If you were looking for a figure to spearhead Women in Translation Month, a contemporary female writer whose work has appeal in English, you could do worse than opt for the elusive and enigmatic Elena Ferrante (of course, the publicity posters might be a bit of a problem). From a small core of die-hard followers, her fan base appears to have expanded every year, helped by the success of My Brilliant Friend and its sequels in the Neapolitan Novels series. So, with the final book of the four about to be released, I’d expect that there are a lot of people out there waiting to see how the story turns out. I won’t spoil that for you, but there’s one thing I can assure you of before we begin today’s post – it’s a great way to round off the series :)
By the way, if you haven’t yet tried the other novels in the series, you may wish to avoid my review. Seriously – go and read the other books first…
The Story of the Lost Child (translated by Ann Goldstein, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) takes us back to where we left off in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, with Lenù and Nino in Montpellier for a conference, the start of a life they hope to spend together. However, after this brief honeymoon moment, we head back to Italy where it’s time for the couple to face the music. While Lenù heads north to break things off with her husband, plunging her little family into turmoil, Nino isn’t quite as eager to make a clean break. As will later become apparent, he’s a man who finds it hard to turn his back on a woman he has feelings for.
Nevertheless, the story eventually moves to Naples, and it’s here that the enigmatic Lila finally reenters the picture, rekindling the friendship with Lenù and moving it on into the next generation by helping to look after her friend’s daughters, Dede and Elsa. Lila is now a successful woman in her own right, at the vanguard of the computer evolution, dragging Naples into the modern era. As much as the world progresses, though, this is still the neighbourhood, a dangerous place in a rather violent city – and her old enemies, the Solara brothers, have very long memories. Even Lila will struggle to stay afloat in a time of corruption and bloodshed…
The third part of the series was easily the weakest one so far, the absence of Lila lending the story a dull, slightly annoying air towards the end of the book, but in The Story of the Lost Child, Ferrante gets back to what she does best, throwing the two unequal friends together and watching what unfolds. After a tantalising start, with Lila in the shadows, the story returns to Naples, plunging Lenù, and the reader, into the intrigues of the neighbourhood once more. The scenes in the neighbourhood prove to illustrate just what was missing in the previous novel, the anger and frustration boiling over onto the page – the tension here intensifies the story, the pace accelerating towards an inevitably tragic climax. Once again, Ferrante has produced a novel that compels you to keep reading, helped along by the many short chapters, the strong plotting and the lengthy, comma-laden sentences which reflect the frantic activity, sweeping the reader along.
Part of the appeal is the return to the main focus, the story of a lifelong friendship, albeit one which is constantly uneasy and intense. Lenù has grown up; she’s intelligent, privileged, a woman with a formidable public profile. In spite of all this, she still, somehow, finds herself languishing in Lila’s shadow. As much as she wants to see her friend as a woman with no real education, someone who never escaped the childhood they shared, in her own mind she’s forced to admit that Lila is always a step ahead, and on her return to the neighbourhood, Lenù finds that it’s Lila who has the people’s respect:
“And yet next to her, in the place where we were born, I was only a decoration, that is, I bore witness to Lila’s merits. Those who had known us from birth attributed to her, to the force of her attraction, the fact that the neighbourhood could have on its streets an esteemed person like me.”
p.270 (Europa Editions, 2015)
While Lila may have earned respect, that doesn’t mean she’s universally loved. One of the other main themes of the book is the prominence of the neighbourhood conflict with Marcello and Michele Solara, a struggle decades in the making. Every decision Lila makes, in both her personal and business lives, is a deliberate move designed to affect the brothers, forcing them to swallow their pride or confront her head on. It would be a dangerous game at the best of times, but in the climate of the story, a country in turmoil, it’s even more so. Loyalties can change very quickly, and there’s a sense it must all come to a head – soon. Here, more than anywhere else, Lenù is merely a bystander in a battle to the death.
The focus on events in the neighbourhood doesn’t mean that the writer is ignoring Lenù and her writing career. Much of the first part of the novel, and a fair part of the rest, examines Lenù’s battle to find time for her work, balancing writing, book tours and the demands of her home life. The Story of the Lost Child sees her attempting to come to terms with her role as a writer and thinker, wondering whether she actually knows what she’s doing. At times, she feels she’s merely playing a role, a woman whose ideas have been gathered to impress others:
“I have to speak in public, I confessed, and I don’t know what I am, I don’t know to what point I seriously believe what I say.” (p.85)
There are some serious metafictional elements here, both in Lenù’s book about the neighbourhood and her childhood (very My Brilliant Friend-esque), and, you suspect, in how Ferrante herself feels about the whole writing business…
More than an examination of the work of the writer, though, Lenù’s real use here is in Ferrante’s look at the role of the woman in modern society, as the success our friend enjoys only increases the difficulty of the choices she has to make (and her desire for a room of her own…). While Nino, juggling families effortlessly, is free to do what he wants, when he wants, every move Lenù makes is constrained by her role as a mother, something other people are only too happy to point out to her:
“Think about it. A woman separated, with two children and your ambitions, has to take account of reality and decide what she can give up and what she can’t.” (p.67)
Adding to her difficulties is a suspicion that her actions may not even be her own. Is her desire to write and be recognised what she really wants, or is she actually being influenced by men?
“Was I lying to myself when I portrayed myself as free and autonomous? And was I lying to my audience when I played the part of someone who, with her two small books, had sought to help every woman confess what she couldn’t say to herself? Were they mere formulas that it was convenient for me to believe in while in fact I was no different from my more traditional contemporaries? In spite of all the talk was I letting myself be invented by a man to the point where his needs were imposed on mine and those of my daughters?” (p.115)
As hard as it is for her to believe, Lenù gradually realises that much of what she writes and thinks is the product of other people’s beliefs – and that she’s in danger of betraying the ideals she professes to stand for.
This feminist anxiety is merely part of a wider societal struggle, though, and The Story of the Lost Child, like Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, takes place against the backdrop of a country in the midst of a violent transformation (I’m sure that part of the attraction for the original Italian readership would have been the reflection of what they themselves experienced in the seventies and eighties). Old systems are being torn down, with no new ones to replace them; women struggle to gain a sense of freedom as family and church lose their pivotal importance; there’s corruption in parliament, with communists on the run, then later taking power. These wider societal issues are then reflected in the events of the neighbourhood, in particular in the struggle between the Solaras and Lila’s small band of followers. It all eventually comes to a head in a story destined from the start to end in disaster…
While I loved The Story of the Lost Child for the most part, the one issue I had with the book was Lenù’s infatuation with Nino, her inability to break with him and the utter stupidity she showed at times in his presence. I know worse happens every day in real life, but it just doesn’t ring true here, the chances she gives him extending far into the realm of the unlikely. For me, this extended section away from Lila (from the end of the third book to the start of the fourth) is the weak part of the series, and Nino, while important in many ways (especially as a distorted reflection of Lenù – or even Lila), is a frustrating, exaggerated figure. Whenever he’s around, Lenù behaves like a fool, and the books are the worse for it.
On the whole, though, the character of Lenù works extremely well as a person both of and estranged from the main battlefield of the neighbourhood. Her main value is as an excellently unreliable narrator, one heavily compromised by her experiences outside Naples and the jealousy regarding her friend, a feeling that she is unable to completely conceal. Throughout the whole series, the only image we have of Lila comes through Lenù, forcing us to read between the lines, judging for ourselves if Lila is just a charismatic housewife or a secret genius, able to write novels better than Lenù’s if she desired. It’s a question Ferrante often looks like answering before again leaving the reader to make up their own mind.
As a whole the Neapolitan Novels are a wonderful achievement, and the fourth book provides a fitting end to a enthralling series. I’d urge anyone interested in the books to go back to the beginning with My Brilliant Friend and enjoy them in order, as the Tolstoyan range of characters means you really need to start at the beginning to have any chance of making sense of what’s going on. The four novels span decades (and around 1500 pages), allowing characters to grow and evolve in a way shorter works are unable to do. It does take a lot of concentration on the part of the reader, though…
Even though I’d set aside five days to read The Story of the Lost Child, I raced through it in two, including knocking off the last 300 pages on the second day. However, that’s not to say that it’s just a page turner; while the plot is what many readers will focus on, for those who want to go beneath the focal events, there’s a lot to discover, whether you’re interested in Italian history, the life of a writer or feminism. The Neapolitan Novels are four books I’ll certainly revisit in a few years, a set of stories which many readers will remember fondly. While the face may be invisible, the name most certainly isn’t. Yes, Ferrante would definitely be a good choice for our #WITMonth figurehead – now, if anyone knows where to reach her…