Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

She [Lila] answered: “Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.”

As summer draws to an end, I’ve been reading a couple of chunksters: one of my own choosing – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante – and one selected by a member of my book group; the latter shall remain nameless (for now at least) as I’m still deciding whether or not to review it. Anyhow, let’s return to the Ferrante…

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the third volume in Elena Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels. As I’ve already reviewed the first two books in the series (My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name) in detail, I’m going to cover book three more briefly, especially as some of you may be reading the earlier volumes at the moment.

Warning: In order to review this third volume, I need to mention a few details from the first two books and the third novel, too.

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This third instalment in the series picks up where book three left off: the period is the late sixties, and Elena and Lila are in their early twenties. Elena’s first novel has just been published and Nino Sarratore is back in her life (albeit briefly), coming to her aid when a critic attacks her work. Despite the fleeting reappearance of Nino, Elena goes ahead with her marriage to Pietro, a rather dull but steady junior Professor and the couple settle down to life in Florence. Elena’s novel is a commercial success, but critical responses are mixed; one critic describes it as ‘a cheap version of the already vulgar Bonjour Tristesse.’ Harsh words indeed.

Elena struggles to write especially once children arrive, and she feels trapped by her marriage, isolated by a decline in her relationship with Pietro and the demands of motherhood. Having recently read The Days of Abandonment, I can now see clear links between the Neapolitan novels and the raw candour of Ferrante’s earlier work (there are other quotes I could include here, but I’d like to avoid revealing too much about the plot):

I felt abandoned but with the impression that I deserved it; I wasn’t capable of providing tranquillity for my daughter. Yet I kept going, doggedly, even though I was more and more frightened. My organism was rejecting the role of mother. And no matter how I denied the pain in my leg by doing everything possible to ignore it, it had returned and was getting worse. But I persisted, I wore myself out taking charge of everything. […] I thought: I’m becoming ugly and old before my time, like the women of the neighbourhood. And naturally, just when I was particularly desperate, Lila telephoned. (pg. 240 Europa Editions).

Meanwhile, Lila becomes involved in a left-wing movement, and the novel has much to say about the socio-political turmoil and unrest in Italy at the time (specifically The Years of Lead). In this scene, Lila describes the repressive and abusive conditions in the sausage factory in which she works:

Can you imagine, she asked, what it means to spend eight hours a day standing up to your waist in the mortadella cooking water? Can you imagine what it means to have your fingers covered with cuts from slicing the meat off animal bones? […]The women have to let their asses be groped by supervisors and colleagues without saying a word. If the owner feels the need, someone has to follow him into the seasoning room; his father used to ask for the same thing, maybe also his grandfather; and there, before he jumps all over you, that same owner makes you a tired little speech on how the odor of salami excites him. […] The union has never gone in, and the workers are nothing but poor victims of blackmail, dependant on the law of the owner, that is: I pay you and so I possess you and I possess your life, your family and everything that surrounds you, and if you don’t do what I say, I’ll ruin you. (pgs. 121-122)

Essentially, though, Those Who Leave focuses on Elena and the development of her character during the period, her direction and ambitions in life, and naturally a comparison with Lila is never far away:

Become. It was a verb that had always obsessed me, but I realized it for the first time only in that situation. I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition. I had wanted to become something – here was the point – only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her. (pgs. 346-347)

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is another very good instalment in this epic story, perhaps not quite as compelling as the first two novels, but a necessary step in the overall journey from the girls’ childhood to middle age. That said, Ferrante’s writing is as rich in detail as ever, and the stage is most definitely set for a terrific fourth (and final) novel…but we shall have to wait until 2015 for that one to be published. I for one am looking forward to it immensely.

Tony Malone (at Tony’s Reading List) has also reviewed this book.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is published in the UK by Europa Editions. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

17 thoughts on “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

  1. hastanton

    Great review of a fab book….I actually liked it as much as the other ones despite the change in tone. Shame you couldn’t come along on Tuesday evening , it was a v interesting discussion. I will ‘write it up’ tomorrow !! Been a bit busy at my ‘day job’ :))

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Helen. I found it quite difficult to review this one as it’s essentially the third instalment in one extended narrative, and my review is a little sketchy, I think. I did enjoy it, loved the politics, but I would have liked a bit more of the fire that came from the interactions between Elena and Lila in the earlier novels…and I missed the hustle of the neighbourhood, too. There’s a lot of introspection/self-reflection from Elena in book three, which is interesting as she enters a different phase of her life, but I wonder if the author is starting to circle around the same or very similar themes. My Brilliant Friend remains my favourite, with New Name a close second (although I might be out on a limb there as I’m aware that you and quite a few others considered book two even better than the first). Nevertheless, everything seems in place for a terrific final instalment!

      So sorry I couldn’t some along to Tuesday’s event and it sounds as if I missed a great evening. I’m really looking forward to reading your write-up!

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    I like the concept of the of Neapolitan novels. Following characters throughout life in a series is fascinating to me and the characters sound very compelling here.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Brian. It’s a difficult one to review without revealing too much about the plot, so in the end I decided to focus on just a couple of themes. It is interesting to follow the characters to see how they develop through the series, and Ferrante captures this very well. It’s a big commitment as a reader though as they’re long books! I found the first two books especially compelling, and everything looks set for a very interesting final instalment.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      That could be a good way to go with this series as I was desperate to read the next instalment once I reached the end of both My Brilliant Friend and New Name. Although having said that, the story doesn’t end with book three as there’s a fourth (and final) instalment due next year. I think it was originally intended to be a trilogy, but it seems to have been extended somewhere along the way.

      I’ll be very interested to see how you get on with them. You might want something short and punchy to read alongside or after as they’re pretty expansive.

      Reply
  3. Scott W.

    I’m not really responding to what you’ve written about this book, but: I read Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment with a mixture of admiration for the writing and a desperate desire to be done with the thing as soon as possible given its relentless, claustrophobic focus on the character’s emotional state. I’m reading a lot of Italian stuff at the moment, including some works that take place in Naples, and I’ve wondering whether this “Neapolitan” trilogy gets out of that claustrophobia and wanders the streets a bit. Does it give you any sense of Naples and Neapolitan life itself?

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, I know what you mean about The Days of Abandonment; Olga’s descent and the intensity of events in the apartment really added to the power of the book for me, but it made for a very claustrophobic and disturbing read. I thought it an unforgettable (and extraordinary) book, but my word it was full-on.

      The Neapolitan novels are somewhat different to Abandonment. They’re much broader in scope and not claustrophobic or contained, and they do give a vivid sense of life in 1950s/1960s Naples seen through the prism of family life and the relationship between the two lead characters, Elena and Lila. The first book is especially strong on the violence and visceral nature of life in the Naples neighbourhood, and it does convey a sense of the tension between families and the impact of a changing economic environment. It’s there in the first half of second novel too, but somewhat less so as the focus shifts to Elena’s search for love. The third book touches on the socio-political backdrop of the period and some of the turmoil and uprisings associated with the Years of Lead, and if anything I would have liked more development of this theme as it added a different spark to the narrative pushing it into new territory.

      They’re great books, but they are quite a big commitment as the series is essentially one extended story. And once you start, it might be difficult to stop; cliffhangers at the end of the first two books left me eager to get to the next instalments, and I’m in for the long haul now.

      Does this help at all? What I’m much less sure of is whether there are other books that give a different or better sense of Naples and life in the city. What else are you reading on the Italian front?

      Reply
      1. Scott W.

        Thanks, Jacqui, this helps a great deal. I’m somewhat relieved to hear that the books depart from that claustrophobia of the earlier novel. Her following the same characters serially over a period of post-war decades reminds me of the 8-hour Italian film The Best of Youth – have you seen that? Not sure if the comparison is apt, but I found that a mesmerizing film despite its length.

        I’ve read a few works that convey a memorable sense of Naples – Laurent Gaudé’s La Porte des enfers, Curzio Malaparte’s unforgettable The Skin, and a novel I’m just starting, about the castrati, by French baroque historian Dominique Fernandez (another non-fiction work of his about Naples that I read recently and loved is La Ville sous le volcan). Other than that, I’m reading a lot of Sicilian writers and trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to make my way through a Dino Buzzati children’s book in Italian. But having read Manzoni, Dante and Ariosto in the past year, I’ve apparently caught some kind of Italian bug. Oh, and I’m about 50 pages away from the end of Elsa Morante’s History.

        Reply
        1. jacquiwine Post author

          Glad to hear this helps, Scott. I’d be keen to hear what you think of the Neapolitan novels if you do decide to give them a whirl (but I appreciate they’re a huge commitment and investment of time).

          No, I haven’t seen The Best of Youth, but I just looked it up and it sounds terrific. I wonder whether it might give a richer feel for Italian history than Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but I can see the similarities in the way it follows two main characters over a number of decades. I’ll see if I can hold of it although it doesn’t appear to be available on the DVD rental service we use. I might have to hunt around a bit.

          Looking at the books you mention (great selection, by the way, many of which are new to me), I’m very interested in Malaparte’s The Skin as I first noticed it when NYRB published it last year. I’ve had it in my hand in bookshops but never quite made it to the till; that may have to change now you’ve described it as unforgettable. Unforgettable in a good way I take it?

          Also, it’s interesting you should mention Elsa Morante’s History as Caroline asked if I’d ever read her. She wondered if there might be similarities between Morante’s work and Ferrante’s Neapolitans, certainly in terms of scope…and when I searched on Morante, History was the novel that caught my eye. How have you found it?

          I can see this Ferrante post (and book blogging in general) is going to cost me rather a lot of money!

          Reply
          1. Scott W.

            Regarding The Skin, I’m hesitant to say whether it’s “unforgettable in a good way,” since there are some truly horrific things in it. But as a portrait of Naples during the initial post-war occupation by the Allies, it’s completely riveting, and Malaparte’s style is inimitable – a deliberate use of exaggeration and even mendacity that leaves the reader with the realization that the realities and truths had to be equally awful and probably worse. It’s a great book – clear-eyed, superbly informed and broad, at once history, reportage, and novel.

            Morante’s History is a monster of a book, both in length and in the toll it takes on reading about the nitty-gritty of life in Rome during WWII – talk about a commitment. It brings to mind for me Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate. It also offers a perspective on the experiences of women in WWII that makes me realize how much that has been lacking in many novels of the war that I’ve read.

            And yes, reading literary blogs can significantly impact one’s book budget…

            Reply
            1. jacquiwine Post author

              Oh, “good” was definitely not the right word for me to have used in the context of that question; I should have asked if was unforgettable in a worthwhile or insightful way, something along those lines. You’ve got to the heart of what I was getting at though, and it sounds unmissable, especially given your description of Malaparte’s style and clear-eyed approach. Thank you.

              The Morante sounds amazing, really interesting, and it might make a good comparison with Ferrante’s Neapolitans. One for next year, I think (and thankfully our library network has a copy). Cheers, Scott – that’s very helpful indeed.

              Reply
  4. Caroline

    I’ve read one of her earlier novels and loved it. It hasn’t been translated yet, I think. (I can’t remember the title at the moment). I was waiting for all three novels to be out to start it.
    It sure is a commitment, as you say.
    Have you read Elsa Morante? She’s an earlier riter but the scope is huge in her books too and that’s what makes them so fascinating.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I’ll be very interested to hear how you find Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels as they are somewhat different to her earlier ones. I’m wondering which one you might have read…I think there’s one book waiting to be translated.

      I haven’t read Elsa Morante, but she sounds fascinating and I can see the similarities in terms of scope and ambition. Thanks for the recommendation.

      Reply
  5. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  6. Tony

    Yeah, good but not really up there with the first two books – I think stretching it to four instead of three might have diluted the quality of this one. I’m sure the final one will be good, though ;)

    Reply

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