Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Woman under the Influence: What Kind of a Feminist Is Elena Ferrante?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Woman under the Influence: What Kind of a Feminist Is Elena Ferrante?

Article excerpt


The Story of the Lost Child

Elena Ferrante. Translated by Ann Goldstein

Europa Edition, 473pp, 11.99 [pounds sterling]

The fourth volume of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan quartet brings her ambitious project to a triumphant, satisfying, baffling and unsettling conclusion, coming full circle with an epilogue called "Restitution". But we find no such thing. Nothing is restored: we battle on, through old age, to the end. There is no peace, no reconciliation, no end to the power struggles and convulsions of sex and politics. These are volcanic novels. They pay tribute to the brooding presence of an unstable Vesuvius, overlooking a Naples part mythic, part historic and part intensely real a Naples of casual and concerted violence, of squalor and sudden death, of earth tremors, of long, tedious queues at the post office, of surprisingly orderly public libraries, of pizza and ice cream, of grand buildings and grand views over ever-changing seas.

It is hard to find a critical vocabulary to contain what has been going on in Ferrante's work. The first volume, My Brilliant Friend, appears on one level to be a Bildungsroman, taking us through the impoverished but aspiring childhood and schooldays of the narrator/novelist Elena Greco and her alter ego, her frighteningly fierce and unpredictable friend Lina Cerullo. They are surrounded by a large cast of children and adults from the working-class district of "the neighbourhood" and its thoroughfare, the stradone, whose love affairs, careers and entanglements are played out in the fourth book. But the sweep of the narrative is prefaced at the opening of book one by the disappearance of the now old and adult Lina, an event that provides a kind of closure to the final volume. So the entire sequence, published over a period of less than five years, must, one must suppose, have been carefully planned in advance. Motifs and images are followed through, at times perhaps too insistently: Elena's mother's silver bracelet makes several portentous appearances and the dolls Nu and Tina, which the two six-year-old girls lose at the beginning of the narrative, are carefully re-created in Elena's and Lina's youngest children, their daughters Imma and Tina. The foreshadowed theme of the bambina perduta is melodramatically enacted in real life. But, as Ferrante convinces us, real Naples is full of real melodrama.

The conventionally careful plotting, however, belies and is weirdly undermined by the powerful emotional flux of the writing, the immediacy of the turmoil of sexual passions and ideological attitudes, the chronological jumps and strange reprises that make up the uneven texture of the work. Elena oscillates throughout between confidence and despair and her story, as she frequently acknowledges, is not only interwoven with but also parasitical upon her friend's life.

Elena leaves the neighbourhood to become an intermittently successful feminist writer. Lina stays, having disastrously married at 16, never pursuing (as far as we are told) her early literary promise, never travelling, never finding a wider world. Elena believes in the "phantom text" that is Lina's life, the life she believes herself to be writing on behalf of her friend. (This trope is pursued, sometimes confusingly, through descriptions of preserved notebooks and boxes of manuscript and destroyed texts.) Elena/Ferrante is deeply exercised by accusations of appropriation, of theft, of exploitation, which appear periodically and damagingly in press reviews of her literary output and are levelled at her, even more painfully, by family, friends and neighbours and by Lina herself.

Elena escapes from the neighbourhood but she cannot help returning, sometimes to live there for long periods. She needs her dark material, emotionally and commercially, however uneasy her connections with it may be, however strongly Florence, Milan, Turin and the international circuit may call her. …

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