Elena Ferrante’s anger apparent in tale of women’s struggles
November 9, 2014
THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY Elena Ferrante Text $29.99
This is the third volume of Elena Ferrante’s Naples quartet to appear in English, and while I may be projecting my enthusiasm here, I would be surprised if anyone who has read the first two needed any prompting to seek it out. And if you haven’t read Ferrante yet this is a good opportunity to start from the beginning.
It’s a challenging beguilement, this story of the fraught, competitive friendship between the narrator, Elena, and the brilliant Lila, the angry, wayward one, both in flight from lower-class 1950s Naples. There is nothing soft or easy about these books, they are almost rebarbative in their refusal to be nice; they are also captivating in their high intelligence, their evocation of the still-powerful past, and their propulsive narrative drive.
By now it’s the late ’60s. Elena has published a novel and married an academic from a well-known intellectual family. The sales of her novel aren’t at all impeded when it’s attacked by older male critics, scandalised by its sexual frankness – a recurring theme is how hard it is for Elena to get men to take her writing seriously – but the frankness has also made Elena a target. Supposed friends tell her spitefully they won’t have her dirty book in the house and at school her younger sister is abused; the intellectual men Elena now meets also treat her as if she were easy. Meanwhile, Lila, married young and now separated in scandalous circumstances, has gone severely down in the world. Her job at a salami factory, where the conditions are appalling, brings her into uncomfortable contact with left-wing activists; it also inspires Elena to write an expose of the factory for the press. Elena’s straight-arrow husband Pietro is snubbed and harassed by more radical colleagues and students, and Elena joins a women’s group run by her sister-in-law and writes a feminist monograph about how women are the creation of men. Meanwhile, the friendship between Lila and Elena, less close than in previous volumes, continues to exert a hold on them both. When Lila calls, Elena comes: lovers pass between them, they attack – or more exactly, Lila does – and withdraw, each is a mirror and a catalyst, a goad, for the other. Ferrante never writes for effect, is never merely stylish; the prose is plain, almost austerely so, while given an energy by the force and reach of its perceptions. And, as is often noted about Ferrante, by its rage, its disciplined, incisive anger at all the powers of the world deployed against women. It would be a mistake to think of her writing as artless. Ferrante’s integration of the historical background is always unforced and never seems dutifully explicit or flatly chronological. Sometimes the disruptions of the time come close, as in the sequence about the factory or when one or other of the characters goes missing or is murdered, and sometimes, like the Lockheed bribery scandal of the early 1970s, they are disposed of in a line or Elena tells us her attention was simply elsewhere. History appears as it is experienced, with gaps and absences, not as reconstructed from hindsight. The effect is highly intimate and unpretentiously, even casually epic: the characters make their own destinies while they are made and remade by desire and happenstance and the political and social energies of the times: force and counter-force, oppression and resistance. The social novel lives on in Ferrante, and unlike in some of her American colleagues, there is no trace of positioning, no self-conscious attempt to resurrect a tradition. These books demanded to be written just as they are. They’re like nothing else going.