Elena Ferrante, a pseudonymous Italian author about whom little is known personally, has in the past two years become a household name in American literary circles. The first of her seven novels, published in 1992, was made into a film, and her second became a best seller in Italy in 2002, but her writing was not made available in English until 2005, when Ann Goldstein translated Days of Abandonment for Europa Editions. Janet Maslin, in her review for the New York Times, said the novel called to mind Medea and Anna Karenina—and that was just in the first paragraph. Still, Ferrante remained largely an underground phenomenon until James Wood reviewed My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante’s fourth book and the first of four “Neapolitan Novels,” for the New Yorker in 2013. Goldstein has since translated the next two Neapolitan novels, and articles about Ferrante have appeared in nearly every literary organ. Initially, those articles followed the example set by the Italian media of focusing on the mystery of Ferrante’s identity; more recently, they have begun to investigate the much deeper mystery of her extraordinary literary appeal.
The novels are themselves mysterious, first of all on the level of plot. They all start the same way. The narrator, a middle-aged woman, announces that someone close to her has left, disappeared or died, or is about to do so. “My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno” (Troubling Love). “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced he wanted to leave me” (Days of Abandonment). “This morning Rino telephoned. I thought he wanted money again and I was ready to say no. But that was not the reason for the phone call: his mother was gone” (My Brilliant Friend). The beginning of The Lost Daughter, Ferrante’s third novel and the work she has said she is “most painfully attached to,” appears to be an exception; it begins with its narrator, Leda, fainting at the wheel of her car. But as its title signals, the narrative follows the same general pattern, unfolding around a series of dislocations and arrivals, of objects lost and (not always happily) found.
The Lost Daughter makes for a good introduction to Ferrante’s fiction more generally, displaying its recurring elements in raw, almost indigestible, form. Like each of the three novels that precede the Neapolitan series, it is slim, compact and emotionally cataclysmic. An academic on vacation in an Italian summer town, Leda becomes annoyed and then intrigued by a clan of Neapolitans who cluster on the beach where she tries to read. The family, with their “domineering cordiality,” reminds her of her own uncles, cousins and parents—and particularly of her mother, who had “wanted to be different … but at the first sign of conflict the mask cracked, and she, too, clung to the actions, the language of the others.” In another novel, the recollection might coalesce into a lament for Leda’s mother’s wasted life; here, in prose that mimics the volatility of the consciousness it articulates, it betrays a sense less of pity than of peril, as if Leda’s mother’s inability to distinguish herself might be contagious. “I observed her, amazed and disappointed,” Leda recalls, “and determined not to be like her, to become truly different.”
The rest of the novel consists of a series of encounters—phone calls, chance meetings, overheard conversations—that test Leda’s conviction that she has become “truly different” from her mother. In search since she was a teenager of “a good life, cultured and reflective,” Leda had “detached herself” from her given family in Naples; then she detached herself again, this time from her chosen family, abandoning her husband and daughters for three years in order to “feel myself, my talents, the autonomy of my abilities.” And yet, on her beach vacation, where she has come to enjoy the pleasures of her independence, she is yanked at the slightest provocation back to the memory of her husband and daughters and then back further still, to her traumatic beginnings. The Neapolitan family, which should interest her in a purely intellectual way, instead is like a “wave” that could drown her. “I felt them as my time, my own swampy life, which occasionally I still slipped into,” Leda says. “They were just like the relations from whom I had fled as a girl. I couldn’t bear them and yet they held me tight, I had them all inside me.”
It can be easy to miss, or to misconstrue, the source of the anguish that fuels Ferrante’s novels. Ferrante’s fictional landscape is riven with sudden rifts—between husbands and wives, childhood friends, mothers and their children—which can make the problems of her characters seem familiar. The instability, even the impossibility, of meaningful social attachments is a prominent theme in contemporary American letters. If Roth and Updike declared their independence from mid-century norms of family and community, they have been followed by two generations of writers (from Wallace and Franzen to Lerner and Cole) who look to literature for social connection because they assume our default condition to be one of isolation, solipsism or detachment. Whether wittingly or not, these (mostly and not incidentally male) novelists endorse the presumption of our politicians—not to mention our economists—that, whatever we may pretend to want, we are in the final analysis the functionaries of an atomized, and often alienated, self-interest.
But it does not take long to realize that what might initially appear problematic to us atomized Americans is not what in fact alarms characters like Leda. What is problematic to them is that, despite their strenuous and continuous effort to distinguish and detach themselves, their friends, their families, even accents and bits of language from their childhoods haunt and terrorize them, a “secret venom that every so often foams up and for which there is no antidote.” Ferrante, that is, turns the dynamic we have grown used to on its head. Her narrators dream of independence but find their condition to be one of—often agonizing, insufferable—entanglement. Her readers will likewise feel as if they are being submerged in a sensibility for which detachment registers less as a fact of social life than as a fantasy of it. The difficulty is just to preserve the connection between what has proven so compelling to us about that sensibility—and what is genuinely challenging in it.
Ferrante’s reputation in America is due mostly to the Neapolitan novels, the fourth and final of which is slated for publication this fall. In contrast to her claustrophobic early fiction, the tetralogy spans several decades and makes use of dozens of secondary characters, but its beating heart is the story of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, two girls jockeying toward adulthood in mid-century Naples. For this reason, many of Ferrante’s most prominent commentators—including Jenny Turner in Harper’s, Namara Smith in Bookforum and Rachel Donadio in the New York Review of Books—have placed her exploration of female friendship at or near the center of her project. Indeed Elena and Lila’s lifelong tug of war, for which friendship may be too tame a label, must be the starting point for any consideration of the tetralogy’s subject matter. To account for the relationship’s full significance, however, it may be necessary to consider the ways in which it not only reflects but also transcends interpersonal social dynamics.
The novels are narrated by Elena Greco, the daughter of a porter at city hall, marooned as a child in a poor corner of Naples. A hardworking and precocious student, Elena leverages her talent for extracting meaning out of apparent chaos to navigate her way into the university in Florence and then, through marriage, into a respected academic family where “grand ideas flourished.” Throughout her life the “universe of good reasons”—an imaginary location that had appeared first to Olga in Days of Abandonment—beckons to her like Gatsby’s green light. She is nevertheless forced to settle for being second-best at school due to the presence of an even poorer girl, known for disobeying their instructors, hurling rocks at gangs of boys, and teaching herself, apparently without help or even encouragement from adults, to read and write. Physically Lila Cerullo is skinny, disheveled and covered in unhealed scabs, yet her unselfconscious agility matches an intellect that Elena compares to “a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.” Despite being “beyond any possible competition” as a student, Lila is forced to quit school for economic reasons, after which she hurls herself with equal vigor into her father’s shoemaking business. Later she inhabits, for a time, the role of the fashionable young wife and mother, and later still she works as a menial laborer at a sausage factory, then teaches herself computer science so she can earn a living as a technician.
There is a risk, in attempting to summarize their characters, of making Elena and Lila’s relationship seem more schematic than it is. The conversation between the two girls begins in first grade and carries on for as long as their lives: sometimes they switch sides, take on the other’s desires as their own, or forget their own positions entirely. There are moments when each belittles the other’s choices simply out of spite, or approves of them from an (always short-lived) sense of security. Since she is the narrator, we know when Elena feels superior to Lila and especially when she feels inferior to her—but we also get hints, sometimes at surprising junctures, of Lila’s own vulnerabilities. (It is Lila who refers to Elena toward the end of the first novel, somewhat ruefully, as her “brilliant friend.”) One of the great virtues of the series is that the main characters, like human beings, can never be reduced to any essential elements; they are fully themselves at the same time as they assimilate bits and pieces, often unwillingly, of their mothers, their teachers, their boyfriends, the books they read, and most of all of one another. The greatest evidence for this ongoing process of incorporation is the novels themselves, which both depict and (according to Elena, their author) are produced by competitive inspiration.
But it is also important to appreciate how Ferrante uses Elena and Lila’s relationship to externalize—and transform—a struggle that had unfolded on an internal stage in earlier novels like The Lost Daughter. As Leda was both threatened and attracted by the Neapolitan family on the beach, so Elena is both fearful of and captivated by her Neapolitan classmate. The dynamic is made explicit early on when, after Lila is targeted by a group of boys in the courtyard outside of their school, Elena remembers feeling “in a confused way … that if I ran away with the others, I would leave with her something of mine that she would never give back.” What that “something” is is a matter of speculation throughout the tetralogy and also in criticism of it, but it can safely be said that it is related to what Elena perceives as a contrast between her “slightly detached” relationship with her instincts and Lila’s “absolute determination” to follow hers wherever they might lead. In the first childhood scene of My Brilliant Friend, Lila convinces Elena to accompany her up a dark staircase to the doorway of a local criminal. “She thought that what we were doing was just and necessary,” remembers Elena, “I had forgotten every good reason and certainly was there only because she was.”
The pattern is repeated again and again in the twelve hundred pages to follow: Elena, who dreams of living a rational life, at a safe distance from her emotions and the traumas of her past, is compelled by Lila to contend with precisely what could never find foothold in her universe of good reasons. Almost every article on the Neapolitan novels has described the tetralogy as a bildungsroman, implying that it tells a story, like Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, or Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, of progressive personal enlightenment. The truth is closer to the opposite. The tetralogy opens with a middle-aged Elena being informed that Lila has disappeared. To regain contact with what has gone missing requires Elena to descend, geographically but also psychically, to the anarchic streets she had dedicated her entire education to escaping.
Returning to those streets means returning to a chaos of underground tunnels, volcanic passions, and the possibility that, as Lila tells Elena, “every second something might happen that will cause you such suffering that you’ll never have enough tears.” For Elena, as for the narrators of Ferrante’s first three novels, Naples signifies a condition of primordial savagery and lawlessness. Poverty is only the beginning of the story. Elena’s descent into her past begins with a series of episodes surrounding Don Achille, the neighborhood loan shark, a casual gangster and murderer whom she imagines as “an evil being of uncertain animal-mineral physiognomy, who … sucked blood from others while never losing any himself.” Don Achille, though, is soon murdered in his kitchen, in the middle of the day. This takes its place amid the string of retaliatory assaults, unmitigated by any official authority, that seem to date back to the beginning of time. Not even registering on that string are the daily episodes of domestic violence against women, which are accepted as a matter of course. Prefiguring later beatings at the hands of her husband, Lila’s father literally hurls her, one afternoon, from the ground-floor window of their house—an episode Elena observes from the street with mortified fascination.
Neither Elena nor Lila is moralistic about the violence they witness as girls; in fact, both conceive of it as an expression, rather than a corruption, of the world’s elemental composition. On a friend’s roof during a particularly violent New Year’s Eve, Lila speaks of the “unknown entities that broke down the outline of the world and demonstrated its terrifying nature,” while Elena, as a child, imagines “tiny, almost invisible animals that arrived in the neighborhood at night, [that] came from the ponds, from the abandoned train cars beyond the embankment, from the stinking grasses called fetienti … and entered the water and the food and the air, making our mothers, our grandmothers as angry as starving dogs.” The descriptions suggest an epidemic of hostility, capable of leaping over the wall separating nature from culture. Anxious for clues about their own fate, the girls pay special attention to the adult women, who, Elena observes, were even more “severely infected than the men,” since “while men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into rage that had no end.”
That “no end” is more than a figure of speech; it is related to the “secret venom” that Leda speaks of in The Lost Daughter, trickling down from one generation to the next. Partly from the books she studies in school, Elena begins to get the idea that it might be possible to dodge the epidemic, if only she could remove herself from the infected area. She, like the reader accustomed to the idea that such narratives are about the triumph of the individual over her circumstances, assumes Lila will share this aspiration, but an early excursion outside the neighborhood reveals a surprising difference in their attitudes toward the wider world. When the two girls get caught in a rainstorm, the usually cautious Elena wants to keep going, to the sea, while the reliably adventurous Lila argues they should turn back. As in this initial instance, it is later difficult to tell when Lila’s reluctance to leave Naples is a symptom merely of pride or fear, and when it marks something more considered. Even worse off economically than Elena, Lila resents being forced to work for her father while Elena gets to continue her studies. At the same time, Lila’s disinclination to go far from Naples is consistent with other aspects of her sensibility. Most notably, she does not share Elena’s desire to detach herself from her circumstances, whether cultural or geographical. Lila never imagines that beyond Naples there lies anything but more Naples.
The fateful consequences of this divergence become clear in the closing pages of My Brilliant Friend, when Elena watches in horror as the sixteen-year-old Lila marries the local grocer, Stefano, seemingly ensuring for herself a life anchored to that of the neighborhood. The wedding scene, as narrated from a corner table by an increasingly disgusted Elena, is a tour de force of internal reckoning, one of the great set pieces in Ferrante’s oeuvre. “There was a loud din, a drunken gaiety,” Elena reports, “But I could feel the reality behind the appearance of festivity. The distorted faces of the bride’s relatives signaled a quarrelsome discontent.” And then:
At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, [my teacher] had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer. They were all laughing, even Lila…
All at once Elena realizes the error of her previous perception. “As a child,” she recalls, “I had looked to [Lila], to her progress, to learn how to escape my mother. I had been mistaken. Lila had remained there, chained in a glaring way to that world.” The realization is simultaneously devastating and inspiring; from that point on, Elena vows to “eliminate” her connection to a world she now concedes that Lila and her mother share. Lila, on the other hand, has emphatically chosen to stay.
Leaving and staying, detachment and entanglement, come to stand in the second and third of the Neapolitan novels, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, for two opposed orientations toward political, as well as personal, life. But politically, as in other areas, Ferrante does not always tilt in the direction we might expect. In Elena and Lila, Ferrante has created two of the most dynamic and intelligent female protagonists of our (or maybe any) time; and, judging from the gratitude that has frequently been expressed by her female critics, this in itself can be counted as an achievement with progressive implications. Yet it may prove a mistake to presume, as some critics have, that Ferrante’s novels endorse ways of thinking familiar from leftist theory or even from liberal politics as we typically understand them.
From their earliest pages the Neapolitan novels raise questions of a political nature, but Elena and Lila do not take an explicit interest in such matters until the second novel, when, having reunited in the aftermath of Lila’s wedding and (disastrous) honeymoon, they engage in a triangular series of conversations with a mutual friend from the neighborhood, Nino. Attempting to understand the form these conversations take, which is new to her, Elena describes herself as being increasingly attracted to “arguments based on the theory that the right kind of interventions, carried out over time, would resolve problems, eliminate injustices, and prevent conflicts.” Such arguments appeal to her belief that mankind can subjugate its baser instincts to the dictates of logic; they also help her impress Nino, who is constantly bringing up “colonialism, neocolonialism, Africa.” One day, when Elena and Nino are speaking on the beach about how to achieve an “equilibrium” between classes, Lila interjects that “nothing could eliminate the conflict between the rich and poor,” since “those who are on the bottom always want to be on top, those who are on top want to stay on top, and one way or another they always reach the point where they’re kicking and spitting at each other.” Elena and Nino object that the classes could be persuaded by the right arguments to work together to solve their problems; Lila responds, “No. The classes aren’t playing cards, they’re fighting, and it’s a fight to the death.”
The debate, which takes place during what turns out to be a turbulent summer vacation, is intertwined with various interpersonal dramas; Elena and Lila are, for one thing, competing for Nino’s affections. At the same time, the positions Elena and Lila stake out on economic inequality reveal a fundamental division. Elena and Nino speak for a politics with which most of Ferrante’s readers will be familiar: its characteristic activity consists in applying universal theories to particular circumstances—often circumstances of which the speaker boasts a quasi-scientific, if distant, knowledge (“colonialism, neocolonialism, Africa”). In fact, what is noteworthy, for us Americans, is not Elena’s attraction to this approach to politics—which is common across today’s ideological spectrum from the far right to the far left (what we disagree about are which interventions to undertake)—but rather the fact that she describes it as a theory. This implies there could be other ways of approaching social problems, ways not based on what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott dubbed the “rationalist style” of matching up data and theory. Are there?
That question can only be followed by another: Does Lila have a politics? Insofar as she emphasizes the limits of political persuasion, it might seem that Lila’s position is simply anti-political, or that she subscribes to the idea, expressed in the second and third Neapolitan novels by the emergent labor unionists in her neighborhood, that the system can only be altered by force. This second possibility is tested in the third novel when a friend convinces Lila to attend a local rally, but Lila diagnoses the Marxists as suffering from the same rationalist fantasies as Elena and Nino. Now working at a sausage factory in the neighborhood, she is especially hard on the students who have come from the university to “show off ideas that were almost too obvious about capital, about exploitation, about the betrayal of social democracy…” When asked to speak about her experience as a woman of the working class, she begins by remarking that she “knew nothing about the working class … she knew only the workers, men and women, in the factory where she worked, people from whom there was absolutely nothing to learn except wretchedness.” Then Lila lists, with her characteristic tenacity for detail, the daily indignities to which those workers are subjected: “Can you imagine,” she begins, “what it means to spend eight hours a day standing up to your waist in the mortadella cooking water? Can you imagine what it means to have your fingers covered with cuts from slicing the meat off animal bones? Can you imagine what it means to go in and out of refrigerated rooms at twenty degrees below zero, and get ten lire more an hour—ten lire— for cold compensation?”
If Lila has a politics, this recitation of concrete conditions—which is quoted by each of the speakers who follow her at the rally, then published in a political pamphlet without her permission—is the key to comprehending it. In the vocabulary recommended by the novels themselves, they would be a politics of staying: that is, of proximity. The problem, Lila indicates, is not in Africa or the Middle East, nor does it require a fancy vocabulary, training in the social sciences or the tools of immanent critique to name it: the problem is right here, under our noses. As she leaves the rally, Lila acknowledges the limits of this form of politics, complaining that her audience will not understand what she has said to them, “even if they understood it in the abstract,” since they have not experienced what she has experienced. The success of her speech nevertheless testifies to her remarkable capacity, something like Keats’s negative capability, to refrain from systematizing her grievances or diluting them with generalizations. Today it is often complained that our politicians lack big ideas—from the perspective of the politics of proximity, however, the defect of our politics is that it consists of virtually nothing but ideas.
I do not mean to give the impression that Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave are dry political tracts; on the contrary, politics finds its place amid a melodrama of extremes punctuated by love triangles, affairs, unexpected and sometimes unbelievable reversals of fortune. Critics, not without some justification, have described the books as “potboilers” and “soap operas,” which is precisely what makes them, according to n+1’s Dayna Tortorici, such effective “vehicles for radical thought.” Tortorici, in the most substantial meditation on Ferrante’s politics to date, concludes that Ferrante has given “intellectual and literary women an invaluable gift: books that speak to them in a language their mothers can understand.” It’s a provocative thought, and one that captures something of Ferrante’s remarkable ability to concretize concepts that seemed abstract when we encountered them in our Modern Culture and Media seminars. At the same time, I wonder if it doesn’t invert Ferrante’s purpose. With the fourth and final novel still to come, it is impossible to know for sure. Perhaps, though, what is most radical in the Neapolitan novels, at least for the American audience most likely to be reached by them, is the emphasis on a form of politics, and of thinking, that is skeptical not only of critical theory’s vocabulary but also of its utopian aspirations. In that case Ferrante would have delivered to today’s younger intellectuals a very different kind of gift: books conveying the wisdom of our mothers in a language too perceptive for us to ignore.
Indeed if the first of the Neapolitan novels offers demonstrations of the backwardness and vulgarity of the mothers—the women who stay (as Lila chooses to do) in Naples and also in the settled grooves of tradition—it can seem as if the second and third novels are made up of arguments against the daughters, or at least those of them who imagine they can execute a clean break with their past. Throughout Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave, Elena succeeds in working her way into increasingly rarified cultural circles, where she imagines she can cultivate an independent life, protected personally from the gratuitous suffering she associates with Naples and devoted politically to the improvement of humanity. Yet her pride at her achievements is undermined by Lila, who declines first silently, then noisily, to credit her with any advancement. The tension between the two girls initially erupts after a party thrown by one of Elena’s professors, midway through Story of a New Name. In the car on the way home, Elena expresses her excitement at having finally found people who discuss interesting things. Lila’s response is analogous to Elena’s at the wedding: a toxic blend of insight and innuendo that cuts to the heart of their differences. The seemingly sophisticated discussion of class conflict, of economics, of war, Lila says, masks a melee for status and power with no more dignity than the vulgar confrontations that Lila and Elena had witnessed since they were girls:
Even watching television would have been more entertaining than spending time with those disgusting people … They all talk just so, so they dress and eat and move just so. They do it because they were born there. But in their heads they don’t have a thought that’s their own, that they struggled to think. They know everything and they don’t know a thing … they didn’t even understand each other. … Chimpanzees that piss and shit in the toilet instead of on the ground, and that’s why they give themselves a lot of airs, and they say they know what should be done in China and in Albania and in France and in Katanga.
The episode leads to a long severing of the friendship between Elena and Lila, but it also inaugurates a gradual deflation of Elena’s respect for liberal academia. The force of Lila’s observation can still be felt late in Those Who Leave, after Elena joins a feminist reading group with her sister-in-law in Florence. Though she initially finds the reading invigorating, she soon settles into a frustrated rut, concluding that she and the other women in the group merely know how to rearrange ideas, whereas Lila “knows how to think.” Toward the end of the third novel, Elena even appears ready to concede to Lila—in regard to politics and also in regard to life. She had always wanted to tell Lila, she remembers, “Get away for good, far from the life we’ve lived since birth. Settle in well-organized lands where everything really is possible.” And yet,
I had fled, in fact. Only to discover, in the decades to come, that I had been wrong, that it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth, it’s the universe, or universes. And shrewdness means hiding and hiding from oneself the true state of things.
I talked about it with Lila that afternoon, in the winter of 2005, emphatically and as if to make amends. I wanted to acknowledge openly that she had understood everything since she was a girl, without ever leaving Naples.
It appears that Elena’s capitulation is complete; that finding Lila will mean calling off her search for a well-ordered world and reconnecting with herself at (what had appeared to her as) a more primitive stage of her development. The passage ends, though, with a reversal. “I was almost immediately ashamed,” Elena recounts, for “I heard in my words the irritable pessimism of someone who is getting old, a tone I knew she detested.” As is so often the case in Ferrante’s fiction, as soon as a position is settled into, it becomes unsettled. To talk as if one has reached a state of final understanding is the most embarrassing mistake of all.
“Books don’t change your life,” Ferrante told the Financial Times in September of 2014. “At most, if they are good, they can hurt and bring confusion.” The statement was reproduced by Rachel Donadio in the New York Review of Books as if it were self-explanatory. But the claim that books should hurt and confuse us is itself confusing. What can it mean to say that a good book will cause us pain? And why would someone who had spent her life writing insist that books “don’t change your life”?
A latent but powerful assumption in our society is that literature, alongside philosophy and the other liberal arts, has a role to play in our personal and cultural improvement. In refusing this role for literature Ferrante reaches back, perhaps unsurprisingly given what is known of her education in the classics, to a tradition that took a much darker view of its potential influence. It was partly because of his insight that literature would cause confusion and pain—and not just for the putative ruling powers—that Plato was moved to exile the poets from his philosophical republic. His student Aristotle, like so many apologists for the literary arts today, attempted to rehabilitate poetry as a constructive activity, arguing that tragic dramas such as Oedipus and Antigone could help citizens purge unreasonable emotions like grief and rage, leaving only the reasonable ones behind. This may not be a bad suggestion, but it is important to recognize how Ferrante’s fiction challenges it. To really enter into the world of her novels is to consider, as Elena and Lila do as girls, that grief and rage might have “no end”; expanding across life spans, political regimes and generations, they testify to the inherent vulnerability of every republic of good reasons.
Unlike some artists, however, Ferrante is not hostile to reason, nor does she endeavor to establish a substitute republic based on passion, desire or “affect.” Indeed the singular relevance of her fiction, for an American audience, lies in the way it incorporates the rationalist impulse while at the same time challenging our habitual assumption that it lights the path to a life of independence or autonomy. Though at times Elena compares herself unfavorably to Lila, or wonders at the futility of her intellectual endeavors, the Neapolitan novels are sympathetic to her ambition to use reason to rise above the chaos and contingency of her circumstances. The American reader who identifies with this ambition will also be compelled, however, to grapple with Elena’s corresponding attraction to a perspective—expressed most convincingly by the brilliant friend she refuses to abandon—that disbelieves in its premise. Ferrante’s writer-narrators, like so many of our novelists, academics and politicians, associate intellectual sophistication with a capacity for distance or detachment. They assume that the more they know, the more they will be able to separate themselves from what they see as the merely incidental demands of society, the past, even their own emotions. Yet Ferrante’s novels bring them to countenance the very opposite possibility: that the “true state of things” may lie, so to speak, by way of entanglement.
In the second half of The Lost Daughter, Leda finds herself fixating on two members of the Neopolitan clan on the beach: Nina, a beautiful young mother, and her daughter, Lenù (short for Elena—not the same Elena who narrates the Neapolitan novels and yet not, we sense, an altogether different one either). The daughter has a beloved doll she calls Nani, which she loses one day on the beach. Leda finds the doll lying on the sand, but instead of giving it back to the family, she takes it home with her. Each of the next several days, she intends to return Nani but doesn’t; instead the doll sits in her rented apartment dribbling muddy water out of its mouth, as Leda remembers her childhood in Naples, and then her pregnancies with her first and second daughters. Bianca, the first pregnancy, was easy, happy, Leda remembers, but the second, Marta, “attacked my body, forcing it to turn in on itself, out of control.” Marta was a “dark beast,” a “piece of living iron,” a “violent polyp, so far from anything human that it reduced me, even though it fed and grew, to rotting matter without life.” The doll, “with her black spittle,” resembled Leda when she was pregnant for the second time.
Why does Leda neglect to give the doll back to Lenù, whom she encounters in the ensuing days, utterly disconsolate, all over town? Why did she take Nani in the first place? Leda herself cannot answer such questions. In fact this opacity is what bothers her most about what she’s done. “One opaque action generates others of increasingly pronounced opacity,” she thinks, “and so the problem is to break the chain.” Though she states it academically, the problem is far from academic. Among opaque actions Leda counts pregnancy, birth, the primordial mysteries of generation and decline. Opacity, it turns out, haunts human life from beginning to end. In The Story of a New Name, Lila, after becoming pregnant, describes intercourse as a process where “men insert their thingy in you and you become a box of flesh with a living doll inside.” Toward the end of The Lost Daughter, Leda begins to play with the vomiting doll, parting her lips and trying, with water, to “wash out the murky cavity of her trunk, her belly, to finally get the baby out that Elena had put inside her.” “I myself was playing now,” Leda thinks, “a mother is only a daughter who plays, it was helping me think.”
Here is the pass to which Ferrante’s narrators are always brought: back, from the comfortable certainties of understanding, to the painful struggle of thinking. The thought that Leda is having is itself opaque; it deflects logical analysis and also seems to come before it. The doll, which Leda has acquired illicitly and with half-conscious intentions, which oozes putrid slime in her apartment while she spends her days at the beach, becomes the vehicle through which she makes contact with what is itself illicit, and illogical, in her own past. This is what had pursued Leda, even as she had been pursuing her dream of detachment. Ferrante’s fiction is, for us, like the doll. It does not promise to change our lives, only to restore us to them.