Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has been called scrittrice oscura: an “obscure writer” who never makes public appearances and uses a pen name. In 1991, when her debut novel was due to be published, in a letter to her publisher she wrote: “I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it.”
And in a recent interview, she talked to her editors about her writing practices, the female voice and the origins of her books. While the fourth and final of her Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child, published this month, is making its triumphant entrance, let’s return to La figlia oscura (2006), a precursor to the quartet, which, according to Ferrante, is the book she is “most painfully attached to.” Ann Goldstein, Ferrante’s regular translator, has chosen a nonliteral title for it, The Lost Daughter, replacing by “lost” the word that usually means “unclear” or “murky”, all the better to convey the multitude of meanings the original title encapsulates.
The “lost daughter” of the title has many incarnations: as a little girl who wanders away on a beach; as the narrator’s own daughter in a similar situation; as both of her daughters (now in their twenties), living far away and calling only when they need her; as Leda herself, who “didn’t start liking myself until I turned eighteen, when I left my family, my city.” Another interpretation of the title can be found in Nina, the mother of the girl lost on the beach, a beautiful young woman chosen by Leda as a mirror in which to scrutinize her own past life: “Choose for your companion an alien daughter. Look for her, approach her.”
The word “alien” (estraneo) reoccurs in Leda’s reflections when she dissects her feelings towards her daughters: “what I loved best in my daughters was what seemed alien to me.” The adjective used in the title, oscura, seldom appears in the novel. One of those few sentences reads: “I had seemed to her a free woman, independent, refined, courageous, with no hidden corners, but I had composed my answers to her anxious questions as exercises in reticence.” What is often “hidden” in the text are question marks, a feature preserved by the translator, as in this sentence: “How had I entered her life.”
Leda abandoned her daughters in “an obscure moment of my life” (the original reads opaco), leaving them for “three years and thirty-six days” before eventually returning to take care of them. Two decades later, she feels compelled to tell the story to strangers, someone she has met on a holiday beach and is unlikely to see again: a situation people often find themselves in, the crucial difference being that here the confession is prompted by alienation rather than closeness.
Leda hails from Naples, which after many years still exerts a pull on her. Her character is defined by people around her but would be incomplete without her relationship with language, delineated in a few precise strokes. She writes down the names her neighbors on the beach call each other because she likes the ways they are pronounced: “[Nina] talked to the child and her doll in the pleasing cadence of the Neapolitan dialect that I love.” The dialect loses its “pleasing cadence” whenever a character switches registers. In a scene that appears to be more disturbing than the circumstances—a child with a runny nose sulking over a lost doll—would warrant, Nina turns from idyllically perfect mother into a witch:
In a suddenly coarse dialect she hissed, Stop it, and resettled her daughter in her arms with a violent jerk, Stop it, I don’t want to hear you anymore, do you understand, I don’t want to hear you anymore, that’s enough of your demands, and she pulled the child’s dress down hard in front, over her knees, in a sharp gesture that she would have liked to aim at her body, not her clothes.
One episode has a Neapolitan woman “translating directly from dialect as she spoke;” the phrase “scassamenti di cazzo,” or “fucking waste of time,” makes you wonder what the actual saying might have been. Flipping the coin once again, the narrator remembers the way her own language is perceived by her daughters: “They cruelly mock the timbre of the dialect that surfaces from within the way I speak languages, or certain Neapolitan formulations that I use, Italianizing them. Fucking waste of time.” Ferrante always translates her characters’ speech into standard Italian, so as to distance them (and perhaps herself) even further from their native environment, a device at work in her other novels too.
Time and again, Leda’s thoughts return to language, which is by turns a source of joy and anxiety: “Languages for me have a secret venom that every so often foams up and for which there is no antidote.” In one scene, she acts as interpreter when the Neapolitans on the beach want to ask a group of foreigners to move over. After her intervention, “the air of friendliness returned.” Immediately after that, when she is approached with the same request, her response makes the atmosphere more tense than before.
Ferrante is at her best when speaking of the physical rapport between mothers and daughters, often described as “organisms.” The sexual side of things is always present: it begins with an erotic link between female bodies, one of which is “expelled” from the other, and goes on as the mother’s femininity is being poured into her daughter. Leda “had always considered sex an ultimate sticky reality,” but after a night with a man who made her feel worthy of attention (by citing her paper at a conference), she “was convinced that sex is an extreme product of the imagination.” Crucially, the man in question is English, and although their conversations are never recounted, it is tempting to imagine that it was the new language of intimacy that shaped Leda’s experience.
The linguistic play alternates with other games. Adults play with children as if they were toys, seeking gratification—or, at best, searching for themselves, only to find they have already been translated into their children. The children are occasionally allowed to play with the adults too, before being told off, even hit, as you learn from Leda’s confessions. After finding the lost child on the beach, the mother of two grown-ups takes the girl’s lost doll and then can’t bring herself to give it back; instead, she undresses it, puts new clothes on it, washes out her insides, before concluding that “a mother is only a daughter who plays.”
“I had experience with getting lost,” Leda remembers. When looking for the lost child, she is overwhelmed with possibilities: “It seemed to me that I was Elena, or Bianca when she was lost, but perhaps I was only myself as a child, climbing back out of oblivion.” While Goldstein’s choice of the word “lost” in the title is more than justified, it is the original title, with its dark, impenetrable motif, that, despite it all, has the ring of hope.