A few paragraphs into Elena Ferrante’s new novel, “The Story of the Lost Child,” the final volume of the writer’s so-called Neapolitan tetralogy—the first three volumes are “My Brilliant Friend,” “The Story of a New Name,” and “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”—Lena, the narrator, says that now we’re coming to “the most painful part of the story.” Really? It’s going to get worse? When we last saw Lena, she was walking out on a decent husband and two daughters to run off with a man who we know is going to betray her. The little girls scream and weep and hang onto her skirt, begging her not to go. “I couldn’t bear it,” she writes. “I knelt down, I held them around the waist, I said: All right, I won’t go, you are my children, I’ll stay with you.” This calms them down. Then she goes to her bedroom and packs the suitcase she will take when, a few days later, she drops the girls off with a neighbor, says she’ll be back shortly, and leaves for the train station.
Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, unlike other long historical novels we might compare it with (“Buddenbrooks,” “Remembrance of Things Past”), does not go to a lot of trouble to span generations or social classes. Most of its characters come from a single cluster of working-poor families living in a noisy, hot slum on the outskirts of Naples between 1950 and 2010. Ferrante supplies a dramatis personae at the beginning of the first volume—the shoemaker’s family, the Cerullos, Fernando, Nunzia, Lila, and Rino; the mad widow’s family, the Cappuccios, Melina (the widow), Ada, and Antonio; the grocer’s family, the Carraccis, Don Achille, Maria, Stefano, Pinuccia, and Alfonso; the train conductor’s family, the Sarratores, Donato, Lidia, Nino, Marisa, et al.—and, apart from births and deaths, the cast hasn’t changed much by the fourth volume. All these people are fantastically enmeshed. They practically can’t walk to the corner without running into someone they’ve slept with or beaten up.
But no two characters are more bound together than Lila, the shoemaker’s daughter, and Lena, the porter’s daughter. Both were born in 1944; they meet at the age of six, when they are entering first grade. Lena is blond and plump and inclined to do as she’s told. Lila is dark and skinny and ferocious. “Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.” Everyone’s afraid of Lila, and most of them are in love with her, too, but none more than Lena, and Lila loves Lena back, though “love” is too narrow a word for it. The two envy each other, compete with each other. They help and gravely harm each other. In “The Story of the Lost Child,” they get pregnant at the same time; they go to their doctor’s appointments together, and each holds the other’s hand during her pelvic examination. For much of that book, Lena’s family lives upstairs from Lila’s, and their children eat and sleep now at one apartment, now at the other. You could say (as Rachel Cusk more or less does, in her Times Book Reviewessay this week) that they are two halves of one complete woman, but actually each is complete in herself. And it is through their interaction that Ferrante says what she has to say about the world.
She has two subjects, basically. The first is women. This is the most thoroughgoing feminist novel I have ever read. (I will call the four books one novel. They are, though the first volume, at least, could be read without the others.) In the person of Lila, we have an embodiment of female beauty like something out of Titian. At the end of “My Brilliant Friend,” this girl, sixteen years old and due to get married, to Stefano, that afternoon, asks Lena to give her a bath. Lena speaks of her inner turmoil at being asked to rest her gaze
on the childish shoulders, on the breasts and stiffly cold nipples, on the narrow hips and the tense buttocks, on the black sex, on the long legs, and on the tender knees, on the curved ankles, on the elegant feet; and to act as if it’s nothing, when instead everything is there, present, in the poor dim room, amid the worn furniture, on the uneven, water-stained floor. … I washed her with slow, careful gestures, first letting her squat in the tub, then asking her to stand up: I still have in my ears the sound of the dripping water, and the impression that the copper of the tub had a consistency not different from Lila’s flesh, which was smooth, solid, calm. I had a confusion of feelings and thoughts: embrace her, weep with her, kiss her, pull her hair, laugh, pretend to sexual experience and instruct her in a learned voice, distancing her with words just at the moment of greatest closeness. But in the end there was only the hostile thought that I was washing her, from her hair to the soles of her feet, early in the morning, just so that Stefano could sully her in the course of the night. I imagined her naked as she was at that moment, entwined with her husband, in the bed in the new house, while the train clattered under their windows and his violent flesh entered her with a sharp blow, like the cork pushed by the palm into the neck of a wine bottle.
As Ferrante makes clear here, a woman’s sexual allure will not get her much. Lila never liked sex. (Her wedding night is a violent rape scene.) As for Lena, she does like sex, and, in a touching passage, she says to her old boyfriend Antonio—whose heart she broke for the sake of the no-good Nino she’s running away with at the end of “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”—that it was he who awakened her to it: “He was the discovery of excitement, he was the pit of the stomach that grew warm, that opened up, that turned liquid, releasing a burning indolence.” But, as she goes on to tell him, nothing ever fulfilled that expectation. At the end of the book, Lena is alone, and Lila, no doubt, is, too.
Yet there is no repudiation of the trappings of femininity: the dolls, the bracelets, the buttons and bows. The book fairly teems with women’s things, women’s bodies, which, furthermore, are imagined as being in a state of constant flow, as if they were part of some piece of French écriture féminine. Lena again and again has visions that her mother, whom she mostly hates, has crawled inside her body and is kicking around inside there. Lila has something worse, a condition she calls “dissolving boundaries”: it seems to her that edges of things melt, and their innards squirt and slosh into each other. Do you remember, Lila asks Lena, that night on Ischia, when you all said how beautiful the sky was? To her, it wasn’t beautiful: “I smelled an odor of rotten eggs, eggs with a greenish-yellow yolk inside the white and inside the shell, a hard-boiled egg cracked open. I had in my mouth poisoned egg stars, their light had a white, gummy consistency, it stuck to your teeth, along with the gelatinous black of the sky, I crushed it with disgust, I tasted a crackling of grit. Am I clear? Am I making myself clear?”
As plenty of readers will have heard by now, “Elena Ferrante” is a pen name. Apart from the information in the jacket bio—that she is a woman and was born in Naples—we know nothing about the author. (There is an interview with her by Sandro and Sandra Ferri in the Spring, 2015, issue of The Paris Review, but it gives no further biographical details.) It seems to me unquestionable, though, that these books were written not just by a female but by one who has been pregnant. Lila says that, if she didn’t stay alert, the world would undergo a huge inundation: “The waters would break through, a flood would rise, carrying everything off in clots of menstrual blood, in cancerous polyps, in bits of yellowish fiber.” In fact, at this point in the novel waters might indeed be breaking. Lila and Lena are both heavily pregnant, and they are sitting in a rocking car in the middle of Naples, where they have taken refuge from an earthquake, the Irpinia earthquake of 1980. (The book tracks world events closely. We hear about the Red Brigades, Chernobyl, the World Trade Center.) All around them, gas mains are exploding, buildings are collapsing; a cemetery is breaking off the mainland and falling into the sea.
Here, Ferrante has used a catastrophic real-life event to exemplify—indeed, culminate—her sense of women’s undefended boundaries, but the matter comes up again and again, even in modest circumstances. At one point, Lena’s daughter Dede, now a young woman, who for years has avoided any physical contact with her—she’s another one who fears being invaded—breaks her rule and goes and sits in her mother’s lap. Lena describes the feeling of her daughter’s warm bottom, the “wide hips,” against her thighs. To me, that was almost as unsettling as the earthquake.
Much of the thrill of the four books lies just in this elastic back and forth between realism and hallucination. No one is a more careful realist than Ferrante. When Lena’s husband, in their kitchen, gets ready to punch her in the face, Ferrante takes time to tell us about the hum of the refrigerator and the drip of the faucet in the background. And her general faithfulness to reality encourages us to stay with her as she veers off into hallucination. Some scenes, just by their tone and pacing, and by what they omit as much as by what they include, seem to take place in slow motion or under water or on another planet. It’s not that things are askew. The very air is different. This, Ferrante seems to say, is what happens in the world of women, and though much of the book is devoted to women’s more frequently discussed problems—such as how they are supposed to go out to work and raise the kids at the same time, and, if they do have work, work they care about, how come this still seems to them secondary to their relationship with a man?—it is the exploration of the women’s mental underworld that makes the book so singular an achievement in feminist literature; indeed, in all literature.
Ferrante’s other subject is language. Insofar as the book is realist, the critical thing in it is the neighborhood: the poverty, the ignorance, the unremitting violence. The only way to gain any power or happiness is to get out, and the only way to do that is via schooling, the learning of words, and not the words your parents speak—that’s dialect—but standard Italian. Apart from femaleness, there is nothing in the book more important than this. From page to page, in passages of dialogue, Ferrante tells us (and then so does the excellent translator, Ann Goldstein, who is also the head of the copy department at The New Yorker) if someone is speaking standard Italian and the other is speaking dialect, so that we can understand what is going on between them, and then, if anyone switches, as they may do, what that means.
Basically, what the linguistic difference means is whether the person is going to remain in the neighborhood and—to put it in female terms, Ferrante’s terms—get pregnant every two years, and get beaten up by her husband if dinner is late, or whether she’s going to escape this. Both Lila and Lena understand the situation early on. When they are twelve and have the chance to go to middle school—where you can perfect your Italian and even learn Latin, and also write essays and read books—both of them are desperate to go. But first you must pass an exam, and taking the exam costs money, and Lila’s family is marginally poorer than Lena’s. Also, Lila’s father fails to see why a girl needs an education, as Lena’s father, for some reason, does not. So Lila is told that she can’t continue her schooling. This is the fork in the road for the two girls, and it is marked by the book’s first serious moral crime. Lila, with all her powers of seduction, suggests to Lena that they play hooky one morning and walk across the city to the harbor, to the sea, which they have never seen. Lena agrees, as she always does to Lila’s mad plans. But on the appointed morning, when they set out, Lila begins acting strange. She slows down; she keeps looking behind her, as if she’s afraid they’re being followed. Her hand starts to sweat. Suddenly, a storm breaks, and Lila insists that they go back. This baffles Lena—Lila is never afraid of anything—but they run back home, and Lena gets a beating. The next day, Lila inspects Lena’s bruises:
“All they did was beat you?”
“What should they have done?”
“They’re still sending you to study Latin?”
I looked at her in bewilderment.
Was it possible? She had taken me with her hoping that as a punishment my parents would not send me to middle school?
Yes, presumably, and then she repented. For the rest of the novel, that ambivalence never lets up. From middle school, Lena keeps on going, through university. She becomes a writer—of feminist novels! Along the way, Lila helps her. She encourages her, praises her. Once she gets married and has some money, she buys Lena’s schoolbooks, and not used ones but new ones. “My brilliant friend,” she calls her. She also mocks her and, for long periods, stops speaking to her. She knows that the more learning Lena has, the more this will separate them. But her feelings are also in accord with the old, primitivist formula whereby the less refined something is, the truer it is.
Lena works ceaselessly, in school and later. Her books make her famous. And sadly, in the dark of night, she too trusts the old formula. She feels she can never truly write well because she lacks Lila’s wild, prodigal spirit. Lila, she thinks, “possessed intelligence and didn’t put it to use but, rather, wasted it, like a great lady for whom all the riches in the world are merely a sign of vulgarity.” If, on occasion, Lena thinks she has written well, that’s because she has somehow captured Lila’s spirit, made “space for her in me.” (This is why, in “The Story of the Lost Child,” Lena has moved back into her natal slum. She feels that she needs to be near Lila in order to do her work.) When she’s not worried about whether she’s been able to absorb Lila into her books, she worries that Lila will turn out books of her own.
Of course, Lila can’t produce a book, but she does write little things now and then. In the second volume of the series, when she gets married, she gives Lena a tin box tied with a piece of string—her writings, she says. She doesn’t want her husband to find them. Neither must Lena ever read them. Lila is, of course, no sooner out of sight than Lena opens the box and begins poring over the eight notebooks it contains. They are poignant: Lila practicing Italian, penning descriptions of things (a leaf, a pot), recording what she thought of a movie she saw in the church hall. But halfway down a page, she will lose patience and fill the rest of the space with drawings: “twisted trees, humped, smoking mountains, grim faces.” For weeks, Lena studies the notebooks, “learning by heart the passages I liked, the ones that thrilled me, … the ones that humiliated me.” Finally, one night, she leaves the house with the box under her arm:
I stopped on the Solferino bridge to look at the lights filtered through a cold mist. I placed the box on the parapet, and pushed it slowly, a little at a time, until it fell into the river, as if it were her, Lila in person, plummeting, with her thoughts, words, the malice with which she struck back at anyone, the way she appropriated me, as she did every person or thing or event or thought that touched her.
This person that Lena loves more than anything in the world: she is trying to kill her. And in keeping with the book’s logic, she is doing it by killing her words.
In “The Story of the Lost Child,” something very terrible happens to Lila (see the book’s title), and one day, after laboring for years under her sorrow, she simply disappears. Her son, Rino, calls Lena, now living in Turin. Everything Lila owns, he says, is gone from the apartment. As Lena understands, this is not because Lila needed those things but because she wanted to erase herself. She even scissored herself out of the photos of herself with Rino. Lena, who had been stalled in her work, now starts to write again, to prevent Lila’s self-annihilation. To Lila’s oppressive disorder—the menstrual clots, the yellow gobbets, the things flying apart—she will oppose her own, once-despised instinct for order. Dispersal will meet containment; dialect, Italian. This is an old literary trick, or at least as old as Proust: to tell a story of pain and defeat and then, at the end, say that it will all be redeemed by art, by a book—indeed, the book you are reading. Lena will write for months and months, for as long as it takes, she says, to give Lila “a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve.” She will thus calm her friend, and herself—and, to reach beneath the metaphor, rescue life from grief, clarity from chaos, without denying the existence of grief and chaos. She pulls her chair up to her desk. “We’ll see who wins this time,” she says. Art wins. We win.