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What distinguishes the novella from the novel is not length, but the pursuit of intensity rather than breadth. A novella is devastating or it is nothing; it must administer — as the title of one of my favorite examples of the genre, by Marguerite Yourcenar, has it — a coup de grâce. And the masters of the genre (I think first of Henry James or Thomas Mann) are always masters of form, for only the most fiercely controlled form can yield this effect of overwhelming intensity. The Lost Daughter was the third of Elena Ferrante’s published works of fiction, and the last before the celebrated “Neapolitan quartet” that’s brought her such acclaim (and which I still haven’t read — I’m taking her in chronological order). Like Ferrantes’ first two novels, The Days of Abandonment and Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter is narrated in the first person by an emotionally troubled protagonist, here named Leda, the better to enclose the reader in a claustrophobic disquiet you can see coming from the very first words: “I had been driving for less than an hour when I began to feel ill.” Naturally, the ailment in question is not entirely organic. Leda’s sense of disconnection from herself, her family, and everyone around has left her unmoored. On a seaside vacation in southern Italy, she becomes the obsessed observer of a family whose behavior brings back unwanted memories of the unrefined Neapolitan milieu in which she grew up and from which she escaped to decorous Florence. Little by little she is drawn into their lives…and that’s all I’ll say about the events depicted in the book, which are so simple, so seemingly inconsequential that only Ferrante’s great art can elicit their significance. Not sharing that art, I’ll forebear to recount the anecdote. Can a work of consequence really be constructed around an event no more momentous than a toddler’s loss of a doll? — but never mind, mum’s the word. Instead, I want to point out the incredible force of Ferrante’s prose (beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein), which harbors so much perturbing nuance beneath a surface of such apparent directness. I’ve often heard poets and writers talk of writing the body. Ferrante really does it. She excels at tracing the intimate monologue of the self, in which sensations become thoughts and thoughts become sensations, always vividly corporeal. Here’s Leda on her relations with her daughters: “I was always, in some way, the origin of their sufferings, and the outlet. They accused me silently or yelling. They resented the unfair distribution not only of obvious resemblances but of secret ones, those we become aware of later, the aura of bodies, the aura that stuns like a strong liquor. Barely perceptible tones of voice. A small gesture, a way of batting the eyelashes, a smile-sneer. The walk, the shoulder that leans slightly to the left, a graceful swing of the arms. The impalpable mixtures of tiny movements…” No one conveys those tiny movements like Ferrante. At the end, I find myself gulping for air.
Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, translated by Ann Goldstein (2008) is published by Europa Editions.