In the past decade, no fiction writer has made it more necessary to think about the performative aspect of being a woman than Elena Ferrante. Her novels, written originally in Italian and translated beautifully by Ann Goldstein, are ferociously engaged with the ways in which a woman – as a daughter, a teenager, a lover, and, most dramatically, a mother – is a kind of person in drag, speaking through a costume that slowly becomes all that one knows of her. (Appropriately, “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym — the author has carefully guarded her real identity from readers and critics alike.)
Fiction that is undoubtedly feminist often earns a bad rap — as ideology in the guise of a story, a no-fun political statement dressed in the novel’s clothes. Putting aside the reflexive sexism of this posture, how often we forget that beauty is truth and truth – told well – can have a clarifying fury. Ferrante’s enormous gift is to give us the interior world of a woman – and in all of her books, the heroine is a woman speaking to us – as she negotiates the limits of her costume.
In Ferrante’s debut, The Days of Abandonment, a woman reels in the wake of her partner’s abrupt departure. She blames motherhood and seethes with metaphoric rage: “I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping; a cud made of living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves.”
The combination of sensuality and anger and tenderness – and the instinct to bear witness — makes Ferrante’s books feel like installments of one long text, a sensation reinforced by her Neapolitan novels, a series of four long novels about two girls – Elena and Lila – who grow up poor in Naples in the 1950s.
The stage is set in My Brilliant Friend (2012), the noisy, brutal tale of two girls growing up poor near the city in the late 1950s: Lila, the wildish, sharp-tongued youngest child of a shoemaker, and Elena, the daughter of a hotel porter who is a dutiful but not brilliant student. The novel patiently charts the inversion of their roles. Lila is beaten down by her family and broken and emerges married, subdued; Elena escapes her family and sets out on the road to becoming a writer. The Story of a New Name (2013) picks up the narrative after Lila’s marriage to the son of a murdered loan shark. Lila’s husband is a grocer, and it was clear, even before rings were exchanged, that theirs was a terrible match. But of course they go on honeymoon, and Elena ships off to school in Pisa. Elena is jealous of her friend, only to later realize her friend envies her just as much. Until she married, Lila had been secretly, continuously writing. She was going to tell her own story, practicing descriptions in notebooks she entrusted (with lock and key) to Elena.
In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay — the third book in the series, just published in English by Europa, the inversion of the two friends’ fates has taken its cruelest turn yet. Reading the book fast on the heels of the previous two is like catching up with the latest installment of a telenovela with all that form’s lurid twists and updates, its accumulated emotional import. Lila’s marriage has imploded, a love affair burdened her with child, and she has landed hard, toiling as a day laborer in a sausage factory.
Meanwhile, Elena has taken experiences from the past decade and funneled them into a first novel that is bold and frankly erotic, angry, a journey that mimics their creator’s own history. A recluse who only conducts interviews by post, Ferrante has admitted her fiction is heavily autobiographical, but she has remained steely in her determination to allow the books to speak for themselves through the mystery and magic of their characters.
In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay the heroine’s exorcism of her demons becomes an interesting part of the story’s sweep, not a cute metafiction. It is now the 1960s, and student movements are beginning to sweep across Europe, meaning that while the conservatism of Naples still gnaws at Elena, universities are becoming receptive to her modern attitudes about sex and power. All the while the tale of her friend Lila lingers in her mind, even after Lila makes her promise not to tell it.
Narrating in Elena’s voice, which cascades from sensual reactions to reflections and an inner intelligence, Ferrante describes the watchfulness and atavistic needs that her heroine oscillates between. She wants to be liked, she doesn’t want to be talked down to; she responds to children; she doesn’t want to be trapped by them. She loves her friend Lila; she knows that by leaving home only she has achieved the freedom to tell her tale accurately and honestly. In scene after scene, unfolding at dinner parties and at public discussions of her book, Elena often experiences both types of urges at once; she is forever becoming (or unbecoming) something.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay brilliantly depicts how Elena performs certain rituals for the sake of appearances, only to find them gradually reattaching her to the past. A gentle university professor proposes to her, so Elena brings him home to meet her family. What unfolds must be one of the best in-law set pieces ever written. Elena watches with horror as her mother belittles her fiancé; she observes with fondness as her brothers lead him into arm-wrestling contests and start bar fights in his honor. Their love is inarticulate, by university standards, but it has force and passion behind it, something Elena begins to discover does not exist universally in the high-minded world into which she has studied and written her way.
Like Thomas Wolfe before her, and Karl Ove Knausgaard today, it is virtually impossible for Elena to entirely leave home — and she is doubly bound as a woman, a piece of knowledge reinforced by Elena’s last substantial encounter with Lila, the story of which fills out the middle of this book, and once again Elena appreciates the comparative luxury of her life. Her upcoming betrayal — the book we are reading — weighs on her. Meanwhile, Elena’s own life meteors onward through the radicalizing 1960s and 1970s, the rise and ruptures of communism and lingering judgments of her family on her life and work pulling her in separate directions.
This style of life writing — the mega-novel that approaches biography — has become popular again in the simultaneous emergence (or appreciation) of Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, and Edward St. Aubyn. Ferrante’s novels do not just belong in this tradition. They are the best of it, for they bring us something these others do not. They are not just bigger canvases; they capture how female friendship (from friends and family) is one of the cruelest, keenest, most long-lasting mirrors for the performance of being a woman. Throughout the first two volumes, Elena and Lila trade gazes, each looking to the other for guidance, each forgetting the other is doing the same.
In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena discovers those reflections do not merely define her past, they inform her present. It’s Ferrante’s ability to capture both the mirror and the woman standing before it that makes her a writer to be reckoned with.