Thursday, 28 August 2014

'Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay' by Elena Ferrante (Review)

While Women in Translation Month is all about highlighting the overlooked, it's also nice to celebrate those female writers who have already managed to become well known in the Anglosphere.  Of course, if you're looking for big-name female writers in translation, nobody quite seems to have captured attention over the past year or so like Elena Ferrante, the elusive, reclusive Italian writer whose Neapolitan Novels have impressed so many readers.

With the third in the series about to be released, Ferrante's reputation seems set to keep rising, but does the latest instalment measure up to her earlier books?  Well, I'll let you know very soon, but be warned -  it's impossible to discuss this book without giving away details from My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New NameIf you'd prefer not to know, please look away now...

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (translated by Ann Goldstein, e-copy supplied by Europa Editions) continues seamlessly from The Story of a New Name, with Lenù introducing her new novel at a bookshop.  When a middle-aged man is less than complimentary about her work, she's taken aback, so it's fortunate that a white knight appears to defend her - none other than Nino Sarratore, her childhood friend (and crush...).

While Nino disappears again soon after, his work as a university lecturer means that he's in the same field as Lenù's fiancé, Pietro, and it's inevitable that they will catch up again.  Lila, however, is back in Naples, and with little contact between the two old friends, it seems as if their friendship has finally run its course.  Little does Lenù know, though, that she's fated to return to her hometown again and again - it's not quite as easy to turn her back on Naples as she'd like...

Those Who leave..., the third book in the Neapolitan Novels series (the series was originally meant to be a trilogy, but it will now extend to four books), looks at the friends' adult years, with a focus on marriage, kids and work, as well as a generational shift.  The spotlight, though, is on Lenù, as we are shown her life in Florence after marriage.  Initially, she is overjoyed by her success as a writer, but this soon passes and her liking for her new family also turns sour:
"...what am I to the Airotas, a jewel in the crown of their broad-mindedness?.." 
p.50 (Europa Editions, 2014)
With the inevitable, premature addition of kids, the intelligent writer soon gets bogged down in the minutiae of domestic life, her plans of a glittering career slowly fading beneath a pile of nappies.  It's a bit of a dull life...

Outside Lenù's apartment, though, things are a little less sedate.  This is the late sixties, a time of unrest throughout Europe, and students are rioting in the hope of creating a new world order.  In these tempestuous times, especially in the universities, there is a real sense of danger, from which Pietro is certainly not exempt (he's not exactly a man of the new era...).  While her next book is a bit of a struggle, Lenù is able to dabble in journalism, tempted into becoming a voice of the people.

While her friend plays with theory in Florence, Lila is living the practice down south.  Nothing seems to get on top of her, and even in a exploitative factory, her intelligence shines through.  She soon becomes a focus for action against the management, and as the pressure builds, matters are always going to come to a head.  You see, in terms of violence, whatever the rest of Italy can do, Naples can always do better...

Those Who Leave... is an entertaining book, but, in truth, I don't quite rate it as highly as I did the first two; there's a sense of its being a bridging book, a continuation of The Story of a New Name and a set up for the final part of the series.  Part of the beauty of the first two books was the electric relationship between the two women, a tie which, while never broken, was often stretched or tangled:
"I simply listened, overwhelmed.  With her, there was no way to feel that things were settled; every fixed point of our relationship sooner or later turned out to be provisional; something shifted in her head that unbalanced her and unbalanced me." (p.222)
This is largely absent here as the two women go about their separate lives, and even when they do meet, it's usually in the presence of others, and the expected confrontation is avoided.  Several times the tension builds to what we think will be a dramatic scene, only for the emotions to ebb away without ever coming to the boil.

The focus here is much more on Lenù, and that isn't necessarily a good thing.  Her life in Florence, as mentioned, is a little dull, and she actually develops into a fairly unpleasant character over the course of the novel, particularly in the second half.  In My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, she is our voice, our eyes, and she always cut a fairly sympathetic figure, especially when Lila managed to bring her down with a sarcastic comment.  Not any more - at times, she's downright obnoxious...

Why?  Well, throughout the second half of the book, she shows herself to be selfish, lazy and aggressive, in addition to being annoyingly passive when she should be doing getting things done.  The story is basically setting up Nino's return, and this means that poor Pietro is in for some pretty shoddy treatment.  I actually thought that for much of this book, a view through the husband's eyes would have been much more interesting, looking at the friends and their families with the eyes of an outsider.  Perhaps we'd see Lenù then in a very different light.

Again, I hasten to assure you all that I did enjoy the book, and I do think it's worth reading.  However, it's not a book that can really be enjoyed without having read the previous two novels first, and I still believe that it doesn't quite match up to those.  Having said that, I suspect that my doubts will be set against a tidal wave of support for the book when other reviews start coming in.  One of the key ideas of the novel is the frustration Lenù feels at being stuck at home with the children, having to put her career on hold while she sacrifices herself for her family, and I suspect that this aspect of the story will be appreciated far more by other readers.

The reality, though, is that Those Who Leave... spends a lot of its pages building up to the final book in the series.  The lack of interaction between Lila and Lenù in this third volume is slightly frustrating - surely the final book has to bring their relationship to a head:
"Too many bad things, and some terrible, had happened over the years, and to regain our old intimacy we would have had to speak our secret thoughts, but I didn't have the strength to find the words and she, who perhaps had the strength, didn't have the desire, didn't see the use." (p.19)
I have a feeling the climax to the Neapolitan Novels will be a rather stormy one.  This is a relationship which needs to be examined further, and I'm hopeful that the two friends will finally get to the core of their friendship next time.  It's definitely time for a good, long talk, one in which those 'secret thoughts' are finally revealed...