“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.