Ferrante fever is about to go into overdrive again when the fourth and final part of Elena Ferrante’s extraordinarily successful series of novels is published in a couple of weeks (and yes I have it on pre-order).
Those who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third novel of the four part Neapolitan series begins in the present – 2005 – with a reminder of why Elena is telling this story of hers and Lila’s lives. In 2005 Elena and Lila are in their sixties when Lila disappears – Elena knows Lila better than anyone, and she understands that Lila has both the will and the resourcefulness to vanish completely if she so desires. This disappearance so annoys Elena that she begins to write the story of their friendship through the changes that childhood, adolescence, education, marriage and ambition bring to their lives. Elena knows how furious Lila would be at her writing their story, perhaps angry enough to crawl back out of the woodwork. This series of novels (for anyone who doesn’t know) is the story of a complex, competitive often destructive friendship between two intelligent women who grew up in a volatile, vibrant neighbourhood of Naples.
Returning to the past, Elena picks up the story of Lila and Elena where the second novel ended, with Elena visiting Lila at the sausage factory belonging to Bruno Soccavo. Having left her husband Lila works at the factory while living with childhood friend, Enzo away from the neighbourhood where the girls grew up. Elena meanwhile, having originally left for university, is still living in Pisa, engaged to Pietro Airota a brilliant young academic; she has recently published a controversial novel, and is planning to move to Florence after her marriage. At an event to publicise her novel Elena sees Nino Sarratore, and all her old feelings come flooding back. Nevertheless, Elena intends to go ahead with her wedding which will see her part of a well thought of academic family, she has a determination to escape the Neapolitan streets where she grew up.
Lila becomes heavily involved in the violent confrontation that blows up between student activists, communists and fascists. Lila seeks to expose the harsh working conditions in Soccavo’s factory, even at great risk to herself. Resurrecting that fierce intelligence with which Elena always competed, Lila speaks openly and scathingly at meetings about the daily practices at the factory, and Elena using her newly acquired contacts writes and publishes an article about the working conditions at the factory.
“Can you imagine what it means to go in and out of refrigerated rooms at twenty degrees below zero, and get ten lire more an hour – ten lire – for cold compensation? If you imagine this, what do you think you can learn from people who are forced to live like that?”
Lila’s health had suffered during this volatile period of conflict, and during one of Elena’s visits home Lila had sent for her. This is typical of Lila and Elena’s relationship – they drift in out of one another’s life, frequently they are physically separated from each other through living now in different cities, their friendship existing in the connection of their shared past, and occasional phone calls. Yet the women come together at times of great crisis and when Lila is suffering and in need Elena is there. Lila returns to the old neighbourhood where they grew up, living with Enzo still, the feud with her estranged husband seemingly at an end. Elena, marries her professor and moves to Florence, intending to write another book.
“People died of carelessness, of corruption, of abuse, and yet, in every round of voting, gave their enthusiastic approval to the politicians who made their life unbearable.”
Ferrante is particularly adept at portraying this late 60’s early 70’s political radicalising among certain sections of Italian society. The world is changing in many places, yet in the old neighbourhood where Lila and Enzo return to – many things stay the same. Where once the feared Don Achille ruled, the Solara’s have taken over; Michele is still trying to induce Lila to work for him, his old obsession for her never quite forgotten. Marcello Solara however, much to Elena’s disgust has taken up with Elisa – Elena’s younger sister.
In Florence, Elena is soon a mother; the writing she had planned takes a back seat to her domestic duties as she struggles with a young baby, while her husband spends his days at the University, waging strange battles of his own, and his nights writing an important academic book. Marriage is difficult for Elena; Pietro is self-absorbed and often selfish. Nino Sarratore; Lila and Elena’s friend from childhood is never far from her thoughts; Elena can never quite free herself from her once great, unrequited love. So when Nino turns up in Florence, Elena’s world is thrown into confused disarray.
“Marriage by now seemed to me an institution that, contrary to what one might think, stripped coitus of all humanity.”
Those who Leave and Those who Stay – is more about Elena than Lila, focussing on her struggles with marriage and motherhood, her sense of having lost something of herself as her ambitions are thwarted by the realities of her new life. I really did enjoy this third instalment, it remains very readable, so well written, characters are explored in depth and Ferrante recreates the times in which they live brilliantly. The one thing that stops this instalment being quite as brilliant as the first two novels is that Lila and Elena are together much less. The first two novels are driven by the complex, ever changing relationship of Lila and Elena, their competitiveness with each other, and their tendency for each of them to assess themselves by comparison with the other. However this novel is vital to understand these two women as they move from very young women to women in their early thirties. The changes that take place in their lives because of work or motherhood are the changes which many women find take them away from the people, places and dreams of their adolescence.