Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is Book Three of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante (pseudonym for an unidentified Italian author). To read my reflections on Book One click here and Book Two click here.
Book Three, like One and Two is written in the first person perspective by Elena Greco (Lenù) as a memoir written in 2010. The books provide a fascinating insight into the mind of a Neapolitan woman born into poverty among the working class and everything in her life is overshadowed by organised crime. Lenù is exceptionally devoted to scholastic pursuits in a desperate attempt to climb into the world of the middle class and to master the tools used by men.
Book Three opens with a reflection from 2005 about Lenù’s last meeting with Lila, over 40 years into the future from the starting point of the narrative of the novel. After listening to David Mitchell on the BBC talking about his brilliant book, Cloud Atlas, I think that he would agree with Lenù’s world view:
Get away for good (from Naples), far from the life we’ve lived since birth. Settle in well-organized lands where everything really is possible. I had fled, in fact. Only to discover, in the decades to come, that I had been wrong, that it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth, it’s the universe, or universes.
At the opening of the novel, Lenù has just had a novel published and she tours Italy giving author talks. Her novel is semi-autobiographical and it became very successful partly because of her description of her mixed feelings about her first sexual experience, which for an female Italian author in the 1960s was unusual. While waiting to marry a supremely dull, arrogant and intelligent scholar with whom she studied at university (Pietro), Lenù returned to Naples and lived with her parents in the neighborhood. While there she became embroiled in Lila’s difficulties and enlisted the help of Pietro’s extremely well-connected mother. Lenù helps Lila to resign from her awful job in a sausage factory, to sue for her lost earnings, and to visit a few different types of doctors to discover why Lila is so unwell. Lenù meant well and tried her best to help Lila but she did it from an outsider’s perspective who didn’t understand the complexity of the neighborhood any longer.
Lenù and Lila visit a family planning clinic and are given prescriptions for oral contraceptives. When Lenù marries Pietro she tells him that she isn’t ready to have children and wants to take the pill. Pietro is difficult to understand. He claims to be agnostic but he is extremely knowledgeable about the bible. He refuses to marry Lenù in a church but won’t agree to her taking the pill. Sex with Pietro is unpleasant because he is mechanical and uncaring in bed and within 9 months of their marriage Lenù is pregnant. She enjoys her pregnancy but in her first year of her daughter (Dede) won’t sleep and Pietro won’t help.
Lena stops writing when Dede is born and doesn’t until her second child is a toddler. She doesn’t have any friends in Florence and Pietro expects her to not voice an opinion (not that Lenù often has any opinions of her own and I think that he recognizes that she just parrots what others say and can’t abide such dullness in conversation). So she is socially isolated and mentally stagnant.
I was Signora Airota… a woman depressed by submissiveness
Italy is in turmoil in the 1960s and 1970s and Ferrante brings a strong thread of student activism, fascist actions, socialist actions, communist actions, and feminist actions through the novel. Some of Lenù’s friends from the neighborhood and Lenù’s sister-in-law are very active and through them Lenù learns about the struggles, the motivations and forms her own opinions from their impassioned speeches.
Pietro repeatedly remarks on the intelligence of Lenù’s mother but Lena has never noticed that herself because her mother has always treated her unpleasantly, with hostility and sometimes brutally. Lenù can’t see past her mother’s permanent limp. When Lenù is struggling as a mother to Dede, her own mother comes to help her in Florence, and even though Lenù has the opportunity to make a different type of relationship with her mother, instead she treats her like a servant. When cholera sweeps through Naples, Lenù’s mother rushes back to her family. A few years later Lenù returns to the neigborhood for the first time and Lenù’s mother says to her:
‘I’ll take care of you don’t worry.’ Hardly. You’ve only thought of your own affairs, you didn’t give a damn about us.
In their middle years, enigmatic Lila maintains control of their friendship. It is a fraught relationship and while Lenù sometimes hopes that Lila will die, other times she feels only part of a whole without interaction with Lila. Ferrante makes insightful comments about the subjugation of women and the need for women to break out of cultural restraints:
I, at last, felt alive, digging into words and among words, I sometimes imagined what my life and Lila’s would have been if we had both taken the test for admission to middle school and then high school, if together we had studied to get our degree, elbow to elbow, allied, a perfect couple, the sum of intellectual energies, of the pleasures of understanding and the imagination. We would have written together, we would have been authors together, we would have drawn power from each other, we would have fought shoulder to shoulder because what was ours was inimitably ours. The solitude of women’s minds is regrettable, I said to myself, it’s a waste to be separated from each other, without procedures, without tradition. Then I felt as if my thoughts were cut off in the middle, absorbing and yet defective, with an urgent need for verification, for development, yet without conviction, without faith in themselves. The the wish to telephone her returned, to tell her: Listen to what I’m thinking about, please let’s talk about it together… But the opportunity was gone, lost decades ago. I had to learn to be satisfied with myself.
At the end of the novel Lila accuses Lenù of diving into the neighborhood when it suits her and not understanding the daily struggles that everyone faces and the complex motivations that dictate their actions. Lenù is judgemental and Lila rebels against that and strikes out to wound Lenù:
Lila “You don’t know anything about us any more, so it’s better if you say nothing”
Lenù “You mean I can only criticize you if I live in Naples?”
Lila “Naples, Florence: you aren’t doing anything anywhere.”
It’s a great novel. I learnt a lot about the political struggles in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s. I admire the barely contained anger that pulses through Ferrante’s writing. I enjoy her comments on class, gender and politics. What I love most are the instants when Ferrante holds up a mirror to Lenù, usually it’s Lila holding the mirror and although her manner is often hurtful, what she says about Lenù is always accurate. Often I felt a bit frustrated that Lenù refused to reflect on what Lila reveals to her about herself. Obviously the Lenù that wrote the memoir has reflected on these things but the Lenù living in the moment doesn’t pause and that makes her a sometimes irritating protagonist. I feel like grabbing her by the hand and gently insisting that she pause, reflect and accept that she is wrong. This line by Lila is likely to resonate with many other readers and not just me!
Ah, Lenù, what happens to us all, we’re like pipes when the water freezes, what a terrible thing a dissatisfied mind is.