The city seemed to harbour in its guts a fury that couldn’t get out and therefore eroded it from the inside, or erupted in pustules on the surface, swollen with venom against everyone, children, adults, old people, visitors from other cities, Americans from NATO, tourists of every nationality, the Neapolitans themselves.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, Pg.27
The third instalment of Elena Ferrante’s stunning ‘masterpiece’ (as it has been described by some critics and I am inclined to agree) doesn’t disappoint. The novel opens up in the present and it is a shocking reminder that the events that have occurred so far are just the memories of one aged woman. Yet these memories are so vividly brought to life that it is as if we are watching them play out right in front of us. The protagonist, Elena, appears to be such a credible and trustworthy narrator that it is inconceivable that the events she describes may be tainted or distorted by the difficult act of remembering.
This interruption in the narrative also serves to remind us of the purpose for writing her history – a history that is so inextricably bound to Lila’s. She is hoping for an intervention, for Lila to come crashing back into her life, angry but present. She hopes that by writing Lila into existence again, she will come back to erase her work – as she warns Elena decades earlier.
Let me be, Lenu. Let us all be. We ought to disappear, we deserve nothing.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, Pg.28
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay covers the period from 1968-1976 and sees an increase in political and social unrest throughout the country. Both Elena and Lila are caught up in this conflict in differing ways as they try to play out their lives in an increasingly violent and fractured Italy. Elena, on the cusp of relative security about to marry into the well-respected Airota family, is on the outside looking in. Lila, singlehandedly bringing up her son whilst working full-time in a soul-destroying sausage factory, finds herself unwillingly in the midst of the student-worker uprisings. The gap between Elena and Lila is growing with time and distance. Elena has to work out how to be or become someone outside of the ties that bind her to Lila.
Become. It was a verb that had always obsessed me, but I realised it for the first time only in that situation. 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. Lila was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, Pg.346-7
As Elena becomes a mother twice over – ‘I was for the second time pregnant and yet empty’ (Pg.260) – she struggles with balancing family life and her career. These two spheres are often described as mutually exclusive of each other. As Elena carries out her duties as a mother and wife, it is impossible to find the time to write and what’s worse is that her creativity and will to write completely diminishes. She is disillusioned with marriage and motherhood and is suffocating under the exhausting chores which offer her no pleasure or escape. It is with this frame of mind and a chance encounter with someone from her childhood that allows for an escape – a freeing of the mind and soul.
I lay in bed, discontent with my situation as a mother, a married woman, the whole future debased by the repetition of domestic rituals in the kitchen, in the marriage bed.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, Pg.314
It is amazing how entwined Elena and Lila’s lives are even when they’re miles apart and traversing different social circles. Their pasts and presents merge into one another as they make similar choices and mistakes but at different stages in their lives. From Elena’s point of view, she is constantly comparing herself to Lila or seeking her approval. Lila holds an authority over her that cannot be quelled despite the small success she is making of herself as a writer. For Lila, Elena is more of a comforting figure; she is the only one who can quieten her when everything seems to be dissolving. In a way, the only time Elena has any authority over Lila is when she is mothering her. But, as Lila is quick to fall, she is just as quick to rise again.
Although I read these books only a few weeks ago, it is difficult to untangle them from one another; it is hard to remember exactly what events occurred in which novel. However, I think this is a credit to the Neapolitan series. The fact that they blend seamlessly into one another, without much repetition, explanation or reference to events that occurred previously, highlights the fact that these are not separate books; they belong together and cannot be read singularly, on their own – at least not if this is your first time reading them. Having said that, though, each novel in the Neapolitan series is so beautifully crafted. They each span different decades so you can subtly witness the changes occurring in southern Italy socially and politically, and the breadth of a life so that you witness two young girls grow into young adults and eventually aged ones. Ferrante also has a way of ending her novels at exactly the right time, almost on cliffhangers that makes you want to rush out and buy the next instalment, but at the same time her endings force you to reflect on the characters and the decisions they have made.
I said to myself that maturity consisted in accepting the turn that existence had taken without getting too upset, following a path between daily practices and theoretical achievements, learning to see oneself, know oneself, in expectation of great changes.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, Pg.353