Saga ends but mystery abides
‘Bovary c’est moi!’’ Gustave Flaubert famously proclaimed in response to the sensational obscenity trial over Madame Bovary, in which he was prosecuted for the novel’s “dangerous” realism. Yet although Flaubert insisted that ‘‘nowhere in my book must the author express his emotions or opinions’’, his assertion suggests that, just as he is inseparable from Emma Bovary, the novel is inseparable from its author.
Such questions of the distinction between author and novel, fiction and truth lie at the heart of the work of Italian literary sensation Elena Ferrante, of whom Granta editor Annie Meadows has said “if you haven’t read Ferrante, it’s like not having read Flaubert in 1865’’.
The Story of the Lost Child is the fourth and final volume of the mysterious writer’s Neapolitan Novels, which began with The Brilliant Friend, first published in English in 2012. The story of two intelligent girls — the impulsive, dangerous, dazzling Lila and the diligent, selfconscious, dutiful Elena — growing up in a postwar Naples slum, the novels are a raw examination of desire and identity, an excoriating survey of Italian society and politics and an affecting and resonant depiction of womanhood and friendship.
The new book’s title recalls that of what is said to be Ferrante’s favourite of her novels, The Lost Daughter (2006). It’s also an ominous portent of a horrific catastrophe, echoing the very absence that permeates the Neapolitan Novels, and the author’s apparent absence as well.
Like Flaubert, Ferrante asserted from the publication of her first novel in 1992 that ‘‘books, once they are written, have no need of their authors’’, decrying modern publishing and the media’s obsession with the author, arguing that ‘‘if the author is absent, the media invents the author’’. (We know this from letters to her publisher.)
As a result, no one apart from her Italian publishers has ever met her as an author, leading to frenzied speculation about her true identity. Paradoxically, the lack of verifiable biographical information about her seems to invest her fiction with autobiographical verisimilitude.
Such autobiographical speculations are further provoked by the way the pseudonymous Ferrante shares her given name and chosen profession with the novels’ narrator, who writes a revealing book about her relationship with Lila, A Friendship (as well as the Neapolitan Novels themselves).
Ferrante has said that ‘‘together, Elena and Lila are the [characters] that best capture me … in the self-discipline of one that continuously and brusquely shatters when it runs up against the unruly imagination of the other’’.
In their claustrophobic, tangled relationship, they almost embody a single psyche: Lila — passionate, contradictory, inscrutable — the id; Elena — aspirational, effacing, dependently narcissistic — the ego. As Elena observes: ‘‘I fair, she dark, I calm, she anxious, I likable, she malicious, each of us opposite and united.’’
The Story of the Lost Child brings the saga full circle, returning to the old neighbourhood and Lila’s disappearance in the first book; the loss of their beloved dolls that brought the two girls to- gether as children; and the tremendous loss that tears them apart. Characters and episodes foreshadowed in the previous novels return with even more stunning force.
Both women continue to struggle against the iniquities of oppression by men, by politics, by society — and even each other, as it appears their roles and accepted identities have changed, reflecting how ‘‘there was no way to feel that things were settled; every fixed point of our relationship sooner or later turned out to be provisional’’.
Given how intricately plotted the books are, and how each continues directly from the other — My Brilliant Friend ends heart-stoppingly in the middle of one fraught scene immediately taken up in the following volume, The Story of a New Name — it’s difficult to discuss any individual book without referring to the others. (The third novel is Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.)
Indeed, like television dramas such as The Wire or Breaking Bad, often compared to the classic 19th-century novels the Neapolitan Novels most resemble, the four books should be read as a whole rather than as discrete parts, and are best enjoyed in one dizzying binge. Despite a combined 2000-odd pages, the series is never tedious, nor feels long at all. On almost every page there’s an unexpected development, in almost every chapter a shocking revelation.
Just as the best TV series have reinvigorated that medium for many viewers with compelling and entertaining plots, intriguing and complex characters and moments of emotional and technical beauty, so the Neapolitan Novels have revived literature for many readers like me, exhausted by postmodernism’s flashy, “challenging” contortions.
Ferrante has said she’s ‘‘always been more interested in storytelling than in writing’’, less interested in ‘‘beautiful, magnificent, very carefully crafted pages’’ than ‘‘the flow of storytelling that despite its density manages to sweep you away’’.
In short, often cliffhanging chapters reminiscent of that other great epic of womanhood and nation, Anna Karenina, Ferrante’s deceptively simple, utterly readable prose, framed within flowing, almost stream-of-consciousness sentences, does exactly that, immersing the reader in often visceral physical detail, as well as foregrounding the novels’ great psychological, political and philosophical concerns. She pushes language to the limits of what it can say, often into the discomfitingly unsayable: 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? I learned to avoid myself.
This is fiction at its truest: saying what we cannot say even to ourselves. Ferrante doesn’t recover literary fiction merely by making it ex-
THIS IS FICTION AT ITS TRUEST: SAYING WHAT WE CANNOT SAY EVEN TO OURSELVES Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are the likable ones and the unlikable, the good and the bad, everything in the end consoles you.
hilaratingly readable, but by making it intrinsically relevant to its audience, fearlessly asking powerful, uncomfortable and universal questions about love, life, identity, meaning and more: revealing, as Elena discovers, ‘‘a natural ability to transform small private events into public reflection’’.
But what makes the Neapolitan Novels so truly, powerfully resonant, aside from their gripping plotting, evocative language and incisive dissections of society, sexual politics and personal hypocrisies, are the people who so vividly inhabit their chthonic stradones. As Lila observes:
By such a measure, the Neapolitan Novels are brilliant indeed. Every character, even the most marginal, encapsulates the gamut of human experience and emotion, and provokes the same vast range of often contradictory responses, from frustration to sympathy and everything in between. They’re as complicated as their incestuous, internecine relationships with each other, and by the end of this deeply involving, completely affecting story, you’ll feel you’ve known them all your life.
“‘Where is it written that lives should have a meaning?’’ Lila goads Elena, who, unlike her namesake, cannot separate herself from her books.
But if it’s anywhere, it must be here, in this monumental masterpiece, proving its author’s original assertion. Does it matter who Ferrante or Elena or Lila really are, when the writing rings so true and the characters feel so real?
In the same way that Flaubert made us realise we’re all Bovary, Ferrante has offered us as powerful a glimpse of ourselves in the ‘‘dissolving margins’’ of this operatic conclusion to the Neapolitan Novels, which will haunt you long after you’ve turned the last, devastating page.
Detail from the cover of Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child