Book by ELENA FERRANTE
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is complete with The Story of the Lost Child, making it possible to see the whole structure, which reveals itself in layers like Naples itself, where former cityscapes are buried by time, political violence, and natural disasters. Reading this final volume, it’s easy to forget that the first book, My Brilliant Friend, frames the entire work as a mystery—aside from the much-discussed secrecy of Ferrante, who uses a pen name, allows no photographs, and, with few exceptions, will only be interviewed via email or telephone. With this volume, Ferrante reminds us again that a question of authorship is embedded into the narrative—who is telling this story? Lila or Elena?
In My Brilliant Friend, Elena tells us her best friend Lila has erased all trace of herself at the age of 60. Elena then recounts their childhood together in the slums of Naples. Lila is brilliant, a precociously gifted writer with a captivating and erratic personality. Elena is also an excellent student, but she knows that Lila is the prodigy. Yet Lila’s parents don’t let her continue her education. Elena’s do—though with hardly more enthusiasm than Lila’s—and their paths diverge. Elena becomes a successful writer. Lila marries very young and stays in the violent neighborhood of their childhood. The first book drops us off after Lila’s shattering wedding, and by then, we’ve very likely forgotten the framing prologue about middle-aged Lila’s disappearance, so relentlessly compelling and immediate is the story of the girls’ deep and complicated friendship, which touches on issues of class, history, and the politics of feminism while holding fast to an intimate and brutal core.
Book 2, The Story of a New Name, takes us into young adulthood; Elena escapes Naples to the intellectual university life she craves and begins her career as a novelist, while Lila becomes a glamorous figure in the old neighborhood with new-found wealth and power. In the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Lila, having divorced her abusive husband, is struggling to bring up her young son while working in a factory. Elena marries a conventional professor from an intellectual family and has two daughters, but leaves them for a destructive relationship with Nino, Lila’s first love. The two women continue to be haunted by each other’s choices. Elena’s first novel was based upon Lila’s childhood notebook, which she destroyed after plundering it for material, but Lila remains the one person from whom Elena craves approval.
Elena reminds us at the beginning of the final volume that Lila’s abrupt disappearance motivated her to write their story. The Story of the Lost Child is told from Elena’s point of view, but in the opening pages, Elena writes with a hint of paranoia:
Only she can say if, in fact, she has managed to insert herself into this extremely long chain of words to modify my text, to purposely provide the missing links, to unhook others without letting it show, to say of me more than I want, more than I am able to say.
It’s possible. Over the years, Lila has become a self-taught computer genius. Ferrante ends this paragraph with an imagined dialogue with her friend, who says, “[F]orget it, Lenù, one doesn’t tell the story of an erasure.” But this is exactly what Ferrante is setting out to do. The book we are reading may in fact be told by both women, who are bound not only by lifelong friendship, but by rivalry. Is Lila taking back the narrative from her less-gifted, but published and successful friend, who has exploited their shared history for her greatest literary success? Is this true of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet itself, as well the fictional world within it? The sheer daring of this premise, which loops back on itself like a mobius strip, is hard to imagine.
Ferrante couldn’t possibly have known at the novels’ conception that these books would, in fact, become her greatest literary success. Or that she would produce a literary sensation late in life, as the character who shares her pen name does in the novel. Is life following art? Is this a meta-experiment in which Lila and Elena are two aspects of Italian women of a certain generation, imagined by a writer who will only divulge her pen name? While this final volume is driven by the disappearance of Lila’s daughter, you can’t help but wonder whether it is the daughter, the mother, or herself whom Elena is really trying to find.
There is a scene which unfolds like a childhood nightmare in the first book. Lila throws Elena’s beloved doll “Tina” into the cellar of the most feared man in the neighborhood, Don Achille Carracci. Elena takes revenge by throwing Lila’s doll after her own, neither doll to be recovered. In this volume, Elena and Lila give birth to daughters within weeks of each other, and Lila names her child, “Tina.” Elena reminds her that this was name of the doll Lila threw so maliciously into the cellar:
[Lila] touched her forehead as if she had a headache and said:
‘It’s true, but I didn’t do it on purpose.’
‘She was a beautiful doll—I was attached to her.”
‘My daughter is more beautiful.’”
This seems to be Lila’s way. She avoids examining the subterranean forces at work in their relationship: ruthless competition and cruelty, as well as love and loyalty. Yet there is a central event in this book which briefly reveals Lila’s true nature, and turns her tough exterior inside out. This is the devastating earthquake which hit Naples on November 23, 1980. Lila and Elena are together, both very pregnant, when the earthquake hits, and they take shelter inside Lila’s car, parked on the street. Both are terrified, but Lila cracks in a way that Elena has never seen before. “She emitted a sort of death rattle, eyes wide, she trembled, she caressed her stomach, she no longer believed in solid connections… she cried out that the car’s boundaries were dissolving,” When Elena tries to calm her by pointing out one of their neighbors, Marcello, who is driving out of the neighborhood, Lila says that “the boundaries of Marcello too, too, at the wheel were dissolving, the thing and the person were gushing out of themselves, mixing liquid metal and flesh. She used that term: dissolving boundaries.” This is more than the terror brought on by a powerful earthquake.
Elena writes of Lila after the earthquake,
However much she had always dominated all of us and had imposed and was still imposing a way of being, on pain of her resentment and fury, she perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself… Lila lost Lila, chaos seemed the only truth, and she—so active, so courageous, erased herself and, terrified, became nothing.
Lila, the working class woman, is in fact ruled by the unconscious forces which drive our perceptions, and Elena, the educated novelist, remains rooted in the material world. It is Lila who is using her rage as a weapon to control her own nature but is finally undone by her profound and intuitive understanding of the illusory nature of reality. As she tells Elena in this moment, “the fabric that I weave by day is unraveled by night, the head finds a way. But it’s not much use, the terror remains, it’s always in the crack between one normal thing and the other.” Lila is not mad or unhinged, but her perceptions are so heightened that it is impossible for her to live easily in the world. This heightened perception may also be the source of her brilliance, which Elena recognizes more than anyone.
Much has been written about the rage of the women in this quartet. (Can it still come as a surprise that women get angry too?) Lila and Elena share a tendancy to rage at the world, and more directly, at the men around them, using the Neapolitan dialect, which Elena returns to when she is angry. (Note: Ferrante does not actually write in dialect in these sections. In the Italian, as in the English translation by Ann Goldstein, we are instead told when characters are speaking in dialect.) But in this final volume, motherhood becomes as central to their relationship as rage—and both are angry mothers. It’s another arena in which they can both compete and care for one another.
The Story of the Lost Child opens with Elena resenting Lila’s judgment of her mothering. She writes, “Ah, I had my faults, but I was certainly more of a mother than she was.” In fact, Elena has left her husband and two young children to run off with Nino. She writes:
It was terrible to confess it, but I still wanted him. I loved him more than my own two daughters. At the idea of hurting him and of no longer seeing him, I withered painfully, the free and educated woman lost her petals, separated from the woman-mother, and the woman-mother was separated from the woman-lover, and the woman-lover from the furious whore, and we all seemed on the point of flying off in different directions.
Elena returns to the old neighborhood, and her attempted escape from her working class roots into the northern Italian intelligensia is both scorned and admired by Lila. Elena makes a new life in Naples with Nino while maintaining her career, but after her third child, she becomes frustrated and angry. “The girls and Naples have eaten me alive,” Elena writes (the italics are in the text). “I don’t study. I don’t write. I have lost all discipline.” Later, when Elena achieves wider recognition and the opportunities that come to a successful writer, she leaves her children with Lila:
A range of alluring possibilities opened up to me in the space of a few hours. The chains of motherhood weakened, sometimes I forgot to call Lila, to say goodnight to the girls. Only when I noticed that I would have been capable of living without them, did I return to myself, did I feel remorse.
We don’t like to think of mothers as choosing to live without their children because of their own ambition. It is still a dirty secret that mothers may be as capable of this as fathers. Yes, Elena feels remorse, she absolutely loves her three daughters, but she puts her career first. Lila takes the children and exacts an emotional price for it in her barely concealed resentment and dismissal of Elena’s literary success. No matter how much Elena may achieve, both women understand Lila has the finer mind and greater gift, no matter how much she may deny it. As Elena writes, “As usual, half a sentence of Lila’s was enough, and my brain recognized her aura, became active, liberated my intelligence.”
Friendship, hateship, loss, and finally erasure. By the end of this fourth book, Lila has suffered the worst loss that any parent can endure when Tina inexplicably vanishes in the time it takes to turn your head away. How the two women respond to this horrific event is the final crucible of their characters and sets in motion Lila’s own final disappearance.
In an interview in The Paris Review, Ferrante says, “Writing requires maximum ambition, maximum audacity, and programmatic disobedience.” Ferrante is a fearless writer, and in these books she is able to conjure the everyday world of demanding jobs, ex-husbands, diapers and shopping, simultaneously with that subterranean world where all of the boundaries dissolve. In this final volume, it becomes absolutely clear that this juxtaposition of realities which Ferrante portrays so well is the source of Lila’s brilliance and her limitations.
After the earthquake, Elena remains nervous of sleeping inside her building, but observes that Lila
immediately returned to work, to manipulate, motivate, deride, attack. I thought of that terror that in a few seconds had annihilated her, I saw the trace of that terror in her now habitual gesture of holding her hands around her stomach with the fingers spread. And I wondered apprehensively: who is she now, what can she become, how can she react? I said to her once, to underline that the bad moment had passed:
“The world has returned to its place.”
She replied teasingly:
It’s an insult to the work to call the Neapolitan Quartet a book about “women’s friendships.” Elena and Lila’s relationship has such power because they see each other with a fullness of perception that only they can share.
Rebecca Chace is the author of: Leaving Rock Harbor (novel), Capture the Flag (novel), and Chautauqua Summer (memoir).