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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.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (review)

I’ve already reviewed My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, the first two books in Elena Ferrante’s recent series of Neapolitan novels. The Days of Abandonment, a stand-alone novel, was first published in Italy in 2002 and translated into the English in 2005.

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The Days of Abandonment is narrated by Olga, a thirty-eight-year-old woman originally from Naples, now living in Turin. She has been married to Mario for fifteen years, and they have two young children, Ilaria and Gianni. In a quietly devastating opening paragraph, Mario informs Olga that he wants to leave her:

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink. (p. 9, Europa Editions)

At first, Olga is convinced that Mario isn’t serious; after all, this has happened before. Six months after the couple got together, Mario suddenly announced that he no longer wished to see Olga, only to return five days later claiming ‘there had come upon him a sudden absence of sense.’

Consequently, in the early stages of their separation, Olga continues to behave affectionately towards Mario ‘ready to sustain him in his obscure crisis’ as he returns periodically to visit the children. But Olga soon feels a sharp animosity growing inside her, a bitterness only heightened when she learns Mario has left her for another woman, and her demeanour starts to alter:

I began to change. In the course of a month I lost the habit of putting on makeup carefully. I went from using a refined language, attentive to the feelings of others, to a sarcastic way of expressing myself, punctuated by coarse laughter. Slowly, in spite of my resistance, I also gave in to obscenity.

Obscenity came to my lips naturally; it seemed to me that it served to communicate to the few acquaintances who still tried coldly to console me that I was not one to be taken in by fine words. As soon as I opened my mouth I felt the wish to mock, smear, defile Mario and his slut. I hated the idea that he knew everything about me while I knew little or nothing of him. (pg. 26)

In an effort to calm herself, Olga begins to re-examine her relationship with Mario in the minutest detail in an attempt to understand where she has gone wrong and why her husband has left. But it’s not long before her need to self-analyse gives way to feelings driven by resentment and rage:

A tangle of resentments, the sense of revenge, the need to test the humiliated power of my body were burning up any residue of good sense.  (pg. 48)

As Olga struggles to maintain a grip on her life, those around her bear the brunt of her frustrations; she strikes out at Mario, strangers who cross her path, and she comes perilously close to abandoning her children in the gardens of the local museum (near a statue of Pietro Micca):

And I began to shout that, if in their opinion I was no good, they should go to him [their father], there was a new mother, beautiful and smart, certainly from Turin, I would bet she knew everything about Pietro Micca and that city of kings and princesses, of haughty people, cold people, metal automatons. I screamed and screamed, out of control. (pg. 65)

And a few lines later:

Ah yes, I wished to wound them, my children, I wished to wound above all the boy, who already had a Piedmontese accent, Mario, too, spoke like a Turinese now, he had eliminated the Neapolitan cadences utterly. Gianni acted like an impudent young bull, I detested it, he was growing up foolish and presumptuous and aggressive, eager to shed his own blood or that of others in some uncivilized conflict, I couldn’t bear it any more.

I left them in the gardens, beside the fountain, and set out quickly along Via Galileo Ferraris, toward the suspended figure of Victor Emmanuel II, a shadow at the end of parallel lines of buildings, high up against a slice of warm cloudy sky. Maybe I really wanted to abandon them forever, forget about them, so that when Mario finally showed up again I could strike my forehead and exclaim: your children? I don’t know. I seem to have lost them: the last time I saw them was a month ago, in the gardens of the Cittadella.

After a little I slowed down, turned back. What was happening to me. I was losing touch with those blameless creatures, they were growing distant, as if balanced on a log floating away upon the flow of the current. Get them back, take hold of them again, hug them close: they were mine. (pgs 65-66)

From here, Olga descends into a deep depression and finds herself staring, falling even, into the darkest recesses of a terrible abyss. There is an excruciating scene in which she seeks sex with one of her neighbours, not out of any feelings of desire (in fact she finds this man quite repulsive) but out of a desperate need to negate the insult of being deserted by Mario.

Tormented by thoughts of Mario and his new life, Olga is unable to think clearly or concentrate on anything else. Confusion and disorientation reign as this woman’s previously ordered life crumbles around her. Having neglected to pay the bill she finds the phone is no longer working; ants infest her apartment, and there are a couple of scenes involving door locks which I’ll avoid discussing for fear of revealing further details about this section of Olga’s story.

I had only to quiet the view inside, the thoughts. They got mixed up, they crowded in on one another, shreds of words and images, buzzing frantically, like swarms of wasps, they gave to my gestures a brute capacity to do harm. (pg. 93)

While the title, The Days of Abandonment, clearly refers to Mario’s desertion of Olga, there’s also a sense that the phrase refers to Olga’s surrender to her own state of mind:

Something in my senses wasn’t working. An interruption of feeling, of feelings. Sometimes I abandoned myself to it, at times I was frightened…I didn’t know how to find answers to the question marks, every possible answer seemed absurd. I was lost in the where am I, in the what am I doing. I was mute beside the why. (pg. 107)

At various stages of her abandonment Olga is hounded by her memories of a once contented woman from her Neapolitan childhood, a woman whose husband ran away to Pescara for the love of another. This woman’s husband ‘had abandoned her, had cancelled her out from memory and feeling’ leaving her with nothing, not even her name; she became known as the ‘poverella,’ a poor woman torn to pieces by the loss of her husband. At one stage, Olga even questions her own identity as she struggles to separate reality from the imaginary: is she becoming the ‘poverella’ of her childhood?

Occasionally though, Olga regains a sense of proportion, a feeling that she can recover from this terrible experience and pull herself out of this place. Will she succeed? Well, that’s not for me to say, but if you read this exceptional novel, you’ll find out for yourself.

I was expecting The Days of Abandonment to be very good, but it is extraordinarily good. This is no-holds-barred fearless writing, a novel that delves deeply into the human psyche. Ferrante writes with devastating candour, exploring our perceptions of a woman, a mother with responsibilities, who finds herself face-to-face with a crisis. The story is shocking and violent in places, and the language explicit at times, but my word it feels necessary to convey the intensity of Olga’s story. A disturbing, but utterly unforgettable and compelling book, admirably translated by Ann Goldstein.

Biblibio and Tony Malone have also reviewed this novel, which I read as part of August’s Women in Translation #WITMonth, championed by Biblibio.

The Days of Abandonment (tr. Ann Goldstein) is published in the UK by Europa Editions. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

A month or so ago, I reviewed My Brilliant Friend, the first volume in a series of Neapolitan novels by the Italian writer Elena Ferrante. This vibrant story, set in 1950s Naples, shows us the lives of two young girls, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, from childhood through adolescence, ending when the two girls are sixteen. It’s a sweeping, epic tale with the feel of a modern classic. Superbly translated by Ann Goldstein, the book paints a rich and nuanced portrait of Elena and Lila’s friendship through the years. In this post, I’ll be focusing on the second book in the series, The Story of a New Name, in which we follow Elena and Lila from the end of their adolescence to their early twenties.

WARNING: In order to review this second volume, I have to reveal the ending of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend and events in the opening 50 pages of New Name (this book runs to 480 pages).

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The Story of a New Name opens as Elena recalls the time in 1966 when Lila entrusts to her care a box containing eight notebooks. Lila, afraid that her husband might find her notebooks, can no longer conceal them at home. Despite promising not to open the box, Elena cannot help resist the temptation to read Lila’s notebooks – not a diary as such, but detailed accounts of the events of her life, exuding the ‘force of seduction that Lila had given off since she was a child’. (These pages also provide us, the readers, with a useful summary of some of the key episodes in My Brilliant Friend.) Elena studies Lila’s account of events for weeks, focusing on passages that thrill, hypnotise and humiliate her. In the end, she is frustrated by the experience and decides to take action:

Finally, one evening in November, exasperated, I went out carrying the box. I couldn’t stand feeling Lila on me and in me, even now that I was esteemed myself, even now I that I had a life outside of Naples. I stopped on the Solferino bridge to look at the lights filtered through a cold mist. I placed the box on the parapet and pushed it slowly, a little at a time, until it fell into the river, as if it were her, Lila in person, plummeting, with her thoughts, words, the malice with which she struck back at anyone, the way she appropriated me, as she did every person or thing or event or thought that touched her: books and shoes, sweetness and violence, the marriage and the wedding night, the return to the neighbourhood in the new role of Signora Raffaella Carracci. (pg. 18)

We return to the drama of Lila’s wedding to Stefano Carracci, owner of the neighbourhood grocery stores. It soon becomes clear that Lila’s marriage (at the age of sixteen) is already over before the close of her wedding day. She learns that Stefano has been forced to enter into a business partnership with the influential and brash Solara family in order to protect the future of the Cerullo shoe business (managed by Lila’s father and brother). Lila despises the Solara brothers, Marcello and Michele, and is livid with Stefano for forging a connection between the two families. Lila and her new husband continue to quarrel and return from honeymoon after only four days. When Elena next sees Lila she learns of the traumatic start to her friend’s life as a married woman; Lila is wearing dark sunglasses and a scarf to cover the bruises on her face, the result of beatings from her husband, and she appears resigned to her fate:

We had grown up thinking that a stranger must not even touch us, but that our father, our boyfriend, and our husband could hit us when they liked, out of love, to educate us, to reeducate us. As a result, since Stefano was not the hateful Marcello but the young man to whom she had declared her love, whom she had married, and with whom she had had decided to live forever, she assumed complete responsibility for her choice. And yet it didn’t add up. In my eyes Lila was Lila, not an ordinary girl of the neighbourhood. Our mothers, after they were slapped by their husbands, did not have that expression of calm disdain. They despaired, they wept, they confronted their man sullenly, they criticized him behind his back, and yet, more or less, they continued to respect him (my mother, for example, plainly admired my father’s devious deals). Lila instead displayed an acquiescence without respect. (pg. 53)

At the heart of this narrative is the depth and intensity of Elena’s relationship with the brilliant Lila. In this scene, Elena recaptures some of the joy of her childhood with Lila as the she helps her friend create a dazzling piece of art for display in the Solara’s glamorous new shoe shop in the city:

Before our astonished and, in the cases of some, openly hostile eyes, she cut strips of black paper, with the manual precision she had always possessed, and pinned them here and there to the photograph, asking for my help with slight gestures or quick glances.

I joined in with the devotion that I had felt ever since we were children. Those moments were thrilling, it was a pleasure to be beside her, slipping inside her intentions, to the point of anticipating her. I felt that she was seeing something that wasn’t there, and that she was struggling to make us see it, too. I was suddenly happy, feeling the intensity that invested her, that flowed through her fingers as they grasped the scissors, as they pinned the black paper. (pg. 119)

But Elena’s feelings for her friend are bound up in a tangle of emotions, often contradictory to one another. As in the previous novel, she is constantly reflecting, self-analysing and comparing herself to Lina. Deep down Elena fears that she is not as attractive or as talented as her friend, and she may be consigned to remain in Lila’s shadow:

I was afraid that, whatever she wore, her beauty would explode like a star and everyone would be eager to grab a fragment of it. I was afraid that she would express herself in dialect, that she would say something vulgar, that it would become obvious that school for her had ended with an elementary-school diploma. I was afraid that, if she merely opened her mouth, everyone would be hypnotized by her intelligence and Professor Galiani herself would be entranced. (pg. 151)

As with the first book, Ferrante brings the same sense of passion and vitality to The Story of a New Name. She presents a vivid and detailed picture of this working-class neighbourhood of Naples with its shoemakers, grocers and pastry makers. We see the tensions and rivalries between families, ferocious arguments over love, money, power and reputation in the community. We follow individuals as they try to break away from the constraints of their background. Elena tries to achieve this through education, while the Solaras, Carraccis and Cerullos aim to better themselves through investment in their grocery and shoe businesses.

Another key strand in The Story of a New Name is Elena’s search for love. Since childhood, she has been attracted to Nino Sarratore, another brilliant and self-assured student from the neighbourhood. She feels thrilled to be in his company, enthused by their debates and discussions. Nino seems to be attracted to Elena, too, but the path to true love never runs smoothly and other forces run the risk of disrupting their budding relationship.

As with My Brilliant Friend, this second novel ends with a key event, a meeting that has the potential to alter the life of at least one of the two friends, possibly both. Once again, it left me desperate to read the next instalment in this utterly compelling story…and the English translation of book three in the series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, is due to be published in the UK in September 2014.

Tony Malone and Tony Messenger have also reviewed The Story of a New Name.

I’ve reviewed this book in August to tie in with Women in Translation (#WITMonth), championed by Biblibio.

The Story of a New Name is published in the UK by Europa Editions. Source: library copy.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

Earlier this year, I read (and loved) My Brilliant Friend, the first in a series of Neapolitan novels by the Italian writer Elena Ferrante. She’s one of Italy’s leading contemporary writers, but her true identity remains something of a mystery.

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My Brilliant Friend begins in the present day as Elena, a woman in her mid-sixties, receives a phone call from Rino, the son of her lifelong friend Lila (known to others as Lina). Lila has vanished, taking all her personal belongings with her. Elena, who narrates the story, recalls ‘it’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace and I’m the only one who knows what she means’. To Elena, it appears as though her friend wants to ‘eliminate the entire life that she has left behind’, so much so that Elena beings to document the story of their lives – ‘We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself.’ (Europa Editions)

From this compelling opening, we travel back in time to Naples in the 1950s where Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo meet in the first grade of elementary school. Elena is immediately intrigued by Lila’s confidence, determination and wildness, and is drawn to her from an early stage in their relationship. It’s almost as though Lila possesses a powerful (and possibly dangerous) aura, one that Elena finds hard to resist:

Already then there was something that kept me from abandoning her. I didn’t know her well; we had never spoken to each other, although we were constantly competing in class and outside it. But in a confused way I felt that if I ran away with the others I would leave her with something of mine that she would never give back. (Europa Editions)

Elena is clever, diligent, accommodating and eager to excel in school. But Lila quickly reveals herself to be fiercely intelligent; despite her impoverished background, she taught herself to read at the age of three and is now ahead of her classmates, Elena included. Elena devotes herself to studying, just so that she ‘could keep pace with that terrible, dazzling girl’. Lila triumphs in school competitions, her quickness of mind is ‘like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite’, and Elena feels destined to remain in the shadow of her friend:

Lila, too, at a certain point had seemed very beautiful to me. In general I was the pretty one, while she was skinny, liked a salted anchovy, she gave off an odour of wildness, she had a long face, narrow at the temples, framed by two bands of smooth black hair. But when she decided to vanquish both Alfonso and Enzo, she had lighted up like a holy warrior. Her cheeks flushed, the sign of a flame released by every corner of her body, and for the first time I thought: Lila is prettier than I am. So I was second in everything. I hoped that no one would ever realise it. 

Regardless of the fact that Elena feels somewhat outshone by Lila, the two girls develop a close bond over a shared love of books. Born into a tough, working-class environment, they see education as a potential means of escape from their neighbourhood in later life. There’s a key moment in their final year of elementary school when the girls are encouraged to take the exam for entry to middle school. Elena’s parents agree to pay for extra schooling to prepare her for the exam, but Lila’s do not. Elena enters middle school while Lila leaves to work in her father’s shoe shop and workshop. While helping in the family trade, Lila imagines another route away from the poverty of her childhood. She produces designs for new shoes, beautiful and unique models (these are Lila’s ideas, after all), and she dreams of establishing a Cerullo shoe factory with her father and brother. For a time, the girls drift apart but are soon reconciled. Lila’s thirst for knowledge returns and she encourages Elena to bring her Latin books and to study with her; Lila continues to read, even teaching herself other languages ahead of Elena, despite having missed out on the opportunity to attend middle school herself.

This first book in the Neapolitan novels follows Elena and Lila’s relationship from childhood through adolescence and ends when the two girls are sixteen. Ferrante brings tremendous vibrancy, passion and depth to Elena and Lila’s characters; we see how each conversation, each encounter leads to a subtle change in the dynamics of their relationship. Elena is constantly reflecting, analysing and questioning herself, comparing her intellectual, emotional and physical development to that of her closest friend.

There are many times when Elena feels Lila is already ahead or about to overtake her:

Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me? She eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels to pass me by?

Every day I felt more strongly the anguish of not being in time. I was afraid, coming home from school, of meeting her and learning from her melodious voice that now she was making love with Peluso. Or if it wasn’t him, it was Enzo. Or if it wasn’t Enzo, it was Antonio. Or, what do I know, Stefano Carracci, the grocer, or even Marcello Solara: Lila was unpredictable. The males who buzzed around her almost men, full of demands. 

But at other times, Elena convinces herself that Lila is the one being left behind:

Sometimes I even had the impression that it was Lila who depended on me and not I on her. I had crossed the boundaries of the neighbourhood, I went to the high school, I was with boys and girls who were studying Latin and Greek, and not, like her, with construction workers, mechanics, cobblers, fruit and vegetable sellers, grocers, shoemakers. 

This wonderful novel, admirably translated by Ann Goldstein, has the feel of a classic. It is broad, almost cinematic in scope with a vast cast of characters, many of whom I haven’t even mentioned yet. Alongside the Grecos and the Cerullos, we meet the members of seven other families and their characters add richness and more layers to the narrative.

Ferrante describes Naples in the 1950s and early 1960s with vivid detail. The city is undergoing political and economic development, still struggling to establish itself following the wars. The neighbourhood in this story is a violent place, one governed by unwritten rules and family rivalries fuelled by tensions over love, money and reputation in the community. Men typically occupy the most powerful roles in the family. Fights and incidents of domestic abuse are commonplace:

At the Bar Solera, in the heat, between gambling losses and troublesome drunkenness, people often reached the point of disperazione – a word that in dialect meant having lost all hope but also being broke – and hence of fights…Blows were given and received. Men returned home embittered by their losses, by alcohol, by debts, by deadlines, by beatings, and at the first inopportune word they beat their families, a chain of wrongs that generated wrongs. 

I’d like to avoid giving too many details about the plot, but the novel ends with a key event in the girls’ lives. Elena, now sixteen, is left wondering if she will ever be able to escape the confines of the neighbourhood, And Elena’s brilliant friend? Well, I don’t want to reveal how things stand for Lila, but the final pages left me eager to move on to the next instalment in their story.

I’ve also read the equally captivating second volume in the series, The Story of a New Name, so I’ll return soon with some thoughts on that one. In the meantime, I can’t recommend My Brilliant Friend highly enough. It’s an excellent novel – utterly engrossing and absorbing.

 My Brilliant Friend (tr. Ann Goldstein) is published in the UK by Europa Editions. Source: personal copy.