Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, of which The Story of the Lost Child is the fourth and final book, is some of the best writing I’ve read in the past year.
The books follow the story of Lila and Elena, from their childhood in postwar Naples until the early 21st century. They are written in the first person from the perspective of Elena, and the friendship between the two women is the driving concern of the books. Both characters are highly intelligent, but Elena is the one who puts herself through school, leaves Naples and forges a career; Lila stays behind. Part of the tension in their relationship comes from these different paths they take, and the ways in which Elena becomes upwardly socially mobile and, in a sense, leaves her friend behind (book three is called Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay). Elena is preoccupied with the belief that Lila is the more intelligent and capable of the two, and that Lila through force of personality is in some way controlling the course of her life: “As usual [Lila] was taking on the job of sticking a pin in my heart not to stop it but to make it beat harder.”
Reading these books was an intense experience. Don’t be put off – they’re not ‘difficult’. I mean more that I enjoyed them intensely. Alan Bennett famously wrote that: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”
Or, as AS Byatt put it: “Now and then there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark …”
That is what it was like. Ferrante’s writing is passionate without being melodramatic; intellectual without being dry or lofty; and contains an incisive, specific psychological realism that makes the work feel universal. I felt immediately pulled in. My physical reading experience was strange: I wanted simultaneously to read the books very fast in order to find out what happens, and to savour each sentence like a poem. The result was that my eyes kept skipping ahead and then looping back.
The Neapolitan quartet has been translated from the Italian, and hats off to Ann Goldstein for doing an excellent job. Elena, the narrator, often refers to other characters speaking in Italian, as distinct from the Neapolitan dialect. The characters’ linguistic choices, I gather, reflect their levels of education, their social context, the emotional tenor of their words and the impressions they want to make.
“[Lila] resorted to Italian as if to a barrier; I tried to push her toward dialect, our language of candour. But while her Italian was translated from dialect, my dialect was increasingly translated from Italian, and we both spoke a false language.”
The stories of Elena and Lila feel very real. The narrative avoids neat endings and comeuppances, with the result that the tension and uncertainty about what might happen next is always there. Growing up in the slums of Naples, violence is a constant part of the characters’ lives, and I was never sure when someone in the book would next be murdered or attacked or raped.
Elena and Lila live through the second half of the twentieth century, with all the changes that involved, and a lot of the books is about how they respond to those changes – technological, social, ideological, political – including the changes in sexual mores. I was particularly struck by the presence of sex in their lives, how it is described, how they feel about it, the choices they make. The writing is intimate without being titillating, and explores their deeply ambiguous feelings about their own sexualities and experiences, including their experiences of sexual violence.
As a feminist, I was also very interested in the ways in which Elena and Lila encounter and react to what we would now call second-wave feminism. One of Elena’s early books is about the ways in which men invent women through writing, and one of the fan theories about the Neapolitan quartet is that Ferrante – a famously shy and mysterious author – is actually a man.
Another thing that really kept me reading was Lila. Lila is an extraordinary character. I understand why she had such an impact on Elena: she is brilliant (the first book in the series is called My Brilliant Friend), domineering, sharply intuitive, unrelenting; and so vividly, perspicaciously alive. Lila exists in the world intensely. She has a terrific fear of what she calls ‘dissolving boundaries’. Elena describes Lila’s breakdown after a major earthquake:
She said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. 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.
It is no wonder that Elena, who makes her career as a novelist and writer, feels, despite her success, always in Lila’s shadow. “As usual a half-sentence of Lila’s was enough and my brain recognised her aura, became active, liberated my intelligence.” The Neapolitan quartet is written, we learn at the beginning of the first book, by Elena upon Lila’s disappearance (or self-erasure), as a way of making sense of their lifelong friendship.
There’s a danger with novels about novelists writing books that the story disappears into a morass of indulgent self-commentary (hello, David Mitchell). This is not the case here.
Only [Lila] can say if, in fact, she has managed to insert herself into this extremely long chain of words to modify my text, to purposely supply the missing links, to unhook others without letting it show, to say of me more than I want, more than I’m able to say. I wish for this intrusion, I’ve hoped for it ever since I began to write our story, but I have to get to the end in order to check all the pages. If I tried now, I would certainly get stuck. I’ve been writing for too long, and I’m tired; it’s more and more difficult to keep the thread of the story taut within the chaos of the years, of events large and small, of moods. … I want to seek on the page a balance between her and me that in life I couldn’t find even between myself and me.
I recommend the Neapolitan quartet very highly and to pretty much everyone. New readers: start with the first book, My Brilliant Friend. Existing readers: savour the last book, and don’t fear – it has a brilliant ending.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
The Story of the Lost Child (Book Four in the Neapolitan Quartet)
by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Published by Text Publishing