Being Female in the Man’s World of Naples
By Melinda Harvey
THOSE Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the third and penultimate instalment in Elena Ferrante’s ‘‘Neapolitan novels’’, a series that offers Elena Greco’s account of her lifelong friendship with the whip-smart and resourceful Raffaella Cerullo, whom she calls Lila, from the age of eight to 66.
This new volume begins, uncharacteristically, with the elderly narrator forsaking her chronology briefly to relate an episode from the recent past. Walking with Lila along the stradone of their old neighbourhood on the dingy fringes of Naples five years prior, the friends watch on as the dead body of a woman is pulled out from a churchyard flowerbed. Lila instantly recognises it as their childhood acquaintance, Gigliola Spagnuolo.
‘‘How many who had been girls,’’ Elena protests, ‘‘had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled.’’
Three books in, it is now possible to say that the Neapolitan novels have a grand theme, and it is this: what it has meant to have been born female in the 20th century.
Volumes one (My Brilliant Friend) and two (The Story of a New Name) were about the struggles of the women to reject the relentless claims of heredity, environment and history. Elena begins this third novel having effectuated an apparently successful escape from the intellectual and material impoverishments of her youth: she has a university degree, published a book to great acclaim and is engaged to be married to a member of the Milanese Airota family, ‘‘the most civilised of all the families who count for something in Italy’’.
Lila, by contrast, finds herself a victim of the destructive behaviours of the Solara and Carracci clans despite her courageous efforts to hold herself aloof: her creativity has been commandeered for the economic gain of men she despises and she has been saddled with the responsibility of a child whose father roams free as a stranger.
For the first time in the series the friends’ lives appear not to be interdependent or intertwined. With Elena ensconced in a comfortable apartment for ‘‘laughable rent’’ thanks to the powerful connections of the Airotas in Florence and Lila working amid the stink of ‘‘animal fats, flesh, nerves’’ in a sausage factory back in Naples, only the telephone keeps them, intermittently, in touch. Even then, the habit of withholding what is really happening in their respective worlds and hearts intensifies.
But this book makes it clear that Lila’s troubles are not the result of being the victim of bad luck or making the wrong choices. Even in the reified world of northern Italy and embedded in the intelligentsia with its enlightened ideas Elena finds that marriage and motherhood entail indignities and abnegations of the self, that five nice rooms plus a professor husband still adds up to a kind of prison.
The series thus far has seen the friends often pitted against each other, as if there was not opportunity enough in the big world outside for the two of them. Certainly, Elena accepts this as if it were a fact: ‘‘I felt a powerful sense of guilt, I thought: this is the life that could have been mine, and if it isn’t it’s partly thanks to her.’’ This is a friendship that is fuelled in part by the desire to live through, and alternatively the pressure to live in place of, the other.
But what this instalment tells us is that for women there is no escaping subjugation of one kind or another by men whether one achieves or fails, learns or earns, leaves or stays.
It is no coincidence, then, that Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay captures the period 1968 to 1976, key years in the women’s liberation movement in the West. It is clearly one of Ferrante’s aims to detail the impact of the introduction of such things as the contraceptive pill and the new radical feminist tracts on the lives of her two young women.
But these were also the so-called Years of Lead, when violent political extremism gripped Italy. Ferrante’s calling card is the intimacy she creates with readers, her ability to make us feel like the characters are sharing their secret selves with us exclusively and tete-a-tete, so this book in particular is remarkable for the way it expands to give us entry to these larger, exterior events.
With the boys of the old neighbourhood now hardened into agents of the far-left and right, bashings, shootings and bombings are never mere reality effects but are shown to be continuous with the patriarchal feuds of the past. Elena comes to see that these ‘‘male wars’’ reinforce the original social evil, which is gender inequality. Ferrante is at her most derisive in her depictions of the Communists, whose belief in egalitarianism does not seem to extend to their lovers, who, whatever their levels of commitment or education, are left to attend to children during rallies and are talked over in private if they were ‘‘drowsy heifers’’ or ‘‘apartment plants’’.
This all makes Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay sound rather heavy going — and it’s true one doesn’t turn to Ferrante for the laffs. But there is nothing remotely tiring or trying about the experience of reading the Neapolitan novels, which I, and a great many others, now rank among our greatest book-related pleasures.
Joyce Carol Oates was wrong to object to Rachel Donadio’s description of the series, in The New York Times, as ‘‘traditional in structure and sometimes veering into potboiler territory’’.
In many ways these are old-fashioned novels — by which it is meant they do not acknowledge in either form or content that the periods of modernist and postmodernist experimentation ever happened. They are plot-driven, they choose not to exploit the possibilities of the unreliable narrator, they break the rules about good writing (elegance by the sentence, concision not repetition) that are taught in creative writing classes.
One of the effects of this is quite obvious: it speeds reading back up again after about a century of speed limits imposed on it by various technical difficulties. This means reading literary fiction, thanks to Ferrante, becomes a competitive entertainment in that it can now keep pace with the other art we like consuming, such as watching quality cable TV series.
But Ferrante’s motivation would appear to be less a desire to make the novel relevant again and more the belief that the very act of narration doesn’t necessitate a lie, that it is possible, indeed important and urgent, to communicate some experience, to try to pass on some truths.
Nobody knows exactly who ‘‘Elena Ferrante’’ is so this might not be autobiographical fiction, or even fiction written by a woman — anybody who believes in the power of fiction and its power to imagine other lives is obliged to accept this — but it is writing that holds honesty dear. We know it does because we recognise, sometimes with surprise veering on alarm, Elena’s secret thoughts — about her mother, about sex with men, about having children — as our own.
Melinda Harvey is lecturer in English at Monash University and the director of its Centre for the Book.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
By Elena Ferrante
Translated by Ann Goldstein
Text Publishing, 320, $29.99