Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Story of the Lost Child: Elena Ferrante Retells the Myth of Lilith and Eve

Cover on the American edition of "Story of the Lost Child: Neopolitan Novel, Book Four" published in 2015.

Just finished the interminably long quartet of books by Elena Ferrante, part soap-opera, part chick-lit, but nonetheless an enchanting read for when you have two weeks with nothing else to do. 

I loved learning about Naples, and I had just read "The Italians" by John Hooper, so I had the cultural context for understanding the novel - I found Hooper's book helpful even though I am Italian - American; for a reader who isn't, I recommend a recent book on Italian culture so you will understand the layers of subtext in this sprawling novel of modern Italy.

Of course, one reason why I loved the story of Lila and Lenu so much is because Ferrante is telling the story of Lilith and Eve.  The Lilith she describes in this series is almost certainly a 3rd House Lilith.

Yet I noticed that many of the Amazon reviews were from readers who never really understood the story, or from those who thought it was way too long.  So I wrote a review to explain to readers what happens on the mythic level.


The key to understanding the final novel is that Elena Ferrante studied the classics, and this is her retelling of the myth of Lilith as Lila (note the similarity in the roots of both names), Eve as Lenu (who has to triumph in the end at any cost), and Adam as Nino Sarratore, the faithless philanderer who would be nothing without his women.

In “My Brilliant Friend”, Ferrante gives us the birth dates of both girls, and these are not insignificant – their horoscopes point to the archetype each girl will embody most. Lila is older, born August 11, 1944, with her Mars conjunct Lilith (making her a warrior at the head of armies), and her Venus conjunct the royal star Regulus (making her a sort of super-Aphrodite). Lenu is younger, born August 25, 1944, with her Sun conjunct Ceres – Ceres is the goddess who turns the world upside down on behalf of her daughter, Persephone, but who nonetheless spends six months each year living apart from her.

To understand Lila, you have to know the myth of Lilith, the shape-shifting first wife of Adam who created endless numbers of new forms, new ideas, new innovations, and endless numbers of children, all of whom were cursed, defective, or taken from her in some way. In “Those Who Leave”, Michele describes his intuition of Lilith residing in Lila’s mind.

“Lina has something alive in her mind that no one else has, something strong that jumps here and there and nothing can stop it, a thing that not even doctors can see and that I think not even she knows, even though it’s been there since she was born, a thing that if it doesn’t like you can cause you a lot of problems but, if it does, leaves everyone astonished.”

This Lilith residing in the mind of Lila is responsible for her mental illness (expressed as “dissolving borders” of people and objects she sees when under stress) and also for her incredible talents. This Lilith is also responsible for the damage done to Lila’s children – Rino is a learning disabled adult, and the striking, precocious Tina simply disappears without a trace. In fact, I will include a link to my blog article on Lilith in the mind, so that readers can understand how Lila embodies this character (I wrote this before Ferrante’s last book was published in English).

Lenu, her accomplice and wingman, has always felt herself in Lila’s shadow, despite the fact that Lenu becomes an elite author married into one of Italy’s most powerful families, and Lila remains a poorly educated peasant who rarely goes any farther than the city of Naples. In the Jewish myth of Lilith, Adam puts his first wife away for Eve, but in this retelling, Nino will not put away his wife for Lenu – she ends up a concubine, a woman with some legal rights who never achieves official wife status (for example, Nino recognizes her daughter, Imma, as his own, something he does for no other child sired outside his marriage). Thus, Lenu is even more motivated to see the scope of events in the narrative revolve around her, since she is determined to embody Eve, the most important woman in the Biblical story of creation.

Lenu is fascinating because she embodies two archetypes – Eve and Ceres. Like Ceres, Lenu has real parenting issues – if she isn’t away from her daughters half the year, focused on her own artistic creation and career recognition, with someone else, typically Lila, doing the work of taking care of them, Lenu isn’t happy.

Through her daughters, Lenu also relives the myth of Eve. In the Bible, Eve has three sons, and one son, Cain, kills the other son, Abel, while the third son, Seth, remains in the background. In this feminist retelling of Eve’s myth, Lenu has three daughters, and one daughter, Elsa, runs off with the other daughter’s boyfriend, necessitating Dede’s exile to America, similar to Cain’s banishment after killing Abel.

At the end of the novel, Lenu becomes obsessed with what Lila is writing – she wants one final manuscript (or creation) from Lilith that she can edit and shape and add her own byline to upon publication. No longer fertile in creativity herself, Lenu wants to take her friend’s work and pass it off as her own. But Lila foils her by disappearing the same way her daughter did, and instead sends her their childhood dolls, which Lila must have found while scavenging in the dank, filthy catacombs of Naples.

We don’t know what happens to Lila after that, only that she was at one point still alive in the literal underworld of Naples. But we shudder watching how Lenu justifies herself, trying desperately to ignore her guilt with regard to her Lila, whose capacity for manipulation was no less intense than Lenu’s instinct for coming out on top.

1 comment:

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