Elena Ferrante’s novels get better and better. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third volume in what will apparently be a four volume series, continues the story of the complicated friendship between two young women, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo who grew up in an impoverished Neapolitan neighborhood in the 1950’s. Thanks to her families (albeit reluctant) agreement to pay school fees, Elena is now a college graduate and Lina, denied those opportunities, is working in a sausage factory.
For Elena Greco, “the essential thing was to get out of Naples; she advises Lila who remains trapped in Naples to “Settle in well-organized lands, where everything is possible.” Elena is engaged to Pietro Airota, the scion of a prestigious family and sees him as means of escape from her working class background. Yet her own class insecurities are never far from the surface, and she wonders if she is fully accepted by her fiance’s family: “What am I to Airotas—a jewel in the crown of their broad mindedness”?
Ferrante has written the best account I’ve ever read of the struggle to climb the class ladder--in Elena Greco’s case, making several leaps from deep poverty to the intellectual elite of Italian society. Elena is haunted by the fear that she is an impostor. At a book signing for her first well-received, autobiographical novel, she is easily intimidated by a critical comment from a man in the audience: “I had become again the poor little girl from the poor neighborhood of Naples, the daughter of the porter with the dialect cadence of the South, amazed at having ended up in that place, playing the part of the cultured young writer.”
As hard as she tries, Elena cannot get rid of the imprint of her background. When she and her husband visit her relatives in the old neighborhood, Elena finds herself reverting to Neapolitan dialect: “I realized that my voice was taking on the tones of the dialect, out of nervousness, that words were coming to me in the Neapolitan of he neighborhood, that the neighborhood …was imposing its language on me, its mode of acting and reacting.”
Marriage to Pietro Airota provides Elena with upper middle class advantages, and helps her to increase her distance from the world of her childhood, but emotionally and sexually her marriage is a deep disappointment. Elena soon realizes she is not in love with her husband, but with the life he could give her. She describes her marriage to Pietro Airota as entering a “protective family, a sort of well-fortified castle.” After having children, she perceived her marriage not as a protected space but as a prison:"I found the isolation I ended up in unbearable...I hadn't slaved since childhood just to be imprisoned in the roles of wife and mother."
Ferrante has written a deeply moving account of the dissolution of a marriage. Reconnecting with her old love, Nino Serratore, made the marriage to Airota more unbearable and Elena experiences a maelstrom of conflicting emotions–-intense love for Nino, guilt about hurting a man who had been in his own way a good husband, deep anxiety about the impact of divorce on her young children---all this along with her doubts as go whether the relationship with Nino would be a lasting one.
Although the novel focuses primarily on Elena, her complicated relationship with Lila forms the emotional heart of the novel. This is a relationship which will endure, as the men in their lives come and go. The trajectory of their lives often moves in opposite directions. When Elena’s life is on a downswing—increasingly unhappy with her marriage, unable to advance her career--Liaa’s life is on an upswing, achieving success in the nascent computer technology industry. Elena has ambivalent feelings about Lila, deeply emotionally attached but envious of Lila’s talent—even at one point wishing that Lila would die. But when Lila is ill, Elena does everything she can to get Lila good medical care and devotes herself to "reorganizing Lila's life."
The personal struggles of these two women take place against the backdrop of the social and political upheaval of the late 1960’s and 70’s. Elena was not all that interested in politics but attracted by the drama of political activism; yet she was also threatened and saw the 1960’s left as posing a challenge to the upper middle class life she was trying to build. Elena was the observer of social movements; Lila, with a deeper understanding of economic injustice was drawn into the political struggle and became a union activist. Lila was deeply critical of the student left’s attempts to build a student/worker alliance—-the arrogance of the students, their ignorance of the factory workers they hoped to organize, their unawareness of the futility of “distributing a densely written leaflet to people who could barely read.” Ferrante, whoever she is, clearly had some experience of the student left of the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Her description is pitch perfect.
Like many women who had some involvement in the 1960’s left, both Elena and Lila experienced a feminist awakening. Elena observes that there were few women involved and they “were mostly silent, flirting with male activists.” Both Elena and Lina had a developing feminist consciousness before the emergence of an organized feminist movement, and Elena had explored feminist themes in her first novel. What many of her female readers found most compelling was the exploration of male sexual selfishness. Elena described “male annoyance, the boredom of one who has already had his orgasm and now would like to go to sleep,” a sexual honesty which resonated with her female readers.
Violence against women, the powerful feminist theme which dominated the first two novels of the series, runs throughout Those Who Leave and Those who Stay. The novel opens with a powerful image of a dead woman, a childhood friend of Lila’s and Elena’s. Elena wonders “how many of those who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled.” Even Elena’s marriage to a mild-mannered, educated man is at one point marred by violence.
The novel ends with Elena leaving her husband and daughters for Nino Serratore, the man she has loved since childhood, leaving the reader to wonder if Elena is making a disastrous mistake. Ferrante has certainly left hints that this will not end well. We’ll have to wait until September 2015 when volume four of the Neapolitan novels is released to find out.
Ferrante’s novels work on so many levels: an exploration of the social and economic divisions in Italy; the extent to which class and gender constrain women’s lives; the difficulty of ever erasing the imprint of one’s background, the complexities of women’s’ friendships over time. This the best book about female friendship I have read since Toni Morrison’s Sula. Ferrante has placed her story of the friendship of Elena and Lila within the context of fully realized social world with language that is nuanced, powerful, language that makes you want to linger over her sentences. How much of the magical language is Ferrante’s or her translator’s? I hope to develop enough of a reading knowledge of Italian to find out.