Life Is Grand IV (Then You Have a Lonely Old Age and Die.  If You’re Lucky)

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante.  The Fourth and Final Neapolitan Novel.  Europa Editions.  473 pp.  $18.00.

“I’d have to say it was my least favorite of the four.”

I was startled when a friend of mine spoke those words, when I told her I was in the middle of the fourth of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.  They didn’t seem like separate books to me.  It was all one story, one riveting page after another, and I never stopped to discriminate.

But of course many people in this country had read the first three, then waited for the fourth to be translated, the way people used to wait for the serialization of a Dickens novel.  (The translator, in the meantime, became a rock starShe made an appearance at the Book Court in Brooklyn—a store I was browsing in a few days ago—and the place was jammed.)  They saw this fourth book as a separate volume while I read it as part of the breathtaking whole.

I’ve had time to reconsider.  A weekend trip to Brooklyn to see my grandchildren turned into a five-day stay because of the Great Blizzard of 2016, so I got well into a new reading project.  I’m looking back at this book having finished it two weeks ago.  I would say two things.  However the work was published, there are really, at most, two volumes: the first two, considered as one, and the last two.  And if this final 473 pages is the least satisfactory section, that isn’t because anything happened to Ferrante’s narrative powers.  It’s because the end of life is so often sad; there are more things to go wrong.  Ferrante stared right at them, and wrote them down.  If this volume seems more like a soap opera than the others—one wild event after another—it’s because life gets that way when you’re older.  There are more people in your life, and more things happening.

Everyone, every single person in the book, continues to act in character.  They are the same as the children we met in the first volume, yet they’re completely different.  I used to mistrust my first impressions, because I thought I jumped to conclusions.  I gave people the benefit of the doubt, because I know people can make real changes as they get older; they don’t have to be the little turds they were when they were twelve.  At the same time, people are like seeds.  If they start off as an acorn, they don’t wind up as a sycamore.  If the acorn was the seed of a gnarled old oak, that’s what it becomes.

No one illustrates that fact more than Nino, the man whom Elena first loved, then Lila had a brief but passionate affair with, then Elena got back together with.  In a certain way he’s central to the book, the pole around which both women spin.  But there’s a scene of betrayal at the heart of this novel that is simultaneously borderline unbelievable and hilariously funny, you can’t believe what’s happening, but if you want to see what a true lothario is, the kind of man who can resist no woman, read this volume.  There is also a scene where Elena gets together with a former lover, just for one night, that is similarly startling, but also just right.  These are the kinds of things human beings do in the course of a long life.  They just don’t often admit them.

At the heart of the book, at the title indicates, is a tragic event.  It is one of those moments by which a life defines itself: there was the period before that event, and the period after.  The relationship between the two women is never the same; this is the kind of grief that one never gets past.  And in this case the mystery of it, the lack of closure, is especially painful.

I’m struck by the way that three of the titles could easily be the title of the whole quartet, and how they change meaning as we go through the volumes.  The whole question of who is the Brilliant Friend is a tossup: both women are brilliant in their own ways.  The Lost Child also works for both women, because both are involved in the event.  But the third title, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, has the most resonance for me.  That choice, to stay in that little Neapolitan neighborhood or try to get out of it, is the central choice of these two women’s lives.  You could almost say it happens when they’re eight, and Lila decides not to continue with school.  Yet the more Elena gets away, the more she realizes she can never do that: the place draws her back like a center of gravity.  Thomas Wolfe said You Can’t Go Home Again.  This is more like You Can’t Not Go Home Again.

The portrait of Elena—our narrator—is of a woman who fell into writing almost by accident, but then made a career out of it, battling the things that all women writers battle, not just gender bias, but maintaining a career in the midst of relationships with men, the wish or need to have children, the inevitable ups and downs of any career.  She’s a successful author, for sure, but there are any number of rough patches in her career, and stagnant moments.

I have no idea how close this whole thing is to factual truth; it’s tempting to see it utterly true, but that’s a tribute to the author’s skill.  In any case it’s emotionally true, on every page; what I most appreciate is Ferrante’s honesty.  She gives us a woman’s life whole, without trying to prettify it or glamorize it.  It makes almost any other fiction I’ve read seem mildly dishonest.