The New York Review of Books

The Violent World of Elena Ferrante

Naples, 1964; photograph by Bruno Barbey

At the start of The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final novel of Elena Ferrante’s remarkable Neapolitan quartet, the two women whose turbulent friendship forms the core of the books are entering the second halves of their lives, their first marriages behind them. Elena Greco, the studious narrator, has left poverty-stricken Naples and become an established author of novels and feminist essays. She has left her husband, a brilliant university professor and laborious lover from Italy’s left-leaning bourgeoisie, for the man she has adored since adolescence, a fickle charmer and social climber named Nino Sarratore. With Sarratore comes a return to Naples and the Mezzogiorno after years in the relatively ordered “European” Italy of Pisa, Milan, and Florence.

Raffaella Cerullo—known to Elena as “Lila” and the chief subject of her storytelling—has never left the rubble-filled streets of Naples. Electric and fiery, she appears to have achieved some stability, even financial security, for the first time in her life after the end of her marriage to a violent loan shark. She is living with the devoted Enzo Scanno, whom she has known since neighborhood school days. He takes care of her child and together they have started a computer company called Basic Sight.

That, at least, is the surface of things, which in the pseudonymous Ferrante’s work often conceals the violence and irrationality of life. “Love and sex are unreasonable and brutal,” she writes. For Lila and Elena, they generally are. Everything in the two women’s lives duly unravels—except their fecund, troubled friendship. They are inseparable even when distance intervenes.

Elena has the discipline to channel her gifts, as she shows in the writing of her story. But she could not have done so without the inspiration of Lila, who is the more brilliant but too mercurial to fulfill her promise, whether as an author (the story she wrote as a child, The Blue Fairy, mesmerizes Elena), shoe designer, or entrepreneur. The quartet is set in motion at the beginning of the first book by Lila’s disappearance, prompting Elena to seek to assemble all the frantumaglia, or fragments, that led to her departure. That effort, looking back over a lifetime, yields this work. Ferrante, in a rare interview with The Paris Review, has called frantumaglia the “bits and pieces of uncertain origin which rattle around in your head.” Artistic creation involves linking them through logical and magical patterns. As she writes in The Story of the Lost Child, “Linear explanations are almost always lies.”

The interacting qualities of the two women are central to the quartet, which is at once introspective and sweeping, personal and political, covering the more than six decades of the two women’s lives and the way those lives intersect with Italy’s upheavals, from the revolutionary violence of the leftist…

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