ESSAY: The storyteller: On Elena Ferrante


“I’M a storyteller. I’ve always been more interested in storytelling than in writing,” the Italian writer with the pen name Elena Ferrante said in one of her rare interviews conducted via written correspondence. No wonder that Ferrante’s writing is a phenomenon that has taken the world of literati and readers alike by storm. Termed as modern classics, her novels have attracted a huge readership. Originally written in Italian, the series has been translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Her much-awaited The Story of the Lost Child, the last book of the Neapolitan series, came out recently.

The Neapolitan saga, told in four autobiographical novels, and spanning six decades, is a story of two childhood friends growing up together in a poor neighbourhood of Naples after WWII. Ferrante chronicles the entwined lives and intensely ambivalent relationship of the two friends — Elena Greco, daughter of a porter, and Raffaella Cerullo, daughter of a shoemaker. Their lives go off at different tangents, but the two hold on firmly to each other, colliding and retreating, loving and hating, idolising and reviling. Strong, intelligent and passionate, both respond to their calling, struggle with their decisions and pay the price. Raffaella, nicknamed Lila, drops out after primary school to help her family establish its shoemaking business, while Elena, or Lenù, strives hard, wins scholarships and studies at university, becoming a successful writer.

The first in this series, My Brilliant Friend (its English translation came out in 2012), is the story of Lenù’s and Lila’s childhood amid poverty, deprivation and domestic violence. The Story of a New Name (2013) follows the flowering of their sexuality and intellect as they become young women. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014) chronicles their struggles with motherhood and divorce, vocation and ambition. The Story of the Lost Child (2015) is about their coming to terms with betrayal, disillusionment, ageing and loneliness.

The tetralogy begins with the narrator, Lenù, in her 60s, being informed by her best friend’s son that his mother, Lila, has disappeared without leaving a trace. The revelation unfurls in her mind some 60 years of their stormy friendship. From childhood to womanhood, maturity, and old age, the narrative flows with the velocity of time, never letting go of its grip on reality and its transience. In the fourth novel, The Story of the Lost Child, time gains momentum, hurtles past events, unexpected happenings, crumbling relationships, discontent and adversity in spheres both personal and political. Lenù wonders: “In what disorder we lived, how many fragments of ourselves were scattered, as if to live were to explode into splinters”. The final narrative of the saga emerges as both a celebration of, and a requiem for, human relations and bonding that fades away or survives.

What distinguishes the narrative of this women-centred saga is the finely embedded broader socioeconomic and political context of Italy and the way it touches upon personal lives of the characters. The canvas includes the political and economic uncertainty of post-WWII in Naples (the late 1940s), when people struggled to rebuild their lives while dealing with remnants of fascism, destruction and death that continued to stalk the community under the shadow of camorra (mafia) and carabinieri (military police). As Lenù says in My Brilliant Friend “We live in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died.”

The Italian economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s is reflected through Lenù’s recollection of her neighbourhood that underwent a surge in entrepreneurship, black marketing and clandestine dealings of the camorra. The political instability of the 1970s and 1980s — ideological and class conflict, violent acts of the Red Brigades which aimed to force Italy to leave Nato, the assassination of the leader of the Christian Democracy party — are all woven in to the milieu and do not dilute the intensity of the personal narrative.

What makes Ferrante’s stories so captivating is the ring of truth in them. Her central characters are always women, and they appear to be so real, close to you, to the world you live in, as if she is holding a mirror reflecting you and the women close to you in a realm where the boundaries between fact and fiction dissolve. “All my books derive their truth from my own experiences,” Ferrante, who has chosen to remain anonymous to her readers and to the world at large, said in an interview. The narrative she weaves is not just a chronicle of life’s vicissitudes but how these make or unravel a person, how the circumstances impact the self. In The Story of a New Name, Lenù says, “She discovered that wealth no longer seemed a prize and a compensation, it no longer spoke to her … The relationship between money and the possession of things had disappointed her.”

For Ferrante, it is not just time, but space too, that is integral to the story. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay the city of Naples assumes a character of its own, pulling and repelling characters, impacting their identities. Its streets, roads, gardens, buildings and the sea, all are etched vividly. The narrator, Lenù, leaves Naples, which she associates with the poverty, violence, cruelty and ugliness of the neighbourhood she grew up in. She hates her dialect and polishes her Italian as she strives, through her academic and writing career, to reject the class she belonged to. But she is pulled back to her roots, sucked into the city, off and on.

Naples is changing, transforming but its emotional and geographical landscape remains the same for Lenù; “The city seemed to harbour in its guts a fury that couldn’t get out and therefore eroded it from the inside, or erupted in pustules on the surface, swollen with venom against everyone, children, adults, old people, visitors from other cities, Americans from Nato, tourists of every nationality, the Neapolitans themselves.”

Ultimately, in The Story of the Lost Child. Ferrante pokes through the surface of things to lay bare not only dark crevices, crime-infested alleys, violence-riddled families, brutal murders and the handiwork of the camorra and the carabinieri in the Naples’ slums, she also lays bare the souls of the elite, the academics, the luminaries, as dark as those of their counterparts. “If people had been horrified at those who wanted to overthrow the state, now they were disgusted by those who pretending to serve it, had consumed it, like a fat worm in the apple.”

The last novel of the saga chronicles the days of maturity and old age of the two friends spanning three decades. The novel is suffused with a dizzying sense of the passage of time as in real life, time moves faster and faster as you grow old. The narrator, Lenù, leaves her husband, her troubled marriage and two school-going daughters behind and spends heady days with the love of her childhood, a married man now. Lenù soon discovers his falsehood, his betrayal.

Lenù and Lila’s friendship goes through another upheaval when they are 40. A strange and tragic happening devastates the two friends’ lives. Yet Lenù stays in close proximity to Lila for another 10 years. The friendship survives the vicissitudes of life until the time Lenù learns Lila has disappeared. Ferrante’s quartet is a brilliant feminist treatise in fiction. She cuts through the layers of tradition and assigned roles and clichés wrapped around women. In The Story of the Lost Child the narrator’s ardent search for truth, for meaning, to see with clarity her friend’s mind, comes full circle: the human mind is a mystery, life is a mystery, and as Ferrante says at the end “unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines towards obscurity, not clarity”.