The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

I’ve never read a series before. Finally I understand why people sleep outside bookstores the day before the next instalment is due to be published. Were there to be a book five I might well zipper myself inside a bag outside Feltrinelli the night before release. Except there will be no next instalment here. I’m done. Lila has left my life and I will never know anything more about her. I feel horribly bereft.

Book Four has less of a feel of fictional memoir about it; it reads more like a novel. It contains some clever post-modernist tricks, most notably the book within a book theme. Elena Greco finally writes about Lila, except it isn’t these books (these books play no part whatsoever in her story); it’s a seventy page novella called Friendship. Meanwhile she has the suspicion that Lila is writing secretly about Naples. In spirit, these have always been Lila’s books. Now Elena lets slip the possibility that maybe they really are Lila’s books. Vanity is probably the central theme of this book but authorship is also a prevailing theme. Ferrante asks many probing questions about the nature of authorship. And we end up asking, who is the author of the Neapolitan series?

Elena becomes rather more disagreeable in this book. She becomes vain and a bit petty. Especially in contrast to Lila, who seems to live without any recourse to vanity, which is why perhaps she’s such a compelling and deeply fascinating character. The only other author I can recall who attempted to create a character free of vanity was Dostoevsky with The Idiot and, brilliant as that was, I’d have to say Ferrante did a better job than he did. It began to bother me how disagreeable I was finding Elena and her vanity. I wasn’t at all sure this was what Ferrante intended. Then I realised that what Ferrante intended was probably exactly the confusion I was feeling. This isn’t one of those run of the mill novels where every character is morally and emotionally consistent and so has a clearly designated and manipulative charge and endgame. It’s a novel that constantly springs surprises, that constantly makes you stop and question lazy emotional and moral assumptions you realise you harbour. One thing Ferrante does so well is get at the anatomy of every strong emotion. Emotions aren’t single and straightforward. Every emotion carries the charge of its opposite. Emotion in fact is often us arguing with ourselves. She shows how hate can be simultaneously present with love, jealousy with aspiration, admiration with resentment, conviction with doubt. I don’t think any writer has done arguing better than Ferrante. You could say the books are one protracted argument – everyone is constantly arguing, romantically, domestically, politically, socially – and you come to realise that this what life is, a long protracted messy argument. Lila is almost like some magical touchstone creature. Even when she appears to be wrong she turns out to be right. I don’t think she’s wrong once in the entire novel and yet she’s far from some simplistic Obi Wan Kenobi; she’s hugely complex, volatile, divisive, contradictory, spontaneous, calculated, adorable, obnoxious. She bristles with lived life on every page. In contrast, the more of Elena’s vanity we see the more we doubt that Elena Greco could have written these novels. You begin to feel only Lila could have.

For me Lila is up there with Anna Karenina, Molly Bloom and Mrs Ramsey as one of the great female characters of literature. No question in my mind Ferrante will be on the classics shelf in two hundred years. download-2

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