The Story of the Lost Child: Sarah, September 25

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Princeton, NJ

For the last timedear Jill, Katherine, Merve -

Once upon a time, we wondered: what are the stakes of Ferrante's realism? What does "the real" contain for her? By what means, in what strange forms does she enclose it? Looking at the first book, we talked about the occult tendencies of Ferrante's style, markedly not magical realism, but sometimes lurking somewhere nearby. Now that we've reached the end, I wonder if it's time to revisit these questions via a related genre: the fairy tale.

After all, from the beginning, the Neapolitan cycle engages with the language and imagery of the fairy tale: magic words, childhood monsters, changeling transformations, true love. Both the title of this last book, of course, and its cover (an ad for EuroDisney Naples?) point directly at this relationship.

lostchildcover

And indeed, this framing might lead us to consider some of the familiar narratives that Ferrante invokes, perhaps yearns for, and critiques as modern fairy tales. First of all, her equivalent of the thinking reader's twentieth century princess dream: the fulfilled, autonomous, and respected female intellectual. Second, the plotline of class ascension and bourgeois ambition. Third, in perpetual tension with the second, the revolutionary struggle. To look at these things in this light is not to undercut their power or significance: we've all felt the pull of these potentially transformative narratives throughout the books, and have all expressed it at different times over the course of the summer. We wanted so much for Lenù and Lila! For many brief, shining moments, we longed desperately for them to stay friends, to foment revolution, to make art, to be good mothers, to save the world; or if not the world, then at least the neighborhood; if not the neighborhood, then at least each other.

But as Jill notes, Lenù could never be "some model feminist-radical-lover-mother" (I'd add to that "writer"). After all, Ferrante-land isn't fairyland. In fact, the issue here isn't even the dream of magically "having it all." The real question here, as Jill also highlights, seems to be grimmer (ha!): can Lenù, or any woman, occupy even one of those roles without consequences for the others? Or is that seemingly simple desire as futile, in the bleak and limited modern worldour bleak and limited modern worldas wishing on a star?

lemon

Can you, Liz Lemon?

The structures and tropes of the fairy tale also emerge as the fourth book wends, somewhat wearily, to its conclusion. I can't help but think about the punctual reappearances of Nino Sarratore as incrementally repetitive warnings that our failed heroine Lenù consistently disregards, as he devolves from Marxist Pixie Dream Boy to Reactionary Seedy Bluebeard. But Lenù doesn't heed the warnings until too late, as Nino moves blithely from Lenù to Lila to Lenù again, carelessly tossing the ruined lives of other women and their assorted lovechildren in his cabinet of banal, philandering conquests along the way.

Nino's personal unfaithfulness emerges nastily alongside his political unfaithfulness. Notably, the couple's final break is forced not only by his sordid tryst with the nanny, but by his condescending dismissal of the "magic" idea of revolution:

One time he was lecturing Dede... and to soften his pragmatism, I said:

"The people, Dede, always have the possibility of turning everything upside down."

Good-humoredly he replied, "Mamma likes to make up stories, which is a great job. But she doesn't know much about how the world we live in functions, and so whenever there's something she doesn't lie she resorts to a magic word: let's turn everything upside down." (229)

We long for a better, more radical, more rigorous Lenù to put him in his place, but of course, Ferrante is pointedly not Angela Carter, and The Story of the Lost Child is not "The Bloody Chamber." This is a story about the Seventies; it is not written from the Seventies. Instead of schooling him, Lenù accepts this condemnation and subsides meekly as "he started a lesson with Dede on the division of powers, which [Lenù] listened to in silence and agreed with from A to Z." Ultimately, there is no satisfyingly vengeful, violent feminist twist at the end of these fairy tales. Instead, the surprise comes in the bathetic letdown of their failures. By the time Lenù is totally free of Nino's spell, they're both old and sad, and her ultimate rejection of him is one marked with weariness and anxiety, not fierce vindication:

I found [Nino] large, bloated, a big, ruddy man with thinning hair who was constantly celebrating himself. Getting rid of him, after the funeral, was difficult. I didn't want to listen to him or even look at him. He gave me an impression of wasted time, of useless labor, that I feared would stay in my mind, extending into me, into everything. (470)

Looking back, "Bluebeard" isn't the only actual fairy tale I see woven into the personal and political fabric of the Neapolitan novels. We wondered about the significance of Lila's passion for designing shoesnotably, just after her authorship of the mythical "Blue Fairy" storyand in retrospect, it seems to me that it was another almost-magical source of thwarted possibility, another tantalizing but doomed gesture towards a happy ending. Remember the Grimm tale, "The Elves and the Cobbler": A poor, honest shoemaker has only enough scraps of leather to make one pair of shoes. In the morning, he discovers that the shoes have been miraculously and marvelously crafted in the night. He sells them and has enough money to make two pairs; multiply that several times, and business is suddenly booming. One night, he and his wife stay up to see who their strange nocturnal craftsmen are, and find two naked elves, working away like mad. To show their gratitude and compensate these magical laborers, the sympathetic cobbler and his wife sew tiny clothes and shoes for the elves, and lay them out the next night. The elves, delighted, don their new attire and dance away, never to be seen again. The now-successful shoemaker and his wife live happily ever after.

Lila, miraculous creator that she is, is the prodigious elf, and the cobbler’s financial success is Rino’s dream of the revived Cerullo shoe company. But as we know, neither she nor her shoemaker father and brother live happily ever after, an early indication in Book 1 of the other thwarted fairy tales we're yet to encounter.

Nowfollow me on this weird intertextual journeyput that alongside that the curious history of revolutionary shoemakers that Eric Hobsbawm and Joan Wallach Scott depict in "Political Shoemakers":1

To say that shoemakers, or any other trade, have a reputation for radicalism may, of course, mean one or more of three things: a reputation for militant action in movements of social protest, whether confined to the trade in question or not; a reputation for sympathy or association with, or activity in, movements of the political left; and a reputation as what might be called ideologists of the common people... Shoemakers as a trade had, in the nineteenth century, a reputation for radicalism in all three senses. (86)

As Hobsbawm and Scott later state, "There can be little doubt... that as worker-intellectuals and ideologists shoemakers were exceptional," and furthermore, they were frequently prolific readers and writers: "Who says cobbler surprisingly often says journalist and versifier, preacher and lecturer, writer and editor" (89). Sound familiar? As a worker-intellectual, Lila is, as both the student radicals and her compatriots at the Soccavo factory realize, "exceptional."

On a neat textual level, tale and essay dovetail nicely. They both address anxieties about the speed of modern manufacture, and fair compensation for skilled labor (though really those elves should unionize). For our Ferrante-centric purposes, though, let me just highlight the idea that Lila is, through the bifocal lens of these different texts, both elf and shoemakera doubly mythologized figure. Yet, once established, she herself flatly rejects both of these roles. Again, we see that neither of these would-be transformative figures can fully function in the world of Ferrante's Naples, perhaps another reason that Lila, the vessel of so much creative and revolutionary potential, has to disappear.

On that over-determined symbolic note, I also keep thinking about another author for whom fairy tale/folkloric tropes offer structure and a way of framing the political - Bertolt Brecht. Every time I encounter the dramatis personae that opens each novel, I cannot help but think of Brecht's characters in parable plays like The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The cross-cutting of realist(ic), individual characters like Lenù and Lila with impersonal, folkoric epithets like "The Porter's Family" and "The Shoemaker's family" recall Brecht's similarly interspersed cast of characters, made up of both named characters (Grusha, Michael, Simon), stock figures ("First Architect," "Fat Prince"), and one who moves between modes (The Singer). There's something in Ferrante's theatrical framing device that evokes a Brechtian distance from these characters, even as the body of the text itself - "such drama!" - invites us to identify, or at least to try to identify, with Lila and Lenù as real people. Unlike Brecht's goals in his epic theatre, though, there is no didactic, political message at the end of this cycle of dramas; they do not necessarily raise readers to critical consciousness or drive us to action of any particular kind.

Yet perhaps this alienation effect still functions as a means to critical reading, even if not in a directly Brechtian fashion. By the end, I wonder how much we're meant to see these characters as "real" and how much as figures in a parable. I mean, obviously they're both. But in the light of the personal connection we form with the novels' characters and worldthat which breeds the sense of disappointment and betrayal that we've all commented on in the endingis it possible that it is this very disappointment that gives the last book a certain kind of critical heft? Is our by-now-complete alienation from Lenù actually necessary for a clear-sighted examination of the crises of female existence, or radicalism, or authorship that Ferrante depicts?

Finally, in the finale's return to the scene of childhood, Ferrante ends with a weary critique of that most dangerous fairy tale of all: the writer’s misplaced faith in the recuperative potential of tale-telling. "Epilogue: Restitution" recalls, in some ways, the epilogue to another contemporary fairy tale, Ian McEwan's Atonement. Lenù, like McEwan's manipulative author Briony, never quite relinquishes the very childish idea that rewriting a story can somehow remake it. But of course, writing a story the way you wish it could end does nothing, despite Briony's famous claim that "The attempt was all."2 Ultimately, none of these fairy tales come to their clear, much-longed for, written and rewritten ends, for, "Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity" (473). Obscurity and irresolution, uncertainly ever after.

As ever,

Sarah

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: Jill, September 21

 

  1. Hobsbawm, E.J. and Joan Wallach Scott. "Political Shoemakers." Past and Present, No. 89 (Nov. 1980), pp. 86-114. (H/t Jeremy Schmidt) []
  2. McEwan, Ian. Atonement. London: Random House, 2001. 351. []