This essay is in two parts; there are no spoilers in this first section.
A friend asked in a recent email: “Have you finished Book 4? Do you think Ferrante pulled it off?” The answer is “Yes and, well, mostly." Book 4 picks up where Book 3 left off with its rather flip ending. Elena continues her affair with Nino. Throughout that drama and the tumult surrounding her separation from Pietro, and despite several publishing successes, Elena’s voice can be wearying. But when she moves with her daughters to Naples, and Lila is squarely back in the story, the book takes off. The two women attempt to re-establish intimacy. In fact, Lila, now the owner of a fledgling computer firm, attempts to draw Elena into her plan to reform the rione—the neighborhood—forcing Elena to grapple with the conflicting demands of her roles as mother and writer in the public spotlight. Several crises interfere, one literally earth-shattering: The 1980 Naples earthquake, described in haunting, palpable detail. The “lost child” of the title is the most significant crisis by far, creating a gap between the two women that’s extremely difficult to bridge. Within the great web of troubles and comings and goings that Elena recounts, we get to see again all the characters we’ve come to know and love—or fear; by the book’s close all their final tales have been told, and every thread stitched into place, much of it against the backdrops of corruption both in Naples and on the national stage during the 80s and 90s. Rising far above all those tales is the spellbinding story of Lila “the brilliant friend” (or is that Elena?) who grows more mysterious and unpredictable in late middle age, as at the same time Elena’s loneliness and self-doubt expand. The questions readers have been asking ever since Lila disappeared at the start of Book 1—Is she still she alive? Will she reappear?—are finally answered, in a way that, not surprisingly, leads to more questions. It was often difficult to put the book down; at other times I yearned for fewer plot turns and a more cohesive structure. But that’s a minor complaint. Book 4 ends a powerful tale about the odds against anyone who tries to rise above a world of poverty and violence to lead a life of meaning. In Book 4 that “anyone” is not only Elena, but also Lila, Alfonso, Enzo, Antonio, and Pasquale. Their stories move me deeply. I can’t get them out of mind, nor do I want to.
There are spoilers in the discussion below. If you return to this blog after you’ve read Book 4—the English translation is due out in September—please send me your comments. I’d love to hear what you think.
At the start of Book 4 Elena again reminds us of the imperative for her writing about her and Lila’s lives—the fact that Lila has disappeared and taken away or destroyed everything she ever owned, down to the last scrap of paper. “Now that I’m at the saddest part of our story, I want to find, on the page, an equilibrium between myself and her that I’ve not been able to find in life even between myself and me.” Elena’s need to see herself through Lila is the engine of all four books; for me, Lila is by far the stronger, more interesting character, and I often found myself wishing not for an equilibrium, but for an imbalance. Meaning: Less of Elena, more of Lila.
Yes, Elena can be tiresome. She blindly suffers Nino’s narcissism and philandering. She too often voices insecurities about her writing, too often adds up her accomplishments as if to assure herself they’re real. As with the earlier volumes, the reader never learns the specific content of Elena’s books and articles. For example, she says her essays on feminist politics and gender equality are often discussed at readings and conferences, yet we never learn how she really thinks. Feminist? Yes. Proletarian? Yes. Beyond that? Unknown. She admits that she speaks about politics in only generic terms: Observing how Nino writes and speaks, she acknowledges that revolutionary parlance is naïve, and that a more complex approach to understanding problems is necessary, but it’s one she doesn’t own. She grows cautious and relies on what she knows best: “It came naturally to me to transform the small events of my private life into public reflections . . . I spoke each evening of the world I came from, of its misery and decay, the rage of men, and women too . . . of the most humiliating aspects of family life, of motherhood, of subservience to men . . . I spoke about how I always tried, in order to assert myself, to adopt a masculine intelligence.“ When she’s criticized in public for her statements surrounding the Moro case, she loses her self-confidence. There are various mentions of the political climate, as when we witness Franco’s depression and suicide and read his reasons as to why Italy is in decline. But we never get much beyond that. Elena is proud of the intellectual life she shares with Nino in private, of the “cultivated conversations” of the dinner parties they host, but again, Elena simply alludes to the topics of those conversations. Those evenings, like her descriptions of her talks and articles, lack details and bear little weight. Or at least less weight than would seem appropriate for a writer whose public profile is discussed so very much within these pages.
Yet so different are Elena’s accounts of the grim reality of the rione! (Another mirror image is at play here: Elena Greco’s third publishing triumph—her novel about the rione—mirrors the Ferrante novel in our hands.) These scenes are the great riches of this tetralogy. Positively cinematographic, lush with intense highlights and shadows as if inspired by a Caravaggio painting, they contrast poverty and violence against intense affections and loyalties: Elena’s mother’s rage over her separation from Pietro; her mother’s illness and death; Elena’s observation of the change in her younger sister, now married to the mobster Marcello; the earthquake; Nino’s multiple betrayals; the pregnancies of Elena and Lila; the reappearance of alleged terrorists Pasquale and Nadia; Elena and Antonio’s reconciliation; Carmen’s protection of Pasquale; Rino and Gennaro’s heroin addictions; and so on. Elena Greco is insider and outsider wrapped into one. Once a sister and friend who’s left them for the big outside world, it’s precisely due to her reputation as a successful writer in that big outside world, and despite the fact that few in the rione have read much beyond her first “dirty” book, that her old friends accord her their deepest respect and reveal to her their fears, their pasts, their secrets. All of which she then shares with us. Beati noi. Lucky us.
Now and then, however, Ferrante the Author/Elena Greco the Narrator depart from their realist style to create situations and events that are truly outsize, or mysterious, or perhaps in need of a bit more basis? Consider the story of Alfonso: “I told about how I recently saw an old childhood friend try in all ways to subvert himself, extracting from himself the feminine.” Unlike the other men in the rione, Alfonso went to high school with Elena and was a talented student. Throughout the first three books, Elena considers him highly cultured and intelligent, and extremely handsome. In Book 3 he reveals to Elena that he’s gay. He’s unhappily married to Marisa and works in the shoe store for mobster Michele Solara who in turn is Marisa’s lover and the father of her two sons. In Book 4 Alfonso undergoes a strange metamorphosis. Elena is struck by how closely Alfonso has begun to resemble Lila. He wears his long dark hair in a ponytail, and his facial features have grown as fine and sharp as Lila’s, soon his gestures become like hers. There’s the strange occurrence in a maternity dress shop to which he’s taken the pregnant Elena and Lila. Lila asks him to try on a dress “so that she can see what it looks like on her”. He tries on the dress and Lila buys it for him, and then Elena understands this sort of thing has been going on for some time. Alfonso also has an undefined relationship with Michele Solara, who up until then has been head over heels in love with Lila despite the fact that she despises him . . . People take note of the fact that Michele is changing, he seems different . . . Michele seems to be attracted to Alfonso . . . Alfonso reveals to Elena that Lila has been encouraging him to tempt and confuse Michele in this game of assuming her image. Bizarre. We later see, sorrowfully, that this game results in terrible consequences. We can only guess that Michele was responsible, either directly or indirectly, for Alfonso’s death. I think it’s clear that Alfonso attempts to assume Lila’s feminine traits as a way out of their culture’s male violence. The fact that he does not have a place in the rione where he might truly be himself is deeply affecting—but is the game he plays with Lila not somewhat forced?
Lila is, of course, the first and greatest of Elena’s outsize characters, with both feet in the gritty world of the rione. But at times Lila departs from the real and the gritty, her perceptions and behaviors rising above and beyond the ordinary. She suffers moments of “disappearing borders”, as when in Book 1, her brother Rino’s face deconstructs among the fireworks and gunshots of New Year’s Eve. A copper pot bursts into pieces in her kitchen, the cause never understood. These events and others are summarized in Lila’s impassioned self-explanation after the earthquake: She has many fears, and no idea how to control their physical manifestations, and she runs from one man to the next to hide from them. Then there’s the iconic photo of her as a bride on the wall of the shoe shore that bursts into flames. And the fact that, though unschooled beyond fifth grade, she teaches herself Latin and Greek, and computer programming, and reads Ulysses, and has for years been writing a memoir. Do we want to believe in this outsize character? Yes, she’s the brilliant friend who was not allowed to go on in school, and married too young, and was abused. We are her cheerleaders. Does she have an undiagnosed psychological disorder? Quite likely. Should we believe that she has extraordinary powers? Hmmmm.
Another example of Ferrante’s hand perhaps forcing a situation is the mistaken identities of Elena’s and Lila’s daughters. The photographer who comes to shoot portraits of Elena, on the eve of her second novel’s debut, photographs her with Tina, Lila’s daughter, instead of with Imma. The caption accompanying the photo describes the pair as the author and her daughter. This mix-up is foreshadowed during Elena’s and Lila’s pregnancies, when Elena says to Lila: “I already have two girls. If in fact you do have a boy will you give him to me?” and Lila responds: “Sure, no problem, we’ll do an exchange.”
Later, Lila suspects that the erroneous caption is the reason her daughter Tina was kidnapped, that because Elena is a notable public figure the kidnappers wanted her daughter for ransom, not Lila’s. That theory doesn’t quite hold, since news articles would have made clear that Lila was not without financial resources and could have paid a ransom, but it makes room for yet another squabble between the two women: Elena is tempted to tell Lila that her fixed attention on Nino that afternoon is what caused her daughter to wander off. Does the book really need this last bit of rancor? Isn’t the event strong enough without it?
Attached to the disappearance of Tina is the delivery of the two old and broken childhood dolls. Elena’s discovery as she opened that unsigned package sent chills down my spine. The two dolls tied the two little girls of Book 1 together with the two mothers of Book 4, and with the image of the bereft and wandering Lila, now on a quest to somehow reconnect with her daughter. At the same time that the dolls are symbolic of the daughters, they’re totem objects, as they can be read as the embodiments of the two disparate selves of Elena and Lila. They’re also the artifacts of a friendship that’s ended, that can live only in their respective memories. Or perhaps in one memory only, that being Elena’s. The doll metaphor is so strong on its own I would have preferred less foreshadowing. Less plotting.
Standing back and looking at all four books: We could read them as one long tale of a divided self, with the two halves struggling to reunite into a mythic or psychological whole—Elena as the one who left, Lila as the one who stayed. I’d like to read it that way, but to do so I must embrace the Myth of Lila, the Outsize Lila, and not feel uncomfortable when tossed between realistic detail and hyperbole, or when manipulated by a too obvious hand.
At the same time, I must say, the high note of ambivalence that was struck at the end of Book 4 swept me right back under Ferrante’s spell. By then, Elena’s a grandmother, and her daughters are building lives outside of Italy. She has a dog. She has a lover she sees from time to time. She’s lonely. The best she has to hold onto is the book she’s written, the one we’re reading. But she fails to find peace in that. Again, she’s haunted by insecurity—she fears that the disappeared and seemingly broken Lila is secretly writing a book, somewhere, and that Lila’s book will be better than anything she herself has yet written . . . she would happily be Lila’s editor . . . and her book’s promoter. . . Is this a nod to Lila’s never-ending capacity for self-invention? Or simply a final acknowledgement of her ties to Lila and their common language, ties now and forever broken? When Elena says: “My entire life can be summed up as a petty struggle to change my social class”—should we take her at face value? Could it really be that Elena, in her loneliness, her aloneness, her otherness, regrets having ever left the ‘hood? Doubtful. Rather, we can read her aloneness as the result of her quest to self-invent, to defy her destiny in the face of overwhelming odds.