The Quotidian Ephemera of Womens Lives
The Story of the Lost Child
(Europa Editions, 2015)
I began reading Elena Ferrante’s so-called “Neapolitan Novels” after a very close friend recommended them to me on the highest possible terms. The friendship that is at the heart of the novels, she told me, reminded her of our own friendship. At the time I began reading, I was angry with this particular friend for continuing to live as roommates with an ex-boyfriend of mine. I knew that their relationship was platonic, and yet—against all evidence—I convinced myself again and again that they were sexually involved. I did not lower myself to tell her my feelings directly, but she knew how I felt, and there was tension between us. In short: life.
As I began reading, I immediately understood why she saw the parallel. The series—four thick novels best read in quick succession—tells the story of Elena Greco, our narrator, and her best friend Rafaella Cerullo, called Lila, who are born into a rough, poor neighborhood of Naples in August 1944. We follow the two girls until 2010—when Lila abruptly disappears— through marriages and childbearing, politics and professions, heartbreak and reconstitution. Outwardly, they are nearly opposites: Elena is blond, obedient, deferential, and often afraid. Lila is dark, brilliant, ruthless, almost feral. Whatever act she puts her mind to—swimming, shoemaking, dancing, ancient Greek, love—she not only excels at but somehow reinvents, as though inscribing herself upon the action. Elena says of Lila, “She possessed intelligence, and didn’t put it to use but, rather, wasted it, like a great lady for whom all the riches of the world are merely a sign of vulgarity.” But where Lila is flighty, Elena is diligent and disciplined. She vows to follow Lila in all things, even studying, so as not to lose sight of her. She submits herself to Lila’s influence.
And yet, as they age, their dynamic grows more protean and less predictable. The two women are indelibly marked by one another, and they begin to take on each other’s qualities, as if sharing clothes. They draw strength from each other and then sap it; their relative fortunes exist on a seesaw in which one is now benevolent and above, now shattered and below. There is no equilibrium, only exchange. The moments when they manage to communicate eye to eye are precious and rare. At times, they wrong each other tremendously. Alongside love is jealousy, withdrawal, anger, the difficult demands of intimacy.
Lila and Elena are the emotional core of the Neapolitan series, now concluded with its fourth and final installment, The Story of the Lost Child. But they are not nearly the whole of it. Like a swiftly-spinning solar system, their twin suns are orbited by an array of dazzling planets: Lila’s no-good brother Rino; the handsome and serious Nino Sarratore; the feline Alfonso; the broken and dangerous gangster Michele; Elena’s limping, thunderous mother, Immacolata. They, and many others, are no less vivid or alive to the reader than our two heroines. In fact, I feel as though I know them all, as though I’ve walked with them through their lives. I hear them in my head and see them in my mind. This makes the act of the reviewing them, or at least the story that contains them, strange, almost sacrilegious, like reviewing one’s own family.
Such is the power of Ferrante’s realism. She builds her world, which is mostly Naples but not only Naples, with luminous precision. Her writing is totally unlike the style that dominates contemporary fiction. She is not a lyrical writer. Instead she approaches description sparingly, like a surgeon with a scalpel, drawing lines and incising where she needs to. She’s more interested in the feeling of a moment than in its physical particulars; an example opens My Brilliant Friend: “I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home.” Later, describing Lila, she writes, “Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.” But more often, Ferrante skips description altogether, letting proper nouns do the heavy lifting. These nouns, spoken aloud in Italian, are bewitching: stradone, spumante, Gigliola, Chiaia. I plugged them into my Google translate to hear them spoken aloud. The pleasure of this world, its sights and smells and textures, is almost unbearable.
Ferrante has been compared to many writers, mostly female—Mary Gaitskill, Doris Lessing, Alice Munro—none of which strike me as particularly apt comparisons. But I’ve yet to see Ferrante compared to the writer she most reminds me of, which is Tolstoy. It’s not a perfect parallel (Ferrante never philosophizes, for example, nor does she herself narrate) but it’s helpful in explaining the qualities that make Ferrante’s prose extraordinary and largely anachronistic. Like Tolstoy, Ferrante writes with grand sweep that moves seamlessly between the epic and the intimate. Through the lives of Elena and Lila, we glimpse and collide with historical events: Fascism, Communism, the Paris student riots of 1968, the Red Brigades, Chernobyl, September 11th. Sometimes these crises are distant and oblique. Other times they smash into the lives of the characters, leaving them dazed and altered. Take, for instance, this passage from The Story of the Lost Child, describing the Irpinia earthquake of 1980. Lila and Elena, both heavily pregnant, sit in Lila’s kitchen:
The earth was moving, an invisible tempest exploding under my feet, shaking the room with the howl of a forest subdued by gusts of wind. The walls creaked, they appeared distended, the came unstuck and were pasted together again at the corners. A cloud of dust rained down from the ceiling, adding to the cloud of dust that came out of the walls. I rushed toward the door, shouting again: earthquake. But the movement was mere intention, I couldn’t take a step. My feet were like lead, everything was heavy, my head, my chest, above all my stomach. And yet the ground on which I wanted to step was receding: for a fraction of a second it was there and then immediately it subsided.
Compare that to a passage in War and Peace:
The enemy could already be seen ahead. Suddenly, something lashed at the squadron as if with a broad besom. Rostov raised his sword, preparing to strike, but just then the soldier Nikitenko galloped past, leaving him behind, and Rostov felt, as in a dream, that he was still racing on with unnatural speed and at the same time was staying in place […]‘What is it? I’m not moving ahead! I’ve fallen. I’ve been killed […]’ Rostov asked and answered at the same moment. He was now alone in the middle of the field. Instead of moving horses and hussar backs, he saw the immobile earth and stubble around him. There was warm blood under him.
Perhaps the most striking similarity between Tolstoy and Ferrante is their ability to express the texture of daily life with straightforwardness and clarity, and an utter lack of artifice. As Isaac Babel famously observed, “If the world could write itself, it would write like Tolstoy.” Ferrante’s realism, like Tolstoy’s, is largely moral. She writes with the directness of an author who believes that elaborate language is a distraction from honest and direct reflection. She is unflinchingly committed to expressing the truth of a life’s ebb and flow, and never spares her characters the attending despair.
Interestingly, Ferrante has called her commitment to truth-telling a refusal to “domesticate.” The idea of domestication—also called the “taking of overused paths”—as something to avoid at all costs nods to the other moral engine of Ferrante’s work: feminism. Much has been said about Ferrante’s feminism. In the New Yorker, Joan Acocella wrote that The Story of the Lost Child is “the most thoroughgoing feminist novel I have ever read.” It seems fair to say that Ferrante’s brand of feminism offers something new and fresh to female readers, though describing that something is difficult. Some part of it lies in the seriousness with which she treats the quotidian ephemera of women’s lives: saggy bathing suits, bad sex, dolls, wedding dresses, gynecologist appointments, menstruation, diapers, intense crushes, Little Women. These are the building blocks of a woman’s life, and Ferrante is unapologetic and meticulous in her attention to them. For Ferrante, all things lie in the balance: love and hate, protests and babies, pride and shame, guilt and blame. None of these things exists for a woman without the others. As one of Ferrante’s favorite sayings goes, “The personal is political.” Among the female writers I’ve read, none has made the personal political so deftly and specifically as Ferrante. You never feel that she is writing a particular kind of novel, you feel that she is writing the deepest emotional exploration that she can.
The women of the Neapolitan novels are hardly feminine exemplars. There is no Beth March, no Melanie Hamilton, no Desdemona. All of Ferrante’s characters are deeply flawed; they all make terrible mistakes and hurt those around them. This is why they are so likeable. Lila and Elena, in particular, are often cruel and selfish. And yet, despite the flintiness of Ferrante’s prose, she draws her characters with great sympathy, and a tenderness sometimes so acute it’s scalding. Even the villain writes with the laborious handwriting of a schoolboy. Indeed, ironically, the two mostvirtuous characters are men—Enzo and Pietro—who pay for their goodness at the hands of our heroines. They are the book’s good angels. But overall—and here she is unlike Tolstoy—Ferrante does not offer a vision of how one should be, only opposing visions of how one might be. No virtue comes without its cost. Accordingly, much of the Neapolitan series exists in the profound tension between agency and fate: does Lila suffer because of her choices, because of her nature, or worst of all, because of events beyond her control? Conversely, why does Elena thrive?
Ferrante’s story is devoid of melodrama. Terrible things happen, her characters are crushed, some die, some commit suicide, some simply fade from the story. Yes, a child is lost. And yet life goes on, babies are born, books are written and published and celebrated. Towards the end of the Story of a Lost Child, Lila begins to tell one of Elena’s daughters the history of Naples, in its most fantastical forms. Elena hears Lila’s words secondhand, through the mouth of her daughter Imma:
Ah what a city … What a splendid and important city: here all languages are spoken, Imma, here everything was built and torn down, here the people don’t trust talk and are very talkative, here is Vesuvius which reminds you every day that the greatest undertaking of powerful men, the most splendid work, can be reduced to nothing in a few seconds by the fire, and the earthquake, and the ash, and the sea.
This is Lila’s truth: destruction, decay, unpredictability, dissolving margins. The very limitlessness that makes her brilliant cripples her. Elena, hearing her friend’s words, urges Imma to be consistent, disciplined, optimistic—to invest herself in the world and believe in the possibility of change. Either way, life goes on. Ferrante leaves the question hanging: is the indelible march of time a wonderful thing or a tragedy in its own right?
Reading Elena Ferrante, I have the strange feeling that my own life is unfolding before me: past and present but, above all, future, and what’s more, I understand it. I suddenly see clearly that the constant male attention experienced by beautiful women can be a great curse, and that I have been better off with a normal face and a great drive to compensate intellectually. I can see that I won’t miss the men that have left me. I can see that the life of a writer is always plagued by insecurity, and the important thing is to keep working. I can see that I wounded my friend with my jealousy and punishment, and that it wasn’t worth the satisfaction. Much has been made of Elena Ferrante’s anonymity (she writes under a pseudonym), but really, there’s a wealth of information about her: her story is written on every page. As she told the Paris Review, “When one offers oneself to the public purely and simply through an act of writing—which is all that really counts—this anonymity turns into part of the story or the verse, part of the fiction.” The Neapolitan novels are a gift to all readers, the gift of a story that’s delightful and profound, but they are especially a gift to women—the gift of wisdom hard-won.
MADELINE GRESSEL is a writer and journalist currently based at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. Formerly the music critic for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, she now focuses on environmental issues and the criminal justice system.