In Book 4 of the Neapolitan Novels, The Story of the Lost Child we find Elena back in the old neighborhood in Naples living upstairs from Lila and her partner Enzo who run a business teaching Basic computer language. Elena finds living near Lila stimulating enough that she begins writing again. Sometimes it almost seems that without Lila Elena might not have been so successful. Lila is passionate about the Naples neighborhood and the people they have known since childhood.
For a while the cultural changes, the revolution of ideas around the role of the worker and the role of women in Italy and, indeed, the world had excited Elena and kept her busy writing, but as the movements calmed down and the excitement died down Elena had been flailing for new subject matter and her finances were dwindling. Back in Naples, she was inspired to write about the things Lila talked to her about. She betrayed a promise she had made to her friend that she would not write about her. Did this lead to the things that happened to the two friends? You will have to judge for yourself. Lila has a certain mental illness that attacks her from time to time that I have not previously mentioned. She still manages to command some power in the neighborhood, but one wonders how much her failures and her successes are affected by her periodic mental imbalances?
Here is Lila talking about the Solaras brothers who consider the neighborhood their person crime fiefdom and who have their fingers in every business, legal and illegal. Now that Elena has exposed them she is nervous about retribution.
“She [Lila] cited the experience of the earthquake, for more than two years she had done nothing except complain of how the city had deteriorated. She said that since then she had been careful never to forget that we are very crowded beings, full of physics, astrophysics, biology, religion, soul, bourgeoisie, proletariat, capital work, profit, politics, many nervous phrases, many unharmonious, the chaos inside and the chaos outside. So calm down she said laughing, what do you expect the Solaras to be. Your novel is done. You wrote it, you rewrote it, being there was evidently useful to you, to make it true, but now it’s out and you can’t take it back. The Solaras are angry? So what. Michele threatens you? Who gives a damn. There could be another earthquake at any moment, even stronger. Or the whole universe could collapse. And then what is Michele? Nothing. And Marcello is nothing. The two of them are merely flesh that spouts out threats and demands for money.”
Later we hear Elena’s disillusionment (although she claims it is Lila’s) with human societies, social change and human nature:
“To be born in that city. I went so far as to write once, thinking not of myself but of Lila’s pessimism, is to be 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 things Elena has observed from Naples and from Italy have led her to basically discard socialism, communism, and capitalism at least exclusively and individually as models for an economy that will not bring out the worst in people.
By Nancy Brisson
But while Elena is convinced of the brutality and filth of human interactions, Lila, who with her insider knowledge of that human filth and chaos that surrounds her in Naples, with the bitterness of a woman who lost a chance to study and perhaps rise above, as a mom who has lost her child, Lila is reading and writing on her own to remove the human tarnish from the beautiful landmarks of Naples and is showing us the beauty that people also create.
I cannot tell you about the lost child, but I have spent quite a while in and near Naples and, while I can’t say that I always enjoyed it, it has been “real”, a true gift to the reader of a generation of life in a poor corner of Naples. Don’t even pretend if you read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Books that these things only happen in Naples.