The Hypnotic Genius of Elena Ferrante
An epic from Italy about female friendship and fate
Like the final installment in any work of serial fiction, The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth of Elena Ferrante’s celebrated Neapolitan novels, has a lot to deliver on. This last volume has two tasks in particular. It must solve the mystery of the callous behavior of the narrator, Elena Greco, in the first scene of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend. When the son of her best friend of 60 years, Raffaella (or Lila) Cerullo, calls to say that Lila has disappeared, Elena irritably instructs him to stop worrying and stop calling. The final book must also produce the catastrophe that has been gathering force since that first book’s next scene, a flashback to the women’s childhood, during which, Elena informs us, the two of them “were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us yet had always been waiting for us, just for us.” And when that “something terrible” materializes, it must feel both inevitable and unexpected.
The story of Lila and Elena begins in that flashback, in a slum in Naples in the early 1950s. The girls are 8 and fearfully climbing the stairs to the apartment of Don Achille, the local loan shark. He’s the sort of man parents warn children to stay away from, so the girls figure he must be “created out of some unidentifiable material, iron, glass, nettles, but alive, alive, the hot breath streaming from his nose and mouth.” Monster that he is, he has stolen their two beloved dolls, or so they imagine, and Lila, the bold one, wants to confront him. Elena, quavering, trails behind.
It’s a testament to Ferrante’s skill as a storyteller that, three volumes later, she circles back to the key elements of this primal scene without our having quite seen where she was headed. Twenty-some years after the girls climbed the stairs, they’re back in the old slum. Everything is the same but also, obviously, different. The dolls have been replaced by babies. The danger Lila refuses to acknowledge is clearer. As children, Elena and Lila couldn’t name the actual disasters “at the origin of a sense of disaster,” in Elena’s words. As adults, they have begun to make them out. The ogre has a more familiar face, or faces. He can be glimpsed in childhood buddies who now work in the Neapolitan crime syndicate called the Camorra, and in the signs of their city’s moral and physical decay. He’s all the more frightening for no longer being a figure in a fairy tale. Except that, in some ways, he still is.
Ferrante’s novels have come out, in America, roughly in tandem with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle, and the authors have been greeted as geniuses of the same ilk: “The titanic novelists of the current literary moment,” Joshua Rothman called them in an online article for The New Yorker, struck by the cultural convergence of “serial, autobiographical chronicles of emotions recollected in tranquility.” But to call both works autobiographical is to ignore an essential difference between them.
Knausgaard writes autobiographical novels. Ferrante writes novels about autobiography. Knausgaard sometimes also writes about writing autobiography, because he writes about everything. He divulges every thought, every detail of his life story, without fear of consequences. But Ferrante is craftier. She withholds the one thing we’d need in order to determine whether her stories are factual: her identity. “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym the author has been using since her first novel appeared, in 1992. Knausgaard, by going so public, forces his readers to think about the world outside the text. Ferrante thwarts our urge to do so. Perhaps she means to forestall gossip, but she has a literary agenda as well: She wants her readers to pay close attention. “Remove that individual”—the author—“from the public eye,” she said in an interview conducted by her publishers that came out this spring in The Paris Review, and “we discover that the text contains more than we imagine.”
There are reasons to believe that Ferrante’s novels have autobiographical elements in them. However, aside from what she has told us in The Paris Review and other interviews (generally done by correspondence)—that she’s from Naples, that she builds her narratives from “fragments of memory”—the clues come from her work itself. In the tetralogy, we deduce some of them from the metafictional frame. Ferrante’s narrator has the author’s own pseudonymous first name. She writes novels. We also pick up stylistic cues. The prose is plain and conversational and has an immediacy that makes readers think the author must have undergone experiences similar to those she visits on her narrator. When Elena gets her first period and is so afraid of being punished that she washes out her underpants and puts them back on wet, the damp cloth and needling shame have the clammy discomfort of the real. The series unfurls over decades of social turmoil, and we can’t help imagining that Ferrante was in the thick of it. She had to have imbibed the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s and ’70s in Italy: Elena’s fury at the men in her life—who pontificate about the new world order, then foist the housework and child care onto her—is fierce.
Ferrante heightens the illusion of reality by means of a technique I think of as emotional chiaroscuro. The feelings that flow between Elena and Lila are rigorously ambivalent. Every reaction comes accompanied by its shadow. Neither woman experiences love without resentment, loyalty without treachery, pride without envy. Lila, more charismatic and original than anyone around her, matures into extraordinary beauty and marries one of the richest young men in their district. The force of her personality overwhelms Elena, who often worries that she’s nothing more than an ersatz Lila. Elena, meanwhile, benefits from educational opportunities Lila is denied; escapes the neighborhood, which Lila doesn’t; and becomes the writer Lila surely could have been—or so Elena believes. She suspects that her successes have come at Lila’s expense, and at times, Lila seems to feel the same way. This oscillation between lightness and darkness gives their friendship a depth and intensity too palpable to seem imagined.
But all that, you might say, is brushwork. Beneath the surface lie ancient themes, because Ferrante is also a writer in the classical mode. Like Sophocles, like Ovid, like the nameless storytellers whose tales were adapted by the Brothers Grimm, she takes fate as her subject. Lila is a demiurge, a creature of myth. She enters Elena’s life in first grade, in full possession of her prodigious faculties, so independent-minded as to seem autochthonous, and reading far better than Elena, who up to that point was at the head of her class. At the age of 10, Lila writes a story that Elena, at 22, will reread and recognize as the urtext for her own debut novel,
the secret heart of my book. Anyone who wanted to know what gave it warmth and what the origin was of the strong but invisible thread that joined the sentences would have had to go back to that child’s packet, ten notebook pages, the rusty pin, the brightly colored cover, the title, and not even a signature.
The title of the story is “The Blue Fairy.” This seems certain to be a reference to Pinocchio’s benefactress (though Ferrante never mentions her), an eerie blue-haired sprite with the power to turn a marionette into a boy—that is, to give life—and a habit of vanishing when needed.
Lila is a magnificent character, the Blue Fairy trapped in a mortal body. It’s no coincidence that she’s the daughter of a craftsman, in this case a shoemaker, although, Lila being Lila, she becomes the craftsman, too. Forced to quit school by her father, she follows him into the trade and dreams up a new line of deluxe men’s shoes that, like some enchanted object, makes almost everyone around her rich. Lila also suffers from what she calls “dissolving margins.” In moments of stress, “the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared.” During a devastating earthquake, Lila endures an acute bout of this disorder and babbles agitatedly about it to Elena until we realize that she’s afflicted by something like mystical visions:
She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing. She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that—it was absolutely not like that—and so she couldn’t trust in their resistance to being banged and bumped.
Medically, this sounds a lot like synesthesia, a neurological condition in which colors might have flavors, sounds might have shapes, and so on. “A tactile emotion would melt into a visual one, a visual one would melt into an olfactory one,” Lila tells Elena. Existentially, Lila is discovering a profound instability roiling beneath the surface of things. “Ah, what is the real world?” she says to Elena. “Nothing, nothing, nothing about which one can say conclusively: it’s like that.”
Boundaries are precisely what Lila and Elena don’t have, not as children together, not ever. In an indispensable essay in the magazine n+1, Dayna Tortorici traces the connections between Ferrante and Italian feminist thought, teasing out Ferrante’s attraction to difference theory—the notion that women are simply not like men. One concept in particular seems to have left its mark: that women experience more psychic entanglement with others, particularly their mothers, than men do. Elena and Lila leach into each other, which they find both gratifying and unsettling. But the alternative, for Elena, is having her mother leach into her, which is even more unsettling. As Tortorici points out, Elena wants Lila to help her avert that fate.
After their teacher showed the class that Lila could already read and write, Elena swallowed her mortification and vowed to “model myself on that girl, never let her out of my sight, even if she got annoyed and chased me away.” Elena’s academic preeminence has promised to liberate her from her semiliterate mother, who, like the other women of their neighborhood, has been ravaged by marriage, children, and poverty. She’s walleyed and limps, and from the moment Lila challenges Elena’s status as the star student, “a worry began to take shape,” Elena says. “I thought that, although my legs functioned perfectly well, I ran the constant risk of becoming crippled … Maybe that’s why I became focused on Lila, who had slender, agile legs, and was always moving them.”
Given Ferrante’s deft intertwining of the fantastic and the psychological, it would be tempting to call her a magical realist, but the term conjures up a whimsicality that misses what’s distinctive about her style. A better characterization might be fairy-tale feminist, which is no insult from a Ferrantean point of view. Ferrante endows the blurring of self and other with the aura of the supernatural, even as she grounds her characters in a very physical world. Bodies are destiny, which means that women, who make bodies, make destiny too. Elena’s mother’s limp does manifest itself in Elena’s body when she has her first child and develops sciatica. No matter how far away Elena gets, she can’t escape the vicissitudes of embodiment. Even before she marries her prince, Pietro, the scion of a family of distinguished intellectuals, she has an inkling that some corporeal remnant of their past will make them incompatible: “I came from that family, Pietro from that other, each of us carried our ancestors in our body. How would our marriage go?”
The answer is badly, of course. Pietro, a classics professor, turns out to be as self-absorbed and pedantic as George Eliot’s ghastly Casaubon, toiling on a book he seems unlikely to finish. Elena stops writing and becomes a drudge, cleaning house, caring for their two daughters. By the beginning of The Story of the Lost Child, Elena is running away with Nino, a man she has loved since they were both children. He’s the son of the neighborhood philanderer, and a womanizer himself; he has already seduced and deserted Lila. Elena’s infatuation with the untrustworthy Nino seems at once necessary for her survival and manic, delusional, as if she can free herself from servitude only if she lies to herself about the probable consequences of her flight.
But Nino draws Elena back to Lila and to Naples, where their old friends have turned into their parents too. While courting Lila, Stefano, the son of the loan shark Don Achille, was as loving and kind as his father was thuggish, but after the wedding, “the shadow of Don Achille” swelled “the veins of his neck and the blue network under the skin of his forehead,” and Stefano metamorphosed into a wife-beater. The son of the Communist accused of killing Don Achille has taken up Red Brigade–style terrorism. Marriage has destroyed the young women in Lila and Elena’s circle as surely as it did their mothers.
In Ferrante’s hands, masculinity is malignant, yet not all the men of the novels are infected by it. Another of Don Achille’s sons is attentive and kind and eventually begins to dress as a woman—indeed, under Lila’s spell, he imitates her so closely that the two of them look like twins. A male ex-schoolmate rescues Lila after Nino leaves her and stands by her when her life turns even more bitter. The threats to Elena’s psychic integrity are as much female as male. Her greatest fear is that she will evolve into Melina, the mad widow of their corner of Naples, who, beguiled and abandoned by Nino’s father, now wanders the street and at one point goes so far as to eat soap. She is a sort of symbolic mother figure whose name contains both Elena’s and Lila’s. (Lila, I should note, is called Lina by everyone except Elena.) The spirit of Melina does eventually materialize, though not in a form Elena could have predicted.
When the tragic denouement of the Neapolitan novels comes, it’s as uncanny and implacable as Oedipus’s meeting with his father on the road to Thebes. Afterward, Lila takes up the art of vanishing. Elena’s career flourishes, wanes, and is resurrected when she betrays a promise to Lila not to write about her. Elena’s trajectory more obviously tracks Ferrante’s in this last segment of the series. Just as Ferrante went from a respected Italian author to an international sensation in the course of publishing her quartet of novels, so Elena attains world renown with her attempts to explain her inexplicable friend. But this meta-metafictional twist only deepens the puzzle already posed by their friendship. If Lila molded Elena before Elena became her chronicler, then who invented whom? Who deserves credit as “the author”? Who has the right to control the details of their lives?
Ferrante’s accomplishment in these novels is to extract an enduring masterpiece from dissolving margins, from the commingling of self and other, creator and created, new and old, real and whatever the opposite of real may be. Hers is an old wives’ tale in the strongest sense of that term, a rich and haunted folk saga too rooted in lives effaced and genius squandered to be attributable solely to one Elena, or even two Elenas. Unsigned, unclaimed, at least by anyone we can point to, it could almost have emanated from the old neighborhood, which itself emanated from countless neighborhoods past. As Ferrante told her publishers in The Paris Review, “There is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence.” Ferrante’s voice is very much her own, but its force is communal. Perhaps her quartet should be seen as one of the first great works of post-authorial literature.
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