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Elena Ferrante, "The Story of the Lost Child"

Newspaper: Once upon a reading
Date: Jun 6 2016

I don’t know if my habit to read three or more books at the same time is good or bad, but it surely gave me the opportunity to discover connections between books I would have never put in the same sentence in other circumstances. For example, it was fun to discover, in two very dissimilar books, Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow and Dan Lungu’s The Little Girl Who Played God, a similar reaction of the characters in front of some landscape while visiting Italy, and which seemed to their awed eyes so impossible picturesque that it had acquired the glossy quality of a postal card. Or to discover that both Alice Munro’s neorealist The View from Castle Rock and Kazuo Ishiguro’s magic realist The Buried Giant managed to find that elusive border between reality and mythology. Not to speak about those times when a book effectively has called another – as Umberto Eco’s Foucault Pendulum did with Alexandrian’s History of the Occult Philosophy – for how could I explain otherwise the fact that I received the second (without even asking) from my former high school teacher just when I was struggling to put in order some random information about occultism wickedly given to me by the first?

And now I happen to find myself in front of another apparently eccentric confrontation: Jane Austen versus Elena Ferrante, challenging each other in a debate over centuries about adultery through their characters, Fanny Price and Elena Greco, both annoyingly overdoing their point of view until the first one becomes a caricature of the morality and the second – of the amorality. If the heroine of Mansfield Park hides behind her noble principles a certain rigidity and narrowness of thought, together with a lack of imagination and spirit, the narrator of The Story of the Lost Child displays her ignorance of them with aggressive arrogance, acting like the heroines in those bad romances who endlessly cry and suffer and love to be betrayed. Her behaviour is so pathetic that it cannot even be labelled as immoral, only amoral, since she does not seem to have any sense or knowledge of the moral principles, only a penchant for futility that will shatter her and her family life. As her mother-in-law justly observes in a cruel but truthful character analysis, Lenù is guilty of the unforgivable sin of vulgarity (without even the excuse of the lack of education that Mme Bovary had, for example):

Then she said to me in a low voice, almost a whisper, that I was an evil woman, that I couldn’t understand what it meant to truly love and to give up one’s beloved, that behind a pleasing and docile façade I concealed an extremely vulgar craving to grab everything, which neither studying nor books could ever tame.

I have to admit that the first part of this fourth volume of the Neapolitan books, with Lenù running after the worthless Nino like a headless chicken, either amused or irritated me, not only because it revealed a suddenly very superficial character behaving like a moron (thus pretty inconsistent with the image in the former books), but also because my sense of order strongly disagreed with the compositional imbalance of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde structure from which Dr. Jekyll disappeared altogether, for Lila and/ or Lenù, have become petty and trivial, mightily competing for the first place in detestability. Moreover, the Neapolitan slum, which had become such an amazing character in the third volume, is transformed here into a childishly imagined hungry monster that does not want to conquer the foreground anymore but does his worst to blend all the characters in its sinister background. At the end of the day, as Lenù will have the epiphany of, it is only about that typical case of “you can leave the stradone (or the rione or whatever) but you cannot make the stradone leave you”:

Suddenly I felt with shame that I could understand, and excuse, the irritation of Professor Galiani when she saw her daughter on Pasquale’s knees, I understood and excused Nino when, one way or another, he withdrew from Lila, and, why not, I understood and excused Adele when she had had to make the best of things and accept that I would marry her son.

Fortunately, the second part gets better, although the circular structure disclosing the meanings of the first images is a little old-fashioned and its symmetry – from dolls to child and return to the dolls, although emotionally touching, is somehow too sought, too artificial.

Moreover, Lila is stuffed in this final book with so many meanings that she becomes more an allegory than a character, that is, she is in danger to lose any consistency. Indeed, she is charged in turn with the role of the narrator’s daemon (“everything that came from her, or that I ascribed to her, had seemed to me, since we were children, more meaningful, more promising, than what came from me”), she often embodies her sometimes better sometimes bothersome conscience (“I want to seek on the page a balance between her and me that in life I couldn’t find even between myself and me”), when she is not her ideal alter ego with impossible standards to meet (“there was the possibility that her name (…) would be bound to a single work of great significance: not the thousands of pages that I had written, but a book whose success she would never enjoy”), or her mentor that unknowingly had given life to her writings by making her always hear, while creating, the narrative voice Lila had used as a child to compose the Blue Fairy story (Judith Shulevitz, in her insightful review published in The Atlantic Magazine astutely made a connection with Pinocchio’s blue fairy to point that both of them had the gift to bestow life). Finally, in a role reversal, it is Lila who becomes her Galatea, her creation stepping out of fiction to lose herself in a world that can’t tell anymore who’s the creator and who’s the created:

Lila is not in these words. There is only what I’ve been able to put down. Unless, by imagining what she would write and how, I am no longer able to distinguish what’s mine and what’s hers.

Nevertheless, Ferrante knows all the secrets of the compelling narrative and all in all the series of the Neapolitan novels was a long captivating reading, sometimes truly brilliant, especially the first volume, which would have deserved almost a four-star rating. However I preferred a more monotonous three-star rating for all four volumes because although the second and the fourth were closer to two stars than three, I was overall really impressed with the way the author lived up to expectations from the beginning to the end, not making too many concessions to the sometimes questionable taste of the general public. The beauty of the last sentence of the novel is the image of the creator orphaned of his creation. When all is said and done, the characters forever leave the author to live in their readers minds:

I thought: now that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore.