What do we know, ultimately, about Elena Ferrante? The author of the Neapolitan Novels, which have been brought to a magnificent conclusion with The Story of the Lost Child, writes under a pseudonym and Ferrante pushes up against our desire to believe that memoir lurks behind fiction by having her own characters express scepticism regarding the trustworthiness of novels. "I quickly understood," novelist Elena thinks of her latest book's editor, "that he had read my pages as a sort of autobiography, an arrangement in novel form of my experience of the poorest and most violent Naples".
The fourth and final book in Ferrante’s series is set in the Naples of the mid-1970s to the present day. Elena and Lila, having grown up together in the same run-down Naples district, have stayed passionately but intermittently connected while their lives have rocketed along differing paths: Elena the traditionalist rebel goes on to literary triumph as an essayist and novelist; and Lila, the rebellious traditionalist and grade-school dropout, is out of a horribly flawed marriage and into modest success in the world of computers.
As The Story of the Lost Child begins, Elena has thrown over her bourgeois life to greedily snatch rushed embraces with her adolescent love, and Lila's ex-boyfriend, Nino. The days of their affair are treasured by Elena until Nino, farcically voicing his concerns about "the immoderate heat of his loins", is caught cheating in the grubbiest possible fashion. Love, as an old flame of Elena's observes, not only has no eyes, it has no ears, either.
Elena returns to Naples, to the neighbourhood of her youth, and to the constricting embrace of her oldest friend. The two women, and their friends, are trapped in the repeating phase of middle age, where all that happens is only a reminder of what had already happened.
Ferrante’s characters, their ambitions long since realised or extinguished, are weighed down by their disjointed, argumentative recollection of the past. “I had long since realised that each of us organises memory as it suits him, I’m still surprised when I do it myself,” Elena thinks, and the crux of this knotty and combative book is that even the closest of friends cannot agree on what constitutes a life.
Ferrante’s concerns remain remarkably consistent, even unto the second generation. As Lila and Elena start raising children and their lives diverge and intersect in consistently surprising and unsettling ways, this is still a work about achievers and plodders, “those who leave and those who stay”, and the stories they tell about choices made and compromises struck.
“My daughter would soon be the age of the ghosts of our childhood,” Elena thinks to herself, and the Neapolitan Novels take on a Biblical heft, with the flaws of the mothers being passed on to the daughters. When one of Elena’s teenage daughters plans to run off with a wildly inappropriate older man, Elena’s exhausted acceptance is the saddest verdict of all on the despoiled romantic landscape of her life: “Dede would live her passion, would use it up, would go on her way.”
Having arrived at the terminus of our journey, much that Ferrante has left unsaid is now exposed. Having grown so accustomed to Ferrante’s, and Elena’s, deliberate vagueness, it is liberating to hear the political and criminal masters of the country called by their proper names at last. And yet, the reader’s tentacles cannot but quiver with dread when we are suddenly, unexpectedly presented with precise dates and ages for Ferrante’s characters. The greatest, most inexplicable calamity of this tragic epic has been saved for this final volume, and its arrival colours everything we believed we understood about the comparative arcs of Elena’s and Lila’s lives.
Elena’s life, as measured by middle-class standards, is a success – she has escaped and found salvation in words. But Lila is both anchor and albatross, her pain and her fury a constant reminder that literature is, at its heart, a series of lies threaded together by narrative. “What’s the sea, from up there?” Lila wonders when Elena moves to the ritzier hills. “A bit of colour. Better if you’re closer, that way you notice that there’s filth, mud, piss, polluted water. But you who read and write books like to tell lies, not the truth.”
Ferrante’s masterworks take us close enough to see not just the colour, but the filth and mud as well. Lila, in the very last reckoning, is more than Elena’s bosom friend and foil; she is, ultimately, her creation. “I loved Lila,” Elena thinks to herself near the end of this endlessly rich and beautiful novel. “I wanted her to last. But I wanted it to be I who made her last.” Whether Elena was successful is debatable; whether Ferrante has been is indisputable.
Saul Austerlitz is a frequent contributor to The Review.