Saga ends but mys­tery abides

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Su­nil Badami The Story of the Lost Child By Elena Fer­rante Text Pub­lish­ing, 480pp, $29.99

‘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

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