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 Red Brigades to radical feminism. Ferrante, in an e-mail interview with Deborah Orr of The Guardian, called writing “a dragnet that carries everything away with it” and alluded to her “ransacking of the enormous warehouse that is literary tradition.”
Certainly, she dabbles in many genres: her evocation of the devastating work conditions in a sausage factory where Lila labored recalls Zola; her examination of Nino Sarratore’s ambitious rise from the provinces to political prominence in Rome owes something to Balzac. Her vivid description of place recalls Lawrence Durrell. (Naples is the third-most-important character, a festering being drawing everyone back into its squalid labyrinth of generational vendettas.) Her depiction of Lila’s susceptibility to mystical forces owes something to magical realism; her chosen form—brief chapters that often resemble movie scenes—is suggestive of soap operas. As Orr wrote in The Guardian, Ferrante has fed “a hunger for something simple yet rare,” a work that is “without pretension, mannerism or sentiment, epic yet domestic,” and “as thought-provoking as a self-conscious ‘novel of ideas.’”
To which I would add that Ferrante, in her unflinching willingness to lead us toward “the mutable fury of things,” places the reader inside intimate relations between women and men with an irresistible and unusual immediacy. In her Guardian interview with Orr, Ferrante said of women:
I think our sexuality is all yet to be recounted and that, especially in this context, the rich male literary tradition constitutes a huge obstacle. The ways Elena and Lina behave are just two different aspects of the same arduous and always unhappy adjustment to men and their sexuality.
This constant female “adjustment” is present in all Ferrante’s novels. In The Story of the Lost Child, Elena remembers that her dying mother, Immacolata, “revealed with coarse obscenities that my father was perfunctory, she couldn’t remember if sleeping with him had ever truly given her pleasure.” Elena herself, after Nino’s constant infidelities finally destroy their relationship, goes back to a first love, Antonio Cappuccio, and experiences a fierce erotic charge: “He demanded things and I demanded things with a fury, an anxiety, a need for violation that I didn’t think I harbored.” Lila laughs as she sums things up: “Men place such an enormous importance on fucking.” She is the more detached of the two, while Elena the feminist is dismayed at how Nino holds power over her for so long:
Although I now wrote about women’s autonomy and discussed it everywhere, I didn’t know how to live without his body, his voice, his intelligence…. I loved him more than my own daughters…. I withered painfully, the free and educated woman lost her petals, separated from the woman-mother, and the woman-mother was disconnected from the woman-lover, and the woman-lover from the furious whore.
Ferrante’s women are multifaceted, self-contradicting sexual beings facing enormous obstacles, from the machismo of Italian society (especially in the south) to the difficulty of combining motherhood and professional advancement. Their lives are a balancing act; their men often brutal, plain stupid, or both; and in the end the women are stronger.
In The Days of Abandonment, a powerful earlier novel, Ferrante describes how the thirty-eight-year-old Olga goes mad after being left with two small children by her husband, Mario, but finds the strength to emerge, overcome her feelings, and at last find glimmerings of happiness. Elena, too, achieves more than the men in her life. The daughter of a janitor and a housewife, she rises, through her intelligence and talent, from poverty to upper-middle-class comfort and literary success. As for Lila, she scares men (and not only men) with the force of her feelings and the accuracy of her uncanny intuitions; in the end it seems she can very well live without a man. As she observes to Elena, “Loving courses together with hating, and I can’t, I can’t manage to solidify myself around any goodwill.”
Elena has loved Nino Sarratore since high school days in Naples. He is tall and languid, serious and quizzical, an intellectual who stands apart from the local squalor. He has had a passionate affair with Lila that began one summer on Ischia, a child through a liaison with another woman in Milan, and, when he reenters Elena’s life, he is married, with another child, to a woman named Eleonora from a wealthy Neapolitan family. Elena, with two young daughters from her own marriage, is swept away by their passion. The first half of The Story of the Lost Child focuses on their doomed love.
Each has a secret. Elena lost her virginity on an Ischia beach to Nino’s groping father, Donato, a memory that makes her shudder. “How many words remain unsayable even between a couple in love,” she reflects. Nino, unable to bear Elena’s talent in high school, tossed her first literary submission to a school journal into the garbage and told her that it was rejected. The pattern will repeat itself: Nino hides things. His ego is colossal—and blinding. His politics, initially of the radical left, become more conservative as he seeks advancement. Behind his self-confidence and seductive virility lurks the weakness of a man without a center.
He drives Elena to distraction. When she moved to Naples to be with him, she infuriated her mother, who called her “a bitch” for abandoning her husband, the good and steady Professor Pietro Airota. Elena soon discovers Nino has not left his wife—and explodes:
Am I always this furious other I? I, here in Naples, in this filthy house, I, who if I could, would kill this man, plunge a knife into his heart with all my strength? Should I restrain this shadow—my mother, all of our female ancestors—or should I let her go?
She hits him. She says, “You lied to her and you lied to me, and you didn’t do it for love of either of us, you did it for yourself, because you don’t have the courage of your choices, because you’re a coward.” Yet even in her rage, “love writhed fiercely inside me.”
As for Nino, he says: “I can’t leave Eleonora, but I can’t live without you.” He prefers the adrenaline of a double life to the trauma of a break. Elena consults Franco Mari, her former lover from college in Pisa, now a much-reduced man after serious injury in a neofascist attack during his years as a leftist. Referring to Nino, Mari, who will later commit suicide, says: “What if he loved you, seriously, and yet knew he could only love you in this way?” The couple staggers on, addicted to each other, even when Nino’s wife Eleonora gets pregnant with a second child.
During a trip to the United States, Elena, now thirty-six, becomes pregnant. Lila is pregnant, too, by her lover Enzo. The two friends go to medical examinations together in Naples. Having diverged, they are together again. While they wait to be seen, Elena recalls how, as children, they played at being mothers with their dolls. Hers was called Tina, Lila’s Nu. Lila had “thrown Tina into the shadows of the cellar and I, out of spite, had done the same with Nu.” It was a pivotal moment—of lost innocence, gratuitous aggression, imagined motherhood shattered—and the little girls go on to a terrifying confrontation with Don Achille Caracci, a loan shark whom they accuse of stealing the dolls and who will later be murdered. The son of Caracci, Stefano, in time becomes Lila’s violent first husband. The neighborhood’s baleful shadow is always present.
Elena’s third daughter, Immacolata Sarratore, known as “Imma,” is born two months after the Naples earthquake of November 23, 1980. Lila, who already has a son by Stefano Caracci (she thought for a time that Nino might be the father), gives birth to a daughter, Nunziatina, known as “Tina.” “You know that you’ve given her the name of my doll?” Elena says.
Nino, who scatters offspring with great abandon, plays dutifully with Imma, but does not seem attached to his new daughter. Elena observes that “he used the infant as a doll to entertain Dede and Elsa”—her older daughters. The doll, central to an earlier novel, The Lost Daughter, is a recurring theme in Ferrante’s work. It is the repository of innocence, yearning, loss, and violence (to women by men and by women to one another). Dolls are misplaced, they are stolen; they are not the innocent objects they seem, as is the case with much in Ferrante’s world.
The end of the affair is violent. One day Elena returns unannounced to her apartment to find Nino, who has a key, having sex with the nanny, Silvana, in the bathroom. Imma is alone in her playpen. Nino is
in his undershirt and otherwise naked, his long thin legs parted, his feet bare. Silvana, curved forward, with both hands resting on the sink, had her big underpants at her knees and the dark smock pulled up around her waist. He, while he stroked her sex holding her heavy stomach with his arm, was gripping an enormous breast that stuck out of the smock and the bra, and meanwhile was thrusting his flat stomach against her large white buttocks.
Everything, Ferrante writes, becomes clear to Elena. She thinks back to Nino’s lecherous father. “Nino was only one, and the expression he had on his face while he was inside Silvana was the proof. It was the expression of his father, Donato, not when he deflowered me on the Maronti [in Ischia] but when he touched me between the legs, under the sheet.” And she goes further:
Nino was very intelligent, Nino was extraordinarily cultured. His propensity for fucking did not come from a crude, naïve display of virility based on half-fascistic, half-southern clichés. What he had done to me, what he was doing to me, was filtered by a very refined knowledge. He dealt in complex concepts, he knew that this way he would offend me to the point of destroying me.
Elena is not destroyed. She raises her three children. She writes with success, still. She transfigures her life into literature. She grows beyond Nino—“I realized then, and to my surprise, that I no longer felt anything for him.”
Nino, by contrast, drifts on, doing casual harm. Elected a socialist member of parliament, he is an Onorevole, or Honorable Sarratore, until he is brought down in dishonor by the judicial investigation of rampant political corruption known as Mani Pulite (Clean Hands). He goes to prison for a time only to reemerge. No sin is beyond forgiveness in Italy. Lila, whom Nino again pursues, has the most devastating verdict on him: “He has the worst kind of meanness, that of superficiality.”
In the American imagination, Italy has avoided the unattractive elements of contemporary life, taking only so much from it. Something in the culture has resisted the reduction of human interaction to the transactional minimum. Italy is seen as having resisted the squeezing of the last cent of profit from every exchange. Something in it recognizes the human need for community and what a few friendly words to a stranger can mean. There are still innocent smiles in Italy, something you can only call humility.
For Italians, however, the story is rather different. They live with the corruption, the inefficiency, the violence, and the paralysis of a nation that can still feel like a dysfunctional collection of city-states. This is the Italy Ferrante portrays. Escape, for many Italians, including Elena’s two older daughters in The Story of the Lost Child, is from Italy to America.
In this last book of the quartet the full toll of the violence of Naples—and of the republic that accommodates it—becomes clear. Death often comes unnaturally, and there is a lot of it. When I visited Naples as a Rome-based Wall Street Journal correspondent in the early 1980s I was told by a city official that it was the only city that “produces tens of thousands of pairs of gloves a year but doesn’t have a glove factory.” What it does have, in abundance, is the organized crime group, the Camorra.
Scarcely a character remains untouched by the camorrista Solara family that controls most of what passes for business in the rundown neighborhood of Elena and Lila. Elena’s sister, Elisa, marries Marcello Solara and lives for a while the gaudy life of the family. Elena’s lover, Antonio, works for the Solaras and kills people on their behalf. Lila’s brother, Rino, dies a hideous death from an overdose of the drugs in which the Solaras and their associates traffic. Lila, pursued by Marcello and later, obsessively, by his brother Michele, learns her disdain for violent male predations through her experience of these strutting Solara men with their flashy cars.
Pasquale Peluso, whose father was imprisoned for allegedly murdering the camorrista loan shark Caracci, joins the Red Brigades in reaction to the Fascist-camorrista stranglehold on the city and the blocked Christian Democrat–dominated politics of the postwar Italian Republic. He may or may not be behind the murder of Manuela Solara, the mother of Marcello and Michele, whose “red book”—the registry of every debt owed and score not yet settled—is an “evocative yet threatening” presence throughout the childhood of Elena and Lila.
Ferrante evokes this unforgiving and opaque culture with great power. Its malevolence affects almost everyone. Elena is not especially political, other than in her feminism. (Ferrante, in the Guardian interview with Orr, said, “I don’t have any special passion for politics, it being a never-ending merry-go-round of bosses big and small, all generally mediocre.” She also said, in an interview with The Paris Review, that “feminist thought and practice set in motion the deepest, most radical of the many transformations that took place in the last century,” and has elsewhere suggested her debt to the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, founded in 1975.) Lila, horrified by work conditions in the sausage factory, dabbles in leftist politics but lacks discipline and conviction in this as in all things.
Part of Elena’s political detachment stems from a growing sense, through the books, of how experience is inevitably affected by the past. Nino wears his lascivious father’s expression; Elena inherits her mother’s limp. Direct lines from wartime fascism and communism extend, decades afterward, into the lives and deaths of her characters and families, caught in old conflicts, only half aware of how the Camorra and leftist terrorism are warped versions of political conflicts that stretch far back through family feuds. In Ferrante’s Naples, the male currencies are power and money. They both connect with virility and with honor, which in turn, if transgressed, are cause for blood to be spilled. Part of what distinguishes Lila, what makes her so memorable, is her utter contempt for, and imperviousness to, male aggression. She sees through it. She is unafraid to resist it, and can manipulate it.
Achille Caracci, the murdered loan shark, has a second son, Alfonso, who marries Nino’s sister before discovering he is a homosexual. It is Lila who leads him to this awareness. Alfonso explains to Elena:
The most beautiful thing she did for me was to impose clarity on me, teach me to say: If I touch the bare foot of this woman I feel nothing, while I die of desire if I touch the foot of that man, there, and caress his hands, cut his nails with scissors, squeeze his blackheads.
She brings together Michele Solara and Alfonso. Michele cannot bear his attraction to a man. It drives this camorrista, unable to win Lila, to violent frenzy.
Alfonso is found beaten to death on a beach. Michele punches “Lila violently in the face, knocking her violently to the ground.” In the Naples of Ferrante, sex and violence are inseperable. Michele says to Lila, “I’ll take everything you have.”
Lila is a remarkable fictional creation. She feels too intensely for her own good. Her talents—in writing, in design, in instinctive human understanding—overflow and overwhelm her. From the first book in the quartet we learn of her feelings of instability, which are described as a sense of “dissolving margins.” For Lila, “everything, one thing after another, will break, everything, everything.” During her adolescence a copper pot explodes in her presence, just like that. She detests “the hollowness of words when they were emptied of any possible meaning.” She cannot abide convention. Her mind “shifted like the sea when the moon seizes it whole and pulls it upward.” She is a disruptive force, full of what Elena calls “intelligence without purpose.” She personifies a fragmenting world. Lila maddens Elena by refusing to read her at times. Elena is sometimes envious of her, sometimes gripped by a feeling of inadequacy, and then those feelings give way to irritation and exasperation. Lila feels envy in turn, but also contempt for her friend.
Elena, toward the end up the quartet, sums up their relationship: “I was I and for that very reason I could make space for her in me and give her an enduring form. She instead didn’t want to be her, so she couldn’t do the same.” Elena constructs; Lila will self-destruct.
When the Naples earthquake comes and the two friends are together, Lila panics. The earthquake feels like confirmation of the instability of everything, of half-known forces that shape people’s lives. Her feelings are described this way:
If she didn’t stay alert, if she didn’t pay attention to the boundaries, the waters would break through, a flood would rise, carrying everything off in clots of menstrual blood, in cancerous polyps, in bits of yellowish fiber.
Later in the book, Lila says of Naples:
Here everything was built and everything was torn down, here the people don’t trust talk and are very talkative, here is Vesuvius which reminds you every day that the greatest undertaking of powerful men, the most splendid work, can be reduced to nothing in a few seconds by the fire, and the earthquake, and the ash, and the sea.
Ferrante told The Paris Review, “I tend toward an expansive sentence that has a cold surface and, visible underneath it, a magma of unbearable heat.”
The turning point of The Story of the Lost Child is a mystery. When her daughter Tina vanishes, Lila is talking to, and absorbed by, Nino, who is “gesturing with his long arms, his hands.” Marcello Solara is there on the other side of the street. Lila is holding Imma, Elena’s little girl. Dede and Elsa, Elena’s older daughters, are eating cotton candy at a stall. Elena looks around and asks: “Where is Tina?”
She is gone. Lila’s adored little girl, standing there a moment earlier, has vanished, never to reappear. Lila’s grief cannot “coagulate around anything.” The police investigation is, as expected, a farce. Rumors abound. The most persistent is that Tina has been swept away by a truck traveling at high speed: “The truck hadn’t braked, or even tried to, and had disappeared at the end of the stradone along with Tina’s body, her braids. On the asphalt not a drop of blood remained, nothing, nothing at all.” The Camorra, of course, is a specialist in leaving not a trace.
Ferrante leaves the reader in doubt. That Tina’s disappearance is vengeance for Lila’s contempt over many years for the Solara boys’ advances seems plausible even if it cannot be proved. Another tantalizing possibility is that Tina’s disappearance is a case of mistaken identity. We learn that the weekly magazine Panorama has published a piece about Elena and her book on the violence of the neighborhood. A photograph with an erroneous caption accompanied it: “Elena Greco with her daughter Tina.” Could Tina, Lila’s daughter, have been taken to get back at Elena for what she has written? Lila says, “They thought they were stealing your daughter, and instead they stole mine.” The two women, it often seems, are alter egos, even their wombs interchangeable; and it is their challenging dialogue in search of an elusive unity that produces these 1,600 pages.
A couple of years later, Marcello and Michele Solara are gunned down “in front of the church where they had been baptized.” Reports that there was one murderer morph into stories that there were two and in turn into rumors there were three. So it goes in the Italy south of Rome, where impunity is a given, and political connivance with Camorra or Mafia crime equally so. Who killed the Solaras, just as who “disappeared” Tina, becomes yet another Italian mystery.
Ferrante observes that “unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity.” She writes: “Where is it written that lives should have meaning?” Her powerful appeal has much to do with her ability to plunge readers—sometimes even to the point of physical disgust—into the suffocating labyrinth of southern Italy, the Mezzogiorno with all its grit, hurt, and illogic.
In the end, Lila herself disappears. From wherever she may be, she sends Elena, now living in orderly Turin, a package. In it are the dolls, Tina and Nu, or what is left of them after six decades. The dolls have survived, like the passionate friendship of the two girls who owned them. Elena speculates that Lila may have “broken her confines and finally intended to travel the world by now no less small than hers, living in old age, according to a new truth, the life that in youth had been forbidden to her and that she had forbidden herself.”
But Elena, now secure in Piedmont, far from the Mezzogiorno, has always wanted, through her imagination, to give Lila the form and coherence her friend lacked in real life. “In what disorder we lived, how many fragments of ourselves were scattered, as if to live were to explode into splinters,” she observes. Elena has battled this fragmentation—Lila’s, Italy’s, the world’s—through the ordering process of writing fiction. Still, she knows that to be born in Naples
is useful for only one thing: to have always known, almost instinctively, what today, with endless fine distinctions, everyone is beginning to claim: that the dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare of savagery and death.