The fourth and final chapter in the Neapolitan quartet
Translated by Ann Goldstein
2015, pp. 464, Paperback
$ 18.00 / £ 10.99
Elena Ferrante‘s The Story of the Lost Child is the concluding volume in the dazzling saga of two women—the brilliant, bookish Elena, and the fiery, uncontainable Lila. Both are now adults with husbands, lovers, aging parents, and children. Their friendship has been the gravitational center of their lives. Both women fought to escape the neighborhood in which they grew up—a prison of conformity, violence, and inviolable taboos. Elena married, moved to Florence, started a family, and published several well-received books. In this final novel, she has returned to Naples, drawn back as if responding to the city’s obscure magnetism. Lila, on the other hand, could never free herself from the city of her birth. She has become a successful entrepreneur, but her success draws her into close proximity with the nepotism, chauvinism, and criminal violence that infect the neighborhood. Proximity to the world she has always rejected only brings her role as its unacknowledged leader into relief. For Lila is unstoppable, unmanageable, unforgettable.
“Nothing quite like this has ever been published before,” proclaimed The Guardian newspaper about the Neapolitan Novels in 2014. The first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, was a New York Times bestseller. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay was a Times bestseller and Notable Book of the Year, and was named a best book of 2014 twenty-five times including in The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New Statesman, Slate, The Daily Beast, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and the Boston Globe. This fourth and final installment in the series gives validation to the New York Times Book Review’s opinion of its author, Elena Ferrante, as “one of the great novelists of our time.”Here is the dazzling saga of two women, the brilliant, bookish Elena and the fiery, uncontainable Lila. Both are now adults; life’s great discoveries have been made, its vagaries and losses have been suffered. Through it all, the women’s friendship has remained the gravitational center of their lives. Both women once fought to escape the neighborhood in which they grew up—a prison of conformity, violence, and inviolable taboos. Elena married, moved to Florence, started a family, and published several well-received books. In this final book, she has returned to Naples. Lila, on the other hand, never succeeded in freeing herself from the city of her birth. She has become a successful entrepreneur, but her success draws her into closer proximity with the nepotism, chauvinism, and criminal violence that infect her neighborhood. Proximity to the world she has always rejected only brings her role as its unacknowledged leader into relief. For Lila is unstoppable, unmanageable, unforgettable! Against the backdrop of a Naples that is as seductive as it is perilous and a world undergoing epochal change, the story of a lifelong friendship is told with unmatched honesty and brilliance. The four volumes in this series constitute a long remarkable story that readers will return to again and again, and every return will bring with it new revelations.
More Talk: A Response / David Kurnick
“We can’t stop talking about Elena Ferrante” we said to each other throughout 2016—on social media, in the classroom, in pressing the Neapolitan novels upon friends and relatives. This collection of essays on Ferrante emerges from a conference panel at the Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia in January, 2017, convened by the Prose Fiction Division. The pseudonymous Italian writer, who chooses not to reveal herself beyond her writing, had come to new popularity in the US in the past few years, and we found we had a lot to say about feminism, rage, women’s friendships, genre clashes, and bad sex, amongst other topics. We still can’t stop talking about Ferrante, and we trust that when you read these lively, provocative essays, you too will join the chorus.
David Kurnick’s “More Talk” was originally offered as a response to the panel’s essays by Christina Lupton, Pamela Thurschwell, and Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle. It still serves that purpose wonderfully.
—Hester Blum, MLA panel moderator
So it turns out that this panel’s title is in no way straightforward. One of the through-lines in these pieces is the idea that Ferrante is hard to talk about, and that she is most interesting precisely where she finds a way to write what we cannot speak. I’ll try to make clear why I think of that most interesting feature of Ferrante’s work as its realism.
Christina Lupton puts Ferrante in bed with the queer theoretical resistance to the demand that sex be meaningful: as she puts it, Ferrante is “game for giving us just sex, [for] situating Lenù’s experience at this narrative impasse”—at a place that is “difficult to grasp representationally.” More important for Lupton, this kind of good sex—founded on an ignorance about our partner and about the conditions of our own pleasure—is a more accurate model to describe the Anglophone feeling about Ferrante than love, since it allows us to own our ignorance of the contexts from which she writes. Pam Thurschwell, relatedly, draws attention to the “hallucinatory states,” the “gaps” in the texture of the real, that preoccupy Lessing and Ferrante. She reminds us that Ferrante’s term for such cognitive, political and personal blockage, one that gives a title to her non-fiction book, is frantumaglia, a word that also names the felt impasse between writing and motherhood. It’s important that in Thurschwell’s account Lessing offers a vision of women’s writing as constituting its own justification, while Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is less clear on whether writing redeems anything. No transcendence is Thurschwell’s watchword here—even (again queer-theoretically) No Future.
Among the overlaps between Lupton’s and Thurschwell’s accounts is that they make our pleasure in Ferrante into a theoretical and political problem: for Lupton, our pleasure might be premised on our distance from, even our blithe ignorance about, the Southern European context in which Ferrante writes (this is not, I would guess, the way most Anglophone Ferrante enthusiasts want their fandom described). For Thurschwell, the pleasure in Ferrante is more confounding still, since it’s hard even to understand its source: the Quartet is relentlessly unconsoling, a punishing litany of personal and political resolutions that never arrive. Thurschwell’s Waiting for Godot joke is also a provocation to think about the genres in which we inhabit historical hope and frustration: Berlant’s cruel optimism describes middlebrow culture’s processing of deferred political hope, and it’s clear that Ferrante’s Quartet borrows much of its addictive quality from its formal proximity to soaps and TV serials. But Ferrante’s books are fully conversant with Beckettian high seriousness: we might recall the series’ epigraph from Goethe’s Faust, the references to difference feminism, the allusions to the Aeneid. The books shouldn’t be as much fun as they are: they demand that we ask how we get pleasure from these scenes of damaged life, and what such highbrow signals have to do with that pleasure. Lupton’s and Thurschwell’s questions are asking valuably uncomfortable questions: they put our enjoyment of Ferrante adjacent to literary tourism on the one hand and to prestige-TV binge-watching on the other. This may not exhaust the political and cognitive implications of Ferrante’s novels. But after reading these pieces it becomes necessary to think about how those implications consort with our rituals of liberal self-congratulation.
Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle are most overtly concerned with the pleasure they take in Ferrante, and the irrelevance of most official Ferrante-talk to that pleasure. For them, the difficulty isn’t that it’s hard to talk about Ferrante, but that it’s hard to talk about her well, or in a way that doesn’t “entirely miss the point.” One of the provocations of their piece is that they don’t so much specify what they take the point to be as name some of the forums in which Ferrante talk feels un-pointless to them. On the phone, via texts, in bars, in secret Facebook groups, in certain on-line venues: these are places where it’s possible to talk Ferrante without subjecting her to deadening “criticism.” It will have escaped no one’s notice that MLA panels do not feature on this list. One of the things Blackwood and Mesle are asking is whether in gathering to think about Ferrante we are betraying the “schloop” of reading her; whether in doing so we—or rather they, since this is a pressure unequally felt by women—must obey the demand “to transcend gender’s petty differences,” to pretend that everything is fine even though one of the hard-to-miss points of the Neapolitan Quartet is that everything is not fine. Blackwood and Mesle too position us collectively at an impasse, where it’s hard to know what, here and now, we could say about Ferrante: we just.
By this metric, we’ve all already said too much. (By the metric of “men shut up,” of course, I’m way over my time limit). But I think it’s possible to take these sketches of the impasse as critical provocations, as offering us new questions to put to Ferrante’s work and a new description of her achievement: how is it that the main narrative feature of these books about personal and political impasse is fluency? Why are these books that are so hard to talk about so impossible to stop talking about? For all its emphasis on what escapes structure or refuses intellectual coherence, Ferrante’s Quartet is a formidably structured piece of fictional patterning. This feature of the books, which I think anyone who loves them feels viscerally, is easy to overlook, partly because of our focus on the charismatic critical object constituted by Lenù and Lila’s friendship. The focus is understandable, but I think we miss the texture of that relationship if we isolate it from the socio-historical narrative environment in which it is embedded. In the Frantumaglia collection, there’s a moment in an interview with the novelist Nicola Lagioia in which Lagioia praises Ferrante’s portrayal of the women’s bond and then observes that “this interdependence [between Lila and Lenù] extends throughout the entire world of the two friends: Nino, Rino, Stefano Carracci, the Solara brothers, Carmela, Enzo Scanno, Gigliola, Marisa, Pasquale, Antonio, even Professor Galiani. Despite the fact that their rules of attraction are not so intense as those that bind Elena and Lila, they all remain in the same orbit. To escape each other is impossible.”
This elicits one of Ferrante’s most interesting responses: “Where do I start? In my childhood, my adolescence. Some of the poor Neapolitan neighborhoods were crowded, yes, and rowdy. To gather oneself, so to speak, was physically impossible . . . The idea that every ‘I’ is largely made up of others and by the other wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to continually collide with the existence of others and to be collided with.”1 In the Quartet, this becomes as much a narrative as a psychic principle, so that the women’s relationship serves as a portal for others to plug into and out of and thereby to create differently scaled visions of the collective. Think, for one example, of how consistently the duo of Lila and Lenù gets expanded by the addition of Carmela, who silently but durably becomes a semi-permanent member of their unit, particularly at moments of strategic decision-making around neighborhood or national politics (how to position themselves vis-à-vis the Solara brothers, how best to respond to Pasquale’s imprisonment)—in the process sketching how the intensely psychologized closure of two becomes the proto-political feminist aggregate of three. Think, in a different but related register, of how the rivalry and imitation embedded in the central women’s relation gets refracted in Lila’s relation to Alfonso, who in imitating Lila comes into a new version of himself and into newly dangerous relation to Michele Solara; think of how Alfonso’s femininity, which the young Lenù reads in his neat clothing and understands in relation to his slightly elevated class position (he is the son of Don Achille) makes him first a heterosexual object for the young girls, then yet another kind of third for the women, and finally a victim of Naples’ increased violence in the wake of the hard drug trade. Think, in other words, of how breathtakingly supple Ferrante’s narrative grammar is, how relentlessly relational and propulsive a form she gives to every narrative situation, how reliably the central partnership between Lila and Lenù functions as a generator of these narrative totalizations, these widenings of the social and referential frame. Milan and Pisa, Vietnam and IBM, African immigration and the U.S. academy, French theory and the Red Brigades—all of these will find their way into the narrative texture through just such recombinatory expansions.
As we’ve seen, Ferrante’s name for the energy that sponsors this movement is frantumaglia, and I want to close by sketching some of the ways that word’s multiple meanings might color our conversation today. “We are . . . interconnected,” Ferrante says in the interview with Lagioia. “And we should teach ourselves to look deeply at this interconnection—I call it a tangle, or, rather, frantumaglia—to give ourselves adequate tools to describe it. In the most absolute tranquility or in the midst of tumultuous events, in safety or danger, in innocence or corruption, we are a crowd of others.”2 This characterization of frantumaglia as a word for an internalized collective is a crucial expansion of its meaning: earlier she has spoken of it as a dialect word her mother used to capture “a disquiet not otherwise definable . . . a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in the muddy water of the brain.” It also names a “sense of loss, when we’re sure that everything that seems to us stable, lasting, an anchor for our life, will soon join that landscape of debris.”3 The term is clearly associated with Lila’s recurrent fear of “dissolving boundaries,” her sense of a volcanic instability at the heart of historical, interpersonal—even physical and perceptual—existence. The same sensation finds its way into the experience of the narrators of Ferrante’s three earlier novels, where it is overtly associated with a specifically female experience of psychic and physical dissolution—as when Olga, the narrator of The Days of Abandonment, remembers a school friend who “made bodily noises according to how she felt, with her throat, her ass”—a memory of “the ferocity of women” that Olga “feels . . . in [her] flesh” so powerfully that she needs to sit down on a bench to prevent the sensation that she is about to “dissolve into liquid.”4
Over the course of the collection that bears its name, then, frantumaglia becomes a name for a state of affective confusion; a name for a phenomenological crisis that Ferrante identifies as indicatively female; a name for an availability or vulnerability to the other whose clearest fictional instantiation is the relation of Lila and Lenù; finally, a name for the collective itself, the tangle and tumult of interconnectedness. It should be clear that none of these definitions takes final precedence; the point is rather that each implies or entails the others. This experience of frantumaglia might seem to demand a classically modernist narrativization, one that would do mimetic justice to the experience of cognitive blockage and interruption through techniques of fragmentation, interruption, and imagistic density. And in fact Ferrante’s earlier novels are organized along recognizably modernist lines; with their pained lyricism and their psychic claustrophobia, each of the three earlier books powerfully take up residence in the region of the cognitive and emotional tangle.
Things work otherwise in the Neapolitan Quartet, though. One way to assess the achievement of the series is to recognize that it metabolizes that modernist kernel, takes it up not as some final principle but as a motor of formal and geopolitical expansion. And the potent effect of this narrative poetics is to make Ferrante’s feminist conception of interpersonal relation identical to her realist ambition to multiply the terms of geopolitical relation. Foremost among the remarkable things Ferrante’s novels do, then, is to challenge the stubborn academic consensus according to which modernism is the “smarter” and “harder” other to a stodgy and naïve realism: as intelligent and forceful as the earlier novels are, it is the more accessible Quartet that unquestionably represents the more radical formal innovation, precisely in finding a way to make the tangle of incomprehension not the endpoint of narrative movement but the very engine of a realist endeavor to imagine and populate a historically evolving world.5
Lila is indeed a figure of silence and refusal, the kind of character about whom one wants to say, “I just.” But she also represents for Lenù the imperative of more talk, of social experiment, of intellectual achievement, of artistic construction, of structural understanding. In a scene in the series’ final volume, the women discuss the publication of one of Lenù’s books, and Lila expresses her confusion at the workings of the literary world: “I told you that I don’t understand anything.” Lenù’s internal response is contemptuous: “If you can’t connect your story of the shoes with the story of the computers, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.”6 The words are perhaps the most concise version imaginable of realism’s sense-making project. It matters that they emerge as Lenù attempts to assert her superiority over her less sophisticated friend. But as any reader familiar with the novels’ insistent dialecticism will expect, Lenù immediately goes on to question the vehemence of her response, the quality of her writing, the value of her education. The realist project, in other words, belongs not to either of these women—it resides not in Lila’s pained silences or in Lenù’s A-student facility—but in the attempt to get them in the room together. The exchange—and it seems to me that it condenses the books’ central dynamic—asks us not to take impasse as the Neapolitan Quartet’s final meaning but rather to trace where impasse lives in specific social and historical worlds. The lines ask us to connect the neighborhood’s violence to the appropriation of women’s intellectual work; to connect post-War Italy’s prominence in the style industries to Naples’ underdevelopment; to connect one woman’s frustrated intellectual vocation to the advent of digital technologies; to connect those zeros and ones to the social engineering project Lila undertakes in that same neighborhood. We may not have thought there were new ways to comply with the realist injunction—new ways to narrate the impasses these pieces have drawn our attention to, to connect personal, historical, and geopolitical scales and see all of them thrillingly operative at every moment. But I take it that Ferrante is saying, and that the Neapolitan novels are demonstrating, that that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
David Kurnick teaches nineteenth-century literature at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. He is the author of Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel (Princeton, 2012) and has written about contemporary fiction for boundary 2 and Public Books.
The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels #2-4) by Elena Ferrante
I really, really liked Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which is an incredibly blase way to compliment a book so raw and confrontational and, well, brilliant. The remaining three books in the Neapolitan Novels series build on the strong momentum established by the first and, in the process, continue to be some of the most poignant reading I’ve experienced in ages. The feelings that these books provoked in me were strong and visceral, inflamed and tender in their ebb and flow. These are not feel-good stories, but they don’t feel gratuitous in their misery, either. As a woman, my vicarious anger has an undercurrent of resignation, because each injustice and pointed strike at Lila and Elena — the character — (but also, all of the other Neapolitan women in the books) rings a little too true to feel like emotional manipulation.
Taking place from the 1950’s all the way through the 2010’s, beyond coming of age into mature adulthood, the series chronicles the personal and professional achievements and failures of two very intelligent women who are both products of their time, but who also rise above the expectations of the era and of the microculture in their misogynistic, violent Naples neighborhood. For all that they are exceptional, though, the neighborhood has indelibly tagged them. Lila, despite her potential, is never able to leave, while Elena, despite a fancy education and a high-class marriage, is still condescended to because of her background, never allowed to forget how she is different.
The Story of a New Name takes place immediately after Lila’s marriage to the neighborhood grocer, the young man in charge of one of only two of the neighborhood’s prosperous families. Getting bogged down in the details of the plot of each book is kind of missing the point, so I will try to avoid doing it, but I mention the marriage because this is the single moment that changes the two women’s lives. It is the first and most concrete piece of evidence that the lives they are “meant” to have, as women, are not for them. Lila begins chafing at her vows and new identity (her new name) before the ceremony is even over, and the rest of this installment is, for her, about how she struggles to carve out necessary freedoms for herself, both inside and outside of her marriage. Meanwhile, Elena has left the neighborhood to attend secondary school and university. Academically, there is no denying her talent, but she has what we would, now, instantly identify as impostor syndrome, in spades, and she is nearly undone on multiple occasions by a crippling sense of inauthenticity. When she speaks among her educated friends, she always feels like she is pretending at intelligence, only hiding her poor vulgarity; when she as at home in Naples she simultaneously desires to impress with her accomplishments and be accepted as one of them, unchanged. It’s the story of moving within of two communities, but not truly being a part of either.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is a masterful thesis on the feminist axiom “the personal is the political.” It puts a point on the inseparable bond between the women’s professional endeavors and the sociopolitical mores they engage with. Discovering feminism in an official capacity, Elena incisively observes the relationships between women and men in her writing and is struck by the messiness of applying what should be clear-headed logic on the subject to her own relationships with men. As much as this book is about Elena and Lila’s marriages and families, though, it is still at its core very much about the friendship between the two women. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, it is an undeniably strained relationship, but the strength in their bond is something beyond amiable appeasement and shared interests. There is something deeper and more elemental that binds them. At times, you wonder why they still bother being friends, with the various trespasses, minor and otherwise, that they commit against each other. But Elena is forcefully inspired by Lila; she’s an unyielding, driving specter in Elena’s creative mind and she represents the well of genius that Elena is only able to access when she’s at her most honest and candid.
A notable condition of the second and third books is that Elena and Lila are separated, so a lot of what Elena reports about Lila’s life is second-hand information, information she finds out much later and is writing in retrospect, or information that was taken straight from a diary that Lila gives Elena for “safekeeping.” This all worked for me to keep Lila involved in the story and to keep Elena connected to her, but finally in The Story of the Lost Child the women are together again, living in Naples. The official reunion is ostensibly a happy one, but many of their interactions remain terse. Elena, who has always written from the perspective of someone who is constantly compared to her friend and found wanting, now feels increasingly compelled to justify herself and her choices to Lila in the flesh. Raising their children together, Elena struggles with how, despite their wildly different paths, they have still ended up in the same place. She interrogates the decisions that led her, a moderately successful woman with her own notoriety, to still have been so moved by men that her and Lila, now both raising children as single women, appear on the surface level to have minimized themselves and their ambitions so to remain comfortably in the neighborhood, just as all of the other girls without the same intelligence and drive did. It’s too reductive to say that it’s merely sad, or disappointing, that Elena winds up where she did, or that Lila’s growing position in the neighborhood seems to come at the direct expense of Elena’s current popularity as an author, as if they sit on opposite ends of a see-saw and one is always looking down on the other if either of them is to be much off the ground.
Ferrante’s character Elena is a writer, and she writes a lot of this meta-criticism about the flaws in her writing. Primarily, despite Elena’s formal education surpassing Lila’s by several stages, Elena attributes to Lila’s writing an unparalleled quality of natural brevity. Elena is always struck by her own writing having a false affect, while revering the clarity of Lila’s unstudied prose as the epitome of skill. As a reader, I’m struck by Ferrante’s skill with language, and — with this feeling possibly being magnified by Ferrante being a pseudonymous author, and wondering how much of this work is auto/biographical — I can’t help but notice that the lauded qualities of Lila’s writing appear to more or less describe Ferrante’s. (Or Elena’s voice, as depicted by Ferrante. How meta is this exactly? Is this Ferrante suggesting that Elena more successfully adopted those attributes of her friend’s writing than she gave herself credit for? Or that it was Elena herself whose writing had those characteristics, but her bouts of inferiority blinded her to it? Or is it Ferrante, herself, at the top line, voicing her authorial insecurities through her character?) In any case, the writing is magnificent. As I’ve seen it said, the pages practically turn themselves. The language is frugal but expansive inside the reader’s mind — a true case of “leaving it to the imagination.” I’m continually astonished at how much Ferrante does with so little, syntactically.
If you weren’t put off by this unhelpfully vague review, I urge you to read these books. I have tried to touch on a few reasons why I find them so excellent, but even more than those definable things there is just something about them overall that makes them unforgettable.
This is the final Neapolitan novel. If you have read them all, you have followed Elena and Lila as they marry, divorce, bear children, and become successful: Elena as an author, Lila as the owner of a computer software business. Despite their success, they continue to live in the neighborhood, with its history of violence and crime. Lila never left, Elena returns to raise her daughters, and they live in different apartments in the same building as their late middle age unfolds. The lifelong friendship between these two women is the core of this story, with episodes from their childhood forming recurring themes. I found each of these novels to be more compelling than the last.
This post, a review of the last of Elena Ferrante’s novels about Naples, Italy, was first published on 16 January 2016. I read all four books in this series while I lived on the outskirts of Naples. Thanks to Ferrante I was shown inside the city, inside what links us all.
The last of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels
This is a story about the dark places, and the fires, inside all of us. It’s not new, it’s as old as Naples, but it’s told with the energy of possibility and through the eyes of women.
The Story of the Lost Child is the last book in a series of four – the Neapolitan novels.
“A Strangeness in My Mind”: The 2016 Man Booker International Prize Finalists
(…) Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, is the only one of the finalists for the Man Booker International Prize that has been widely reviewed in the United States and broadly marketed. The fourth book in her Neapolitan tetralogy, it concludes the story of the friendship between two women who grew up together in a poor neighborhood in Naples, Elena and Lila, whose lives take very different courses as adults. Unlike the other novels in this review, Ferrante’s tetralogy is a grand realistic project, which reviewers have compared to Balzac, to Tolstoy, to Mann’s Buddenbrooks. It follows the lives of a closely connected set of Neapolitan families from a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood in Naples over a span of about six decades, from the post-World War II period to the present day. (Each novel contains an index of characters in front, with all their relationships described.) The center of the novels is the relationship between Elena and Lila, who meet in first grade and quickly become best friends. The first volume in the tetralogy is called My Brilliant Friend; since Elena is the narrator and fictional author of the books, the title seems to refer to Lila but indeed describes them both in their relationship to each other. Both women of extraordinary intelligence and imagination with a drive to escape the confines of their traditional world and the ways in which it defines women’s lives take different paths. Elena, always a dutiful student, goes to university, escapes Naples, becomes a writer and feminist; Lila, more brilliant and temperamental, leaves school, marries an abusive husband, creates a number of local businesses by using the entrée her male friends and relatives afford, but never realizes her creative gifts. The title of the third volume of the tetralogy, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, identifies this dynamic; the novels ask us to contemplate what leaving and staying mean for the two heroines, whether Elena can ever really leave, and how crippling Lila’s staying becomes. The two women seem almost halves of a single self, alternate lives in a complexly gender-stratified world. The friends love each other, and they are intensely jealous of one another, Elena creating her fiction out of the life she has abandoned but cannot leave.
All four of the volumes of the tetralogy are deeply satisfying, but the last is perhaps the best in bringing together all the strands of the complex world Ferrante creates. My Brilliant Friend begins with a prologue that motivates the telling of the story; Lila disappears, and Elena seeks to bring her back by telling their story. The Story of the Lost Child brings us to that disappearance and the rupture in the friendship it represents. There is indeed a terrible loss of a child at the heart of the novel, but the lost child refers to much else—the lost dolls that Elena and Lila believe the local Mafia chief has stolen from them as children, the biological children from whom they feel estranged, and, most intensely, the childhood selves from which they’ve both departed. The tetralogy vividly depicts the texture of women’s lives: the dailiness of taking care—of children, houses, men—the physicality of menstrua- tion, sex, and pregnancy, the drive of aspiration and inspiration, the weight and web of social constraints. Earlier I quoted Eliot’s Middlemarch; in some sense, Ferrante is redoing Eliot’s project. Eliot begins her novel by comparing her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, to Saint Theresa: “Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion.” Lila, in some sense, is a modern day Theresa who fails to find an epic life, just as Elena, in some sense, is Mary Ann Evans; not the least brilliant of these novels’ many achievement is Ferrante’s exploration of the writer’s implication in her fictional project.
This is the first year that the Man Booker International Prize has been given not to a writer in recognition of his or her entire career but to an individual novel. The benefit of such a change is the attention it brings to extraordinary novels not familiar to many English-speaking readers.
Ann Goldstein was awarded the Italian Prose in Translation Award for her translation of The Story of The Lost Child
This weekend at the American Literary Translators Association conference in Oakland, the winners of the two 2016 National Translation Awards in Poetry and Prose were announced, along with the Lucien Stryk Prize for a translation from an Asian language, and the Italian Prose in Translation Award. Without further ado, here are the winners:
The National Translation Award in Poetry has gone to Hilary Kaplan for her translation of Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas (Phoneme Media).
The National Translation Award in Prose has gone to Liz Harris, for her translation of Tristano Dies: A Life by Antonio Tabucchi (Archipelago)
The Lucien Stryk Prize has gone to Sawako Nakayasu for her translation of The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa (Canarium Books).
The Italian Prose in Translation Award has gone to Ann Goldstein for her translation of The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (whose name is Elena Ferrante, thank you very much) (Europa Editions).
Congratulations to all this year’s ALTA prize winners!
by Valerie Popp
Last September, during a sultry late-summer lunch hour in Manhattan, I had a street encounter that very nearly moved me to tears. I was crossing Broadway near Lincoln Center with a copy of Elena Ferrante’s just-released novel The Story of the Lost Child in my hand. Suddenly someone seized my arm and yelped. Good New Yorker that I am, I was girding myself for a confrontation when the arm-grabber spoke.
“Have you finished that yet?”
Turning, I saw that my assailant was a petite woman with a blonde pixie cut. She gestured to my book as she balanced a collapsing vanilla ice cream cone in one hand and an irascible toddler in the other.
“I just started it,” I replied. “But she’s so good!”
“She’s so good!” the cone-eating pixie echoed. “I just love her!” And she smiled and pulled her child down the sidewalk, and I smiled and returned to work, amazed that someone had taken a moment, on New York’s pugilistic streets, to grab my arm about a book.
There is something raw about how women have responded to Ferrante’s work, especially the Neapolitan quartet. Forget the Instagram joys of “Hot Dudes Reading” (joys which are bounteous, I admit). Everywhere I look I see women with Ferrante’s novels. Hunched over copies of My Brilliant Friend on the subway. Snatching up copies of The Story of a New Name from front tables at the Strand. Peppering tweets with the hashtag #ferrantefever. Pondering questions about Lila as frenemy and Nino as liberal mansplainer extraordinaire. If you’ve ever sat in a humanities class, you’ve definitely met a Nino.
The Story of the Lost Child is the fourth and final installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan chronicles recounting the story of Elena and Lina. Reading the book is like cliff-diving off a high cliff and crashing on the rocks below. It’s a sad ending to a glorious story.
I’m not going to spoil the book for you, but the two protagonists become pregnant and raise their children in the old neighbourhood. One of the two protagonists literally loses her child and begins a slow decent into instability if not madness. A lot of ink is taken up summing up of all the characters and where they’re at in their lives when the book ends in 2006. Lina and Elena are in their 60s, as are the majority of the cast of characters who make up the novel.
Elena is a success but she’s crushed by depression, never becoming the confidant person she could have been. She feels that her career has been marred by that. Elena is a success but she’s consumed by self doubt. Lina too, becomes a success but eventually implodes. Lina disappears, we know that in the first pages of the first novel. Here, we get an inkling as to why; she may have been murdered or simply decided to vanish of her own free will. Not knowing why she’s gone missing is an unsatisfying aspect of the novel.
The series has been a stellar trip about the lives of two remarkable women and the people in their lives. However, the ending is a sad ending to an otherwise at times shocking and always eventful series. I expect characters in their 60s to have misgivings, joys and regrets but Elena and especially Lina, loomed larger than life and their senior years are just plain dull.
The Neapolitan Novels’: “My Brilliant Friend,’’ “The Story of a New Name,’’ “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,’’ “The Story of the Lost Child,” Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa)
You’ve heard everyone talk about them, this addictive epic about two girls in Naples and the pathways they take into life. The size has put you off, maybe the hype. Just start with volume 1, and say good-bye to the world around you.
The Emerging Writers’ Festival director is the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law, and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief.
The book you never wanted to end?
Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child. I read the Neapolitan Novels over two months this year, and it was such an expansive pleasure to be able to spend 2000-odd pages with such brilliantly written characters. The books were a real milestone read.