A Connection as Vital as It Is Toxic
Elena Ferrante’s ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’
Nothing you read about Elena Ferrante’s work prepares you for the ferocity of it. And with each new novel in her revelatory Neapolitan series, she unprepares you all over again. The story follows the lifelong friendship-hateship of Lila and Elena, two women from an impoverished neighborhood in Naples, a city that “seemed to harbor in its guts a fury that couldn’t get out and therefore eroded it from the inside.”
The residents live out their lives in the shadow of Vesuvius, but Ms. Ferrante’s characters have no time to worry about volatile volcanoes. Closer things are constantly falling down, falling apart, falling away. “My Brilliant Friend,” the first of the series, opens with Lila throwing Elena’s only doll into the cellar of Don Achille, a loan shark the children fear like an “ogre of fairy tales.” The tormented bond of the girls is established with that one toss, which also anticipates the power struggles in every relationship depicted in these novels.
The third book, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” just published in Ann Goldstein’s admirable English translation, begins not with a doll falling, but a woman fallen. Elena and Lila’s childhood friend, the formerly beautiful Gigliola, is lying dead in a church flower bed, exposing her “enormous” ankles, the hole in the stockings on her unshod foot and her red hair, so thin it reveals “whitish patches of skull.”
Gigliola is the castoff wife of a local despot, and her ruined body is a reminder that women here are in continual danger of condemnation — by friends, family and society. It’s 2010, Lila and Elena are in their 60s now, and Elena realizes that, though she escaped the neighborhood — she married, moved to Florence, published a novel — she never escaped Lila, who, she says, “had understood everything since she was a girl, without ever leaving Naples.”
Lila scolds her, as she has been doing through the decades of their friendship, and accuses her of gathering material for an autobiographical novel. Lila warns her against writing it and says that she will find the computer files and erase them. “I can protect myself,” Elena responds. Lila laughs “in her old mean way” and says, “Not from me.” Elena, now writing that very novel, is haunted by those three words, and reflects on the time, some 40 years earlier, when her first book was selling well and her dull fiancé, “so respectable in every detail,” came to Naples to meet her family. She was summoned by Lila, who had shut herself in her apartment “consumed by an unknown anguish.”
Lila talks to Elena all through that night, describing her wretched work at a sausage factory, where her boss molests women in the seasoning room, and explaining how she became involved in the anti-fascist movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Elena feels inferior and guilty: “This is the life that could have been mine, and if it isn’t, it’s partly thanks to her.” But there’s also a painful distance as Elena understands that she and Lila, who was forced to stop school after the fifth grade, do not speak the same language anymore. “The coarse language of the environment we came from was useful for attack or self-defense, but, precisely because it was the language of violence, it hindered, rather than encouraged, intimate confidences.”
One of the remarkable qualities of Ms. Ferrante’s work is her nuanced portrayal of class distinctions, especially among the working poor. Many American novelists, if they touch on class at all, confine themselves to the broad categories imposed by race and geography. But Ms. Ferrante exposes the intimate humiliations of being seated and served last at a wedding or the differences children discern between those whose parents take them to the sea and those, like Elena’s and Lila’s, who “weren’t like that, they didn’t have time, they didn’t have money, they didn’t have the desire.”
Ms. Ferrante’s books differ greatly not only from American novels but also from most modern ones. She writes like a classical tragedian dropped into the contemporary. The prose is not pretty; the sentences are long but not ornate. There’s a lack of waste, a sinewiness that fits the scalding directness of the story.
Lila herself seems a classical character, dominant and opaque, full of rage and fury. She is described as part saint, part mythic figure, with the remoteness of one and the almost unhuman force of the other. When Lila is called into her boss’s office after delivering a list of workers’ demands, “she went like that saint who, although she still has her head on her shoulders, is carrying it in her hands, as if it had already been cut off.” And one night in Florence, exhausted by her baby who refuses to sleep, Elena seems to “hear the sound of Gigliola’s voice, faint, repeating throughout the neighborhood that Lila had a tremendous power, that she could cast an evil spell by fire, that she smothered the creatures in her belly.”
“Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” is the story of a furious friendship, and the internal violence suffered by two women set against the turbulent landscape of a fractured Italy. Elena and Lila grow up, their lives converge and diverge, they have children, they share a passion for the same man, they leave their husbands. But essentially, this is a woman’s story told with such truthfulness that it is not so much a life observed as it is felt. The reader is ransacked and steps back into the world gingerly, with lingering questions about estrangement and belonging.
As Elena notes when she returns to Naples after a long absence, “As soon as I got off the train, I moved cautiously in the places where I had grown up, always careful to speak in dialect, as if to indicate I am one of yours, don’t hurt me.” But, as anyone who has left the fold recognizes, leaving never kills the tribe’s punitive power, only its redemptive one.