Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

Book Three of The Neapolitan Novels. Middle Time.

Europa Editions, 2015, 411 p, including vii p Index of Characters and Notes on the Events of the Earlier Volumes. Translated from the Italian Storia di chi fugge e di di chi resta, (Edizioni E/O, 2013,) by Ann Goldstein.

This book carries on the tale of the life of Elena Greco, friend to Lila Cerullo, here following Elena into marriage and motherhood and illuminating Italian life in the late sixties/early seventies. Her husband is Pietro Airota, from a relatively well to do and influential family. The contrast between his background and hers, his atheism (which Elena shares) and her family’s traditionalism is illustrated when they visit Naples pre-marriage. On this visit, an acquaintance in Naples makes references to the dirty pages in her novel, whose publication came in the previous book, as being brave (but also true.) The novel itself, even the fact she left, would be enough to make her different but those pages mark her out, stamp her in the eyes of some of those she left behind as unworthy, tainted, all but a whore. Then a piece on industrial conditions in the sausage factory where Lila works is accepted by the newspaper L’Unità and brings her more attention/notoriety.

Married sex is a revelation for Elena. Though not a virgin, she had not had sex with her husband before the wedding and he is, to say the least, an unsympathetic lover. The birth of her first daughter, Adele, later pet-named Dede, brings the crushing responsibility of motherhood; the baby is unable to feed properly, her husband retreats into his work. Elena’s inability, and his reluctance, to cope requires the employment of a housekeeper/nanny. The novel Elena cobbles together in these circumstances is unpublishable, the lifeless articles she submits to L’Unità rejected. A second baby, another daughter, Elisa, is less trouble.

This was a turbulent time in Italy, with political violence referenced many times here. (As it also was in Europe; Rudi Dutschke and Daniel Cohn-Bendit are given a mention.) I did wonder how the political discussions and attitudes here (not to mention the atheism though that is more skated over) went down with Ferrante’s US readers as the left-wing leanings of most of Elena’s circle are fairly pronounced. Perhaps it is outdone by the feminism she comes to feel – both practical in her marriage situation and theoretical in the discussions she has with other women – especially in her writing, “no-one knew better than I did what it meant to make your own head masculine so that it would be accepted by the culture of men: I had done it, I was doing it,” which would certainly strike a chord.

Ferrrante’s Neapolitan Quartet has been widely discussed as a dissection of female friendship yet for many pages at the start of this instalment Lila is all but unmentioned. However, Elena is called to her side when Lila becomes ill (worn down by working at the sausage factory) and immediately goes to succour her and the blanks in Lila’s life in the interim are filled in. From then on, apart from a crucial incident where a decision by Lila reveals her in her complexity as almost unknowable, certainly unpredictable, they communicate mainly by telephone. Lila and Enzo, the man she lives with, teach themselves computing and begin to make a niche for themselves in the nascent computer industry. The dissolving margins which Lila once mentioned to Elena, when she feels people round her becoming insubstantial (and which may be the key to her personality) are here referred to only once.

As in the foregoing Neapolitan novels there is a density here of apparently lived experience, a proliferation of detail, a fecundity of (re)construction, a layering of a life apparently recollected. As if to comment on this Lila tells Elena after her confusion over that decision of Lila’s, “But when do people ever speak truthfully and when do things ever happen unexpectedly? You know better than I that it’s all a fraud and that one thing follows another and then another.”

The ambiguity of the friendship (of all friendships?) is addressed when Elena herself tells us at the book’s crux, “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 ….. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.” The relevance of Nino Sattore – with whom Elena has been besotted since her teenage years but who had an affair with Lila in Book Two – to this epiphany is not unravelled by the book’s ending which mercifully has less of the cliffhanger element the first two instalments had but which still leaves Elena’s life situation unresolved.

Pedant’s corner:- Marirosa (elsewhere always Mariarosa,) legitimatized (legitimised,) “and thought, She was once a pretty girl” (context suggests ‘and I thought, She was once a pretty girl’,) missing question marks at the end of sentences which are questions, “rather than aiming Stefano and his money” (aiming at Stefano.) “And at least Enzo in front of him, in the factory, women worn out by the work, by humiliations, by domestic obligations no less than Lila was.” (as a sentence that is missing something which would make it clear what it was meant to be saying,) “secretary of the union local” (in English ‘of the local union’ is more idiomatic,) “as if” three times in four lines, Vesuvio (x 2, usually ‘Vesuvius’,) waked (woken,) insured (ensured,) “men with drooping mustaches [sic] and a cloth cap on their head” (and cloth caps on their heads,) parallelopipeds (my dictionary categorises this variant spelling of parallelepipeds as ‘improper’.)

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