Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan saga, including its final and latest instalment, The Story of the Lost Child, dramatises an extraordinarily complex relationship between Elena, the protagonist, and Lila, her “brilliant friend”.
Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo are born in impoverished 1950s Naples. They are ‘”opposite [yet] united”. Lila is bold, mercurial, by turns deeply malicious and utterly selfless. Elena is a follower, a striver, chronically insecure. The relationship is symbiotic, and destructive to Elena, whose achievements are sooner or later eclipsed by Lila’s. Lila possesses an ‘irresistible force of attraction’ that makes her the focus of the ‘neighborhood’ and Elena herself. The greatest obstacle Elena the motivated student, young woman, gifted academic, ardent feminist, successful novelist, wife, lover, mother and daughter faces in achieving autonomy and fulfilment is not the poverty of her origins, religious and cultural institutions, fellow literati, political opposition, or the men in her life, but her lifelong friend - a friend she would surely die for, yet more than once wishes was dead.
It is ironic then, that Elena (and ‘Elena’ the author)’s entire artistic endeavor is initiated by a wish to preserve Lila, if only though writing. The first Neapolitan novel opens with Elena receiving a phone call from Lila’s son: his mother is missing. ‘[Lila] wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six,’ Elena writes, ‘but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind. I was really angry. We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story...’ An unselfish and selfish undertaking then; one that intends to rescue and give to the elusive Lila ‘a form whose margins won’t dissolve’, and at the same time ‘capture’, transcribe and translate her, best her by demonstrating Elena’s own artistry; render lifeless by forcing to appear in a text she who we learn at the conclusion of Lost Child is also writing a saga; she who showed such prodigious talent as a child that her teacher stole her story The Blue Fairy and only relinquished it after death.
Writing about Lila is actually a way for Elena to explore herself: ‘the very nature of our relationship’, she writes early in Lost Child: ‘dictates that I can reach her only by passing through myself’, and indeed at times it seems the women are interchangeable. Ferrante has said the most difficult thing for a writer is to see, name and imagine oneself. If she can do this only by means of ‘Elena-Lila’, Elena the character relies on her alter ego just as much. The two women are symbolized by Tina and Nu, dolls thrown into a cellar when they are children, ‘mine by Lila, Lila’s by me’. When they cannot find the dolls the girls climb to the ogre-like Don Achille’s apartment thinking he has stolen them. He denies this and gives them money to buy new dolls but they instead buy Little Women, ‘the novel that had led Lila to write The Blue Fairy and me to become what I am today’, Elena writes. Literature and learning are viewed by Lila intermittently and Elena continuously as a means to escape and construct new selves, like the new dolls they had opportunity to purchase. ‘Tina’ is also the name of Lila’s daughter (ostensibly the lost child of the title) whose disappearance heralds her psychic disintegration, a disappearance Elena hypothesizes Lila fabricated because she could not bear to see herself ‘reproduced, in all her antipathy’.
Elena needs Lila: ‘using her to give truth to my story [is] indispensable’. But Lila’s explicit wish is to leave ‘not a trace’. ‘[M]y favorite key is the one that deletes’, she says. Lila’s goal of complete erasure is linked to her terror of ‘dissolving boundaries’ when objects ‘pour into one another’. Lila - she who ‘moved things, who made and unmade’ - wants to erase herself so that she can be protected from disintegration and chaos. This sits oddly with her ability to ‘take…disorder from you…and give it back…well organized’ but has a powerful counterpart in the political instability and shifting identities the novel dramatizes, and it is in the passages when Ferrante explores the liminal states of Lila’s consciousness that the writing transcends itself.
These strengths not much improve the novel, however. Lost Child does not stand independently and despite the summaries in the Index the uninitiated reader will struggle to understand the story, which begins in medias res, as if Elena were beginning a new sentence rather than a book. Elena herself is not an engaging narrator. She has a habit of needlessly explaining (‘In other words I felt reassured…’ ‘Problems, in other words’) and stating the obvious (‘Those were difficult hours’, ‘I was proud’, ‘I was displeased’, ‘I suffered’). Ferrante has said that writing, above all, is a battle to avoid lying. While Elena’s honesty is liberating for author and character, and for the reader to some extent, it does raise the question of just how autobiographical Ferrante’s works are (a question Ferrante seems to invite: Elena’s work - a novel entitled A Friendship - deals with almost identical issues to Ferrante’s own quartet, both Elena and Ferrante share names, are writers, both approximately the same age, both were born in Naples…) While this is not a problem in terms of subject matter, Ferrante seems to make little effort to conjure a pleasing aesthetic structure: Lost Child (and the previous novels) reads like a diary, a stream of events that bleed into one another. Nothing is excluded (Elena is ‘luminous’ with happiness because of critical acclaim despite learning her baby daughter has just been admitted to hospital with pneumonia; on holiday she has sex with her husband standing up in the kitchen so as not to wake the children) though scenery, smells, sounds and atmosphere are rarely described.
Even taking into account translation, the prose is awkward, pedestrian: ‘eyelids’ ‘cancel’ a gaze, tempests ‘explode’, ‘My heart was going crazy in my chest’, and strangely archaic, with much usage of the euphemism ‘sex’: ‘the large sex taut between his thighs’, ‘thrusting his taut sex inside the sex of a mature woman’. It is also melodramatic: words such as ‘torture’, ‘destroy’, ‘passion’, ‘slave’, ‘heart’, ‘consume’, ‘desire’, ‘struggle’ and ‘horror’ abound. ‘[I]ntolerable anguish’ seizes the heroine, she is ‘freed from chains’, hearts are about to burst, heads ‘in the clouds’, ‘characters battle ‘irresistible force[s] of attraction’, are ‘annihilated by wonder’, ‘break out in cold sweats’. Elena herself is ruthless and self-serving. She has a ‘craving to grab everything’ and constantly checks she is receiving ‘each thing that was mine by right’, from critical acclaim to sufficient orgasms. Because we are never released from the torrent of intense, un-modulated, and almost unhinged ranting, reading can become humorous: ‘Nino had f**ked 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, all I did was make mistakes. Was he like his father? No, too simple…his propensity for f**king did not come from a crude, naïve display of virility, based on half-fascistic, half-southern clichés….Philistine, philistine…son of a bitch…Rage had opened up a pathway in the horror…’ Despite all of this, however, there is a strange impetus to read on.
Elena rereads her text at the conclusion to ‘find out if there are even a few lines where it is possible to trace the evidence that Lila entered [it]’, but has ‘to acknowledge that all these pages are mine alone’. She has won the autonomy so long desired at the cost of forfeiting her subject and friend. But then she recants a little: ‘Only [Lila] can say if…she has managed to insert herself into this…text.’ In that case we should reserve judgment on The Lost Child, and the mighty saga that preceded it, for the enigmatic, protean and seemingly eternal Lila herself.
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