The Quarterly Conversation: "A heartfelt and compelling portrait of female friendship"
Date: Sep 15 2014
Review by Ariel Starling
Few novelists have captured the rhythms and flow of life with the veracity of Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. Following the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo from childhood to old age, the tetralogy spans fifty years; over the course of that time, no emotion is too small, too dark, too banal to be recorded. No expense, so to speak, is spared. These novels eschew conventional narrative arc in favor of an intricate realism in which little ever quite begins or ends. Characters enter, disappear, and reemerge with the motivations and demands of their own lives, unbothered by how they may fit around the centerpiece of Elena and Lila’s relationship, and yet never seem out of place. Ferrante reveals herself in these novels as a masterful writer—her literary artifice is almost wholly transparent. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the third volume of the series, following My Brilliant Friend and Story of a New Name. Subtitled “The Middle Years”, it begins in the protagonists’ twenties and covers approximately the next decade. While one could theoretically read and enjoy the novel on its own, the reader is assumed to have already gained an intimate knowledge of the characters and their histories and relationships, and appreciation of the work would certainly suffer in this intimacy’s absence.
Though each volume is gently framed by a brief introductory sequence describing the present, on the whole the story moves in an entirely linear fashion. Written in first-person from Elena’s perspective, the works read almost as autobiography. (It is worth noting that there is some speculation in Italian literary circles that the work is in fact autobiography. Ferrante herself is something of a mystery, and is thought by some to be the nom de plume of any of a number of other novelists.) In the opening pages of My Brilliant Friend, Elena introduces herself as an aging novelist and describes a phone call she receives from the son of an old friend, who tells her that friend has mysteriously gone missing. This friend is Lila Cerullo, and the novels go on to describe their relationship in its entirety. While not plot-driven in any sense, the story does not want for drama. Set in a violent, impoverished neighborhood of Naples—consistently referred to only as “the neighborhood”, with equal affection and revulsion—one of the earliest incidents recalled from the girls’ shared childhood is the day they lose a doll in the basement of the local mob boss and his subsequent murder. This event and its reception by the girls and their community sets the tone of the work. While the adults are shaken by the murder, it is not the violence itself which startles them, but that violence was committed against Don Achille, the most feared man in the neighborhood—killing is commonplace, but this killing goes against the community’s informal yet rigid hierarchy. The girls’ reaction is one of pure, childlike fascination. They invent stories of how it may have happened; Lila in particular becomes convinced that Don Achille was slain by a female monster, and feels she can recall the event as if she were there. Beyond providing a compelling snapshot of the neighborhood and its behaviors and attitudes, the murder gives an early insight into the ways fiction can blend with reality, and in particular how real individuals can become fictional characters in the minds of others. (That Lila’s monster is specifically female is also significant, and foreshadows a particularly feminine rage already taken root in her character in childhood).
This blurring of fiction and reality is perhaps the most poignant theme of the novels, and is also one of the most important aspect of Elena and Lila’s relationship. Both girls stand out as unusually bright pupils when they begin school, and this shared identity of intelligence is an early factor in their bond. Recognizing how different they are from their peers in their intellectual abilities and interest in reading, the two quickly pair off, writing stories and formulating elaborate plans for their futures as successful novelists. However, while Elena applies herself diligently to her studies and occasionally struggles, Lila displays an effortless and innate genius which extends beyond its uses in schoolwork. Though both are exceptional, there is no question as to which is more exceptional. As Elena realizes this, she becomes tortured with feelings of inferiority, competition, and even resentment towards Lila, and begins to feel that she can sense Lila as a presence in her own mind. While Elena continues her studies after elementary school, Lila is forced to leave school after the fifth grade to go to work in her family’s shoe factory. Though this practical surpassing of Lila at first gives Elena some peace of mind, the relief is short-lived—it soon becomes apparent that it is not enough for Elena to surpass Lila in accomplishments. She must rather transcend her own idea of Lila—a task which may prove impossible.
Given Elena’s status as narrator, it is difficult to distinguish between her idea of Lila and Lila as she may actually exist. Indeed, in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena herself begins to question whether there is in fact a distinction she has up to now ignored. There is no denying that Lila is occasionally portrayed as almost superhuman in her brilliance. After leaving school, for a while she continues to study independently, teaching herself Greek and Latin at a higher level than Elena achieves while taking classes; in a contest at the local library she proves to read four times as many books than Elena, who places second; well into high school Elena still comes to Lila with concepts from her studies, and Lila is immediately able to dissect Elena’s arguments and point out inconsistencies. However, the Lila we encounter in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is presented as something of a shadow of her former self. Though still only in her early twenties, she is now a destitute single mother, separated from her abusive husband and supporting herself and her son through grueling manual labor at a sausage factory. She no longer has the time or energy for intellectual pursuits, and even insists to Elena that she can’t read anymore, for her mind no longer works as it did.
This disconnect between who Lila has been and who she has become distinguishes Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay from the first two novels, and this disconnect is inseparable from the physical disconnect between Lila and Elena. Though their paths diverge as soon as Lila drops out of school, throughout the first two volumes their trajectories seem profoundly and inevitably intertwined. However, they naturally grow apart after Elena leaves for university in Pisa, and when they meet again their lives have become so radically different that they have little in common left to unite them. As Lila has grown ever more deeply entrenched in poverty and in Naples, Elena has risen in society and published her first novel to mixed reviews yet positive sales. While they remain friends and Elena’s feelings of inferiority continue to haunt her, the differences in their adult lives are made powerfully clear when Elena becomes involved, if somewhat tangentially, in the tumultuous political climate of the late sixties. Elena calls Lila to discuss the feminist ideas of her peers in the north, but Lila rebuffs her by saying the ideas are absurd and uninteresting. This rejection seems to mark the end of their intellectual partnership, with Elena resolving to no longer come to Lila with ideas.
Though the first volume of the series begins in the years after World War II, there is virtually no mention of historical events up until the student protests described in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. This is of course largely due to the fact that life in the neighborhood is extremely insular, with many of its inhabitants illiterate and never having ventured into other areas of Naples, much less outside the city. Still, even in the third volume, political ideas are never discussed at any real length, and are only given as much attention as is necessary to fuel the private interactions of the characters. The personal may be political to Elena’s revolutionary friends, but for Ferrante the political is only significant insofar as it is personal.
All told, The Neapolitan Novels form a heartfelt and compelling portrait of female friendship. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is as stunning an installment as its predecessors, and a much quicker read than its 400 pages would suggest. Subtle as the plot may be, it would do the work a grave disservice not to note that Ferrante is, in her own way, a master of suspense. Reading these novels, one becomes so immersed in the world of the characters that even an offhand comment from a minor acquaintance can (and often does) carry the force of revelation—the books are nearly impossible to put down. It is lucky that there’s still one more volume to look forward to.