The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (Man Booker International Prize Long List)

 

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I began talking about The Story of The Lost Child with my  mother on one of our early morning phone conversations while I was driving to work because I couldn’t wait to talk with her about it until we were face to face. “Mother,” I said, “Elena wants it all! She wants to be a successful writer, and have her married lover, and be a good mother, and she doesn’t even know that’s impossible!” I was fuming inside over Lena’s ignorance.

“That’s why,” my mother replied, “it’s the perfect 21st century novel.”

The Neapolitan novels are so very powerful, and have been written about so voraciously, that they need little reflection from me. But I will explore my thoughts as a member of the shadow jury, and as a reader, for they are surely some of the most important works to have been published this decade.

They begin with My Brilliant Friend and end with The Story of The Lost Child, which is why for me, this cannot be a stand alone novel. Indeed the novel ends in recounting an event with which the first book begins; we come full circle through all four of the novels. So, it’s interesting that it earned a place on the Man Booker International Prize long list when surely some of its power is lost if the reader is coming to it without having read the prior three. Yet, how can the writing of Elena Ferrante not be recognized with the other important writers of our time?

The Story of The Lost Child continues the exploration of the friendship between Elena Greco (Lena) and Raffaella Cerullo (Lila), from when they are little girls until they are old women.

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.

As I write the word “friendship” I feel it must be taken loosely, for surely these two women are almost in a combative relationship. I had been convinced that it was Lila who was the manipulative one, the conniving, charismatic, brilliant friend who got everything she ever wanted. But then I see in this last novel how Lena has published the tragedy of Lila’s girl being lost, something she promised Lila never to do. They seem to violate each other’s wishes for their own personal interests, they seem to compete at who is the most beautiful, the most successful, the most dearly loved. They fall in love with the same man, one who could commit to neither.

“Look at me,” she (Lila) whispered. “I know I’m mean to tell you these things, but he is much worse than I am. He has the worst kind of meanness, that of superficiality.”

They even become pregnant with their two little girls almost simultaneously. As if the comparisons they make to each other are not enough, their competition is carried out further in the lives of these two daughters.

The novel also shows us the violence of Naples, Italy, the passion of relationships, the turmoil of our lives even if we live no where near Italy ourselves. In reading its pages I find a tremendous connection to my own life, which perhaps other readers do as well, for who hasn’t experienced a tumultuous friendship? A disastrous love? A parent/child relationship with enormous potholes?

It took me a long time to read The Story of The Lost Child. There was much to think about, much to absorb, much to question and ponder. I love it. I love it for the questions it raises, unanswerable questions, which make the best books great as we puzzle through the enigmas for ourselves.

For thus the novel ends:

Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity. I thought: now that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore.

Find thoughts from Tony and Clare, fellow shadow jury members who have also reviewed this book.

 

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (Book Two of The Neopolitan Novels)

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As I write, the prisms from a crystal star left over from Christmas swirl around me in the late afternoon sun. They resemble the many facets I find in this novel, each singular yet inexorably connected.

It is the story of a friendship, the continued story of Elena and Lila which began in My Brilliant Friend. Here the terms of friendship are even more loosely defined, at least if one looks at a friend as someone who stands by you. Who encourages you, and loyally supports your goals. We can’t say that is true of either girl, but particularly of Lila.

Beautiful Lila; manipulative Lila; selfish, loud, and brilliant Lila. Much of the first half of this novel is about her stealing Lina’s love, Nino. It doesn’t matter that Lila has married Stefano, that she lives in a beautiful home with plenty of money, that she has at her fingertips the ability to design shoes beyond compare. Instead, she wants what Lila wants, even if it means taking the boy that Lila as set her eyes on.

We can’t encapsulate Lila’s manipulations into stealing a boyfriend. Her schemes are much more involved than that. She picks up, and discards people, as if they were her son’s toys. She flaunts her beauty and her wealth and her marriage as if each of these things is unimportant; they are thrown in the face of her friends who have much less.

The truth is, I don’t much like Lila. I want her to be so much more.

Instead, my affections lie with Lena. Hard-working, plain Lena has emotions which resonate deep within me. She fears she is not smart enough, even though she has come from parents with no education beyond elementary school and achieved a degree in Literature from Normale University in Pisa. Even though the outpouring of her heart, over the terrible things that happened while she and Lena were on vacation in Ischia, has resulted in the publication of a novel.

While they do not seem to foster one another’s growth or achievement, Lena cannot seem to be without Lila for long. When she finds her friend at the end of the novel, working in a sausage factory under the cruelest conditions, even then there is no rejoicing at Lena’s accomplishments.

I understood that I had arrived there full of pride and realized that -in good faith, certainly, with affection- I had made that whole journey mainly to show her what she had lost and what I had won. But she had known from the moment I appeared, and now, risking tensions with her workmates, and fines, she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was so good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.

Perhaps in every friendship there are elements of undermining one another, or certainly of comparison. Perhaps at any time, one is more successful than the other, and friends take turns in savoring the joyous moments of their lives. Whatever the case, I am moved by this book for the friendship that it portrays, as well as revealing the inner thoughts and motivations behind the characters. I feel I live among them, even though the narration never takes me into their presence as much as observes from afar. I feel that I am walking the streets of Naples, or Pisa, or small Italian neighborhood, watching the families who can’t see me. I feel I can taste the Italian pastries, and hear the Italian language, and feel the slap of the Italian men who, though they love their wives, must prove who is dominant.

Even if only to themselves.

 

 

Seraillon mentioned on Jacqui’s blog that a friend of his has mapped the streets of the towns in this novel, and the places where the characters meet. I would love to see that. I would love to attempt it myself if I find the time to reread The Story of a New NameMeanwhile, find brilliant thoughts on this novel here, here, here, and here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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Is any friendship ever pure? Cemented in a genuine affection and admiration for one another? Or, must something impure enter in, something like jealousy or power or insecurity?

I think of my early friendships, coming into them completely trusting because of the respect I experienced in my childhood home, and feeling so betrayed at the first sign of deceit. It was inconceivable to me that someone would want to trick me, or steal from me, or lie to me. I stumbled into first grade already a bit jaded after trying to be friends with a little girl in our neighborhood who did those things relentlessly.

So it intrigues me that Elena Ferrante has written a trilogy, the Neopolitan novels, beginning with My Brilliant Friend. It’s a brilliant title, for one thing, because Lila Cerulla embodies everything that I found both alluring and daunting in my own friendships.

A brilliant friend isn’t necessarily a kind friend. She isn’t first and foremost supporting, loving, or encouraging. Instead, the word brilliant seems to imply some deviousness, some special cleverness that makes her able to succeed with the upper hand…

and yet, maybe brilliant refers to Elena Grecco. She is beautiful Lila’s friend, brilliant not in social prowess, but in Italian, Latin and Greek. In school, she is brilliant.

These two contrasting friends offer much for us to consider. We weigh the friendships we’ve harbored in the past as well as today; we review our childhood and the goals instilled in us by our parents or our own rebellious hearts.

Lila marries Stefano at sixteen years of age. She is a beautiful bride. Her friend watches the ceremony feeling plain and in many ways unequal. But, to whom can we find equality? We can only be who we were meant to be, independent even within the closest of friendships.

It was Jacqui’s review which encouraged me to revisit My Brilliant Friend when first I laid it down. Also, Nicola had a hand in my picking it up again. Now I’m eager to see where Ferrante takes us in Book Two: The Story of a New Name.

The Days of Abandonment

When Diane of Bibliophile By The Sea wrote a Tuesday introduction about The Days of Abandonment, I had to read it for myself. I have a morbid fascination, I guess, with the whole issue of abandonment. I’ll spare you the grittier details, but suffice it to say how well I remember the days when I was first alone…the weekends which would stretch forever, particularly Sunday whose hours I could never fill.
Elena Ferrante, an Italian writer, relates such an experience with the raw fervor one might expect from the Italians. This is a story from the gut of one woman’s experience through being abandoned by her husband. It tells, very intensely, how she copes with the apartment, the dog, her children, her own emotions as she begins to balance her life anew. Without him.
An excerpt, from an evening in which her friends try to set her up with another man:
I arrived at the Farracos’ too early. The tried to entertain me and I forced myself to be cordial. at a certain point I glanced at the set table, mechanically I counted the places, the chairs. There were six. I stiffened: two couples, then me, then a sixth person. I understood that Lea had decided to look after me, she had planned a meeting that might lead to an adventure, a temporary relationship, a permanent arrangement, who knows. Confirmation of this came when the Torreris arrived, a couple I had met at a dinner the year before in the role of Mario’s wife, and the vet, Dr. Morelli, whom I had asked about Otto’s (her dog’s) death. Morelli, who was a good friend of Lea’s husband, congenial, up to date on the gossip of the Polytechnic, had clearly been invited to keep me amused.
The whole thing depressed me. This is what awaits me, I thought. Evenings like this. Appearing at the house of strangers, marked as a woman waiting to remake her life. At the mercy of other women who, unhappily married, struggle to propose to me men they consider fascinating. Having to accept the game, not to be able to confess that those men arouse only uneasiness in me, for their explicit goal, known to all present, is to seek contact with my cold body, to warm themselves by warming me, and then to crush me with their role of born seducers, men alone like me, like me frightened by strangers, worn out by failures and by empty years, separated, divorced, widowers, abandoned, betrayed.  
You will not read this novel unscathed. If you have been abandoned by someone you once loved, you will relate to the heroine completely. If you have been fortunate enough to escape such treatment, you will have a new sympathy for those who haven’t. It is a profound novel of visceral emotion.