The eminent belle-lettrist Stephen Dobyns once observed that to write a novel, all one needs are “a handful of names and a street map.” In the case of Italian author Elena Ferrante’s “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” (the third in her “Neapolitan Novels”), those names are now well established for her growing fan base — and so is the map.
Ferrante, who conceals her own real name and personal particulars, has created an oeuvre that’s taken the literary world by the hair. Her grip has not relaxed; in fact, hair-on-fire intensity defines all her work. (See James Wood’s brilliant analysis, “Women on the Verge,” in the Jan. 21, 2013, New Yorker.)
If that intensity — along with the brave, brutal insights it delivers — is any measure, Ferrante fans will find a kind of baseline satisfaction in “Those Who Leave.”
The map is that of Italy, and the ravaged city of Naples. The names are those we met in “My Brilliant Friend,” the unforgettable first book of this series — families among whom protagonist Elena Greco grew up and went to school, and whom she managed, finally, to escape.
In “The Story of a New Name,” the second Neapolitan book, Elena, in her 20s, savors the success of a debut novel recounting her wretched childhood. Her fiery best friend, Lila Cerullo, has rejected her own bright potential by marrying a local grocer-turned-gangster: She flees that nightmare marriage, with her child, to begin working in a sausage factory. Elena, meanwhile, agrees to marry a young teacher from a good Milan family, and to move with him to Florence.
Beautifully translated, once again, by Ann Goldstein, “Those Who Leave” takes up exactly where “The Story of a New Name” left off — framed as a present-day recollection. Ferrante opens the novel in 2010 as Elena, in her 60s, mulls a retrospective, complex grief.
“I saw Lila for the last time five years ago, in the winter of 2005. Too many bad things ... had happened to regain our old intimacy. ... Yet I loved her ... She had short hair that she cut herself; it was completely white, not by choice but from neglect. Her face was deeply lined.”
Elena then resumes the story, “more than forty years ago,” of herself and Lila as young women.
Unsurprisingly, struggles escalate. Elena gives birth to two daughters; she is drained by family-rearing, suffocated by her husband's obliviousness. Lila becomes involved with neo-revolutionaries. Violence begets violence. Elena fights to relocate a writing voice — and an autonomous, sexual self.
The men — self-immersed, arrogant, striving, vulnerable — come and go. Children demand everything, ape their elders, behave badly. Throughout, Lila and Elena circle each other, jousting, retreating: threatened, jealous, exhausted.
Elena’s life, for all its turmoil, is hands-down the better. She moves in educated circles, eats well and is mortally safe. Yet as Lila — bitterly noting the socioeconomic gap widening between them — grows more aloof, brittle and cold, it’s Elena who needs her friend most desperately, craving her validation.
Serious feminist questions spill from every page, not as tidy scholarly inquiries but as body and blood, a true, sustained cri de coeur. Elena can neither shut out men nor deny their cost. (Ferrante’s women, often maddened, spend their lives responding to men who, equally maddened, pretty much run things.) In the very first scene of “Those Who Leave,” Lila and Elena, in their last walk together, discover the disheveled corpse of a childhood girlfriend, murdered in some unknown way. Elena rails: “How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth.”
(Alert readers will recognize, in Ferrante’s stories, the recurring motif of disappearance as a woman’s last option.)
Like its two predecessors, this novel’s roller coaster of anguish, advances and setbacks roars on. The miracle is that Ferrante can keep the shocks coming, against a setting whose mildest emotional ambience is already in flames. Eventually, though, a reader begins to squirm. These ordeals re-rupture, like wounds that reopen. What can change?
Everything and nothing. As “Those Who Leave” closes, Elena embarks on an insanely risky exodus. Lila nabs a better job and a faithful lover, but within an uncertain, difficult, dangerous life. Gang murders mow down friends and relatives. Why did Lila elect to stay in Naples? Is Naples the villain? No, reflects Elena: “[T]he neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet.”
What has changed is that the window for even a moment’s clear-eyed, unreserved love between the two women, sworn best friends since childhood, has closed.
“It's the fault of our lives’ divergence, the fault of distance,” present-day Elena mourns. “[H]er shadow goaded me, depressed me, filled me with pride, deflated me, giving me no rest. ... I wish she were here, that’s why I’m writing.”