Peter Stothard, the editor of the TLS, wrote enthusiastically in his Editor’s Column (9-11-2015) about Lidija Haas’s critical essay on Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child and the Neapolitan quartet as a whole.
For four years the fame of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has been gaining strength. To use one of the classical parallels that her own characters like to employ, her rise in stature has been like that of Fama in the Aeneid, spreading relentlessly the love of Dido. As Lidija Haas describes this week, the pace of Ferrante-following has now so quickened that the pastel-coloured paperbacks are almost as familiar on London Transport as free newspapers. Book One – in which two Neapolitan slum girls argue (inter alia) about Latin and Greek – has now culminated in Book Four (whose plot late-adopters may prefer not to know). Haas joins the admiration of a “magic” writer and considers too the critical response – from praise for a revival of the best of nineteenth-century realism to the view that the quartet could have been written only with the postmodern at its heart. The pseudonymous author herself, also like Virgil’s Fama, remains hidden from view with her head in the clouds.
As a Latinist, I always love Stothard’s classical references. But Fama can be fickle: in the Aeneid, IV.174, Fama is malum qua non velocius ullum (“an evil than which not any is faster”) as she spreads the rumor about Dido’s affair with Aeneas. In the case of Ferrante, Fama is more benevolent: she gossips happily about the Neapolitan tetralogy in The New York Times, the TLS, at many blogs (Heaven Ali has written about Ferrante), and at a public library book club with equal fervor. Whether Fama has done a good deed (surely not a bad deed) will be revealed by critics of the post-apocalyptic future. The Neapolitan novels tell the story of a rocky decades-long friendship between two women. (I blogged about My Brilliant Friend in 2013.) I haven’t read Haas’s essay yet: I can’t until I’ve read all four. I got up this morning and rushed out to buy the second, third, and fourth. I had to comb the store to find the last copy of The Story of the Lost Child.
I started the second book, The Story of a New Name. A shock of recognition rocked me when I read page 18. The heroine, Elena, who is angry and jealous of her best friend, Lila, destroys a box of eight notebooks Lila entrusted her with so her husband would not find them. Why does Elena destroy the notebooks?
I couldn’t stand feeling Lila on me and in me, even now that I was esteemed myself, even now that I had a life outside of Naples…. I placed the box on the parapet [of the Solferino bridge], and pushed it slowly, a little at a time, until it fell into the river, as if it were her, Lila in person, plummeting, with her thoughts, words, the malice with which she struck back at anyone, the way she appropriated me, as she did every person or thing or event or thought that touched her…”
After our friend D’s death, an artist friend and I did something similar.
When D was dying, she refused to let us visit her. Those she loved she now rejected. She allowed everyone else to visit, and I do mean everyone: a passive, pretty, shallow woman no one else liked (“D can dominate her,” the artist suggested), people she’d volunteered with, old neighbors, her lovely mother’s friends. She talked to us lucidly on the phone, but only on the phone. Hearing from others about her deterioration, we were devastated. At the end of her life, in pain, unable to swallow, her face puffy with steroids, she insisted that all personal things be removed from the room and she kicked out her husband. It was a furious death: she looked at the living and couldn’t believe she was the one who was dying.
The artist, with whom she’d gone to art school, and I, the freelance writer sidekick who had recommended her work to editors, had what she wanted. I understand this but I didn’t know death. People in novels are always dying in each other’s arms. D wouldn’t let anyone in the room.
She was a good poet who didn’t publish. A former neighbor who had known D since childhood paid for a vanity press publication of her poems. I wonder how D felt about this. I had seen her run her wheelchair angrily over a rejection letter.
The artist didn’t go to the funeral. I, eternal good girl, did. But we got together a few months later and burned our copies of the “vanity” book. I loved her poetry, but we were emotional wrecks. I kept the print-out copies of her poems. I sent them out to literary magazines. They were rejected.
She asked me near the end of her life (on the goddamned phone) if I thought a life spent reading was worthwhile.
I do. Serious as a marriage vow.
I think she was shattered that she didn’t have time to prove herself as an artist or a writer.
All that freelance writing: what did it mean? We should have gone to low-residency MFA programs. Poetry for her; nonficiton for me.
Sometimes I think of her when I read. I am sorry that she can’t read Ferrante’s novels, because she would have loved them.
As teachers we bonded in the lounge over Calvino’s Cosmicomics. We quit to become freelance writers. Although she was a paraplegic, she drove (I do not), and we used to go to the mall to shop at The Limited and Banana Republic. Then we drank coffee and discussed the books we shared: Cynthia Heimel’s humor book, Sex Tips for Girls, Sharon Olds’ poems, Donald Barthelme’s City Life, Raymond Carver’s short stories, Faith Sullivan’s The Cape Ann, Gail Godwin’s A Mother and Two Daughters, Sue Grafton’s mysteries, Philip Larkin, and Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl. We went to bookstores. Malls were much more wheelchair-friendly than the city places where I hung out.
One sees so many beautiful things as one grows older: landfills turning into prairies (though probably still not quite safe), urban trails that go past eerily beautiful closed factories and junkyards, the gorgeous blue blue lakes in Minnesota, pelicans, eagles, mountains, books.
Years after her death, a priest asked me about D’s loss of faith. I told him I knew nothing about it.