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The Telegraph: "The Story of the Lost Child does not offer a comfortable end to the series, but it confirms Ferrante – once again – as one of contemporary fiction’s most compelling voices.”

Date: Aug 22 2015

My mother discovered Elena Ferrante first. A little while before Christmas last year, she pressed on me the first of the Neapolitan Novels, My Brilliant Friend, declaring that the story of two girls growing up in Fifties Naples was urgent reading. I read it greedily, spellbound, and began the second volume the minute I finished the first. On Boxing Day, we reached crisis point: I’d finished book two, on a shuddering cliffhanger, but she was still only halfway through the third. Desperate times, unprecedented measures. We fetched a kitchen knife and, carefully as a neurosurgeon, sliced the book down its spine; with barely a pause, we continued reading.

We’ve had to wait, but the fourth and final instalment in the series – in Ann Goldstein’s excellent translation – is published next month. The author has acquired devoted fans from Zadie Smith to James Wood, and has been shortlisted for Italy’s most prestigious prize, the Strega – yet no one knows who she is. In 1991, before her first novel was published, Ferrante (a pseudonym) wrote to her Italian publishers, outlining the conditions on which she would release her work. Once a text has entered the world, she said, it has no need of its writer; she would never publicise her work, nor personally accept any prizes it might win. “I will”, she ended, with a hint of wry amusement, “‘be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.”

Ferrante has stuck to her anonymity despite intense speculation – the novelist Domenico Starnone has been obliged repeatedly to deny that he is Elena Ferrante – and anger – some Italian writers have urged that she should not be given the Strega as, despite her own success in translation, she will do nothing to promote other Italian literature abroad. It certainly provides readers with a flutter of intrigue – how autobiographical are these books? Is Elena Greco a version of her eponymous creator? All her novels are rooted in what seems to be a very personal reality; her protagonists are refractions of one another, linked by common sufferings – divorce, adultery, the difficulties of motherhood – and the critic James Wood has suggested that Ferrante’s anonymity is “self-protective”, allowing her the freedom to be confessional in her fiction. But ultimately, her invisibility serves to focus attention on the novels themselves, which relentlessly examine the darkest human truths; unknowable, her personality is invested entirely in her raw, clear language.

Before the Neapolitan Novels, Ferrante wrote three slim, explosive books, each with a first-person female protagonist – an academic or writer – experiencing deep ambivalence around her position as a mother or daughter. Troubling Love (1992) follows Delia, compelled to return to the neighbourhood where she grew up, in order to confront sinister truths about her mother’s past. In The Days of Abandonment (2002), Olga’s husband has left her for a younger woman; alone, Olga finds herself hallucinating, attempting to seduce a neighbour and struggling to care for two children and a sick dog. The Lost Daughter (2006) centres on Leda, who spent three years apart from her young children, having left the family for another man; she now feels compelled to disrupt the close bond she witnesses on a beach between a mother and daughter. Each book is a discomfiting portrait of emotional deterioration: forensically exploring the depths of her narrators’ minds, Ferrante teases out the simmering discontent beneath the surface of their reflective, measured prose.

The Neapolitan Novels share themes and stylistic intensity with Ferrante’s earlier work, but their world extends much further, centring not on one character but a central pair, the action taking place not over a few days but a whole lifetime. My Brilliant Friend (2011) begins around the present day: 66-year-old Elena Greco receives a call from the spendthrift son of her lifelong friend Lila Cerullo. His mother has disappeared without a trace, her wardrobe emptied, her computer vanished, her face carefully cut from all photographs. Furious at what she perceives as Lila’s capricious attempt to erase herself from the world, Elena sets out to write down the story of their lives: “everything that still remained in my memory”. The ensuing narrative sprawls across four books and six decades, and follows Elena and Lila from childhood through love, sex, marriage and motherhood, through their careers and political awakenings, their paths diverging and reuniting as circumstances and decisions drive them apart and back together.

“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood,” says Elena: “it was full of violence.” Respectively the daughters of a shoemaker and a porter, Lila and Elena grow up in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, where the grimy streets resound with a cacophony of insults spat out in coarse dialect, where bitter family feuds go back generations, and where the crackling of New Year’s Eve fireworks can swiftly turn to gunshots. As children, Lila is headstrong, daredevil, while Elena is more timid and eager to please. Elena studies hard at school; “terrible, dazzling” Lila, detesting authority, flicks blotting paper across the classroom – yet secretly teaches herself to read and write. Lila’s father forbids her to take the test for middle school – “it didn’t enter into his view of the world that she should go to school” – but Elena continues with her education, always with the nagging feeling that she would have been far outshone, had Lila pursued the same goals. Instead, Lila turns her hand to shoemaking, dreaming no longer of writing novels but of raising her family’s fortunes through business. When she graduates from school with excellent grades, Elena assumes her education is over. Lila’s flashing eyes narrow characteristically. “Not for you: you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”

Like Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, it is their differences that fix the unshakeability of Elena’s and Lila’s partnership. Now one, now the other has the upper hand; it’s never certain which is the other’s “brilliant friend” – a designation which elevates and reduces simultaneously. “My becoming”, writes Elena of Lila, “was a becoming in her wake”, and Ferrante chronicles with stunning psychological complexity the messy vicissitudes of dependency, manipulation, schadenfreude, resentment and love which drive a long, intense relationship. Married – unhappily – at 16 (a dramatic event which concludes the first volume), Lila never leaves Naples, but in book two, The Story of a New Name, Elena escapes the claustrophobic neighbourhood for university in Pisa, where she swaps dialect for formal Italian; always dogged by an inferiority complex, she experiences surprising success as a novelist – her debut rooted in a story Lila wrote as a child.

The novels are intricately, densely plotted; seemingly insignificant events from childhood resonate shockingly later on, while the trajectory of even minor characters is carefully pitched across the series, as plot swerves bring them in and out of focus. As complicated as the women are the male characters, for whom deviating from familial expectation is fraught with threat – the earnest, enigmatic Nino Sarratore, son of a lecherous poet; Pasquale, the militant communist wanted by the police for terrorism offences; Lila’s businessman husband Stefano, who once threatened to prick precocious Lila’s tongue with a pin; his homosexual brother Alfonso, who marries a woman to save face for his family. The later novels also form an evocative portrait of 20th-century Italian politics. In book three, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena mingles with cultured intellectuals and liberal revolutionaries, while Lila initiates a fight for workers’ rights against the abusive owner of a sausage factory and challenges the local dominion of Michele and Marcello Solara, the dangerous sons of the Camorran pastry-bar owner. Ferrante shows subtly how the struggles between fascists and communists on a national scale are rooted in deep-set neighbourhood hierarchies: as in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, the personal is the political in every aspect of the world Ferrante evokes.

From the little red book of unpaid debts kept by Manuela Solara to the diamond rings and fast cars her sons flash with wolfish grins at the girls, Ferrante’s Naples is a place where morality and dignity are for sale like shoes or pastries, and where women are chattels passed between men as venial sweeteners in business deals. “Since I was a girl,” Elena writes, “I had observed in my mother and other women the most humiliating aspects of family life, of motherhood, of subjection to males.” Elena is terrified of inheriting her controlling mother’s limp, a symbol of the neighbourhood’s constraints; from the start of their friendship she and Lila plot to transcend its boundaries, both physical and metaphorical. As marriage and motherhood threaten to eclipse the women, engulfing them into their husbands, Ferrante fiercely challenges the corroding pull of the forces that shape us from birth – gender, class, parents, friends, location – over the identities people aspire to create for themselves. “What could I do”, asks Elena in the midst of a marital crisis, “to keep my life and my children together?” It remains radical for a woman to assert that these might be two separate things.

At the start of the new volume, The Story of the Lost Child, Elena – like Lila before her – has left her husband, the trauma of a painful divorce alleviated by the sensation of freedom “from the chains I had accumulated over the years – those of my origins, those I had acquired through academic success, those derived from the choices I had made in life, especially marriage.” Each, now, has a new baby; there are foreboding parallels with a formative event from book one, when the girls dropped their beloved dolls into the cellar of Don Achille, the terrifying neighbourhood “ogre”. Lila’s pioneering computer business is starting to promise progress and employment prospects to the neighbourhood, while for Elena, returning to the home she once so triumphantly escaped feels an uneasy regression. Its canning factories have been replaced by skyscrapers, but the shiny buildings cannot disguise the archaic outlook of a place where loan sharks have become drug-traffickers, childhood friends have been murdered on the streets, and where the police remain “more fascist than the fascists”.

When challenged over a sex scene in her debut novel, Elena “spoke of the necessity of recounting frankly every human experience, including – I said emphatically – what seems unsayable and what we do not speak of even to ourselves.” This is the technique of her creator: Ferrante’s books leave no uncomfortable emotion unexamined, no situation resolved painlessly, all propelled by her long, lucid sentences which roll out horrors with a tone of aphoristic inevitability. The finale is harrowing reading; as the friends grow older and live together once again, old resentments and jealousies flare up, while the fabular nostalgia of the childhood narrative is replaced by a relentless sequence of visceral suffering. The last book confronts death, but amid the pain shines a certain degree of hope for the future, both personal and national. Showing Elena’s daughter around the neighbourhood, Vesuvius looming overhead as a memento mori, Lila observes that contradiction is inherent in the city’s past: “a permanent stream of splendours and miseries, a cyclical Naples where everything was marvellous and everything became grey and irrational and everything sparkled again”. The Story of the Lost Child does not offer a comfortable end to the series, but it confirms Ferrante – once again – as one of contemporary fiction’s most compelling voices.