Archive for the ‘Elena Ferrante’ Category

The Lost Daughter

May 31, 2015

lost daughter

Having devoured the first three volumes of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and while waiting impatiently for the fourth volume later this year, it seemed only reasonable to snack on one of her shorter novels, The Lost Daughter. As we might expect, the novel begins with an example of the brutal honesty with which Ferrante is associated as the narrator, Leda, declares:

“When my daughters moved to Toronto…I was embarrassed and amazed to discover that I wasn’t upset; rather I felt light, as if only then had I definitely brought them into the world. For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them.”

Later she describes motherhood as “the crushing weight of responsibility, the bond that strangles.” It is perhaps for this reason that, on vacation, Leda begins to observe a young woman with her daughter as she relaxes on the beach. The woman is part of a large Neapolitan family “similar to the one I had been part of as a girl,” but:

“…an anomaly in the group, an organism that had mysteriously escaped the rule, the victim, now assimilated, if a kidnapping or of an exchange in the cradle.”

The young woman, Nina, clearly reminds Leda of herself (at no point in the novel does she acknowledge to the group her own Neapolitan roots), except perhaps in her relationship with her daughter, Elena:

“If the woman was pretty herself, in motherhood there was something that distinguished her; she seemed to have no desire for anything but her child.”

Ferrante infects the novel with unease from the beginning. In her holiday apartment, Leda discovers the bowl of fruit is rotten underneath; on her pillowcase she finds an insect; walking home from the beach she is hit by a pine cone. Each insignificant incident creates a sense of threat which culminates in Elena going missing on the beach. It is Leda who finds her, sitting near the water, crying – she has lost her doll.

It is at this point we discover Leda has move from observer to actor and, if like me, you want to enjoy the skilful reveals Ferrante has lined up, you might want to read no further. Leda returns Elena to her family, but the chapter ends with the revelation that she has taken the doll. Later she will call it “a gesture of mine that made no sense.” Does she resent the relationship between Nina and her daughter, or between Elena and the doll? Is she searching for a second chance at motherhood?

Later, when we discover Leda left her own daughters for three years when they were young, we might think she is somehow trying to reclaim that time, or atone for it. She tells how she wrote letters for her daughters “in which I recounted in detail how it had happened that I had abandoned them” but that they never answered or even referred to them. When she reveals her secret to Nina’s family, they worry she will corrupt Nina: just as Leda seems admiring of Nina’s qualities, so Nina is of Leda:

“As soon as I saw you I said to myself: I would like to be like that lady.”

The Lost Daughter is a wonderfully provocative, ambiguous novel. As the narrative punctures into Leda’s past, we see her character is more complex than at first appears, leaving her reaction to Nina’s plea to aid her in an affair uncertain, and the reasons for her decision to steal the doll unclear. The Lost Daughter asks many questions about motherhood but does not provide easy answers; in fact, it leaves us certain there are none.

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Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

January 4, 2015

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One of my favourite discoveries of 2014 was Elena Ferrante whose My Brilliant Friend I read after numerous recommendations. The Story of a New Name quickly followed and now, having completed Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third volume in her series of Neapolitan novels, I am left awaiting volume four later this year like everyone else who has been converted to her talents as a writer. My Brilliant Friend is such an impressive novel that it has been difficult for the subsequent volumes to make a similar impact, particularly as the mirroring between the narrator, Elena, and her childhood friend, Lila has weakened as their lives have taken different paths: ”It’s the fault of our lives diverging, the fault of distance.”

The first volume ended with Lila in ascendance. Despite her intellectual brilliance she had been unable to continue with her education, seemingly giving Elena the advantage as she goes on to succeed academically with university beckoning. However, Lila instead marries Stefano who owns the local grocery store, allowing her and her family a more prosperous life, and also making Elena feel Lila has grown up in a way she hasn’t. In volume two, roles reverse. Lila’s marriage to Stefano falls apart and she leaves him for Nino (also from the neighbourhood, but, like Elena, clever enough to have escaped to university) with whom she has been having an affair; Nino, however, does not stay with her long. By the end of the second volume, Elena is engaged to a young man from a middle class family, Pietro, who seems destined for a successful academic career like his father, and has published her first, largely autobiographical, novel. At the beginning of volume three, Lila is working in a sausage factory, supporting her young son with the help of Enzo, another childhood friend. Elena is preparing for marriage and considering her second novel.

Whereas the first two volumes were very much about the contrasting fortunes of Elena and Lila, in volume three Ferrante can now show us the two different worlds which intersect through their friendship, and through politics as a radicalised middle class attempt to fight on behalf of the working class. This is seen later in the novel in the relationship between Pasquale, a Communist construction worker and Nadia, the daughter of a university lecturer, once Nino’s girlfriend. Politically the centrepiece of the novel is the sausage factory where Lila works: at a Communist meeting, angered by what she feels is a lack of understanding among the students, she speaks eloquently about conditions in the factory:

“She left in a daze, with the impression of having exposed herself too fully to people who, yes, were good-hearted, but who, even if they understood it in the abstract, in the concrete couldn’t understand a thing.”

The next day the students begin a protest outside the factory; Lila is furious as she now risks losing her job. This section of the novel brilliantly dramatizes the problems of political action, with Lila torn between protecting her livelihood and standing up for what she feels is right. This inner conflict is reflected in violence outside the factory gates between communists and fascists. Elena finds herself peripheral; as an old boyfriend tells her:

“You’ve remained the petit bourgeois you always were.”

She uses her new contacts in the professional world to help Lila, and writes an article for a newspaper about conditions in the factory (like so much of her work, based on something Lila has written), but Pasquale mocks her restrained involvement:

“Excellent. You mean that in all the factories, in all the construction sites, in every corner of Italy and the world, as soon as the owner kicks up a fuss and the workers are in danger, we’ll call Elena Greco: she telephones her friends, the labour authority, her connections in high places, and resolves the situation.”

Lila is such an electric character, so unpredictable, that when she fades form the narrative, the narrative urgency also fades. Elena seems so much tamer in comparison, with a desire to take us through her every feeling (so keen is she at times to tell us everything, it is tempting wonder what she is hiding). When she begins an affair with Nino, whom she has loved since volume one, it feels telegraphed rather than inevitable. This is, however, part of a feminist strand that runs alongside the class politics. Elena may not suffer the class exploitation of Lila, but this does not mean she is free. She tells Lila that when she is married she will take the new birth control pill – she wants children but first she has a book to write, but soon after the wedding she is pregnant. An old friend from the neighbourhood tells her, “He’s marrying me to have a faithful servant, that’s the reason all men get married,” and soon she feels the same:

“I carried the stroller with the baby in it up and down, I did the shopping, came home loaded down with bags, I cleaned the house, I cooked, I thought: I’m becoming ugly and old before my time, like the women of the neighbourhood.”

She may have escaped poverty but she has not escaped the role assigned to women. She struggles with her writing, and also to win Lila’s approval of it:

“I expect the bets from you, I’m too certain that you can do better, I want you to do better, it’s what I want most, because who am I if you aren’t great, who am I?”

We have always been aware that Elena measures herself against Lila, but here we see that Lila also uses Elena to measure herself. As Elena’s marriage falls apart, we might consider whether this is partly an echo of Lila’s marriage; certainly the recklessness involved seems to be in Lila’s spirit. Except, of course, that is the Lila presented to us by Elena, whose actions often appear raw and sudden, as opposed to the lengthily justified actions of the narrator. Signs that Elena’s marriage is just as expedient as Lila’s are evident early in the novel:

“He gave me the certainty that I was escaping the opportunistic malleability of my father and the crudeness of my mother.”

Elena and Lila, and indeed the series itself, can only be judged when the final volume is published, when the “many bad things, and some terrible” are all finally revealed. It is to be hoped the final volume brings the story to the conclusion it deserves.

My Brilliant Friend

August 3, 2014

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Having had such fun during Spanish Lit Month, it seemed a foregone conclusion that I should make some attempt to participate in Women in Translation during August (with thanks to Biblio). It also seemed entirely natural that I begin with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (translated by Ann Goldstein), a novel so many have read and recommended. My Brilliant Friend is the first in a trilogy, the third of which (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) will be published by Europa editions in September, though Ferrante has said that she views it as one novel, the division into volumes simply necessitated by the mechanics of publishing.

My Brilliant Friend is set in post-war Italy in a poor neighbourhood and tells the story of two friends, Elena (the narrator) and Lila who begin as young children and end this first volume as adults. This story is prefaced by a contemporary scene where an elderly Elena is told by Lila’s son that Lila has gone missing, along with all her belongings – something we will presumably return to in the final volume. What follows is Elena’s attempt to write Lila’s story so that Lila cannot make herself disappear in the way she seems to want to.

The story struck me as one common in the Scottish tradition – the poor but intelligent youngster who stands out at school and whose parents are encouraged to allow them to pursue their education despite financial difficulties and a certain lack of understanding of its purpose or importance. Normally these would be young men (though Sunset Song would be an exception here) and the setting would be earlier in the century (presumably the timing links to the arrival of universal education) but scenes such as the teacher’s visit to the house would generally feature. A growing alienation from their parents (which always makes me think of Tony Harrison’s poem ‘Bookends’) and from their community would follow.

Ferrante tells this lassie o’pairts tale as well as anyone but adds another dimension in viewing it through the lens of friendship. Elena takes the traditional role of the talented youngster who is encouraged to continue through school, but Lila, we learn, is at least equally clever, teaching herself Latin and Greek when denied the chance to progress with her formal education. Throughout Elena is generally in awe of her, as, it seems, are most of her peer group, particularly the boys (though, of course, we see this from Elena’s perspective). While Elena is naturally cautious and careful, Lila seems confident and decisive, though it is noticeable that, by the novel’s end, it is Elena who has acted with the most freedom and recklessness, though she does not see this herself.

This first volume presents a wonderful picture of adolescence with all its doubts, dangers and discoveries. It doesn’t neglect its male characters, whose lives are circumscribed by rules of machismo. In fact, unlike many bildungsroman, this is also a novel of community (again it bears comparison with Sunset Song), painting in great detail the small area of Naples that Elena rarely leaves. It is an area where grudges originating in the war are still strong and violence is commonplace.

I can now see why so many people have been praising this novel: it is the kind of novel that it is difficult to imagine someone disliking, while at the same time knowing that is the result of its artistry and truthfulness rather than its accessibility. I will now join in with the recommending.