The Rumpus

WHAT TO READ WHEN YOU DON’T WANT SUMMER TO END

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

When Leda’s daughters leave home to be with their father in Canada, Leda anticipates a period of loneliness and longing. Instead, she feels liberated, and decides to take a holiday by the sea, in a small coastal town in southern Italy. But after a few days of calm and quiet, things begin to take a menacing turn. Leda encounters a family whose brash presence proves unsettling, at times even threatening. When a small, seemingly meaningless, event occurs, Leda is overwhelmed by memories of the difficult and unconventional choices she made as a mother and their consequences for herself and her family.

Los Angeles Review of Books

Elena Ferrante: The Mad Adventures of Serious Ladies

by GD Dess

JULY 29, 2017

WRITERS FROM Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, Jane Bowles, and Mary McCarthy to Emma Cline, Ottessa Moshfegh, Sheila Heti, and Robin Wasserman have written remarkable novels about female friendship, but no one has tackled the complex search for female personal identity, and the construction of a feminine self through lifelong friendship, that is at the core of Elena Ferrante’s project in the quartet of works known as the Neapolitan novels: My Brilliant Friend (2011), The Story of a New Name (2012), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015).

The ferocity of Ferrante’s writing style is what strikes most readers first. Her language is muscular, never orotund. It feels spoken, almost confessional. There appears to be no mitigation between her consciousness and the words on the page. In a 2015 interview in the Paris Review she said that sincerity is “the engine of every literary project.” She went on to say that she strives for literary truth in her writing, which she defines as “entirely a matter of wording” and “directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence.” This is a skill Ferrante says she has acquired over the years.

Not everyone agrees. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks, the writer, critic, and translator of many leading Italian authors (Alberto Moravia, Antonio Tabucchi, Italo Calvino) claimed he can’t read more than 50 pages of Ferrante’s writing and finds it “wearisomely concocted, determinedly melodramatic.” He cites the scene of a fight between two neighbors. The women grapple with each other and roll down the stairs “entwined.” One of their heads hits the floor of the landing — “a few inches from my shoes,” reports Elena, “like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.” Parks comments: “As in a B movie, a head hits the floor a few inches from our hero’s shoes. Then comes the half-hearted attempt to transform cartoon reportage into literature: ‘like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.’” He finds Ferrante makes “no effort of the imagination,” simply “announces melodrama.” Indeed, he is “astonished that other people are not irritated by this lazy writing.”

James Wood has suggested that Ferrante’s writing is influenced by second-wave feminist writers such as Margaret Drabble and Hélène Cixous, and Ferrante has acknowledged her familiarity with the work of Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. In a 2015 interview, when asked what fiction or nonfiction has most affected her, Ferrante also names Donna J. Haraway and “an old book” by Adriana Cavarero, Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood (1997). This is a useful clue. In her book, Cavarero directly addresses the subject of female identity. She posits that identity is not an innate quality we master and express, but rather the outcome of a relational practice, something given to us from another, in the form of a narratable “life-story.”

Cavarero first makes this point in “The Paradox of Ulysses,” using the scene from the Odyssey in which Ulysses listens to a blind rhapsode recount his exploits in the Trojan war and weeps, because for the first time he has become aware of the meaning of the story of which he is the hero. She then provides a “lived” example: the story of Amalia and Emilia, two women who meet at an adult education class devoted to raising the consciousness of women. [1] Emilia talks about herself constantly, telling Amalia that she has lived a repressed life. Yet she cannot shape a coherent narrative: “she wasn’t able to connect any of it up.” Amelia helps her by writing the story of her life based on what she has heard. “Once I wrote the story of her life […] she always carried it in her handbag and read it again and again,” and, like Ulysses, she was “overcome by emotion.” The story of Emilia’s life set down in writing by Amelia made her recognize that “my ‘I’ exists.” She needed this ontological affirmation of herself.

Cavarero’s conception of the formation of the feminine “I” factors directly into Ferrante’s writing. In a 2016 interview, Ferrante explained that “the female ‘I’ in particular, with its long history of oppression and repression, tends to shatter as it’s tossed around, and to reappear and shatter again, always in an unpredictable way.” Most of her female characters do, in fact, harbor an “other” violent “I,” one that emerges from anger, resentment, or a deep psychological wound. In The Days of Abandonment (2002), a pre-Neapolitan novel, the narrator, Olga, “accidently” feeds her husband pasta with crushed glass in it after he tells her he is leaving her; later, she physically attacks him in the street when she sees him with his new lover. In The Lost Daughter (2006), the violence is more subtle. Leda, a divorced mother of two, is vacationing at the beach. She befriends a mother, Nina, and her young daughter Elena. One day, spontaneously, Leda steals the little girl’s doll. [2] She tells us she took the doll because it “guarded the love of Nina and Elena, their bond, their reciprocal passion. She was the shining testimony of perfect motherhood.” While Nina and her daughter endure no end of pain and suffering because of the doll’s disappearance, Leda hides the doll in her apartment. It becomes a talisman, bringing back memories of her unhappy married life and the pain she caused her daughters by abandoning them and her husband for another man. The theft of the doll is a symbolic reenactment of shattering the “perfect motherhood.” And the violence she inflicts on the mother and daughter, seeing them suffer as she suffered, yields a perverse pleasure that assuages her wounded psyche.

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Of all Ferrante’s female protagonists, the narrator of the Neapolitan novels, Elena Greco, is the least interesting. Nevertheless, she is the direct descendent of the women Ferrante has been writing about for decades: they are all divorced or separated, vaguely middle aged, educated, industrious; for the most part they have risen above the poverty of their youth, but have had to fight for the nominal bourgeois social station they now inhabit. They are no strangers to rage, resentment, and existential angst, and they all attempt to discover themselves, to become who they are, or who they continually hope to be.

In The Days of Abandonment, Olga is abandoned by her husband and graphically chronicles her descent into a temporary psychotic state after his departure. As she struggles to remain “healthy” while surviving the dissolution of her married identity she ponders what will become of her. “What was I?” she wonders, and tells us: “This was the reality that I was about to discover, behind the appearance of so many years. I was already no longer I, I was someone else.” And this someone else wanted “to be me.”

We find this same struggle to recognize oneself in The Lost Daughter. Its narrator, Leda, tells us: “I had a sense of dissolving, as if I, an orderly pile of dust, had been blown about by the wind all day and now was suspended in the air without a shape.” While Elena is shrewder and more calculating than Ferrante’s previous heroines, her desires are more banal — “I want to get a driver’s license, I want to travel, I want to have a telephone, a television, I’ve never had anything” — and directed solely toward attaining success and the bourgeois lifestyle that accompanies it. But, while she wants these things, she keeps her wants suppressed and hidden from those around her, and asks herself if this is because she is “frightened by the violence with which, in fact, in [her] innermost self, [she] wanted things, people, praise, triumphs.”

In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, after she is published and married and successful, a reflective Elena informs us she has always been fascinated by the word “become”: “Become. It was a verb that had always obsessed me […] I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition.”

At one point, Elena’s mother-in-law gives her some books on Italian feminism by Carla Lonzi, one of the founders of the Rivolta Femminile, an Italian feminist collective. Elena says she knows well enough what it means to be a woman, and puts them away. But one day she picks up Lonzi’s seminal manifesto, “Let’s Spit on Hegel,” and it leaves her agape: “How,” she wonders “is it possible […] that a woman knows how to think like that. I worked so hard on books, but I endured them, I never actually used them, I never turned them against themselves. This is thinking. This is thinking against. I — after so much exertion — don’t know how to think.” Weary of her marriage, of domestic banality, Elena is suffocated by the life she chose. She tries to imagine what another life could be, wonders how she can create her “I,” but her imagination fails her. She is jealous of her sister-in-law who is single, attends political meetings, and is active in feminist causes.

Elena’s life careens from one thing to another; it is always “complicated” and hurried. She develops an “eagerness for violation” and chooses to engage suitors: “I was attracted by any man who gave me the slightest encouragement. Tall, short, thin, fat, ugly, handsome, old, married or a bachelor, if the [man] praised an observation of mine […] my availability communicated itself.” But, despite her education and exposure to “literary” texts, her desire to “become” someone doesn’t lead her to seek the causes of her taedium vitae, or to transform herself and transcend her current situation: it leads only to a man other than her husband. Once again, Ferrante references Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, whose heroine experiences a similar restlessness after marriage. No sooner is Emma Bovary ensconced in her country house with her husband than she finds herself unhappy — burdened with household chores and so disappointed in marriage that she begins to wish she was back in the convent in which she was raised. She dreams of escaping her fate. “But how,” Emma wonders, “to speak about so elusive a malaise, one that keeps changing its shape like the clouds and its direction like the winds?”

This modern-day malady from which Emma and Elena suffer, “malaise,” is related to ennui — what we prosaically refer to as boredom. It is the “noonday demon” of the ancient Christian fathers, and Baudelaire’s “delicate monster.” What Flaubert’s and Ferrante’s characters are trying to articulate is a presentiment that the eternal return of days — days filled with chores and the petty needs of others — can’t be all there is. What nags at them is the feeling that strikes us all when, in a funk, we ask ourselves: Is this really my life? Is this all there is? What would “more” be?

Elena’s own malaise remains similarly unnamable. Ferrante allows Elena to bemoan her unhappy life for well over a thousand pages, to wallow in the “cycle of ennui,” from which there may sometimes be no escape except the one offered by Flaubert. Of course, Elena doesn’t meet a tragic end. Ferrante does finally allow her to free herself (at least temporarily) from her lifelong predicament and shows us, briefly, what living without “the monster” would be like. This demonstration takes place late in the last volume of the tetralogy, at which point Elena has gained literary recognition, abandoned her husband and her children, and has been living with her lover, Nino, for a year and a half: “It was then that — we said to each other — our true life had begun. And what we called true life was that impression of miraculous splendor that never abandoned us even when everyday horrors took the stage. […] We hurried to dinner, to good food, wine, sex.” So “true life” appears to be nothing more than the commonplaces of bourgeois material success. Elena includes Nino in her declaration, but he doesn’t seem to have bought into this view. While she is waxing exuberant about the “true life” they are leading, he is busy having sex with the nanny. Soon, the couple separates. As Elena discovers, her notion of “true life” is just as misguided as Emma’s belief that “certain portions of the earth must produce happiness — as though it were a plant native only to those soils and doomed to languish elsewhere.”

What is deeply disappointing about Elena is her inability to transform herself — even though she seemingly has the intellectual capacity for it. We feel that if she had perhaps dedicated herself more to intellectual and spiritual matters instead of “cultivating resentment” she might have progressed toward some sort of enlightenment. At times, we feel the tension between her lucid self-awareness and latent self-actualization. Ferrante keeps us teetering with anticipation of change as we read page after page of Elena’s ruthless psychological insights, and witness her pathological excavation of her feelings. We keep hoping for a catharsis that never comes. One could argue, with reference to Adorno, that the “jargon of authenticity” she employs in search of her ever-elusive “I” is nothing more than narcissism.

The truly interesting character in the Neapolitan novels is Lila. She is a marvel. Unconventional, volatile, aggressive, ambitious, by turns emotionally stingy and generous, she is both intellectually gifted and entrepreneurial. She is self-possessed and unpossessable. By the time she is an adolescent, it is apparent to Elena that Lila “took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy.” While Elena worries about her appearance and her attractiveness to boys, Lila has already apprehended how the world works. From an early age, she is keenly aware of both the social and political injustices people of her impoverished class (whom the cruel, bitter teacher Maestra Oliviero refers to as “plebs”) are forced to suffer; and she also grasps, with Roquentin-like perspicacity, the meaninglessness of existence.

At 15, just before Lila is married, Elena, proud of her book learning, attempts to impress her friend with her knowledge of theology. Lila responds tartly: “You still waste time with those things? […] There are microbes everywhere that make us sick and die. There are wars. There is a poverty that makes us all cruel. Every second something might happen that will cause you such suffering that you’ll never have enough tears.” Throughout her childhood and youth, Lila takes more beatings than MMA champion Ronda Rousey. Her father throws her out the window and breaks her arm. Her brother pummels her over a disagreement about the shoes they are designing. “Every time Lila and I met,” says Elena, “I saw a new bruise.” Her boyfriend, and later husband, Stefano, beats her relentlessly, sometimes even punching her in the face. He rapes her on their honeymoon, from which she returns black and blue, and her married life is characterized by systematic abuse. Elena is continually amazed at her friend’s capacity for suffering, but Lila explains: “What can beatings do to me? A little time goes by and I’m better than before.”

Lila is “capable of anything.” Within the first year of her marriage, she embarks on a reckless affair with the love of Elena’s life, Nino. She then leaves her husband, an act unheard of in those days, to move in with him. As Nino says, “[S]he doesn’t know how to submit to reality […] and takes no account of police, the law, the state.” When they break up she takes another lover, with whom she founds a business and makes a success of herself. When, in The Story of a New Name, the Mafioso Michele Solara and his brother want to use her photograph to sell shoes that she has designed, Lila defaces the picture; using glue, scissors, paper, paint, she “erases” herself, refusing to allow others to use her image, refusing to be appropriated for any purpose. In the final volume, The Story of the Lost Child, even after having had great success in the computer business, she tells Elena, “I want to leave nothing, my favorite key is the one that deletes.”

Like Elena, Lila writes. Over the years, she amasses volumes of notebooks of her thoughts and observations, and in The Story of a New Name she gives them to Elena to keep her husband from finding them. Lila makes Elena promise she won’t read them. Naturally, Elena devours the texts. She is overwhelmed and “diminished” by them. She devotes herself to learning passages by heart — “the ones that thrilled me, the ones that hypnotized me, the ones that humiliated me. Behind their naturalness was surely some artifice, but I couldn’t discover what it was.” Eventually, she throws the notebooks off the Solferino bridge into the River Arno, in order to free herself from feeling Lila “on me and in me.” But she can’t erase Lila from herself.

Late in life Lila begins another writing project, one she will not share with Elena, which once again makes Elena feel inadequate. When Elena then suggests she may write about Lila, Lila says, “Let me be.” She tells Elena to write about someone else, “But about me no, don’t you dare, promise.” Lila wants nothing more than to disappear, while Elena “wanted her to last […] I wanted it to be I who made her last.” She wants to write her life-story.

Against Lila’s wishes Elena writes and publishes a book about the two of them, which she titles A Friendship. It is — implausibly — only 80 pages long. The book is a success and revives Elena’s sagging career, but after its publication, the two women never speak again and Lila disappears. Thus, contrary to Cavarero’s contention, which invokes Ulysses listening to his own life-story, Lila doesn’t need a life-story written about her in order to affirm her “I.” If another were to write her life-story, she would be turned into “fiction,” taken possession of. And just as she never let anyone possess her throughout her life, she has no intention of allowing that to happen once she is gone. She won’t participate in a practice that reduces her ontological presence to words on a page, a fetishized object between covers. By vanishing, she asserts her right to live a “mere empirical existence.” It is a brilliant move on Ferrante’s part to allow her subject to refuse subjugation to the art of “story telling,” even as she (and Elena) tell her story in the very book we are reading.

Long before the end of the novel, Elena goes to visit Lila, who is at her nadir, a proletariat slaving away at a sausage factory right out of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Elena has come to brag about her success as a writer: “I had made that whole journey mainly to show [Lila] what she had lost and what I had won.” Instead, she finds Lila

explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.

And indeed, Ferrante’s searching Elena and elusive Lila will continue to echo each other, and to resonate for readers, in all their irreducible complexity.

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GD Dess is the author of the novel Harold Hardscrabble.

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[1] The story of Amalia and Emilia recounted by Cavarero first appeared in Sexual Difference: A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice, one of the most famous books of Italian feminism. Sexual Difference may also have influenced Ferrante’s thinking about the friendship between Elena and Lila, the two main characters in the Neapolitan novels. The social practice of “entrustment,” the idea that one woman “entrusts” herself symbolically to another woman is one of the major ideas of Italian feminism. In My Brilliant Friend, Elena tells us of her decision to reject her mother as a model and give herself over to Lila: “I decided that I had to model myself on that girl, never let her out of my sight.” This practice is viewed as necessary “because of the irrepressible need to find a faithful mediation between oneself and the world: someone similar to oneself who acts as a mirror and a term of comparison, an interpreter, a defender and judge in the negotiations between oneself and the world.”

[2] Children are regularly treated brusquely, beaten, and/or suffer from benign, and not-so-benign, neglect in Ferrante’s novels. In the essay “What an Ugly Child She Is,” Ferrante responds to a Swedish publisher’s refusal to publish The Days of Abandonment because of the “morally reprehensible” way in which the protagonist treats her children. In that novel, Olga is chiefly guilty of neglect and indifference, abruptness and aloofness in her treatment of them; she does not harm them physically, although she is a bit rough in removing the makeup from her daughter who has, to her disgust, made herself up to look like her.

In defense of her portrayal of Olga’s behavior, Ferrante references Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and the scene in which Emma Bovary, upon being pestered for attention by her young daughter, Berthe, angrily shoves the girl with her elbow, causing the child to fall against a chest of drawers and cut herself. The wound begins to bleed. She lies to the maid, telling her: “The baby fell down and hurt herself playing.” The wound is superficial. Emma stops worrying about what she had done, forgives herself for her abusive behavior, and chides herself for being “upset over so small a matter.” And then, still sitting by her daughter’s side as she recuperates, adding insult to injury, she thinks: “It’s a strange thing […] what an ugly child she is.”

Ferrante comments that only a man could write such a sentence. She claims (“angrily, bitterly”) that men “are able to have their female characters say what women truly think and say and live but do not dare write.” She says her attempt has been, “over the years, to take that sentence out of French and place it somewhere on a page of my own.”

She does create a scene similar to Flaubert’s in The Lost Daughter. Leda, the narrator, tells us that when her daughter was young, she gave her a doll that had belonged to her since infancy. Leda expected her daughter to love the doll. But her daughter strips the doll of her clothes and scribbles over her with markers. When Leda discovers her sitting on the doll one afternoon, she loses her temper, “gives her a nasty shove,” and throws the doll over the balcony. It is run over and destroyed by the passing traffic. Leda’s only (ominous) comment about this incident: “How many things are done and said to children behind the closed doors of houses.”

Hyperallergic

Reader’s Diary: Elena Ferrante’s ‘The Lost Daughter’

What distinguishes the novella from the novel is not length, but the pursuit of intensity rather than breadth. A novella is devastating or it is nothing.
Barry SchwabskyJanuary 1, 2017

What distinguishes the novella from the novel is not length, but the pursuit of intensity rather than breadth. A novella is devastating or it is nothing; it must administer — as the title of one of my favorite examples of the genre, by Marguerite Yourcenar, has it — a coup de grâce. And the masters of the genre (I think first of Henry James or Thomas Mann) are always masters of form, for only the most fiercely controlled form can yield this effect of overwhelming intensity. The Lost Daughter was the third of Elena Ferrante’s published works of fiction, and the last before the celebrated “Neapolitan quartet” that’s brought her such acclaim (and which I still haven’t read — I’m taking her in chronological order). Like Ferrantes’ first two novels, The Days of Abandonment and Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter is narrated in the first person by an emotionally troubled protagonist, here named Leda, the better to enclose the reader in a claustrophobic disquiet you can see coming from the very first words: “I had been driving for less than an hour when I began to feel ill.” Naturally, the ailment in question is not entirely organic. Leda’s sense of disconnection from herself, her family, and everyone around has left her unmoored. On a seaside vacation in southern Italy, she becomes the obsessed observer of a family whose behavior brings back unwanted memories of the unrefined Neapolitan milieu in which she grew up and from which she escaped to decorous Florence. Little by little she is drawn into their lives…and that’s all I’ll say about the events depicted in the book, which are so simple, so seemingly inconsequential that only Ferrante’s great art can elicit their significance. Not sharing that art, I’ll forebear to recount the anecdote. Can a work of consequence really be constructed around an event no more momentous than a toddler’s loss of a doll? — but never mind, mum’s the word. Instead, I want to point out the incredible force of Ferrante’s prose (beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein), which harbors so much perturbing nuance beneath a surface of such apparent directness. I’ve often heard poets and writers talk of writing the body. Ferrante really does it. She excels at tracing the intimate monologue of the self, in which sensations become thoughts and thoughts become sensations, always vividly corporeal. Here’s Leda on her relations with her daughters: “I was always, in some way, the origin of their sufferings, and the outlet. They accused me silently or yelling. They resented the unfair distribution not only of obvious resemblances but of secret ones, those we become aware of later, the aura of bodies, the aura that stuns like a strong liquor. Barely perceptible tones of voice. A small gesture, a way of batting the eyelashes, a smile-sneer. The walk, the shoulder that leans slightly to the left, a graceful swing of the arms. The impalpable mixtures of tiny movements…” No one conveys those tiny movements like Ferrante. At the end, I find myself gulping for air.

Tony’s Reading List

‘THE LOST DAUGHTER’ BY ELENA FERRANTE (REVIEW)

In my recent post on Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia (a collection of the Italian writer’s interviews and letters), I touched on the importance of one of her lesser-known works.  Her third novel can be a little overlooked, sandwiched between the early successes (Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment) and the all-conquering Neapolitan Novels, but the more I read of Ferrante’s opinions, the clearer it became that it was a rather personal work, and perhaps the key to her writing.  I think that merits a look, don’t you?

*****
The Lost Daughter (translated by Ann Goldstein, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) introduces us to another of Ferrante’s strong women.  University lecturer Leda, long divorced from her husband, has just seen her grown-up daughters move to Toronto to be with their father, leaving her to enjoy her independence as she sees fit.  With the summer holidays arriving, she decides to head off to the coast for a month, where she intends to spend her time reading and generally relaxing at the beach.

After a few days, though, her routine is disturbed by the arrival of a large group of tourists, an extended family of rowdy Neapolitans, reminding her a little too much of her own younger years.  One of the family stands out, a young mother with a little girl (and a doll in tow), and despite Leda’s desire to be alone, she can’t help watching the young woman and wanting to make contact.  Gradually, as the story starts to swing between the events on the beach and Leda’s own family life, we realise that this need to connect with the young mother has much to do with Leda’s relationship with her mother – and her own daughters.

It’s evident early on that the claims made in Frantumaglia were on the mark, as The Lost Daughter has all the signs of being a very personal novel.  It’s an examination of the relationship between mothers and daughters and the way a beautiful bond can feel as if it has turned into something suffocating, tempting you to cut free.  There’s also, of course, the return to Naples, even if the novel isn’t actually set there.  No matter how far we travel from our roots, all it takes is a reminder of where we came from to plunge us back into that environment, dragging up all our fears in the process.

At the core of the present-day strand is Leda’s fascination with Nina, the young mother.  She stands out from the group, and Leda senses that she doesn’t really fit in, but doesn’t know how to reach out.  It’s then that fate conspires to throw the two women together:

I looked at Nina.  She made senseless gestures, she touched her forehead, she went to the right, then turned abruptly back to the left.  It was as if from her very guts something were sucking the life from her face.  Her skin turned yellow, her lively eyes were mad with anxiety.  She couldn’t find the child, she had lost her.
p.40 (Europa Editions, 2008)

Leda is the one who manages to track down the toddler by putting herself in young Elena’s shoes, something she’s able to do because of a similar experience with her own children…

As much as The Lost Daughter focuses on Leda and Nina, much of the novel is devoted to flashbacks to Leda’s own experience of motherhood with her daughters, Bianca and Marta.  She describes the struggles of being left alone with young children, failing to balance work and home duties, going on to show how the relationship doesn’t get any easier when the girls move into their teens.  The mistakes she makes when trying to welcome her daughters’ boyfriends drive a new wedge between the women of the family, and Leda can’t help but reflect on her issues with her own, beautiful, mother.

In Frantumaglia, Ferrante described how her protagonists are similar in the way they’re seemingly cool, calm and professional, yet often on the verge of falling apart.  Surprisingly vulnerable, they can snap easily, plunging swiftly into despair, and Leda’s frustration at wanting a professional life and not being able to pursue it because of her children is a perfect example:

I was twenty-five and every other game was over for me.  Their father was racing around the world, one opportunity after another.  He didn’t even have time to look carefully at what had been copied from his body, at how the reproduction had turned out. (p.37)

What follows is a surprising decision, one that rocks the reader.  From the first page, Leda has been the voice of the novel, our way into the story, but the decisions she makes regarding her family force us to reconsider how we feel about her, and her judgements.  Even in the present-day strand, we see her slowly falling apart.  Intimidated by the raw aggression of the Neapolitans, she becomes nervous and afraid to venture out, yet paradoxically this also causes her to alter her behaviour towards the men around her, flirting with the handsome twenty-something Gino and the ageing Lothario, Giovanni.

Perhaps it’s this confusion that leads her to take Elena’s doll, an action with far-reaching consequences.  While it may appear to be a random action, it gradually becomes clear that there’s a method to her madness as the writer introduces other dolls from Leda’s past.  First we see Leda receiving a doll, obsessively playing with it, and later, when her daughter defaces it with marker pen, she hurls it from the balcony in a fit of anger (let’s not forget how the image of the doll connects The Lost Daughter with the first scenes of My Brilliant Friend…).  It’s hard not to attribute allegorical qualities to the doll, with the filthy water oozing out of its orifices when Leda attempts to clean it symbolic of the darkness within Leda herself.

The Lost Daughter is a story where the past is just as important as the present, and even if the balance isn’t always perfect (the ending seems a little hurried and Nina’s story comes off as slightly underdeveloped), it’s an excellent read.  There’s the usual breathless pace of the plot, and the added feeling that the novel forms an important part of Ferrante’s oeuvre.  Of all Ferrante’s heroines, Leda appears to be the figure closest to the writer, compelling and brutally honest, a woman driven to choose between motherhood and personal desires – it’s no wonder the writer felt she was exposing herself a little too much in this novel.

Of course, there’s one question that remains unanswered amidst the turmoil that ends the novel – what did the doll think about all this?  Well, it’s funny that you ask. Come back soon, and I may have an answer for you…

European Literature Network

My Feverish Ferrante Summer: Three #RivetingReviews of Elena Ferrante’s early novels by Rosie Goldsmith

Over three days this summer, before the unmasking of the identity of Italy’s most famous writer,Elena Ferrante, I sat down on our terrace in Italy to read and review for you Ferrante’s first three novels translated into English. My Italian friends insisted they were even better that The Quartet. They were right. And The Lost Daughter is the best of all of them.

I’ve decided to publish my reviews as I wrote them this summer, before the unveiling. She will always be for me ‘the writer Elena Ferrante’. I read and reviewed the complete Neapolitan Quartet exactly a year ago, on the same terrace, overlooking the mountains of the Alpi Apuane in Northern Tuscany. They disturbed and excited me. Ferrante today plays a large role in my literary life and I suspect she always will. No one rivets me quite like Elena Ferrante.
So here are my #RivetingReviews of Elena Ferrante’s first three novels in English – all translated by the incomparable Ann Goldstein, all published in the UK by Europa Editions.

 

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT (I Giorni dell’Abbandono)

(2002 Italian/2005 English)

The narrator Olga is thirty-eight, a burgeoning writer, a mother of two children, married to Mario, a successful academic and living in Turin.

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarrelling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me… closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.

So begins this ground-breaking, earth-shattering novel, with the breakdown of Olga and Mario’s ‘happy’ marriage after fifteen years; the first novel from Ferrante to be translated into English, setting out for us the confident tone, bold ideas, razor-sharp observations and precipitous literary heights that reverberate through all her work; as if, with these early novels, she is building up to her War and Peace, her Anna Karenina (Ferrante obviously loves Tolstoy) – the famous Naples Quartet. Olga is ofcourse originally from Naples. Ferrante’s defining links with Naples are ever-present.

The women we meet in her novels are all in some way like Olga – obsessive, fearless and trying to understand the absence of sense – the phrase that Mario uses about this own life and their marriage when he leaves her. But Olga is the one to examine this absence, not Mario, who quickly moves on to a new life, leaving her to imprison herself within the four walls of her mind, her life and her home in Turin.

‘Happiness’ is rare in Ferrante’s books and marriages are rarely ‘happy’. The breakdown of this marriage and this woman’s life is described in intimate detail. Olga documents her personal hell after discovering her husband’s infidelity; the depths of her self-degradation; the cruelty, obscenity, perversion and violence she becomes capable of; her animal madness and the monster she unleashes in herself as she goes to the darkest depths of myself and before she is able to return to some kind of adult normality. Ultimately she does not follow her much-read Anna Karenina to her death but instead enters a whirlpool sucking me in, emerging to find a form of enlightenment, not happiness but enough ‘sense’ to live with.

No other writer I know delves as deeply into a woman’s heart and mind as Ferrante, and with such beautiful, lyrical and scorchingly hot prose. As a reader I feel I’m swimming in a whirlpool of excruciating honesty.

Olga is different from Ferrante’s later heroines in that she is initially likeable and straightforward. A protagonist you care for, can like and feel sympathy with when her beloved husband leaves her and her children.

Life had been drained out of me like blood and saliva and mucus from a patient during an operation.

But as always Ferrante ends up risking the alienation of her readers by making her characters quite unpleasant and unlikable in their self-destruction and self-analysis. I doubt Ferrante cares. She doesn’t need to care. This is immersive, essential, honest, painful and vital writing. No wonder, I often think, she wishes to remain anonymous. This way she enjoys total artistic freedom.

What can we deduce about the identity of Ferrante from this book, and the issues and style that reappear in future novels? She knows about motherhood, marriage and children; about friendship, grief, academia, the writer’s life, publishing; she knows about clothes, dressmaking and fabrics (!); she knows Italy and especially Naples and has obviously travelled internationally.

How literary and lyrical Olga is! Like the women in most of Ferrante’s novels she loves words, books and writing. I myself jotted down whole chunks of her novels, so as to imprint their depth and detail on my brain. For example, this, on grief: I was the sentinel of grief, keeping watch along with a crowd of dead words. And on writing: I spent the warm mornings of early autumn sitting on a bench in the rocky garden, writing. In appearance they were notes for a possible book, at least that’s what I called them. I wanted to cut myself to pieces—I said to myself—I wanted to study myself with precision and cruelty, recount the evil of these terrible months completely. And finally: In order to write well, I need to go to the heart of every question, of a smaller, safer place. Eliminate the superfluous. Narrow the field. To write truly is to speak from the depths of the maternal womb.

 

TROUBLING LOVE (L’Amore Molesto)

(1992 Italian; 2007 English)

Like all ‘classics’, you imagine Ferrante to have been around ‘for ever’, but she hasn’t and has only existed in English for ten years. But what a distinctive style, from this very first novel (in Italian). Before she wrote it, she extracted the promise of anonymity from her Italian publishers EDIZIONI E/0 – who have honoured her promise. Ferrante wrote to them:
I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. This anonymity she believed would give her a space of absolute creative freedom, a freedom all the more necessary because her books stick “a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected.

In this novel, ‘the troubling love’ described is that between mothers and children, husbands and wives, men and women – and, as we know from Lina and Elena, in the Quartet – between women too; describing the violence, passion and cruelty of this love with torrential prose and exquisite elegance. Naples is dirty, dark, passionate, loud and dramatic. No one is content. Relationships are unhappy.

What is the source of the seething suffering that Ferrante exposes in each novel? Why is she so raw and bleeding? The more I read her books the more I want to interview her, to know about her, because I simply can’t imagine that at least some of what she writes stems from truth. There is a relentless, ruthless drive to the writing; a breathlessness, as if she’s whispering to us, let’s make the pages burn with my writing, let’s make the men suffer who torment us.

 This is not just feminism or any -ism but a unique view of life, which is so daringly honest that thousands of readers round the world are saying ‘thank you’ (and some ‘no, thank you’!). Ferrante always digs deep and says things that others dare not say. The storylines are riveting (what an achievement) but it’s the pace and lack of pauses and paragraphs in the narrative that make you turn the page in breathless anticipation. Then there’s the thrill of that first sentence of each novel:
My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno.

The abuse, violence, obscenity, humiliation, fetishes and disgust of ‘Troubling Love’ are ‘real’ but at a poetic remove. Delia, the 45- year oldest daughter of Amalia – whose death is the pivot of the novel – is the narrator. She relates horror upon horror of her family life while simultaneously reliving it and analysing it. By writing the horrors down she understands, we understand, why they happen. This is the confessional novel at its most profound and painful. It is a novel of recovered memory.

Delia revisits her past and the people closest to her. A single act, when she was five, changed their lives for ever. We get a portrait of Amalia, a beautiful and vital mother who refuses to allow a brutal, psychopathically jealous husband to take over her mind and body (whilst she enjoys the fetishist attentions of another man). It is a portrait of a child’s spiteful blame and jealous love of a mother. Delia blames Amalia for ruining her life and reducing it to that of a dessicated, loveless automata. She explores her complex love-hate relationship with her mother by going back, digging deep and confronting the men who dominated both their lives. There are also moments of joyful release, bursting out of the novel like fireworks, but at heart it is very troubling.

Delia’s empathy and identification with her mother, and her cruel judgement of her, mean that by the end of the novel the two selves, mother and daughter, collide in a spectacular firework finale.

 

 

THE LOST DAUGHTER (La Figlia Oscura)

(2006 Italian/2008 English)

Three Ferrante novels in three days! I feel as though I’ve been galloping through a long night, through hail and rain and snow and lightning and tropical storms. The cumulative effect of reading Ferrante in one gulp is exhaustion and elation. I am convinced now – more than I ever was reading The Quartet (and observing the passion and fame that now surrounds her) – that Ferrante is a major biographer of women’s lives. No, she is not a man. No man could ever write in this way about the unexplored, unexplained (till now), mysterious, hidden, shameful and exultant inner, intimate lives of women and about their sexual, emotional and creative yearnings.

Ferrante has told me things about myself, and the women I share this planet with, that I have never heard before or – to be honest – wanted to confront. We critics speak of her writing as ‘raw’ and honest. I don’t warm to her women much; they wouldn’t be my friends: in fact, the more I read her, the more distanced I feel from the Ferrante-archetype she seems to be describing in each novel.

Leda is the narrator here. Is she perhaps Elena Ferrante? Of all the novels this is my favourite. All her novels are different; they are also all the same. The protagonists are intelligent, questioning mothers, daughters and wives who are also writers or academics. They were born in Naples and spend much of their later lives questioning their identity and shaking off their origins. The women often have similar names – Elena, Leda, Lina. There are always dramatic turning points and revelations and confrontations – mostly with themselves. Often their lives are ‘perfect’ on the surface but, as they themselves reveal, they are ‘imperfect’ beneath. The stories are visceral and shocking. In each novel, the protagonist turns herself inside out.

Leda is nearly fifty, a successful, internationally respected Professor of English Literature at Florence University. She was born in Naples but left to study. She married another academic and had two daughters, Bianca and Marta, who though they never appear in the novel are described in such great detail that we feel we know them too. Leda divorced a long time ago, her daughters live in Canada with her ex (who seems, for once, a nice man with not too many flaws – unusual for men in a Ferrante novel!) and Leda lives a comfortable existence alone as an academic.

When my daughters moved to Toronto, where their father had lived and worked for years, I was embarrassed and amazed to discover that I wasn’t upset; rather, I felt light, as if only then had I definitively brought them into the world. For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them. The house was neat, as if no one lived there, I no longer had the constant bother of shopping and doing the laundry.

The novel begins with a bang (typical Ferrante) – a car crash. Within just two pages Leda describes how she crashed her car after returning from her summer holiday and lands in hospital, with her family and friends gathered around her, even coming all the way from Toronto. She survives, the only serious wound in her left side, an inexplicable lesion. But why did she crash the car? At the origin, she tells us, was a gesture of mine that made no sense… because it was senseless.

Leda decides that she won’t talk to anyone about this gesture except ‘us’. For the rest of the novel she confides in us (her readers) the details of her summer on the beach and her growing obsession with a young Neapolitan woman, Nina, and her toddler daughter, Elena, playing together on the beach with a doll. Who is the lost child here? Leda, Elena or Nina, or indeed Bianca and Marta? Prepare to gallop through the wind, rain and sun to find out. And then go and lie down (as I had to!).

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

 

Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.

Off the shelf

12 Novels That Celebrate the Joys and Challenges of Motherhood

For Mother’s Day, we’ve collected these beautiful and moving stories of mothers—their delights and their struggles. With memorable and colorful characters, they explore the unique journeys of female characters through life as parents and professionals, lovers and leaders.

The Lost Daughter
by Elena Ferrante

THE LOST DAUGHTER is a compelling and perceptive meditation on womanhood and motherhood. A middle-aged divorcée is alone for the first time in years when her daughters leave home to live with their father and her initial unexpected sense of liberty quickly turns to ferocious introspection.

Bronzos Bookstore

 

We all know about Man Caves, those oases of masculinity in the predominately female domestic space, equipped with stereotypically macho decor and entertainment. The gender geography of Brazos Bookstore has turned this cultural idea on its head with the Girl Cave, our tongue-in-cheek name for the back-of-store nerve-center run by Augusta, Brooke, and Ülrika. Augusta manages inventory, Brooke oversees returns and shipping, and Ülrika covers everything from gift buying to various programs for our many young readers. And somehow, despite all the hours they put in to keep the bookstore’s blood pumping, they find time to do some serious amounts of reading. In this week’s Brazos Book List, we’re doing some literary spelunking, rappelling into the learned depths of our beloved Girl Cave. Check out these recent recommendations, on our shelves now!

THE LOST DAUGHTER begins as a story about a woman finding freedom in middle age. After her daughters leave Italy to go live with their father in Canada, the protagonist is surprised to feel relief, rather than sadness. She decides to celebrate by taking a vacation to the south. For a few days, she is relishing her new life, but when she meets a strange family her trip takes a dark turn. Elena Ferrante is the it-woman of contemporary international fiction, and this is one of her best books. I love it.

EarlyWord

Elena Ferrante, Children’s Author

In addition to her bestselling Neapolitan novels, the mysterious Elena Ferrante has written a book for children aged 6-10.

The Beach at Night (Europa Editions; ISBN 9781609453701; Dec. 6, 2016; it may not yet be on wholesaler sites), reports The Wall Street Journal, will hit shelves later this year,

“Star translator,” Ann Goldstein, who translated Ferrante’s blockbuster adult titles into English will translate this tale as well.

Previously published in Italy in 2007, sales were tepid, reportsWSJ, but Ferrante’s U.S. publisher, Europa, says that was before she became a household name and booksellers were “perplexed” by how to position it.

All that has changed, prompting the re-release in America.


The Beach at Night
is a spinoff of an earlier Ferrante novel, The Lost Daughter, which includes a scene of  an adult stealing a doll from a child during a seaside vacation. Abandoned rather than stolen in the new book, the doll is left alone to face the terrors of the night in Ferrante’s newest.

Is that a story that will work for young readers? According to the WSJ, Ferrante, known for her often dark adult novels, “doesn’t sugarcoat things for young readers.”

The British trade publication, The Bookseller offers this summary:

“Celina [the lost doll] is having a terrible night, one full of jealousy for the new kitten, Minù, feelings of abandonment and sadness, misadventures at the hands of the beach attendant, and dark dreams. But she will be happily found by Mati, her child, once the sun rises.”

The Irish Times

Danielle McLaughlin: ‘I think we need different books at different times’

Our Book Club author on Eimear McBride, Maud Gonne McBride, Elena Ferrante, Wide Sargasso Sea and why dead people, naturally, are her dream dinner party guests

by Martin Doyle

 What lessons has Danielle McLaughlin learned about life from reading? “To question. To see things from different viewpoints. That there are as many versions of a particular story as there are people involved. That some stories don’t get told at all”

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

I recall being terrified as a very small child by the Ladybird version of Rumpelstiltskin so that definitely made an impression on me, albeit not a happy one.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Anne of Green Gables.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

Earlier this year I discovered Elena Ferrante. I love The Lost Daughter.

(…)

The Sidney Morning Herald

Elena Ferrante review: Three novellas that show the Neapolitan’s development

July 25, 2015

Andrew Rieme

<i>The Days of Abandonment</i>, by Elena Ferrante.

I’ve heard it said that only women can fully appreciate the achievement of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian novelist of obsessively guarded privacy. It is certainly true that I have never experienced the agony of childbirth. I have never known the adolescent trauma of inexplicable bleeding. Nor have I felt what life is like for a single woman – an abandoned wife or one that has left her husband – forced to deal with her grief and fury. I have not felt the love-hate that Ferrante’s protagonists harbour against their mothers and children, or their jealousy of younger, more attractive women. I have not suffered the sexual indignities and outrages her characters endure.

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Tweed’s

Elena Ferrante, Part 1: The Early Novels

Translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal

 

You might know Elena Ferrante as that anonymous Italian author nobody knows anything about. In the only interview she’s given—conducted by her publishers and featured in the Paris Review—Ferrante explains that the reason she has completely shunned public life and uses a pen name is so readers focus on her words and not her persona. Unlike most authors, who are pressured to tweet and post about their new publications and reviews, and who sheepishly implore friends and fans to attend their readings, Ferrante says her anonymity has allowed her to avoid “the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media.” Self-promotion feels cheap because it cheapens the work of art; the focus becomes the author and not the author’s books. While avoiding this trap, Ferrante has been able to write some truly phenomenal books—so phenomenal that she herself has become a phenomenon.

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Lithub

FIVE INTENSE BOOKS FOR MOTHER’S DAY

BRAZOS BOOKSTORE’S PICKS WILL MAKE YOU LOVE MOM EVEN MORE

May 8, 2015  By Brazos Staff

 

 

We asked our friends at Brazos Bookstore in Houston to recommend some warm, fuzzy titles about the love of one’s mother, on the occasion of this coming Sunday (for this reminder, you’re welcome). They sent the following list of intense, sometimes grim, novels of loss, anguish, and otherwise complicated maternal relationships. We hope everyone’s ok down there.

The Lost Daughter, by Elena Ferrante

What are things you think that are so horrible, so blunt, you’d never want to say out loud? Ferrante has made these aberrant thoughts the basis of her career, and The Lost Daughter is one of her most transgressive books. In it, a mother on holiday meets a pregnant woman and her family. Of course, the mother doesn’t have the fondest feelings for the pregnant woman—or for herself, for that matter. Ferrante turns this into a story of psychological suffering—a story about what happens when a woman worn out by life encounters someone just about to begin her journey through motherhood.

–Ülrika Moats, Gift Buyer

Open Letters Monthly

Peer Review: Elena Ferrante’s Hunger, Rebellion, and Rage

By

 

Elena Ferrante is such a badass! — Elif Batuman

The critical response to Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has been so uncannily consistent it’s enough to make you suspect collusion. (To what end, though? Good question: I’ll come back to that.) The following statements, for example, have become axiomatic, a critical credo recited with every invocation of her fiction:

1. She is mysterious.
2. She is angry.
3. She is honest.

The first of these points is certainly true: little definite is known about Ferrante, including her real name or even whether she is in fact a woman. The second and third, however, are assumptions, inferences from the voice that speaks from her novels, which signals the fourth, sometimes implicit, pillar of Ferrante criticism: that the author and her creations are one.

Ferrante has published six novels. The first to appear in English translation was The Days of Abandonment in 2005; right out of the gate, Janet Maslin’s New York Times review established both the tone and the substance of what has become the standard Ferrante narrative:

Using the secret of her identity to elevate this book’s already high drama, the author (Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym) describes the violent rupture of a marriage with all the inner tranquility that you might associate with Medea.

In short, we don’t know who she is, but we know, and welcome, the literary quality of her anger: “the raging, torrential voice of the author is something rare.”

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T-Magazine – The New York Times

Who Is Elena Ferrante?

The writer known by that name has never been photographed, interviewed in person or even made a public appearance, but a collection of fiercely candid novels has earned her (him?) recognition as one of the keenest observers of Italian society. On the eve of the publication of “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the much-anticipated third volume in the author’s Neapolitan series, three admirers celebrate this elusive talent.

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Publishers weekly

The arresting third novel from pseudonymous Italian novelist Ferrante (Troubling Love) pursues a divorced, 47-year-old academic’s deeply conflicted feelings about motherhood to their frightening core. While on vacation by herself on the Ionian coast, Leda feels contentedly disburdened of her two 20-something daughters, who have moved to their father’s city of Toronto. She’s soon engrossed in watching the daily drama of Nina, a young mother, with her young daughter, Elena (along with Elena’s doll, Nani), at the seashore. Surrounded by proprietary Neapolitan relatives and absorbed in her daughter’s care, Nina at first strikes Leda as the perfect mother, reminding herself of when she was a new and hopeful parent. Leda’s eventual acquaintance with Nina yields a disturbing confession and sets in motion a series of events that threatens to wreck, or save, the integrity of Nina’s family. Ferrante’s prose is stunningly candid, direct and unforgettable. From simple elements, she builds a powerful tale of hope and regret. (May)