. Martin's Press, January 2014) and regularly reviews books for The New York Times Book Review, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today. He has also written about fiction for The Millions, Slate, and The Point. You can find him at @CharlesFinch.


  1. “the great ones do it almost imperceptibly, but still, behind Walter’s love of birds in Freedom, for instance, you just sense Jonathan Franzen’s love of birds, a weak but noticeable magnetic draw from character to author.”

    The whole environmentalist subplot is the worst part in that bad novel; it’s extremely perceptible that it’s just Franzen up on his eco soap box. Has nothing to do with character development, plot advancement, the preceding or succeeding pages; it’s just a sermon plastered into the middle of the book. This is the worst sort of fiction: authorial politics disguised as narrative device. I don’t hear writerly types extolling Ayn Rand for the “noticeable magnetic draw from character to author”.

  2. I’m on the second book in Ferrante’s trilogy and I agree with you completely. I keep thinking how REAL it all feels, how dire and passionate, and so inside of the narrator’s mind, and yet it has the drama of fiction. Ah, Ferrante!

  3. toad, I think the writer and character converging is a fault, not a virtue, if it’s unintentional – and there are parts of Freedom guilty of that, definitely. On the other hand that book has such a powerful intelligence behind it that its mistakes don’t ultimately bother me that much. Will forgive a novel anything if it has that vitality of thought.

  4. Currently Elena Ferrante’s, “My Brilliant Friend” has 16 circulating copies in the Los Angeles Public Library system and they are all checked out with a hold list of 93. Good work, Charles.

  5. I look forward to the this series more than any other end-of-year recap or “best of” list. Toward the end of each year, the articles filter in one by one, as if by chance. I actually enjoy the suspense of waiting until the very end to see the full list, and I always wonder how this series comes together. Do the contributors know ahead of time and plan? Is it last minute and sort of haphazard?

    This year, it’s clear. The Millions saved the best for last. This is exactly the sort of raw emotion and passion a reader wants to experience with a book, and it’s beyond admirable when a writer is likewise humbled. It really is something else when an artist and audience can both be enraptured. Thank you, Charles Finch.

  6. I have just finished Book2, directly on the heels of Book 1, and am in a bizarre state of shock for how vivid and brilliant it is. Layer upon layer of earth-bound details accumulate to a splendor almost akin to aesthetic arrest, except for the fact that it is, as you say, so grounded, that it allows only itself and myself filtered through it. Her storytelling and writing are practically athletic, Olympian, in their combined discipline. I feel like I need a support group to connect to people about these books. I have never read anything like them. I had done Book 1 & 2 of the Knausgaard series, finding it wonderful for its day-to-day recounting with plunges into philosophical rants and musings. But Ferrante blows away all before her because in articulating such subtle yet pivotal emotional motives and effects, she is building a more realistic hall of mirrors. That sounds like trickery, however, which is so far from what she’s doing.

    Anyway, I like that you felt upon reading her, the way a swimmer might view a dolphin–maybe you too keyed into Elena’s envy of Lila’s natural instinctive powers.

  7. How tastes differ. From reading a couple of pages of My Brilliant Friend, I thought the prose was irritating, contrived, boring, and tired. How anyone thinks it and contemporary fiction generally could be worthy of even being located in the same universe as the work of Proust or other actually great writers is beyond me.

  8. This year I read Ferrante’s Neapolitan series too and then searched out everything else she’s written, including the fourth volume in Italian because I simply couldn’t wait. I read at all hours, hardly stopping to eat or sleep. When I finished, it seemed that there was my life before Ferrante and the one after. A literary watershed. Ferrante seems to be the Dickens-Faulkner-Proust of Naples.

    I second your point, Charles, about the “naturalness” of the writing and concur with Anna’s desire for a group to share the experience. Some people I know felt as Ace did – that the first volume was slow, but changed their minds after the second volume.

    The fourth volume, “Story of a Lost Child”, comes out in English September 1. It’s miraculous. Suggest clearing your calendar.

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