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10 September 2015updated 22 Sep 2015 11:19am

Margaret Drabble: what kind of a feminist is Elena Ferrante?

The Story of the Lost Child is the final instalment in a literary phenomenon. But what does its elusive author really believe?

By Margaret Drabble

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. She needs Naples.

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One of this volume’s strongest episodes recounts the death of her mother, with whom she has had a difficult, sometimes violent relationship. In her final illness, made comfortable in a private clinic, enjoying the little touches of privilege paid for by the ill-gotten gains of her younger daughter’s criminal partner, Elena’s mother is at last reconciled to the clever daughter who went away and married (then left) the professor and is happy to hold in her arms her new granddaughter and namesake, Immacolata, illegitimate though she is. Here we have a rare example of a form
of restitution.

Elena Greco’s extreme ontological insecurity as a writer is strikingly and convincingly portrayed. Each rejection, each attack, each implied or spoken criticism, be it from her mother-in-law, from Lina, from a scholar at an academic presentation, or in the pages of L’Unità or La Repubblica or Corriere della Sera, plunges her into a morass of self-doubt, from which a word of praise from an editor (even an editor she does not much respect) will as readily rescue her. Even when she is looking back over her long career (The Story of the Lost Child spans, with various loops and reprises, a period from 1976 to 2005) from the standpoint of an old woman in her seventies, the anxieties persist. This leads one to the inevitable question: how much of a feminist and what kind of a feminist is the writer who goes by the name of Elena Ferrante? Does her work suggest that women are more insecure than men, both as writers and as lovers? Are they by nature more needy, more dependent on praise and goodwill?

It is well known that Ferrante’s identity remains a mystery but the career of her protagonist documents a well-defined time span, from the 1960s through to the beginning of the 21st century, a period in which there was first a spontaneous new wave of feminist fiction, then the rise of feminist literary theory, then a period that interrogated the construction of gender. The evolution of all these themes is intelligently addressed.

At times – and at a first reading – Ferrante’s work seems curiously old-fashioned and somewhat out of sync, as though it were approaching with hindsight questions long since resolved or bypassed: basic questions of sexual equality, of jealousy and infidelity, of the discriminatory ageing process of women, of paternity and maternity. Yet, as one reads on, one realises that these ­questions are still unresolved, still urgent, and that maybe we resist her explorations only because they are so painful and so embarrassing. She spares the reader nothing of the agonies of indecision and self-torment that afflict women as they try to lead remodelled lives.

The title of her earlier novel The Days of Abandonment speaks volumes. This is also about a woman struggling to write but, more frontally, it is about a woman whose husband has left her, abandoning her and their two small children. The narrator here says, “I wanted to write stories about women with resources, women of invincible words, not a manual for the abandoned wife.” But
the book she produces is an exploration of jealousy, ugly substitute sex, ugly thoughts, ugly struggles over custody, and of the sense of the near-total annihilation of being a woman-without-a-man.

In contrast, The Story of the Lost Child has moved on. It gives us Elena at last coming to terms, after a long personal and professional power struggle, with the irredeemable nature of her most passionate lover and one-time schoolmate, Nino: a liar, a charmer, a politician and, like his father, a faithless yet loyal serial seducer. Everyone but Elena knows that Nino is a shit and tells her so, many times, in the brutal dialect of the neighbourhood. But she has to find this out for herself and to make the best of it, which, inventively, she does. (And Pietro the professor, her ex, has a surprisingly good outcome, we are relieved to note.)

Ferrante takes on many of the issues raised in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962). You have to do it by yourself, for yourself: with others, you have to go on pushing the boulder up the hill. Lessing’s novel was a heady mix of feminism (a label that she disclaimed), Marxism and madness. Ferrante takes us into similar territory, as she, too, endeavours to combine the personal with the political. (Her descriptions of Lina’s crazy moments of “dissolving boundaries” recall the passages evoking Anna Wulf’s madness.) The political backdrop is of communism, neo-fascism and the Camorra. In old age, Elena sardonically states: “Anarchist, Marxist, Gramscian, communist, Leninist, Trotskyite, Maoist, worker were quickly becoming obsolete labels or, worse, a mark of brutality. The exploitation of man by man and the logic of maximum profit, which before had been considered an abomination, had returned to become the linchpins of freedom and democracy everywhere.” Some of the neighbourhood end up in prison, where Pasquale, an activist communist bricklayer, finds peace: at last, he has time to study. I am told that not many Italian novelists, male or female, have tackled the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s: the anni di piombo, the “years of lead”. Ferrante’s account rings fearfully true. Lessing was safer in London.

An English reader has a specific disadvantage with these Italian texts. The style is easy, readable, realist, at times elevated by unobtrusive classical allusion, and the translation is fluent. But the author incessantly and importantly reminds us that many of her characters (although some of them studied Latin and Greek at school) speak another language: like Elena’s mother, they speak “dialect”, they speak Neapolitan and they speak it at crucial moments of the plot. Language marks them as members of a different community, leading parallel lives. The significance of this gulf cannot be adequately conveyed in English prose. The sense of a missing dimension – together with the slight disjuncture of a story told in the present but with many years of hindsight – makes at times for a disturbing sense of distance, for a sense of reading through more than one filter. Ferrante does not use dialect herself, except on one or two extreme occasions, but its presence/absence is insistently registered.

The translation has one or two disconcerting time warps. I don’t think the babies Tina and Imma could have been wearing “onesies” in 1981 (I wonder what the Italian for this garment could have been?) and, more annoyingly, it is unlikely that a newspaper headline would have dismissed Elena Greco’s “debut novel” as the “Salacious memoirs of an ambitious girl in the 1970s, as the publishing word “debut” in this context only became widely used in a later era of marketing fiction. (The Italian has: “Memorie piccanti di una ragazza ambiziosa: il romanzo d’esordio di Elena Greco”.)

But I do have to wonder, as a novelist may, whether the “real” Elena Ferrante may have published some piquant memories, not long after the (cited) publication of Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse (1954), and then suppressed them? Has she, like Elena Greco, reached into her bottom drawer? If the seven novels she has published late in life are indeed all the fiction she has written, this has been an astonishing period of late flowering.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, is published by Europa Editions (473pp, £11.99)

Margaret Drabble’s most recent book is “The Pure Gold Baby” (Canongate)

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This article appears in the 09 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles