The Story of the Lost Child (Neapolitan Novels Book 4). Elena Ferrante.

Ferrante, Elena. The Story of the Lost Child (Neapolitan Novels Book 4; see also Books 1, 2, 3), Europa Editions, New York, 2015. Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, original title Storia della bambina perduta. Edizioni E/ O, 2015. F; 4/16.

This last of the four Neapolitan Novels can’t avoid being self-conscious about what it needs to accomplish. Like the finale of a successful symphony we expect to be taken
to the beginning again, but now with real conviction that celebrates the experience of everything that has happened since. Well, it does this, and (I think properly) does it a bit self-consciously. But not unexpectedly it ends with resounding ambivalence, because as we knew she would from the beginning Lila, the center of the story, literally disappears.  And we are left in the hands of Elena, who wrote the story. But who is she?

I won’t review the plot except to say that the two antagonistic protagonist females get old, their children grow up, other principal characters age and (as people do) become more real and less immense in potential and expectation. Except, of course, for Lila.

The old world, the old neighbourhood, lives in Elena’s mother, grounded in the ethic of poverty and its escape. She is nearly insane with grief at her daughter’s abandoning a traditionally successful marriage which had inflated the old lady with pride. Fixed gender roles, the sanctity of marriage, old European Roman Catholicism, and above all, money:

I felt all the truth of the disappointment that I was causing her, all the truth of the maternal love that despaired of subjecting me to what she considered my good— that is, what she had never had and what I instead had and what until the day before had made her the most fortunate mother in the neighborhood— and was ready to turn into hatred and destroy me to punish me for my waste of God’s gifts.

The two most dramatic events in this final book of the quartet were, for me, an earthquake, and the loss of the child announced in the title.

As Elena, sitting with Lila, is struggling in her mind with her friend’s taking the man she had loved since school:

…a kind of thunder (occurred) under the building, under the stradone, as if one of the trucks that were constantly passing had swerved in our direction, was descending rapidly underground with the engine at top speed, and running into our foundations, crashing and shattering everything.

This catastrophic simile connects a real earthquake with Lila’s awful ontology as the destruction of buildings is her vivid self-destruction:

…if she became distracted real things, which, with their violent, painful contortions, terrified her, would gain the upper hand over the unreal ones, which, with their physical and moral solidity, pacified her; she would be plunged into a sticky, jumbled reality and would never again be able to give sensations clear outlines. A tactile emotion would melt into a visual one, a visual one would melt into an olfactory one, ah, what is the real world, Lenù, nothing, nothing, nothing about which one can say conclusively: it’s like that.

So it’s unreal things, isn’t it, that Lila’s peace is made of? But unreal in what sense? I’m perfectly happy to find in the profound literariness of these four books the suggestion that creatures of the imagination, for better or worse, mean more to the creatures who populate these stories than… whatever it is we are pleased conventionally to call the real world.

Much later, and for me strangely out of sync with Lila’s unique grasp of reality or lack of it, comes (as is usual in these stories) out of the blue the moment every parent dreads. Sweet intelligent little Tina comes down into the crowded street where grown-ups are conversing, and suddenly she is just gone, missing. Minutes of panic, hours of still-hopeful searching, days of speculation, months of despair.

But in the story, and in the light of this terrible tragedy, Lila’s significance expands even as she ages badly, becomes mentally and physically ill, loses her child and pretty much everything else, and then – poof – becomes insubstantial.

And so, yes, we are left with Elena in a “more real” world, holding the little lost dollies she and her brilliant friend threw into the dark cellar as children in Novel One, come some sort of full circle. But the story she tells us is made up. It’s a world no more substantial than Lila’s sticky jumbled reality with one perception melting into another. It’s a modern form of the stuff dreams are made on. But these are bad dreams. And the dreamer, Lila, is gone with no rack left behind. Shakespeare’s elegant comic theatrical reality is reimagined as a recursive nightmare of a black hole. The nominal author Elena Ferrante, who wrote the story of the story, never existed in the first place. It’s the solemn and cloud capp’d round world all right, but in it there’s a terrified little girl gone, and I the author and my best character are nowhere to be found either.

A delicious philosophic creation riddle, and a long and complicated enough tale to satisfy a big literary appetite. For the whole feast: 9.5/9.3.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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