The Story of the Lost Child is the concluding volume of Elena Ferrante’s tetralogy, The Neapolitan Novels. However, it is possible to read it as a pitiless reappraisal. The architecture of the first three novels is pleasingly compact. In the last, the fictional constructions explode. Ferrante announces that unlike ‘great’ writers, she will not shore literary fragments against our ruin. Disconcertingly, we are the ones who are cast (out) into the world.
The narrator bears the first part of the writer’s pseudonym. Elena Greco seems to be telling her own coming-of-age story: from the porter’s daughter in a working class district of Naples to a successful author. Elena’s life is interwoven with that of her brilliant friend, Raffaella Cerullo, or Lina, or Lila, and Lila’s story defies categorisation. She appears in heart-breaking avatars through the tetralogy: an exceptional student, a Jacqueline Kennedy-like teenage fiancee, an entrepreneur, a mortadella factory worker, a single mother, a wizened eccentric woman. Helplessly, we watch her expend her brilliance in grappling with crime. Her story is about disassociation and a blurring of boundaries but mainly about a throbbing, aching absence. After her future is wrested away by a bizarre, but believable, dastardly act, she cuts herself out of family photographs and disappears, a woman warrior who wilfully rides into oblivion.
Ferrante’s palpable absence at this climactic moment is not withdrawal or reticence. It’s essential, a political act.
The contrasting strands of these two women’s lives over sixty years soaks up genres: The Neapolitan Novels often reads like thrillers or romances. However, readers’ hopes of closure in the style of genre fiction or redemption via literature are systematically shattered here. Having deployed every trope, Ferrante springs a masterly surprise by sucking it all into the powerful vacuum at the end. In The Story of the Lost Child, her deceptively chatty narrative turns on itself, challenging the very purpose of the literary endeavour. Elena’s ultimate admission of failure to make Lila live and speak through her pages is testimony to the inevitability of activism in women’s writing and the impossibility of its success. It is a deeply felt feminist statement.
The tetralogy is a global hit, and many explanations are being offered for its success, ranging from the visceral quality of Ferrante’s writing to the interest generated by her stubborn invisibility. Indeed, Ferrante’s steadfast refusal to reveal her identity spawned theories—that the writer is a man, or a couple—until in an interview she admitted to being a mother. Her explanation—“books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”—would seem a throwback to the primacy of the text over context, unless one recognises just how much context this dramatic gesture has invoked in contemporary fiction.
I must admit that although mesmerised by the tetralogy, I was ambivalent about the author’s stubborn self-effacement. It had seemed a risky flirtation with the stereotype of the marginal woman-writer, especially, as around the same time, another six-part novel, My Struggle, by Norwegian alpha-male writer Karl Ove Knausgard, was also gaining acclaim. The Struggle books are uninhibitedly autobiographical and, to drive home the point, the rugged author looks straight at the reader from the covers. Invisible vs hyper-visible, feminist vs post-feminist, relational vs narcissistic, South vs North—the dichotomy seemed generated by the American exotic-cultures boutique! However, Ferrante’s concluding volume more than allayed my doubts. It now seems to me that Ferrante’s palpable absence at the climactic moment of her literary success is neither reticence nor withdrawal, but essential. It is a consummate political act. In Brechtian theatre it would be called gest—a dramatic act(ion) that is social critique.
Ferrante’s hyper-invisibility in the star-studded field of fiction renders contemporary celebrations of writers and bestsellers superfluous. As the fictional Elena waits, the reader must emerge from the ivory tower and bring purpose back to the literary enterprise. It was always about creating a better world and for that, synergy between words and action would have to be attained for the brilliant woman-writer.
Famously unavailable to journalists, Ferrante, for her Paris Review interview, met her publishers Sandro and Sandra Ferri—among a handful who know her identity.