“Naples was the great European metropolis where faith in technology, in science, in economic development, in the kindness of nature, in history that leads of necessity to improvement, in democracy, was revealed, most clearly and far in advance, to be completely without foundation. To be born in that city–I went so far as to write once, thinking not of myself but of Lila’s pessimism– is useful for only one thing: to have always known, almost instinctively, what today, with endless fine distinctions, everyone is beginning to claim: that the dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare of savagery and death.”
- The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein
I would say that this fourth book is my least favorite so far, and yet it has just as many dog-eared pages as the rest of the series, marking lines that are delivered like a shot of champagne, like a punch to the kidney, like a sudden glimpse of the car of a dead friend. Before I read this series, I would have said that short sentences have more power, but although Ferrante scorns brevity and subtlety, there is not a single word that doesn’t feel essential. She forces you to connect the specific to the general, to try to draw patterns and connections and then to discard them against the chaotic forces of reality. This book, more than the other three, focuses on that chaos, narrating tragedy after tragedy, pushing nihilism and yet questioning it in the same breath.
I wanted more closure from this series, but I didn’t really expect it. Still, after four books you’d like things to tie up a little more neatly– but Ferrante is nothing if not honest. I respect her for that, even if I don’t always back Lena’s cynical, self-centered view of the world. Especially in this book, Lena’s the progressive, idealistic one, and this is the story of her ideals being knocked off of their pedestals one by one, so it makes sense that she’s jaded, or even blind to reality at times. Lila, who has always known that progress was a lie, takes a longer view, and it contains both hope and despair:
“Yes, Imma was consoled but only because Lila was introducing her to a permanent stream of splendors and miseries, a cyclical Naples where everything was marvelous and everything became gray and irrational and everything sparkled again, as when a cloud passes over the sun and the sun appears to flee, a timid, pale disk, near extinction, but now look, once the cloud dissolves it’s suddenly dazzling again, so bright you have to shield your eyes with your hand.”