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.
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.