“I saw Lila for the last time five years ago, in the winter of 2005”.
FERRANTE starts the third book of her Neapolitan quartet with a burst of energy, bubbling to get on with things. She leaps forward, gathering her cast, her flock even, around her and is quickly revealing more of herself. The opening is the familiar device, an introductory come-on from further ahead in time, but then we are quickly back in a present tense with where we left off…her fledgling career as a writer has already begun to create ripples…
Separated from her great pal, she is more introvert, swept up in a tumult of revolutionary politics and early feminism, causes both that beckon from the desperation of her childhood. Our main engagement is in how others react to her fiction (which we have not read and can only guess second hand) and storms brewing (which are equally not articulated in any detail as yet), confronting her new Italy (“a confusion of space and time, of distant moods”) unfurling like a flag in front of her, pleading with her to believe what others believe, even to step up and grasp the emblem, to be what they want.
Beneath this runs an earnest girlish humanity: “I recalled the powerful emotion I had felt when I held the child in my arms and, since he didn’t calm down, I couldn’t restrain myself. I got up, and, following the trail of his wailing, reached a door through which light filtered. I knocked. Silvia answered rudely.”
Each chapterette has its own sting in the tail, like this one: “You acted the lady, bitch, and look what you have become.” Or a come on: “His clumsy gait, his flat feet, the tangle of his hair moved me.” It is more than enough to make the tea cups in Downton Abbey tremble and tinkle.
I worry how TV will deal with this masterpiece. Like other long dramas, there will be the temptation to shorten it, as Lena does for her own fiction, but that would dilute or spoil the grand vista and vision. Some of the hinges are just too intimate for the camera. The strength lies in the telling from inside the hem of the skirt, the sole of the slum, the page jacket of the academic book, the sand in the sandwich, the rattle of the train carriage, the sharp tongue of her mother, the unseen family intimacies, the latent undercurrent of sexualities, all of which will be invisible on camera.
There is a very dark passage, and we are more than 1, 000 pages into our story now, Lena is left to her own moody musings and the one thing she cannot share with Lila, sex. She has writers block. The text becomes note form. She did that, he did that etc. Was this perhaps an unconsummated book five? For a short period it is as if Elena F, author and Elena G, heroine are locked in some dreadful internal squabble, but then Lila snaps her out of it.
-“You must be mad!”
Ferrante is subtle in slipping in the nuances of the backdrop. This is as good a social history as you may find, she is better one suspects even than her own heroine, it is very believable, we walk down a frisson of real life.