The Story of the Lost Child: Jill, September 21

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New Haven, CT

Dear everyone,

"I'm afraid that the last part has only the appearance of good writing."1 That's our real-life author, Elena Ferrante, in a recent interview. She is talking about her earlier novel, The Days of Abandonment. The interviewer’s follow-up question is, "Do you think this anxiety of yours has something to do with being a woman?"

Ferrante sidesteps the question. She talks about how, as a girl, she thought that a great book had to have a man as its narrator. Even her female heroines would imitate the men, their freedom and determination like the freedom and determination of men. Ferrante didn't want to write like Jane Austen; she wanted to write like Flaubert or Tolstoy. And then, abruptly, at the end of her answer: "That phase lasted a long time, until I was in my early twenties, and it left profound effects." What effects, Elena? What happened after? A phase implies punctuality, that this phase of writing like the men came and went, so what next? Our author does not say.

What Ferrante doesn't say is Yes, I worry about being a bad writer because I'm a woman, because insecurity and worrying are womanish things. Or, I worry about being a bad writer because I exist in a largely male canonical tradition that positions female authors as imposters or upstarts. One answer picks up on the condescension that can be read into the question, the other views it sympathetically. I like Ferrante for side-stepping, but that's neither here nor there.

What is more significant about that moment, the stated fear that past writing is bad, is the doubling effect. In The Story of the Lost Child, the fictional Elena, for our purposes Lenù, worries about being a bad writer too. Lenù also worries about being a bad mother and a bad feminist. In some way, in the world of the novels, these roles seem to exist as part of a zero-sum game. Lenù leaves Italy to publicize her novels, but then worries that she is abandoning her children (good writer! bad mother!). While caring for her children and lover (good mother!), Lenù lets her work slide, perpetually putting off the writing of a new novel (bad feminist! bad writer!) There is a devastating scene near the end of the book when Lenù's daughter Elsa pulls some of these earlier novels from the shelves and starts readings them aloud, ironically, maliciously, to combined effect (bad mother! bad writer! good feminist!):

I had stressed certain themes: work, class conflicts, feminism, the marginalized. Now I was hearing my sentences chosen at random and they seem embarrassing. ElsaDede was more respectful, Imma more cautiouswas reading in an ironic tone from my first novel, she read from the story about the invention of women by men, she read from books with many prizes. Her voice skillfully highlighted flaws, excesses, tones that were too exclamatory, the aged ideologies that I had supported as indisputable truths. Above all she paused with amusement on the vocabulary, she repeated two or three times words that had long since passed out of fashion and sounded foolish. (458)

If Lila calls Lenù a bad mother, and Elsa suggests that she is a bad writer, it's really Nino who hits the nail on the head vis-à-vis political action more generally:

He teased me good-humoredly for always taking, in his view, a middle position. He made fun of my half-way feminism, my halfway Marxism, my half-way Freudianism, my halfway Foucault-ism, my halfway subversiveness. (394)

I think of these passages whenever I see the Neapolitan cycle named a feminist epic, in part because they reinforce my suspicion that the evaluation (feminist! / not feminist!) is not particularly productive entryway into this zero-sum game. Lenù makes many choices, and many of them do not align with even the most general understandings of a feminist or radical politics.

Lenù does not participate, except in a half-hearted spectatorial way, in the radicalisms of the 1970s; she claims to like "subversive words, words that denounced the compromises of the parties and the violence of the state," but not political actions, not demonstrations or meetings themselves (85); she escapes into the couple form, into a singular, almost contained relationship with Nino that makes the police, the checkpoint, the murders, mere "paving stones on which we marked the time of our relationship"(87). After learning that Nino has been lying about his separation from his wife, Lenù acknowledges a particularly sharp discrepancy between her words and her actions:

Although I now wrote about women's autonomy and discussed it everywhere, I didn't know how to live without his body, his voice, his intelligence. It was terrible to confess it, but I still wanted him, I loved him more than my own daughters. At the idea of hurting him and of no longer seeing him I withered painfully, the free and educated woman lost   her petals, separated from the woman-mother and the woman-mother was disconnected from the woman-lover, and the woman-lover from the furious whore, and we all seemed on the point of flying off in different directions. (101)

Very early in this series, I complained that fiction for and about young girls, in the mode of The Babysitters Club, allowed for a limited economy of character types: the smart one, the pretty one, the artistic one. Here is the same problem, though set in the terms of adulthood. To be the woman-mother is to give up the woman-lover and the woman-writer, and vice-versa, on all sides.

This is a problem the novel cycle does not solve. So it is not all that surprising then, that when we talk about the end of the Neapolitan cycle the words that keep getting invoked are these ones, betrayal and disappointment.

Katherine points out that we wouldn't get the Neapolitan cycle if Lenù were a better friend, one that kept her promises. "But can we really be upset about that betrayal? Without it, we’d have no Neapolitan cycle!" For Merve, it is a more cumulative reaction, acquired through hours of frantic reading: "By the time I finished, I was exhausted, sated, and yet, much to my own surprise, disappointed by where Iand where Lila and Lenù and Naples and the modern world as suchhad ended up. Why was I disappointed?

I feel disappointed, too. But in all these cases, the disappointment is with Lenù, the fictional character, not the books themselves. We are disappointed that she is a bad friend, or a bad feminist, sometimes a halfway Marxist or halfway radical. What does it mean, exactly, to be disappointed with a fictional character's choices at the end of a novel, but not disappointed with the novel itself? It's not as though I wished Ferrante had made Lenù into some model feminist-radical-lover-mother propaganda. It's not as though I expect, from a novel, a formula for how to be a woman in the world.

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The Story of the Lost Child is no manifesto. Who would want it to be?  It is the story that an imposter might write, knowing herself to be one. An upstart's novel, of bad mothers and bad feminists, bad politicos, of the kind of self-regard necessary to close one self off in a room of one's own and write away the day. Or better, it is a story of the trade-offs that went into the making of Elena Greco, the novelist. Maybe it is better to say that my disappointment lies with the realism of the novels that is so like this world, where there is no purely good choice, no correct answer in choosing between mother, friend, feminist, radical, writer, lover.

What does it say, finally, that I have been fretting this last week or so, after finishing the Neapolitan cycle, that maybe I have become too personally attached to these books, become overly subjective, sentimental, uncritical? I've caught some sort of flu from my students and am sitting here amidst all the Kleenex, in a Dayquil haze, worried that this last post, on disappointment and endings, is really bad writing, maybe even dipping into bad feminism, or bad radicalism, in favor of literary congratulation. It's not funny-ha-ha, but it's something: I keep thinking of that terrible interview question, the one that can only be side-stepped, "Do you think this anxiety of yours has something to do with being a woman?"

Love,

Jill

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IN THIS SERIES:

The Slow Burn: an Introduction

My Brilliant Friend: Jill, June 22

My Brilliant Friend: Katherine, June 23

My Brilliant Friend: Merve, June 25

My Brilliant Friend: Sarah, June 26

My Brilliant Friend: Katherine, July 1

My Brilliant Friend: Merve, July 6

My Brilliant Friend: Sarah, July 11

The Story of a New Name: Jill, July 17

The Story of a New Name: Merve, July 20

The Story of a New Name: Merve, July 30

The Story of a New Name: Katherine, July 31

The Story of a New Name: Sara Marcus, August 6

The Story of a New Name: Sarah, August 9

The Story of a New Name: Marissa Brostoff, August 10

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Katherine, August 20

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Merve, August 21

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Lili Loofbourow, August 26

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Jill, August 27

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Cecily Swanson, August 28

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Amy Schiller, August 30

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Sarah, September 1

The Story of the Lost Child: Merve, September 16

The Story of the Lost Child: Katherine, September 18

The Story of the Lost Child: Sarah, September 25

 

  1. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6370/art-of-fiction-no-228-elena-ferrante []