Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
ELENA FERRANTE. TRANSLATOR ANN GOLDSTEIN
Even when brilliant, novels seldom reveal themselves as both revelatory and revolutionary. Elena Ferrante's mesmeric Neapolitan series promises to become such a literary touchstone, and hers a deserving addition to the list of canonical names.
This apparently straightforward chronicle of lifelong friendship is also a contemporary Comedie Humaine set in Naples, more condensed and controlled than Balzac's and applicable to any patriarchal society governed by fear and poverty.
The serial novel has a long, varied history, but Ferrante's chronicle contains an unrivalled intimacy alongside unrelenting ferocity. She relays the history of the second half of the 20th century through the eyes of a girl-turned-woman as she recognises the political implications of her thoughts and actions, and as she struggles without a pattern to abandon her legacy.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third instalment of the series originally proposed as a trilogy (following My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name), finds Elena and Lila in their 30s. The two women, locked in an oppressive and redemptive friendship, serve as foils: projections against which they examine their progress and evaluate their decisions. Each allows the other a second, alternative identity. They are two experiments shooting from the same seed, requiring the other to measure their progress.
Elena and Lila refuse to become mimeographs of their mothers, bound to the home, slaving away their beauty and minds under the thumbs of men who control with brute violence. But even after Elena graduates and publishes a novel, she imagines that her uneducated friend will surpass her: "And when the big thing was accomplished, [Lila] would reappear triumphant, admired for her achievements, in the guise of a revolutionary leader, to tell me: You wanted to write novels, I created a novel with real people, with real blood, in reality."
From a distance, both characters are dissatisfied mothers who adore their children but long for something greater: to challenge the hierarchy of the home and engage with their rapidly changing world. While they achieve small gains (Elena publishes scathing newspaper exposes and Lila forges unexpected opportunities), most of their tumultuousness plays out in their psyches.
Their lives may be as dirty and hampered as those of the girls they grew alongside — even though Elena now lives in Florence and has the ear of an influential family — but they refuse to accept unexamined lives. As Ferrante expresses the dichotomy of the two women, Lila wants to disappear and Elena wants to document all.
Ferrante has been called, widely, an angry woman writer. Focus on that emotion alone demeans the complexity of what she's trying to do in this extended, wide-ranging and intimate portrait of women — and men — pushing against the confines of society, family and identity. Through her pared-down, unobtrusive language, she strips away all but the intensity of these women's thoughts and the brutality dormant in the most anodyne action.
While the Neapolitan novels satisfy singly — each contains an arc and unifying theme — they find truest expression as a monstrous whole, currently exceeding 1200 pages. As in the previous novels, the action of this latest instalment halts at a shocking precipice. Decades of Elena and Lila's struggles and passions await. Even before Ferrante unveils the end — and regardless of it — the Neapolitan series stands as a testament to the ability of great literature to challenge, flummox, enrage and excite as it entertains.
November 8, 2014