As a literary look at motherhood, Elena Ferrante’s novel ‘La figlia oscura'/‘The Lost Daughter’ is remarkable. It goes much deeper than the main character’s difficulty with being a 21st-century professional woman and mother. Her problems are not the sort that can be solved by a husband’s agreement to take it upon himself to wash up after dinner or to put the cat out at bedtime. The novel touches love-hate in the cruelest of manners, love-hate of a mother for her offspring, for her own body, and, even, for the thoughts of her own mind. It goes so far as to illuminate the darkest corner of all: What is it like for a mother to abandon her children? Not what it is like for society. We know what society from top to bottom thinks of such mothers. But what it is like for the mother herself.
Forty-eight-year-old Elena—Leda for her mother—gives an account of a crucial several weeks of her life. You could call it an interior monologue. It melds smoothly the trivial with questions Elena can answer and others that she cannot. Events of the day are absorbed in the flow. The very private inner voice, paradoxically, gives us a novel of action complete with suspense.
Elena is spending time by herself on a southern Italian beach. She has driven down from Florence where she lives and teaches. She will gradually unpack her baggage for us. Like everyone’s, it is a load to carry. She was born in Naples in a milieu she always strived to get above and away from. She felt she had succeeded, marrying a man from Calabria who was on something of the same trajectory, studying, working, and making her life in the north of Italy.
Let us digress a moment. In the Italian national reality and imagination, Naples has a unique place. The city is heavy with history, a usurped capital endowed with everything we think of as Italian enhanced to such a degree as to become an ur-Italy with its own norms, mythology and language. All this has been evoked in Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels, which she considers one long Bildungsroman. ‘La figlia oscura’/‘The Lost Daughter’ stands on its own. But the protagonists of both are inseparable from the particular tension between Naples and the rest of Italy. Elena’s move to Florence in her youth was not like a Yorkshire woman’s to London or a young person’s from Cherbourg to Paris. It wasn’t like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s coming from Saint Paul, Minnesota to New York City. Elena brought a truculent, ancient way of life into what in many ways was hostile territory,
Elena is installed for the summer in a small-town hotel by the sea, ominously in the orbit of Naples. She finds a stretch of beach that suits her. A university lecturer, she intends to swim, absorb the sun and prepare her courses for the year to come. However, she is soon distracted by doings on the beach. Her curiosity is riveted on the power struggle within a clannish Neapolitan family. She has her favorites among them and those she disapproves of. Watching and listening she is returned to her beginnings among similar people. A pregnant woman and a young mother with a child make her think of her two daughters now grown up and far away. Elena’s monologue is enriched by the way she follows each of her impulses, even those that lead to more unanswerable questions to ask herself.
With her books and educated speech, Elena is treated with cool respect by the clan family. The translator strains to deal with the subtle way Ferrante alternates the use of dialect and standard Italian in Elena’s talk with these people. Each shift from one language to another is full of meaning. Her account continues fraught with her uncertainties. In the face of the young mother’s intrigue and suffering, Elena relives the tumultuous years of her own life. At one point she could not cope with her two small daughters, a university job gone wrong, and a husband she no longer loved. She abandoned her children.
When she tells the Neapolitan women about this they are profoundly shocked. They ask Elena whether it didn’t make her despairingly unhappy. When she says no, their shock doubles and she’s seen as a monster. Elena explains that free of the weight of her situation, she felt for the first time that she had found herself. When she adds that after three years she took up her role of mother again, her listeners are not appeased. She did feel pained to be without her daughters, but she won’t deny the fact that she had to be away from them those three years to survive as a person.
The dialogue here is electric. Asked, “You didn’t see them for three years?…And how did you feel without them?” “Good,” says Elena. “It was as if my whole self had crumbled, and the pieces were falling freely in all directions with a sense of contentment.” “You didn’t feel sad?” “No…I was like someone who is taking possession of her own life, and feels a host of things at the same time, among them an unbearable absence”….”If you felt good why did you go back?”… “Because I realised that I wasn’t capable of creating anything of my own that could truly equal them” .…”So you returned for love of your daughters.” “No, I returned for the same reason I left: for love of myself”.
The women know nothing of what Elena is telling the reader, how the temperaments of the two girls and meeting their needs presented a constant struggle for her. Motherhood was and remained as bitter as it was sweet, even now with her daughters become autonomous adults.
Elena who seems so professorial and rational is then led by a deep instinct to pose the strangest of acts. It leaves the Neapolitans of the beach and Elena herself bewildered. This is a novel saturated with maternal impulses but not those usually on display.
Elena Ferrante: ‘La figlia oscura’, 2008 , Roma, Edizioni e/o, 141 pages, ISBN 978-88-7641-992-8.
Elena Ferrante: ‘The Lost Daughter’, translated by Ann Goldstein, 2008, New York, Europa Editions, 140 pages, ISBN 978-1-933372-42-6.