Elena Ferrante: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

This is the third of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, and in the course of the friendship between Raffaella / Lila and Elena / Lena which these novels map it marks the point where they are the furthest apart, so much in fact that rather than braided it appears as a case of parallel lives.

The novel’s title, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, quite clearly marks the reason for this distance: while Lena continues to move away from Naples, both geographically and socially, Lila stays – she briefly moves to another part of the city, but finally returns to their old neighbourhood – even after the parting from er husband. There is barely any contact between the two friends at all during the first half of the novel, and the book’s structure reflects this: It starts out with several chapters dedicated to the developments in Lena’s life, then switching to Lila as Lena (and with her the reader) catch with what has been happening to her in the meantime. But eve as the friends are physically and spiritually apart, they continue to be connected by a bond – each still is the other’s dark guiding star, each is for the other – in increasingly obscure and difficult to understand ways – their ideal existence, having what she secretly desires but cannot have because she took the wrong path at some stage in her life. It probably is this which allows the two to reconnect again after their long parting and initiate a slow process of approaching each other again.

Both friends are grown women by now, and this volume takes place mostly during the seventies, and even more than even in the second novel events in the wider world play heavily into individual lives here. It is a time where the ideals of late sixties begin to wear thin, where it becomes increasingly clear and finally undeniable that the better world so many had hoped for ist not going to manifest any time soon, which basically leads to two opposing reactions among those who hoped for that better world – either they resign and turn inward, retreat into their private lives, or they turn outward and become even more radical, finally even openly violent towards the existing system. This split runs not only through the friendship between Lila and Lena but through all of their friends, too, and leads to some very painful ruptures and, in some cases, tragedy.

And in a way, the split runs through this latter half of the Neapolitan Novels, too: In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the metafictional thread has become so thin as to be almost invisible, while on the other hand it the most openly political of the novels (and things will be the precise reverse in the final novel, The Story of the Lost Child). And if the second volume already dared to be very unfashionable with its unabashed advocacy of feminism, then this third one tops that by speaking very clearly and very loudly in favour of something even  more unfashionable and (supposedly) discredited, namely socialism and the labour movement. With both Lena and Lila coming from poor families, and both rising (at least temporarily) into the high and petit bourgeoisie respectively, the Neapolitan Novels always have been very class-conscious; but this reaches its culmination here with Lena’s circle of friends becoming increasingly involved in increasingly radical politics while Lila experiences working life first hand as labourer in a factory.

Ferrante (and I do think it’s her rather than just the  narrator) makes her sympathies for the oppressed lower classes very clear in this novel, but she does not flinch away from the more questionable aspects of radical left politics – the fruitless debates, the way the class struggle breeds violence on both sides, and finally, terrorism. As all the hopes and dreams of the late sixties are either smashed or perverted one after the other, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay turns into the by far saddest instalment of the series, becoming at times outright bleak and is kept from being depressive only by the continuing use of the melodrama structure of the narrative – the reader remains aware that, no matter how bad things are, there always is hope in soap opera, as each episodes ends with a  “To Be Continued.”

And again, I find myself marvelling how this series of novels could become bestsellers – while part of their success is certainly due to Elena Ferrante’s deft use of melodrama to keep readers turning the pages, her subject matter and her emphatically non-sugarcoating way of treating it make them a rather unlikely candidate. Also, The Neapolitan Novels, while not exactly breaking new literary ground, show an awareness of form and a degree of reflection of themselves as writing that alone would raise them head and shoulders above the usual reading fodder filling the bestseller lists. These novels, while always humane and touching, emphatically are no comfort read, as becomes especially clear in this volume, and while reading it, I needed to pinch myself from time to time to make sure that yes, they really were widely read and even loved.

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