The engimatic Italian novelist brings her acclaimed Neapolitan quartet, following the lives and friendships of two Naples women, to a powerful close
Over the past year, Elena Ferrante’s fame has grown until there are probably few readers who have not read, or intend to read, her Neapolitan quartet. These novels return us to the state of total immersion in a fictional world which we often struggle to rediscover when mature.
The Story of the Lost Child is the final quarter in a whole that is about much more than the demonic friendship and rivalry between its narrator, Lenù, and Lila, whom we have followed from childhood in the slums of postwar Naples to old age in the 21st century. When the third volume (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) closed, Lenù was a successful young novelist who, stifled by marriage and motherhood, had left her gentle academic husband to live with her childhood love Nino, whom everyone tells her is a shit. In the first half of this volume, we discover the true depths of Nino’s treachery; Lila’s instinctive, magnetic brilliance seems to have finally found an outlet in computing, and the two women, both working mothers, both pregnant with daughters, live harmoniously in the same shabby Neapolitan house. Then, tragedy happens.
“It was as if… the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other,” Lenù told us in My Brilliant Friend, “and there is no reconciliation to this paradox.” The theme of girls as interdependent or parasitic opposites is older than Little Women, the book that so impresses them as children, and goes beyond Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Through politics, feminism, private turmoil and work, the two struggle not only to define their lives but to save their neighbourhood from the corruption of the Camorristi, as embodied in the Solara brothers.
The ferocity of the characters’ emotional and intellectual lives, in which the presence of Vesuvius and the shock of an earthquake seem entirely appropriate, may seem like soap opera, but the ironies and cruelties the novel relates are all too accurate of the anni di piombo – a period of sociopolitical turmoil in Italy from the late 60s to the early 80s, marked by a wave of terrorism. Lenù, the good student, tries to impose the orderliness of the professional class on chaos, but the brilliant Lila is haunted by a vision of “dissolving boundaries” in which humans appear no more than bags of meat. (Appropriately for one who loves Beckett’s plays, her first job is working in a mortadella factory, up to her waist in freezing water.)
Lila stays in the same shabby slum, but Lenù’s passions and ambitions cause her to travel between north and south, the rational and the irrational sides of Italy; she encounters and tries to absorb the deep divisions between fascist and communist, national and regional, male and female. This battle extends into the two languages the characters speak: classical Italian and a dialect that is rude, crude but often more truthful. Lila, who has had no education since primary school, grasps a third language, that of coding. However, she is without false hope, and observes that “to be born in this city… is useful for only one thing: to have always known… that this dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare of savagery and death.”
The personal is political, and existential; as the communists say, la lotta continua(the struggle continues). Discordantly presented in pretty pastel jackets, the Neapolitan quartet is not just a triumph of psychological insight, social observation or storytelling magic. It is the first work worthy of the Nobel prize to have come out of Italy for many decades.