She Thinks She Is The Boss: The Story of the Lost Child
The Story of the Lost Child
by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)
Published September, 2015
Italy, July 2015. In one of the many delightful old towns dotting the Tuscan hills, a stone’s throw from a seventeenth-century fountain whose wayward spurts and trickles are produced by a child Dionysus squashing grapes, a twenty-something gelatologist works wonders out of a hole-in-the-wall. Holding out a taster spoon to us he says proudly, ‘This is made with Amedei chocolate. Very expensive ingredient! But it’s necessary. I want it to be the greatest.’ And it’s true that his gelato tastes better than anything we tried in Florence. A heatwave is on. In Rome, zoo animals are eating ice-blocks to keep cool. In Milan, judges have given permission to barristers to take off their heavy black robes in court. Our gelatologist has become a very popular young man. An assistant is hired to help him satisfy the high demand. She has fair hair and pale eyes – a modern-day Botticelli in a soda jerk’s hat. She scrapes our gusti into coppette with insouciance. She does not acknowledge us as regular customers, but neither she does she display any disapproval of our sugary diet or bad Italian. She is simply somewhere else, or wishes that she were. And it is easy to believe that she is destined for greater things than this. One afternoon we turn into the shop to find the gelatologist gripping the Botticelli’s chin between his thumb and index finger. Her body is still facing the street but her head has been wrenched to meet his gaze. He is firing off in a rapid, animated Italian; she is enduring the assault through glassy eyes. But now he notices us. His face melts to a smile. Then he says with the confidence of somebody who believes that any misgivings we might be feeling about the scene we have just witnessed will automatically lift with the information he is about to deliver, ‘This girl … She thinks she is the boss!’
It’s worth wondering why readers respond to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels the way they do. Which is to say that these four books haven’t just been read, enjoyed and praised: they have been devoured, adored, rhapsodised about, eagerly awaited – and now there will be no more of them, mourned. Well might we talk of ‘Ferrante Fever’, for there has hardened a core set of symptoms: neglect of responsibilities, reduced productivity, sleep disturbance, difficulty rising from a seated position. The condition is more common in women than in men but, curiously (well, at least for those people who believe that Jennifer Weiner’s ‘goldfinching’ theory holds merit), as common in critics as in readers. Accounts of reading the quartet in reviews and on blogs now have a familiar ring: I haven’t read a novel that quickly since [insert favourite book of childhood or adolescence here]. I abandoned every obligation that threatened to keep me apart from the books, even my [(a) job (b) dog (c) personal hygiene]. Elena is my friend and my relationship with her is so [choose your own superlative] that nobody else can feel the way I do about her. You [bestie, aunty, total stranger on public transport] must read her books, and I’m really jealous that they’re still all ahead of you. Ah yes, me too. I have left my three year-old to paint with watercolours directly onto her mattress in order to guzzle an extra couple of chapters during the daytime. I have donated copies of the books to people’s coffee tables like Gideon bibles in motel rooms.
The experience of reading the Neapolitan novels is, in a word, intimate. How exactly do books – lines of ‘black markings that look like insect shit,’ as Lila puts it towards the end of The Story of the Lost Child, the final instalment of the quartet – make intimates of us? For her part, Ferrante thinks it has something to do with the decision she made nearly 25 years ago to all but retreat from view as an author: as she puts it, to do nothing ‘that might involve the public engagement of [her] personally’ except an ‘indispensable minimum’ of written interviews. (An aside: is Ferrante inclined these days to grant interviews at a frequency that exceeds any reasonable estimation of what this actually amounts to? I count four interviews in English-language outlets over the past six months.) For those of us who have grown up chewing on the examples of Salinger and Pynchon, this seems a surprising explanation. Modern authors who achieved anonymity and other varieties of absence from their texts found it to be a short cut to what might be construed as the complete opposite of intimacy: self-sufficiency, prestige, even immortality. Certainly, they hoped it would guarantee these things: recall Flaubert in his letters: ‘The artist must be in his work as God is in creation, invisible and all-powerful; one must sense him everywhere but never see him’. Recall also Joyce as Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, echoing Flaubert: ‘The personality of the artist…impersonalises itself. Like the God of the creation, [he] remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails’. Then recall DeLillo, with his variation on the theme: ‘When a writer doesn’t show his face he becomes a local symptom of God’s famous reluctance to appear.’
In a recent Paris Review interview Ferrante makes it clear that hers is a very different kind of disappearing act: ‘[W]riting becomes intimate both for the one who produces it and for the one who enjoys it’, she claims, only if the reader is ‘allowed to extract the author’s physiognomy from every word or grammatical violation or syntactical knot in the text, just as the reader will extract the sense of a character, a landscape, a feeling, or an action’. Ferrante rejects the masculinist-modernist fantasy that the author cannot and should not be met inside the text, and that formal experimentation assists in this escape. On the contrary, she insists that in her novels flesh has been made word. In the 1970s and 1980s French feminist critics such as Luce Irigaray were calling for the materialisation of the female body in writing, maintaining that discarnation had been a precondition men had set on authorship, the noxious corollary of which was the invisibility of women’s lived experience in literature. A connecting line can be drawn from these arguments to Ferrante. She has acknowledged in interviews that she is ‘a passionate reader of feminist thought’, that it ‘fires [her] imagination’ and ‘pushes [her] to reflect on the use of literature’, and has singled out Irigaray as someone ‘to whom [she] owe[s] a great deal’. Even without the first-person testimony asserting that she is ‘sympathetic to the ideas of difference feminism’ the debt would have been apparent; the third volume of the Neapolitan novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – with, amongst other things, its channeling of Carla Lonzi, whose ideas on art and culture were very much in keeping with Irigaray’s – is in no small part a tribute to the feminism that has shaped her thinking.
Irigaray understands that ‘language, however formal it may be, feeds on blood, on flesh, on material elements’ and argues that efforts to pretend otherwise have constituted an attempt to write the maternal out of existence. She calls the mother-daughter relationship the ‘missing pillar of our culture’, and one could do worse than to sum up Ferrante’s project as one fired by an urgency to bring that pillar out of the dark and into the light, to inventorise, without squinting, the mother-daughter relationship in all its permutations and phases, from symbiosis with a newborn to revulsion for a mother’s crooked gait, from little girls feeding worms to their dolls to grandmothers whispering apostasies to a favourite daughter on their deathbed, as Lenù’s mother does in The Story of the Lost Child: ‘You’re right not to baptise the baby, it’s nonsense,’ she says, ‘now that I’m dying I know that I’ll turn into little bits and pieces’. All of Ferrante’s protagonists are daughters and mothers both, not to mention wives, lovers, friends, workers and intellectuals too, which gives her exploration of the dyad additional complexity. Having two women at the centre of the Neapolitan novels means there’s never any consensus reached on what it feels like to play these roles. Childbirth is a case in point. For Lenù giving birth is ‘a wonderful experience’, ‘a physical pleasure so piercing that I still know no other pleasure that compares to it’; for Lila it is as if ‘your own body [is] angry with you, and in fact rebels against you until it becomes its own worst enemy, until it achieves the most terrible pain possible’.
Irigaray’s notion of a parler-femme also goes some way to account for what we find in Ferrante’s seven novels to date. From Troubling Love (1992) to The Story of the Lost Child they speak of and to women, and achieve this by, at every turn, avowing the female body, its functions, desires and agonies. The peculiar power of Ferrante’s novels comes from her decision to tell stories out of that body. Their point of origin is usually in the ebb and flow of the humours, the sexual or violent urges, the gut reaction or the nervous impulses. Near the start of The Story of the Lost Child Lenù asks her mother, ‘Why are you having a lemonade?’ Her mother spits an answer, ‘Because of you a vein in my stomach ruptured. Yes, you’ve killed this body’. A little later on Lenù sees blood dripping from under her fading mother’s black dress and responds by snatching her infant daughter Imma out of her arms ‘with an instinctive jerk’. Ferrante never fails to register the body’s unruly workings in the world that shuns them as abject: the stain of menstrual blood on an evening dress, a baby’s piss on the lap in which it is sitting, semen in a knotted condom on the floor of a daughter’s bedroom. Lila mocks what she perceives to be her friend’s desire to transcend live matter:
‘Eh…what a fuss for a name: famous or not, it’s only a ribbon tied around a sack randomly filled with blood, flesh, words, shit, and petty thoughts…. I untie the ribbon – Elena Greco –and the sack stays there, it functions the same, haphazardly, of course, without virtues or vices, until it breaks.’
Ferrante has explained in a 2002 l’Unità interview that she thinks of the good writer as a female version of doubting Thomas who ‘most decisively st[i]ck[s] a finger in certain wounds’ she – not somebody else – has ‘that are still infected, and without a safe distance’. The wounds explored in her novels thus far have been caused by the rupture of an intimate, usually blood or connubial, relation: the death of one’s mother in Troubling Love, the betrayal of a husband in The Days of Abandonment (2005), the desertion of one’s own children in The Lost Daughter (2006), and the ‘vanish[ing,]…leav[ing] not so much as a hair anywhere in this world’ of a best friend who was closer than a sister in the Neapolitan novels. Each of these events occasions an undoing that plays itself out in and on the body as grief, anger, lassitude, desire, and a host of other emotions and effects and in turn expedites the bubbling to the surface of all sorts of furtive truths. In The Story of the Lost Child alone Lenù confesses that, among other things, she has reviled her mother, loved her children unequally, enjoyed her friend’s daughter more than her own, got more satisfaction from writing and being a literary celebrity than caring for her children, fretted more about a friend’s arrest than her daughter’s exams and, for a while there, would have chosen her lover over and above everything else. Honesty is an impetus in Lenù’s writing too, as she explains to a group of students at a Florence university in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: ‘I spoke of the necessity of recounting frankly every human experience, including – I said emphatically – what seems unsayable and what we do not speak of even to ourselves’. Intimacy for the reader is created by proximity to these vulnerable, sometimes undone, bodies and to the secret-sharing that inevitably results. It is ‘sharing’ because a distinct pleasure of these novels comes from Ferrante’s women serving as a lighted mirror for the reader. Gigliola sums up the typical response when she says to Elena in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay:
‘I read your book, it’s wonderful, how brave you were to write those things… [Y]ou wrote them really well, Lenù, just the way it happens, with the same filthiness. They are secrets that you only know if you’re a woman.’
But confidences exchanged cannot entirely explain the level of intimacy the Neapolitan novels generate, though it is certainly a major factor. Ask any couples therapist: building intimacy also entails making the other person feel safe, at ease. When the person in question is a reader, safety and ease translate as her ability to get lost in a book, to move through its pages without the fear of being caught short by it. Ferrante creates this kind of environment by satisfying just about every old-fashioned expectation readers have of novels. The quartet is presented in a familiar manner, it is largely linear, there is no sustained stylistic excess. It is not to any great extent quotable by the sentence, a quality it shares with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-part autofiction My Struggle, to which it is often compared – though the similarities, upon examination, are largely superficial: namely, that they are series-novels that have come out at roughly the same time and they seem pretty clearly to use as their material the author’s real-life experiences. The Neapolitan novels have a beginning, a middle and end. They supply those staple narrative ingredients: plot, character and setting. Conventional literary devices are deployed not merely to hold readers’ attention – the frame story, foreshadowing, sudden reversals, false documents – but to propel them through the pages speedily – cliffhangers, recaps, narrative resolution. Chapters short enough to make you think you can squeeze another one in before bedtime – or before your three-year-old gets up to mischief – also make these books fast-going. Transparency of meaning does too: the reader doesn’t have to be particularly hard-working to access these fictions – the devil on your shoulder is not whispering in your ear that a box set would offer more immediate gratification. There is relief in all of this. With the Neapolitan novels readers can, in short, let their guard down. Ferrante has said that she herself prefers novels ‘where the writing is clear, honest, and where the facts – the facts of ordinary life – are extraordinarily gripping when read’. When an interviewer in 2002 accused her of producing ‘private writing’ that does ‘not seem to written for the reader’ but for ‘the page (or the computer) or [her]self’ she retorted, ‘No, I don’t think so. I write so that my books will be read’.
If there is a comfortable, somewhat nineteenth-century feel about these novels, then it also has a lot to do with the fact that Lenù is a reliable narrator – the exception rather than the rule in literary fiction over the past, say, one hundred years. As narrator, she bears some resemblance to Esther Summerson from Bleak House: her version of events is tinted, to be sure, but isn’t something readers are, at every moment, bidden to be suspicious of. We look at Lenù, we look at Lenù second-guessing herself from time to time by wondering what Lila would say or think if she were the one telling the story, but we look through her just as much, as if she were a window on the world. It is she who gives us Lila, the Solaras, the working-class neighbourhood in which she grows up and to which she returns for fifteen years in The Story of the Lost Child, Naples, Florence, the publishing world of Milan, the intellectual Left, the ‘Years of Lead’ in Italy. We accept the reality of these people, places and events just as we do Esther’s Mr Jarndyce, the Jellyby family, the English court of Chancery, the city of London. Only – and it’s a crucial difference that changes much – Lenù is older, better educated and much more experienced in the ways of the world than her Dickensian counterpart. And, still more crucially, she is forthright. In fact the intimacy we feel reading the Neapolitan novels might be the result of a grand act of noticing on Ferrante’s part, which is that the nineteenth-century novel – dedicated to delivering direct pleasure to the reader in a way that has been largely relinquished by the literary fiction that has followed – never once gave us a woman who spoke with total candour. Not even the Brontës in all their wildness and daring showed us a girl at menarche washing out her bloody underpants and putting them back on wet for fear of punishment. Nor did they capture women’s anger as a hail of obscenities, as Ferrante does in this passage from The Story of the Lost Child, which occurs not long after Lenù stumbles upon Nino having sex with their housekeeper in the bathroom while their baby Imma sits nappy-less in her playpen:
I couldn’t bear anything anymore… And then the presence of my daughters in the car clashed with the images of coitus that were constantly before me, with the odour of sex that was still in my nostrils, with the rage that was beginning to advance, along with the most vulgar dialect. Nino had fucked the servant and then gone to his appointment, not giving a shit about me or even about his daughter: Ah, what a piece of shit… He had thought: I can’t give up my pleasure just because that shit can be a pain in the ass…. And surely he judged as philistine – that adjective was still very widespread in our world – my possible reaction. Philistine, philistine. I even knew the line he would resort to in sophisticated justification: What’s the harm, the flesh is weak and I’ve read all the books. Exactly those words, nasty son of a bitch. Rage had opened up a pathway in the horror. I shouted at Imma – even at Imma – to be quiet. When I reached Lila’s house I hated Nino as until that moment I had never hated anyone.
Proponents of écriture féminine imagined that bringing women’s subjectivity into fiction would inevitably mean breaking with existing conventions. Ferrante, however, chooses not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. She takes what she needs from past and popular literature because she understands that their effects are incredibly valuable – that a writer would be crazy to lose them, let alone renounce them. As Ferrante said in her Paris Review interview:
I think of literary tradition as a single, large depository, where anyone who wants to write goes to choose what is useful to him… I renounce nothing that can give pleasure to the reader, not even what is considered old, trite, vulgar, not even the devices of genre fiction.
One of the reasons Ferrante is able to bring these two things – nineteenth-century readability and twentieth-century female frankness – together so successfully in the Neapolitan novels is because they are told retrospectively. The women of her first three novels – Delia, Olga and Leda – are portrayed in the midst of their respective tumults. These novels are, consequently, intense affairs. But the narrative scope of the Neapolitan novels – nearly sixty years – means that difficult times are part of a much longer story entailing many other highs and lows. Thirty years tranquilise the telling of turmoil. Any falling-apart happened years ago; the story is being told by a woman who has had to put herself back together again, and more than once. The result is simultaneously a retroversion and revolution of our reading practices. What Lenù’s editor says about her second novel in The Story of the Lost Child might stand for the Neapolitan novels as a whole: ‘It is, from the first line to the last, pure pleasure of narration…. It’s a harsh novel, he emphasised, I would say masculine, but paradoxically also delicate, in other words a big step forward’.
And yet The Story of the Lost Child does take the wraps off some more serious limits of Lenù’s understanding. A first limit is exposed by Lila. This is unsurprising in and of itself – she has a lifelong habit of cutting Lenù down to size – but this time she doesn’t do it on purpose. Up until the final installment Lenù has had the contextual knowledge and sympathetic imagination to conjure Lila for readers – at least as well as any narrator could possibly hope to do in a novel-series that has as a founding premise the Heraclitean idea that change is the only constant. Despite, or perhaps because of, her suite of complex feelings for her friend – admiration, loyalty, envy, frustration, and so on – a sense of Lila’s ‘brilliance’ is persuasively conveyed: she is magnetic, ingenious, fearless, fiery and unpredictable, she can cut to the quick and sees through things – her eyes are more or less permanently ‘narrowed to slits’ like a bird of prey. The accounts Lenù offers of Lila’s behaviour and choices – her pursuit of Stefano, her affair with Nino, her dealings with the Solaras, her interest in the new computer technology, her relationship with Enzo – are sincere and thoroughgoing enterprises: sincere because she genuinely wants to understand Lila, thoroughgoing because she is aware that any assessment is provisional, must be subject to constant updates and revisions. Where there are absences and uncertainties Lila herself helps to fill in the gaps: via diaries she entrusts to Lenù at the start of The Story of a New Name; via a late-night monologue she delivers from her sick-bed in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. But Tina’s disappearance into thin air on 16 September 1984, aged four, about three-quarters of the way through The Story of the Lost Child tests Lenù’s powers as a narrator. She has now known Lila for 33 years. ‘[O]nly a layer of floor’ and ‘two flights of stairs’ separates them at this point in their lives. Their youngest daughters have grown up – as they themselves did – in each other’s pockets. Lenù’s alertness to Tina leads to her being the first person to notice she is missing. Yet Lenù cannot fathom the depths of Lila’s grief.
Ten years after Tina’s disappearance, Lenù is taken aback when she learns that Lila still suffers acutely, that she ‘remain[s] at the centre of her horror, without any distraction’: ‘A decade hadn’t served to calm her, her brain couldn’t find a quiet corner for her daughter’. It is other people who now have to explain Lila to her and, consequently, to us – Enzo, Carmen, even, of all people, Pietro, who for the longest time ‘had negative opinions about her’. It is his letter that offers consolation to Lila, it is to him that Lila reveals the reason for roaming all over Naples, to ‘learn all she could about’ the city. ‘She’s trying everything possible to engage her mind and emerge from her grief,’ Pietro tells Lenù, ‘but she’s unable to’. The realisation that she ‘ha[s] perceived almost nothing’ of Lila’s torment exhorts Lenù to strive to enter into her friend’s state of mind. This effort produces, arguably, the single most striking sentence in the whole of the fourth book. It is striking not only because of its extraordinary length and not because Lenù takes on Lila’s voice in the first person – a peculiarity of Lenù’s narration as a whole – but because it contains those ‘grammatical violation[s] and syntactical knot[s]’ that Ferrante has told us mark the spot of her own ‘naked physiognomy’:
I wanted her to say in the authentic Neapolitan of our childhood: What the fuck do you want, Lenù, I’m like this because I lost my daughter, and maybe she’s alive, maybe she’s dead, but I can’t bear either of those possibilities, because if she’s alive she’s alive far away from me, she’s in a place where horrible things are happening to her, which I see clearly, I see them all day and all night as if they were happening right before my eyes; but if she’s dead I’m dead too, dead here inside, a death more unbearable than real death, which is death without feeling, while this death forces you to feel everything, every day, to wake up, wash, dress, eat and drink, work, talk to you who don’t understand or won’t understand, to you who even if I just see you, all set, fresh from the hairdresser, with your daughters who do well in school, who always do everything perfectly, who aren’t spoiled even by this place of shit, which, rather, seems to do them good – makes them even more confident, even more arrogant, even more sure they have the right to take everything – all this makes me more furious than I already was so go, go, leave me in peace, Tina would have been better than all of you, and instead they took her, and I can’t bear it anymore.
It is entirely possible that a mother who has lost her only daughter and doesn’t know why might think such thoughts. As an empathetic exercise it is more than a valiant attempt. However, 24 years on, the 66-year-old Lenù considers it a failure:
In fact, as I think back, in that phase she was less aggressive than in other periods of our story. Maybe the outburst I hoped for was made up of my own feelings, which therefore hindered me from seeing the situation clearly and made Lila even more elusive. Sometimes I wondered if she had in her mind something unutterable that I wasn’t even capable of imagining.
With another two decades of friendship under her belt, and despite making the episode the subject of a book called A Friendship – a book Lila hated – Lenù must acknowledge that this part of Lila’s story eludes her: ‘Lila felt, I think, as if a limb, which until a moment before had been part of her body, had lost form and substance without undergoing any trauma. But I don’t know the suffering that derived from it well enough, nor can I imagine it’. The final installment is filled with such admissions of defeat.
But why shouldn’t such a grief as Lila’s pose an insurmountable challenge to understanding? The catalogue of potential human miseries is long, but it must surely rank amongst the worst things that can befall a person: the loss of a child, and without even a ‘lifeless body to cling to in despair’. The basic facts of the narrative as a whole are not thrown into radical doubt by Lenù’s limits. It is not a case of weaving for three books only to unravel the fabric in the fourth. The sign that Ferrante has no real desire to unpick Lenù’s narrative to the point of unreliability is that she turns down too many opportunities to do precisely that. No author seriously interested in a postmodernist-style destabilisation of the narrative would, for example, have Lila threaten that she will ‘come looking in [Lenù’s] computer’ ‘read [her] files’ and ‘erase them’ if she writes about her, and then close the door completely on this possibility in an Epilogue. Ultimately, to read the Neapolitan novels in a spirit of distrust doesn’t get you far. That Ferrante sets limits on the rewards of reading suspiciously is one of the reasons the Neapolitan novels make for such an intimate experience. As Rita Felski has recently argued, suspicious reading goes hand in hand with detachment, sangfroid, a lack of interest, but Lila’s grief is something we are meant to really feel.
Another limit of Lenù’s understanding worth noting is exposed by the transformation of Alfonso Carracci in The Story of the Lost Child. It is easy to see Alfonso as little more than a bit player in the first three novels – no more important than, say, Carmen Peluso. But the final installment upends that assessment. With the benefit of hindsight the Lenù-Lila dyad is revealed to have always been, in fact, a triangle, only with one out of focus or shrouded corner – Alfonso. His circumstances have mirrored the friends’: he is their age, he was as promising a student as they were at school, he has experienced the institution of marriage as restrictive and cruel. Even more crucially, he performs the role of understudy to both women throughout the books: Lenù uses Alfonso as a surrogate Lila while she is playing the neighbourhood Jackie Kennedy and Alfonso comes to work closely with Lila at both the Solara shoe shop and Basic Sight during the extended period that Lenù is studying in Pisa and living in Florence. In The Story of the Lost Child this game of substitution is taken to a new level as Alfonso morphs to become ‘Lila-like’ with not merely her approval but her encouragement: she herself calls him the ‘shadow of my shadow’. Lila would appear to be motivated, at least in part, by a desire to give the obsessed Michele Solara the slip by supplying him with a replacement for herself, in the process wreaking revenge on both him and his brother Marcello – a scheme that, at least for a while, succeeds. Nonetheless, Alfonso credits Lila with his own self-actualisation:
‘The most beautiful thing she did for me was to impose clarity on me… I said to myself: I’m another thing, a thing that is hidden in the veins, it has no name and waits. But I didn’t know what this thing was and especially didn’t know how it could be me, until Lila forced me – I don’t know how to say it – to take a little of her. You know what she’s like, she said: start here and see what happens; so we were mixed up – it was a lot of fun – and now I’m not what I was and I’m not Lila, either, but another person who is slowly defining himself.’
The person Alfonso is slowly becoming is a woman: he arrives at Lenù’s house for dinner in make-up and a dress; he begins ‘speaking of himself using the feminine’ at Basic Sight. As a homosexual – the reader has known since Gino’s vengeful disclosure in the first book – Alfonso represented a model of manhood that proved the relationship between the sexes need not necessarily be antagonistic, or worse. Teenager Lenù quickly identified him as ‘soothing, that type of human being, rare in the neighbourhood, from whom you know you needn’t expect any cruelty’ in My Brilliant Friend. Looking back on this time in The Story of the Lost Child, she recognises that ‘even if [she] had never been aware that he was different, [she] was fond of him precisely because he wasn’t like the other boys, precisely because of that peculiar alienation from the male behaviours of the neighbourhood’. But as Alfonso ‘f[i]ght[s] virility by becoming more feminine’, Lenù finds she is at a complete loss to account for him, and regular interaction with him over time does not make understanding any easier:
How disorienting his looks were. He was stylishly dressed, and his long black hair, tied in a ponytail, showed off the grace of his features, but there was something in his gestures, in his face, that I couldn’t understand, something unexpected that made me uneasy.
And five years later she is no clearer:
I looked at Alfonso – in whose face, in whose habits, the feminine and the masculine continually broke boundaries with effects that one day repelled me, the next moved me, and always alarmed me.
When Lenù hears that Alfonso’s beaten-up body has washed up on a beach at Coroglio, her response is to immediately divest his memory of his post-pubescent life:
When I realised that it was all brutally true I was seized by a grief that wouldn’t go away. I saw him again as he had been in our school days, gentle, attentive to others, beloved by Marisa, tormented by Gino, the pharmacist’s son. Sometimes I even recalled him behind the counter at the grocery during his summer vacations, when he was obliged to do a job he detested. But I cut away the rest of his life, I knew little about it, I felt it as confused. I couldn’t think of him as what he had become, every recent encounter faded, I even forgot the period when he worked in the shoe store in Piazza dei Martiri.
The Neapolitan novels catalogue what life has been like for those who were born woman in the twentieth century. They assert that, despite the enormous changes brought about by the women’s liberation movement, the relationship between men and women continues to be hostile and unequal. This state of affairs is corroborated in all domains of life, from socialist party meetings to Florentine master bedrooms – and, indeed, continues to this day in Tuscan gelato shops. The story of what life has been like for those who were born feeling like they were woman in the twentieth century, however, is there in outline only. Lenù recognises Alfonso as kith not kin – and perhaps there’s truth in that because he grew up with the world thinking he was a man and treating him as one, which surely makes a not inconsiderable difference. Towards the end of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay Lenù writes a treatise that, using the story of Ish and Isha’h to make the argument, contends that women are fabricated by men yet she is uneasy when faced with the ‘man-woman’ that Alfonso has become. Is it because the stories of cis women are yet to be properly told? Is it because Alfonso represents a further ‘expan[sion] into the feminine’ that Lenù tells Mariarosa is a common objective of men in general? Is it because Lenù is wedded to an exclusionary category of woman that won’t make much sense if sex chromosomes and gender socialisation are no longer taken into account? Ferrante, through Lenù, appears to be mulling on these ideas, for The Story of the Lost Child is highly conscious that a seismic shift in the way we understand gender is en train, one that will make the difference feminism she has pledged allegiance to outdated. But the next generation of women, too, are contesting second-wave feminist attitudes and assumptions. At the end of the novel Lenù gets a glimpse into her own obsolescence when her grown-up daughters – ‘very smart girls who haven’t encountered a single one of the difficulties [she] faced’ – read aloud ‘playfully’ passages from her writings to their male partners on a visit home to Italy:
Probably none of them had ever read one, certainly I had never seen them do so, nor had they ever said anything to me about them…. Those books originated in the climate in which I had lived, in what had influenced me, in the ideas that had impressed me. I had followed my time, step by step, inventing stories, reflecting. I had pointed out evils, I had staged them. Countless times I had anticipated redemptive changes that had never arrived. I had used the language of every day to indicate things of every day. I had stressed certain themes: work, class conflicts, feminism, the marginalised. Now I was hearing my sentences chosen at random and they seemed embarrassing. Elsa – Dede was more respectful, Imma more cautious – was reading in an ironic tone from my first novel, she read from the story about the invention of women by men, she read from books with many prizes. Her voices skillfully highlighted flaws, excesses, tones that were too exclamatory, the aged ideologies that I had supported as indisputable truths. Above all she paused with amusement on the vocabulary, she repeated two or three words that had long since passed out of fashion and sounded foolish. What was I witnessing? An affectionate mockery in the Neapolitan manner – certainly my daughter had learned that tone there – which, however, line by line, was becoming a demonstration of the scant value of all those volumes, sitting there along with their translations?
The point perhaps is that all understanding – single perceptions through to totalising philosophies and ideologies – is ever and always a temporary, imperiled thing, that no one – and no idea – can escape falling into desuetude.
There is no reason to doubt the fact that ‘Elena Ferrante’ is a woman but of all the theories about her true identity the one that appeals to me most, at least, is that she is a ‘man-woman’ of a different kind. Some pundits have suggested that a married couple is responsible for her novels: either the translator Anita Raja and her novelist-husband Domenico Starnone or Edizioni E/O publishers Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola. This theory appeals because the Neapolitan novels are, at their core, a great hymn sung to creative collaboration. True, collaborations between men and women are fraught in the series: it is usually the case that women find themselves behind the scenes, eliciting little direct reward. Upon closer inspection of the quartet none of the characters’ achievements are theirs alone: Cerullo shoes depends as much upon Fernando and, to a lesser extent, Rino’s skills as shoemakers as Lila’s ingenuity as a designer; Adele champions the careers of the Airota men; Nino’s political career is built on women’s domestic labour and the patronage of powerful people. As for Lenù’s career as a writer, it is powered by Lila. At 22 Lenù rereads ‘The Blue Fairy’, a story Lila wrote aged ten after they read Louise May Alcott’s Little Women together, and recognises it as ‘the secret heart’ of her first book. A late-career revival of interest in Lenù’s writing is achieved thanks to the publication of A Friendship, a book that exploits Lila’s grief over Tina. Running ‘a small but promising publishing house’ in Turin in middle-age, Lenù fantasises about co-writing a book with Lila:
I would have liked Lila to call me one day and say: I have a manuscript, a notebook, a zibaldone, in other words a text of mine that I’d like you to read and help me arrange. I would have read it immediately. I would have worked to give it a proper form, probably, passage by passage, I would have ended up rewriting it.
It is a dream that very briefly comes true in The Story of the Lost Child. Together they sit at Lila’s computer and write a newspaper feature exposing the criminal doings of the Solara brothers:
[D]azzling, hypnotic segments began to lengthen, sentences that I said, sentences that she said, our volatile discussions were imprinted on the dark well of the screen like wakes without foam. Lila wrote, I would reconsider. Then with one key she erased, with others she made an entire block of light disappear, and made it reappear higher up or lower down in a second. But right afterward it was Lila who changed her mind, and everything was alerted again, in a flash… Our heads collided – for the last time, now that I think of it – one against the other, and merged until they were one.
In writing together in this way the two friends become one. The computer’s ‘ghostly moves’ erase all trace of who said what. It is a communion Lenù aches for again in old age. At the start of The Story of the Lost Child Lenù reveals that her narrative has been written by her out of a desire to relive this moment, that she longs for Lila to make good on her threat of many years prior to steal into her computer and ‘insert herself into this extremely long chain of words to modify this text, to purposely supply the missing links, to unhook others without letting it show’. ‘I wish for this intrusion,’ she says, ‘I’ve hoped for it ever since I began to write our story’. Lenù concludes that this has not, in fact, occurred:
I finished [my story] and patiently reread it not so much to improve the quality of the writing as to find out if there are even a few lines where it’s possible to trace the evidence that Lila entered my text and decided to contribute to writing it. But I have had to acknowledge that all these pages are mine alone.
But is this really the case? The arrival by post of the two dolls, Tina and Nu, thrown into Don Achille’s cellar 58 years ago and lost, an episode that had sealed the friendship and, to a large extent the fates, of Lila and Lenù suggests perhaps not. Did Lila, like Leda in The Lost Daughter, somehow retrieve the dolls and decide to keep them to all to herself? If so, is Lila saying through their return, ‘Do you see now? I was controlling the strings of “our story” all along. I wrote you as much as you wrote me’. Or she might equally be saying, ‘And still you do not know everything there is to know about me – despite A Friendship, despite this new narrative running to over 2000 pages’.
Whatever the meaning of the dolls, the fact remains that co-writing exceeds the page in the Neapolitan novels. People are formed and reformed in relation to other people. The Neapolitan novels would seem to be confirming Lila’s world-view of ‘dissolving margins’ – the feeling she has that ‘the outlines of people’ are not firm but can ‘dissolve, disappear’, that they can lose their ‘edges and [be] poured into [others], into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing’. This is the arguably the major point of difference between Ferrante and Knausgaard: Lenù is given substance as an individual by passing through Lila – as well as her mother, Nino, Pietro, Adele, Franco and indeed every character she comes into contact with during the course of the novels. Karl Ove is, by contrast, a far less dynamic self. He is who he is. Much of the drama of My Struggle is due to the fact that Karl Ove cannot bend to the company he, by force or by choice, keeps. His unbreachability makes people feel uncomfortable around him, distant from him – and vice versa. His struggle is, in essence, to assert his unchanging self in the world without compromise. For Ferrante, however, we are nothing less than reconstituted by our intimacy with others. Books can work in much the same way – and hers do.
Felski, Rita, The Limits of Critique (University of Chicago Press, 2015)
Ferrante, Elena, My Brilliant Friend, trans. Ann Goldstein (Text, 2015).
—The Days of Abandonment, trans. Ann Goldstein (Text, 2015).
—The Lost Daughter, trans. Ann Goldstein (Text, 2015).
—The Story of a New Name, trans. Ann Goldstein (Text, 2015).
—Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, trans. Ann Goldstein (Text, 2015).
—Troubling Love, trans. Ann Goldstein (Text, 2015).
Ferri, Eva (ed.), Fragments: Elena Ferrante on Writing, Reading, and Anonymity, trans. Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2003).
Ferri, Sandro and Sandra, ‘Elena Ferrante: Art of Fiction No. 228’, The Paris Review, 212, Spring 2015
Irigaray, Luce, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill (Continuum, 2005).
Irigaray, Luce and Marder, Michael (eds.), Building a New World, Luce Irigaray: Teaching II (Palgrave, 2015).
Knausgaard, Karl Ove, A Death in the Family: My Struggle Volume 1, (Vintage, 2013).
Weiner, Jennifer, ‘If you enjoyed a good book and you’re a woman, the critics think you’re wrong’, The Guardian, 25 November 2015