The Story of the Lost Child: Merve, September 16

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Cambridge, Massachusetts

Dear friends

7 hours, 32 minutes, and 50 seconds: this is how long it took me to read The Story of the Lost Child. In that time, I did not get out of bed. I forgot to eat. I forgot to go to the bathroom. I repositioned myself once, to cry briefly, noisily, and then again to soldier on to the last page. 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? It's never easy to pin down how and when disappointment begins, but let me try by beginning at the end. I don't think I'm spoiling anything for anyone when I reveal that the last five pages of The Story of the Lost Child are given over to a short "Epilogue"; one subtitledor more accurately, co-titled"Restitution."

Epilogue

Like many epilogues, "Restitution" is set apart from the 1,668 pages of narrative that precede it, first by the physical space of two blank pages, and then by a statement of disbelief addressed to Lenù's imagined reader. "I can't believe it myself," Lenù writes, as if she already knows that we too will not believe what she is about to tell us:

I've finished this story that I thought would never end. I finished it and patiently reread it not so much to improve the quality of the writing as to find out if there are even a few lines where it's possible to trace the evidence that Lila entered my text and decided to contribute to writing it. But I have had to acknowledge that all these pages are mine alone ... Lila is not in these words. (469)

Sarah has insisted throughout this summer that Lenù is a prolific liar, and I can't shake my sense that the epilogue is the biggest lie of all. Every sentence rings false. Did Lenù really think that her story "would never end?" Can we trust her claim that she has "patiently reread" the manuscript "not so much to improve the quality of the writing" as to sniff out Lila's contributions to it? (We know that Lenù is a diligent reviser, as well as a professional editor at a small literary publishing house.) Least believable of all is her final pronouncement that "Lila is not in these words." Lila's influenceher words, her ideas, her fierce and heartbreaking presenceis everywhere. That Lenù doth protest too much seems undeniable. The real question is: why?

All of these lies are, in one way or another, lies about the labor of writing. Planning, drafting, rereading, revising, collaboratingeach of these steps is crucial to the process of producing a work of narrative art. As various characters have shown us time and again, writing is difficult, time intensive work that never takes place in a sealed chamber of individual genius, though sometimes we may wish it did. Even more frustrating, perhaps, is how much of this hard work goes unacknowledged. Words are highlighted, deleted, changed. Sentences are crossed out. Entire pages and chapters are scrapped. It is tempting to feel a sense of shame about the whole enterprise, a psychic disruption akin to what Lenu feels when she sees her (now fat, now balding) ex-lover Nino for the first time after many years: "He gave me the impression of wasted time, of useless labor, that I feared would stay in my mind, extending into me, to everything" (470).

her-shame-dena-cardwell

Dena Lowery, “Her Shame”

Lenù would have us believe that there was no wasted time, no useless labor in the production of her greatest work of art. In a sense, this lie is a form of restitution, a recompense for injury or loss. Lenù's insistence on her self-possessed, romantic genius is designed to set off all the injuries and losses we know she has suffered in order to write the story we have just finished: the violence of her childhood, the indignities of her adolescence, her failed marriage, her tense relationship with her children, her humiliation at the hands of Nino, and ultimately, her loss of Lila's friendship after Lenù writes the story of their lives in her last novel, A Friendship.

But there is another, more literal, form of restitution at play in the "Epilogue." One day a package arrives for Lenù. Inside are Tina and Nu, the dolls that Lenù and Lila dropped into a neighborhood cellar nearly six decades and 1,668 pages ago in the opening scene of My Brilliant Friend. For Lenùas for us, her readersthe dolls are the origin point not only of her story, but of her friendship with Lila. These were the dolls, Lenù recalls:

... that Lila had pushed me to go and retrieve from the house of Don Achille ... and Don Achille had claimed that he hadn't taken them, and maybe he had imagined that it was his son Alfonso who stole them, and so he had compensated us with money so that we could buy others. But we hadn't bought dolls with that moneyhow could we have replaced Tina and Nu?instead we bought Little Women, the novel that had led Lila to write The Blue Fairy and me to become what I was today, the author of many books and above all of a remarkably successful story entitled A Friendship. (475)

By the end of the story, the dolls have been returned to their rightful owner. With this act of restitution, all 1,668 pages of Lenù's story can be compressed into a dizzying one sentence journey from the beginning of her life (and the beginning of My Brilliant Friend) to the end of her life (and the end of The Story of A New Name). It is as if nothing else had happened in between; as if the disappearance of Tina and Nu singlehandedly led Lenù "to become what I was today, the author of many books" and cast Lila into obscurity, caused her to disappear. More blatantly than Lenù's half-hearted protestations at the beginning of the epilogue, it is the causal leap at the end of the epilogue that delivers what seems like the greatest and most distressing falsehood of all: that nothing we have read over 1,668 pages ever happened.

And of course, it didn't. Despite the aura of biographical intrigue and inspiration that halos Ferrante’s work, this is fiction that has always called attention to its own construction as fiction through such short-cuts, repetitions, references, and doublings. In the "Epilogue," however, it's just more obvious than it ever was before; to begin and end with the dolls seems too neat, too transparent an example of a Literary Device. We know that Lenù has used this device before in A Friendship, which she tell us begins with the loss of the dolls and ends with the loss of Lila's daughter Tina. Many readers know too that Ferrante has used the same pairing of doll and daughter in her novella The Lost Daughter. To feel disappointment or betrayal at the obviously constructed nature of the "Epilogue"and by extension, everything that came before it isis to perceive with a sudden jolt of recognition just how much work, how much labor, has gone into the writing of these novels. It is to embrace the exact opposite of what Lenù wills us to believe about her writing process in our final moments with her.

I don't pretend to understand why my sense of disappointment (or betrayal) has lingered. As I write this paragraph, I find myself renewing it, feeling it more acutely in the process of trying to pin it down. Maybe it's because I can't remember the last time I derived such pleasure from reading a novel that I forgot it was a novelthe last time I let myself believe in a kind of immediate, intimate relationship between the writer, the written word, and my absorption of it. That configuration may sound mystical or childish, but reading Ferrante has made me feel a little like a child again; a child for whom the workings of the world (and books and people) are mysterious and confusing and may remain as such. "Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity," Lenù writes. The treatment of the unknown in all four novels is what compensates usas readersfor the betrayal of the pat ending. For me, such obscurity has been, in its own unexpected way, a form of restitution.

– Merve

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: Katherine, September 18

The Story of the Lost Child: Jill, September 21

The Story of the Lost Child: Sarah, September 25