Los Angeles Review of Books

THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY, the third volume in Elena Ferrante’s seductive Neapolitan series, continues the story of two women whose lives intersect, parallel, antagonize, and support one another as if they are mirrored halves of one creature. Taken together, the volumes follow the two from their lives as girls in Naples, Italy, through their teens and twenties, in which one marries young while the other pursues university studies, and on to their early adult lives. Each volume flames into life in those moments in which the narrator, Elena Greco, loses herself in her childhood companion, Lila Cerullo, using her as negative model, as brilliant muse, the one who defines and witnesses, “the one without whom….” Many women, perhaps especially as children, have such an attachment — intense, familiar, all-encompassing. Although the title suggests separation, in truth, the one left behind expresses herself in full force whether present or absent, and the one who leaves stays attached.

The two women meet on page one of this third volume in a future glimpse of them as old women, one skin and bones, one gaining weight: “Yet I loved her, and when I came to Naples I always tried to see her, even though, I have to say, I was a little afraid of her.” The opening pages here also contain the violence, both bodily and psychically, that runs through all the books. The women chance upon the ruined corpse of a childhood friend once married to the powerfully cruel head of the Solara family. A shoe lies beyond, “as if she had lost it kicking against some pain or fear.”

The narrative switches back in time then, taking up where the second volume, The Story of a New Name, left off; Elena has published her first book and Lila is working in a sausage factory. They forge their adult lives in postwar Italy; a difficult historical period marked by poverty, violence, familial and clan rivalry, battles between the leftists and Fascists. Each yearns for a singular, self-defined life: Elena becomes a novelist, studying hard to lose her dialect; Lila, after leaving her violent marriage, plunges into desperate and exploitative work that ultimately propels her into writing effective lists of demands for the factory workers. In parallel modes, each marks her way on paper, writing herself into an identity different from that she was born to. Gripping, baggy, recognizably feminist in its second wave, the novel tracks the relationships between men and women, and the conflict between working and motherhood, between workers and bosses, and always between Elena and Lila. In the transition between the opening pages and the narration of the book 40 years earlier, Lila tells her friend that she will find a way to erase her files if she writes about her. When Elena says she can protect herself, Lila answers, “not from me.”

This volume in particular is engrossing both in its richly detailed story and also in its greater concern with larger narrative issues. For one, it dramatizes that characters/identities are never essential or autonomous, but always created out of relationships with others (mothers, lovers, friends, enemies) and that they cohere, fragment, contradict one another, and change according to circumstances. It is no accident that the two central women separate and come together, act in unnervingly similar ways, and then reject one another with ferocity. For the most part, Lila is explosive, charismatic, dazzlingly beautiful, and self-destructive, and Elena portrays herself as plainer, studious, and ambitious — although what is so intriguing is that they also seem to exchange characteristics, often when least expected. Odi et amo, they hate and love one another, they often are one another. Ferrante is in the mold of authors who create characters in which the ego is the other, and one becomes who he/she is because of a double (e.g. Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras). Elena and Lila compare themselves to one other; their professor, their friends, and their lovers also compare them.

The powerful intertwining of writing a life and living a life has a central role throughout. The novel questions its own genre — it seems both autobiographical fiction and fictionalized autobiography, raising questions about what a novel is, where narrative comes from, and what inspires a writer. Elena is a novelist and her first successful book is written out of “her” life in Naples. The book we are reading, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, establishes a sense of seemingly “real” world in the pages before the novel begins with an index of important characters with their class identifications, vocations, affiliations, and family members, so that as readers we might have a sense of the entire neighborhood (e.g. “carpenter,” “communist,” “dealer in the black market,” “train conductor and poet”).

As many have noted, there is little to be discovered about Elena Ferrante, whose name is pseudonymous. She has stated that she wants her life to be separate from her writing as a way to write the truth, and she agrees to interviews only via email. Her character with the same name, Elena, also an author, is, to the contrary, never free from her childhood in Naples, the power of the Solara brothers, and the family she designed herself to escape. She is agitated by the critiques of her first novel by friends and reviewers, a book that was conceived years ago when as children Lila proposed they write a story together. As she does not adopt a pseudonym, she learns to her surprise that her book is considered “dirty,” banned for those under 18, and a neighbor taunts her: “Is that what they taught you at university? I can’t believe it. In my opinion you and Lina made a secret agreement: she does nasty things and you write them.” Another friend, Gigliola — the one who, years later, the women will find dead in the flowerbed — praises the book and confesses how brave she thinks Elena is for writing “the things you do on the beach,” by which she means the sexual adventures Elena had when younger that we have read about earlier, in The Story of a New Name. When Elena insists it is the character who does “the things,” Gigliola presses on: “Yes, but you wrote them really well, Lenù, just the way it happens, with the same filthiness.” Elena (author/character) explains herself: “I spoke of the necessity of recounting frankly every human experience, including. . . what seems unsayable and what we do not speak of even to ourselves.”

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay opens with matching sections on the lives of both young women. In Elena’s section we learn not only that she has published, but also that, despite her longtime erotic fascination with a fellow student from the neighborhood, Nino, she is to marry Pietro, an academic from a prestigious and influential family. She will get out of Naples, she will have powerful relatives to help her publish, she will move to Florence. Awkwardly “narrated” to Elena, Lila’s section finds her overworked and harassed at the sausage factory, living with her son — who may or may not be Nino’s — and Enzo, who, unlike her vicious husband, remains passive and supportive. An old friend draws Lila into leftist protests with student activists who want to expose the abuses of the workers, but it is her speech that galvanizes them, detailing the wretchedness of those who go in and out of the factory, groped, body-searched, exhausted, and made to work in freezing temperatures. To advance the cause, Lila turns to writing and prepares an articulate paper listing the workers’ demands. But as her rage grows she collapses, her mind racing and her urges destructive: “Lila worked at cutting the meat furiously, she had a desire to hurt and be hurt. To jab her hand with the knife, let it slip, now, from the dead flesh to her own living flesh.” (163)

The second half of the novel weaves Elena and Lila together even more closely as their quite different and often separated lives mirror one another: both have difficult children, both suffer depression, and both are involved in anti-Fascist activities. The powerful and wealthy Solara brothers (whose mother was the local loan shark) of their early neighborhood exert their formidable influence over both: Marcello Solara seduces Elena’s sister by treating her like a queen, offering a beautiful apartment in the new neighborhood; Michele Solara arranges for a good job for Lila at his IBM data processing center in order to possess the woman he sees as having a mind like no other, and contrives to make Lila overshadow Elena. Elena finds herself seized by fits of frenzy we have come to associate with Lila, and Lila, as if she is thinking novelistically, tells Elena a story of a murder that stirs her imagination: “a shore from which to lean out and grasp a story.” Having told Elena that her second book is no good, Lila insists, “if you aren’t great, who am I?” As Elena faces a disintegrating marriage, the difficulty of raising two children, her own inability to concentrate and work, the two draw apart, yet they imagine one another, telephone one another, even fear one another. Elena confesses, “a dark part of me feared that she was casting an evil spell on me from afar, that that part still hoped that she was really sick and would die.” At the end of the book Elena repeats the passionate affair that Lila had years earlier with her early love, Nino, only their lives are now complicated by spouses and children and careers. Abruptly the novel ends with a cliffhanger and questions from the startled reader. What happens to them? What about Lila? Apparently there will be more books in the series. We are plunged into the rich lives of the characters, our characters, and then out again — life is always in medias res, until it is not.

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Martha Ronk is the author of one collection of short fiction, one ironic memoir, and 10 books of poetry.