Book Review

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

truly one of the greatest recent works of fiction

Written on the tenth of May; held back due to global political uproar being too distracting for me lolololol

I don’t know why I didn’t read this years ago. But I didn’t, and now I have. It was, of course, excellent.

You (whoever you are) have probably already read Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third of the four books in Elena Ferrante’s widely and wildly acclaimed Neapolitan Novels series. You’ve probably read it because reading it is a very good idea, because it’s a very very very good novel.

Like the Proust (and like the Knausgaard) that this series is often compared to, the narrator-protagonist is memorialising their life. Here, in book three, we go from early twentiesish through to early thirtiesish, I think, and in that period Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein) explores family and marriage and parenthood and creativity and sacrifice and regret and desire and all the other things that big, important, novels are about.

This one is set much less in Naples itself than the first two novels of the series, as Elena Greco (later called Elena Airota) lives in Florence with her dull husband, Pietro, for most of the book.

Ferrante evokes a naive awe towards middle class lives that was very similar to what I experienced from my teenage years onward, and I think maybe the reason why I never read the third and fourth books in the series was that Ferrante’s exploration of class was just too moving/distressing/familiar for me. (I believe the word I was looking for there was “triggering” – added in July)

Maybe, though, I just stopped reading them out of an ingrained sexism that I’ve shed[ded] in the years since I last read a Ferrante. My reading covers a much wider authorial demographic in 2020 than it did in 2016.

///

I’ve been reading a lot during the last couple of months, of course, having had the gift of time and the curse of too much anxiety to do anything productive, and i’m very glad i remembered the second half of this four-book series existed while I’m still likely to have weeks (if not months) more left to spend lost in books.

///

Ferrante writes about friendship and family, about education and sexism and the often-present conservative streaks in avowed progressives.

When Elena Greco marries Pietro, she isn’t just marrying a man, she’s marrying a world, a social strata.

Through the connections of her mother-in-law, she is able to get a novel published to lots of acclaim (plus some notoriety), which she then follows up with a few well-received and politically-charged journalistic essays, but then her marriage and then pregnancy and then childcare take up more of her time.

Her liberal, academic husband proves to have distinctly unprogressive attitudes towards domestic arrangements, and Elena rush-writes what her mother-in-law calls a poor, unpublishable, second novel, and then abandons writing for a few years as she is distracted and unfulfilled by unshared responsibilities in the home. It’s deeply affecting, and contrasted this time with the much-more positive life of Lila, the “brilliant friend” of the first book’s title.

At the start of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Lila has stayed in the Naples region, but left the neighbourhood (and technically the city itself) to live, chastely, with a “common-law” husband. She is working a menial job at a sausage factory and batting off sexual harassment from colleagues and employers, while also being pursued by the local communist activists as someone articulate and able to offer accurate, detailed, descriptions of working life inside a meat plant.

At the start of this book book, Lila is in a bad situation and Elena is in a good one, but these roles reverse as Lila begins studying computer programming and, with her partner who she eventually begins fucking, starts working lucrative jobs in the rising tech sector.

I mean, I dunno, I’m just reiterating the plot in a less articulate manner, this is pointless.

The book is great. It’s moving and human and exciting while being realistic and real. There are a few small fights and some serious “off-screen” violence, but these were the political and organised-crime struggles of the period, and Ferrante never makes violence anything but dirty and pedestrian. There is no glamorisation of it, but also no escalation of its fears. There were terrorists all over Europe at this time, of course there were some in Italy.

I dunno i dunno i dunno

i’m i’m

it’s a bit depressing, tho, living in a not especially exciting city (ok the lake is nice but the free zoo is closed and I cannot distract myself by working rn) while in lockdown (last week, I described my time in Canada in the covid lockdown as a purgatory within a purgatory, and I haven’t been able to forget the phrase): there is life in the world, innit, there are beautiful cities and phenomenal food and though in lockdown i can eat good food if i cook it myself and i can drink great wine if i can bother to source it, but what i can’t do is like go outside or go into places that are inspiring or speak to people in real life, which isn’t something I’d realised i valued, no not valued, needed.

I didn’t realise it was something I needed: interaction, a social life, is something I have never valued. Obligations to not turn down invitations to Zoom social events: I don’t want to do more than I am doing, but I wish the invites came from people I’m interested in speaking to. I suppose, though, that has to come from my own initiative.

Christ, I’m bored.

Reading Ferrante reminded me both how much I miss Italy (lol soooooooooooo middleclass), and also how much I miss events, interaction, of how much I miss narrative plot in the reality of existence.

Nothing is happening – to me – at the moment, and it’s fucking tiresome. Great literature is meant to be a wonderful distraction from life, not an alternative to Super Mario Odyssey. This book was so good it reminded me of how dull my life is in this covid limbo.

I want to do something I regret: I haven’t done anything I regret for AGES, and it’s only regrettable actions that makes one feel alive, right?

Who knows?

Yeah, we should all read Ferrante. And behave badly.


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1 comment on “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

  1. Pingback: the story of the lost child by elena ferrante – Triumph Of The Now

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