I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition. I had wanted to become something—here was the point—only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.
She was like the full moon when it crouches behind the forest and the branches scribble on its face.
Near the beginning of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third installment in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, our narrator, Elena Greco, encounters her own novel in a bookshop: “I was there, exposed, and seeing myself caused a violent pounding in my chest. I felt that not only in my book but in novels in general there was something that truly agitated me, a bare and throbbing heart.”
Ferrante’s novels, six of which have now been translated by Ann Goldstein into English, possess, too, such “bare and throbbing hearts.” Ferrante’s narrators, women who employ a viscerally candid first person, speak to us about their childhoods, their morbid fear of becoming their mothers, their daily trials and anxieties, their desire and disgust. They hold nothing back in their interrogations of motherhood, daughterhood, marriage, sex, love, success, and contentment. While Ferrante’s three earliest works—Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter, and The Days of Abandonment—are unflinching descents into their narrators’ unraveling psyches, the Neapolitan novels—My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and now Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay—expand outward. They capture not only the intimate musings of a narrator who grows up before our eyes but a panorama of postwar Italy, intricately peopled with a vital supporting cast, including the indelible Lila. Elena’s torturous, lifelong friendship with Lila drives the entire sequence: “her shadow goaded me, depressed me, filled me with pride, deflated me, giving me no rest.” Their mercurial dynamic fuels their lives, which in turn fuel Elena’s stories, the pages we are reading.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay picks up where The Story of a New Name left off, Italy in the late 1960s. Its title suggests a clear dichotomy: Elena, now in her twenties, has finally done “the essential thing” and escaped from the violent, vivid neighborhood in Naples where she grew up; Lila has been left behind. Elena’s debut novel has thrust her onto the Italian literary scene; she is engaged to marry Pietro, the scion of a prominent family of intellectuals; they are moving to Florence, where he has a position at the university. Lila, once the “terrible, dazzling girl,” best at everything, has broken up her own marriage; she has taken her infant son to a decrepit apartment; she is supporting him by working in a sausage factory. The friendship is, for the most part, “confined to a tangle of vibrating breaths along the telephone wires.” If she wanted, it seems, Elena could truly leave behind the past she has spent her entire youth trying to overcome.
But a life is not so easily wiped clean. As Ferrante’s previous novels attest, such crisp summations are not to be trusted. Just as the eponymous “brilliant friend” in the first of the Neapolitan novels is at once Lila and Elena, and the “new name” in the second belongs both to just-married Lila and just-published Elena, there are definitions of leaving and staying unrelated to geography. As Elena bluntly laments: “Hers was a life in motion, mine was stopped.” Lila, in her squalid home, prematurely haggard, ruining her hands and her health in the factory, is also intensely alive, living each day with urgency, politically active and fighting for better working conditions. She has grown up in a way that Elena, anxious and repressed, in a state of arrested development, struggles even to imagine. Elena finds herself quickly slipping into a supporting role behind her husband, sacrificing her own ambition to raise their daughters and massage his ego. Olga’s regrets in The Days of Abandonment are also Elena’s: “I had taken away my own time and added it to his to make him more powerful.” Indeed, Elena’s bleak views on married life—she claims to remember nothing of her wedding; she condemns the institution of marriage as one that “strips coitus of all humanity”—echo the enraged narrators of Ferrante’s early novels.
If Elena is “the knight in an ancient romance, wrapped in his shining armor,” then Lila is “a ragged, starving herdsman, who, never leaving his pasture, subdues and controls horrible beasts with his bare hands, and with prodigious courage.” Elena’s old fear, that she will be forever in Lila’s shadow, is as debilitating as ever. Yet as the long course of their friendship attests, Elena can’t bear to be outdone for long, and she proves herself Lila’s equal in tenacity. They continue to feed off one another, sometimes symbiotically, sometimes vampirically. And in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, their rivalry takes an insidious form in the novel’s central drama: their fraught relationships with Nino, a boy they grew up with. Nino was Elena’s first love, back when they were children, but in The Story of a New Name, she is forced to watch and eventually abet Lila’s adulterous affair with him. On the night they consummate their affair, Elena, in a desperate act of jealousy and rivalry, loses her virginity to Nino’s lecherous father. Nino and Lila’s love, tender and maddening, burns itself out, and they abandon one another. But when Nino walks back into Elena’s life, at a signing on her book tour, she is seduced again, despite everything.
We see her, early on, trying to think about him rationally:
Nino would last a single night, he would leave me in the morning. Even though I had known him forever, he was made of dreams, and holding on to him forever would have been impossible: he came from childhood, he was constructed out of childish desires, he had no concreteness, he didn’t face the future. Pietro, on the other hand, was of the present, massive, a boundary stone. He marked a land new to me, a land of good reasons, governed by rules that originated in his family and endowed everything with meaning.
Pietro represents everything she thinks she wants from life, Nino everything she thinks she wants to escape. Crucially, though, Nino is also entwined with Lila; she loved him, she had him, she lost him. Elena’s attraction to him is, equally, a desire to succeed where Lila failed.
Elena reflects, at one point, on whether or not she ever harbored sexual feelings for her friend, admitting that she admired her body yet concluding, chillingly, “we would have been beaten to death.” The threat of violence over their childhoods precluded any sort of experimentation. But Elena is beguiled by Lila’s sexuality, by her teenage marriage and passionate affair. In one of his first conversations with Elena in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Nino bitterly tells her that Lila is “really made badly: in her mind and in everything, even when it comes to sex.” Elena becomes obsessed with those words, at once viciously glad to hear of Lila’s failing and terrified that she will receive the same censure.
Over the course of several months, Ferrante delicately, inexorably builds up to Elena and Nino’s eventual affair. They mask their feelings with coldness and avoid any sort of physical contact, a lack filled up with erotic charge: “I felt like a drop of rain in a spider web,” Elena writes, “and I was careful not to slide down.” As time passes, her idolatrous view of Nino suffers blow after blow: his treatment of Lila, his abandonment of a subsequent lover and the baby she had by him, his cruelty to Elena’s husband. In the illogic of falling in love, she desires him all the more. And when they finally come together, it’s a detonation: “Ever since I was a child I had constructed for myself a perfect self-repressive mechanism. Not one of my true desires had ever prevailed, I had always found a way of channeling every yearning. Now enough, I said to myself, let it all explode, me first of all.” Knowing full well the fallout for Elena’s family, the pain to be endured by her young daughters, we can’t help but recognize an act of self-preservation.
Ferrante, masterful at describing bodies and bodily functions, has said that “we have to activate all our physical resources as writers and readers to make it function. Writing and reading are great investments of physicality.” The chaotic passion of Elena and Nino’s first lovemaking is a physical release, accustomed as we are to Elena’s elegant and controlled style:
We embraced with a fury that I had never known, as if our bodies were crashing against each other with the intention of breaking. So pleasure was this: breaking, mixing, no longer knowing what was mine and what was his. Even if Pietro had appeared, if the children had looked in, they would have been unable to recognize us. I whispered in his mouth:
“Then come back, swear you’ll come back.”
“And call me.”
“Tell me you won’t forget me, tell me you won’t leave me, tell me you love me.”
“I love you.”
“Say it again.”
“I love you.”
“Swear that it’s not a lie.”
We want badly to believe in this catechism, clichéd as it is. To see Elena lose herself entirely to passion, despite all of her insecurities and cynicisms, takes our breath. In the torturous months that follow, she steals more and more moments for her secret life, locking herself in telephone booths as her daughters anxiously wait outside, inventing reasons to go away for the night, becoming entirely consumed by her furious desire.
She also swings wildly between certainty that Nino loves her and crushing doubt. She is haunted, as she has been since childhood, by a fear of inescapable cycles: that she will become her mother, inheriting her limp; that Nino has already become his father, ardent but easily bored; that she will never transcend her background. Most of all, she fears that what she and Nino have is nothing special: “Was this mad love of ours the repeat of other mad loves? Was this wanting me, careless of everything else, making use of a prototype, was it the way he had wanted Lila? . . . Were we not doing but redoing?” Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay ends on a note of trembling uncertainty; the final installment of the series, scheduled to publish in English a year from now, will hinge on that last question.
Then again, Ferrante’s entire literary career, stretching over the past quarter of a century, could be seen as a study of the boundary line between doing and redoing. In a letter to Sandra Ozzola, her Italian publisher and one of the founders of Europa Editions, Ferrante writes:
The stories you tell, the words you use and work on, the characters you try to give life to, are only tools with which you circle around the evasive thing, unnamed and shapeless, which belongs only to you, and which is a sort of key to all the doors, the true reason that you spend so much of your life sitting at a table tapping the keys, filling pages. The question of every story is always: is this the right story to seize what lies silent in the depths of me, that living thing which, if captured, spreads through all the pages and animates them?
While each of her novels is uniquely beguiling, they interrogate a shared set of concerns and obsessions, with bracing narrative frankness. The cumulative effect of her oeuvre is that of reading the distillation of someone’s deepest, most furtive thoughts.
The Neapolitan novels, narrated as they are by a woman who shares their author’s name and occupation, seem deliberately autobiographical. And so Fragments, a collection of Ferrante’s interviews and letters published electronically by Europa, is a fascinating double for Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, both voiced by an “I” named Elena who comments with uncanny resonance on what it means to be a novelist. But with Ferrante, of course, we must mistrust such easy correspondences. Indeed, there is a crucial difference between Elena Greco and Elena Ferrante: while the former writes, in part, to make hers a name “that would be charged with light for eternity,” the latter has managed, throughout her career, to remain completely anonymous. The name “Elena Ferrante” is as much a fiction as her character’s, untethered to even the most basic facts.
In a recent interview, Ferrante explained that, for her, “the passion to write never coincided with the desire to become a writer.” In Italy, where the cult of celebrity can be especially toxic, her anonymity is not a denial of the presence of herself in her works (“what lies silent in the depths of me”) but, rather, of “the media emphasis, the predominance of the icon of the author over his work.” She repeats again and again in Fragments that although she brings her novels to life, they must then be allowed to stand alone, separate from her.
Ferrante’s fear of exposure seems tinged as well with a bitter awareness of the particular plight of women in the media glare. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, we see the damage wrought by a conflation of book and body, in a scathing headline in Italy’s most widely read newspaper: “Salacious Memoirs of an Ambitious Girl: Elena Greco’s Début Novel.” The male reviewer’s vitriol, his condescending criticism of the “ambitious girl” daring to write about sex, is overtly misogynistic; his description of her “titillating pages of mediocre triviality” echoes countless dismissals of female authorship. Elena’s discomfort reaches its apex when she sees her smiling photograph between the columns of text. The review does lead to a spike in book sales, but the subtext is clear: Elena is selling herself, too.
When Lila reads Elena’s debut, as well as the book that follows it, she can’t hide her disdain for the clearly autobiographical material: “She said that the disgusting face of things was not enough for writing a novel: without imagination it didn’t seem a true face but a mask.” Lila’s condemnation conjures a line from Ferrante’s 2003 interview with La Repubblica: “The true reader, I think, searches not for the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood, who makes herself beautiful for the occasion, but the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word.” We find the truth in the art, the crafted text. It is Lila, rather than Elena, who echoes the definition of the novel put forth in Fragments. Never mind that we know nothing about the person behind the name “Elena Ferrante”: by the end of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, we realize that it is in the composite of Elena and Lila—the novelist and the woman who creates novels “with real people, with real blood, in reality”—that we see the clearest portrait of a writer, struggling to square a passion with a life.
Caroline Bleeke previously reviewed Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel for Music & Literature.