What a terrible thing a dissatisfied mind is,” reflects Lina Cerullo in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third novel in Elena Ferrante’s tetralogy about the friendship between two gifted women from a poor neighbourhood in Naples. It is Lina’s dissatisfied mind that has shaped the narrative over the course of the series so far. And it is a testament to Ferrante’s achievement that, at the end of this third book and anticipating the fourth, it seems there’s limitless potential for Lina to reinvent herself again.
The books turn on the premiss that Lina is a genius: “If you let her, she’ll change shit into gold for you, she’s capable of reorganising this whole enterprise, taking it to levels you can’t even imagine”, the corrupt Michele Solara tells the owner of the sausage factory in which Lina finds work, having escaped a disastrous marriage. The question is: what will she do with her talent? Is her intelligence a resource to be pressed into the service of Camorra businessmen? To design luxury goods adored by the elite? To lead a campaign to improve the conditions of working people? Both resourceful and self-defeating, Lina fobs off anyone who tries to pin her down to furthering any of these ambitions. She becomes interested in early punch card computers and works for IBM, only to decide it’s “boring” – the machines are still too slow. What next? “Blame the mind that can’t settle down.”
Lina’s golden talent could wear thin as a device in the hands of a less skilled writer, but the story that follows over the decades from the friends’ childhood is too well realized – and too well populated with memorable characters – for this to be a problem. The title of this latest novel in the series to be translated by Ann Goldstein confirms that the two friends’ lives are “diverging” more than ever. Elena, the narrator of the books, has escaped the neighbourhood and is now a published author living in Florence. For much of the novel the two women don’t see each other, their friendship – never straightforward – reduced to “scant debate, mean remarks, hot air”. Lina has an affair with the man Elena can’t admit she loves. Elena is grappling with writing, motherhood, an unfulfilling marriage. The lives of the two women could not have become more different, but in 1960s Italy politics is an inescapable part of the narrative wherever you live. While Lina is drawn into clashes between Fascists and union activists at the factory and labelled a troublemaker, Elena enters the world of student politics:
“I found to my annoyance that I was poised between opposing feelings: on the one hand, a strong sympathy for all these young men and women . . . and on the other, the fear that the disorder I had been fleeing since I was a child might, now, right here, seize me and fling me into the middle of the commotion.”
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay throws light on the uneasy relationship between political theory and life as it is lived. Elena, escaping poverty through education, meets intellectuals who “willingly pretended to be lower class”. She publishes articles on the plight of the workers, but can’t escape a feeling of uncertainty about everything she does, especially when she’s criticized by activists for exploiting Lina’s situation for her own ends. Elena is an unreliable narrator of her own distinct talent, which she sees as eclipsed by Lina’s, and her self-doubt takes its toll on her mood. Goldstein’s translation deftly captures her shifts in tone between toughness and vulnerability.
Ferrante depicts the pains of uncertainty but also its potential: the part it plays in having an imagination. In 1968, the journalist and left-wing politician Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi published a controversial polemic in the form of a series of letters to Louis Althusser, criticizing the Communist Party in Naples and describing working conditions in the city as being comparably wretched to those in Lina’s factory. A novel can achieve things a polemic can’t. It can show what Elena calls “a life in motion”. It can touch, in passing, on the things people rarely admit to themselves (in this book Elena wonders briefly if she has ever been attracted to Lina). A novel can, Elena thinks, “construct living hearts” – those of an entire neighbourhood.