If there’s one thing we do know about the author who writes under the name Elena Ferrante, it’s that she can’t seem to find a break from controversy. Last week the author was at the center of a firestorm over privacy when an Italian journalist claimed to have identified Ferrante as the translator Anita Raja. Now Ferrante has started a debate over whether a children’s book she’s about to publish in the United States is appropriate for children.
The book, “The Beach at Night,” was originally published in Italy in 2007 as a children’s title. Europa Editions, which is publishing the book in the U.S. on Nov. 1, recommends the book for 8-to-10-year-olds.
But the U.S. audio publisher, Blackstone, has deemed the book too dark and mature for young audiences. Its version, which is read by Natalie Portman and will also be released Nov. 1, includes an expletive, which also appears in the print edition.
Blackstone said it made its decision after reviewing the text, which contains not just the word “s--t” but also includes a scene about boys trying to see girls’ underwear and urinate on their feet.
Europa says it is marketing “The Beach at Night” to “Ferrante fans” — the main character, a doll named Celina, is related to “The Story of the Lost Child,” the concluding volume of Ferrante’s phenomenally best-selling Neapolitan series. The publisher said it did not consider changing any parts of the book for a young audience.
Listen to an audio clip of “The Beach at Night
The actor Natalie Portman reads from “The Beach at Night,” by Elena Ferrante
Even without the expletive, “The Beach at Night” is rattling. Narrated by Celina, the story deals with an array of difficult issues: abandonment, jealousy, death by drowning and fire. Celina has been left on a beach at night, seemingly forgotten by her owner, Mati, whose father has just bought the girl a cat named Minù. “I’m very sad, and angry, too,” Celine says. “I don’t like this cat Minù, in fact I hate him. Even his name is ugly. I hope he has diarrhea, and vomits, and stinks so much that Mati is grossed out and gets rid of him.”
In the audio version, which runs nearly 30 minutes, Portman’s haunting narration is told amid the sound of violins, crashing waves and the crackling of a fire. “I’m afraid,” Celine says, as a character called the Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset dumps her in a pile with a plastic pony, a bottle cap, a pen and a beetle on its back, wiggling its legs. Celina, too, soon finds herself struggling to survive amid mounting threats.
Ferrante fans may well find “The Beach at Night” intriguing, and it is certainly beautifully written. Translated from the Italian by the New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein, the book is full of evocative phrasings: The sea is “an elegant lady, with a white fringe of foam” that churns in a storm, its waves “running after one another and fighting to see which is the tallest.” Celina’s tale is powerfully told and complex. She must not only save herself from the beach attendant’s rake, a fire, a storm and the roiling sea that fills her mouth, she must also salvage her voice, the words that her 5-year-old owner has taught her. It is this sense of self that is the most valuable piece of Celina, and the one thing that the beach attendant wants most, so he can sell it.
Though compelling and vivid, the book is also deeply chilling, and its vaguely sexual undertones are troubling. To steal Celina’s words, the beach attendant “extends his gnarled, dirty hands, picks me up, tries to open my mouth, shakes me,” Celina says. Then “the Big Rake appears to agree and sticks his teeth out even farther, as if to open up my chest.” Holding Celina, the attendant “clicks his tongue and from between his lips a small Hook emerges, like a raindrop. The Hook, hanging on a disgusting thread of saliva, drops down until it enters my mouth. I quickly collect all Mati’s words and hide them in my chest.”
Children’s literature is full of frightening characters — the Big Bad Wolf, Captain Hook, Cruella de Vil — but the Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset feels more sinister. He’s the stuff of real nightmares, the kind of character you might find in a news story about a lost or abused child, not a fable. In one particularly scary moment, he is shown crunching on the doll’s written name, the end of it hanging over a black mustache that looks like “lizard tails.”
“Mati, mommy, where are you?” Celine cries. “I’m your doll, don’t abandon me. You know what, Mati, if you don’t come and save me right away, if you let me burn, I’ll cry.” Not even Natalie Portman’s mellifluous voice can soften that blow.
It would be too terrible if Celina were to perish in her tormentor’s mouth or by any other means, and thankfully — spoiler alert — she does not. Instead, she gets a very hard lesson in getting past jealousy, in realizing that she is, in fact, wanted.
But young readers may be too far under the covers to hear that.
Nora Krug is a writer and editor for Book World.
By Elena Ferrante
Europa. 48 pp. $13