Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Neapolitan Novels, Book Three). Elena Ferrante.

Ferrante, Elena. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Neapolitan Novels, Book Three; see also books 1, 2, and 4). English translation by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 2014. Original title Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta. Edizioni E/O 2013. Kindle edition. F; 3/16.

This third book in Ferrante’s quartet extended my fascinated experience of Book One and Book Two. Romance, marriage, and sex are examined in ambiguous and failed marriages. Elena’s and Lila’s relationship gets even more difficult, intense, and obscure: Lila falls apart and becomes more distant at the same time as she is confirmed to be what Elena relies on and hopes for, but doesn’t understand and fears. Neighbourhood characters get more deeply into radical left-wing politics, contrasting the theory and the bloody reality.

(There are plot summaries at the beginning of Books Two, Three, and Four. The following roughly describing the action in Book Three would be a spoiler if you haven’t read it.)

Elena marries Pietro, enjoys the support of his rich well-connected academic family, has two daughters with him, and finds her literary career, originally successful, subject to ups and downs. She has an affair with Nino who is now married, and eventually has to concede to herself that he’s a mendacious womanizer. Lila escapes the sausage factory after pitching, in front of Elena, the precious original of her story The Blue Fairy which contains the embryo of Elena’s fiction success, into a burning garbage pile. Lila begins a relationship with Enzo Scanno, and between them they start a computer company.

The Solara brothers, both infatuated with Lila, each marry other neighbourhood characters, but their control of the business and economic affairs developing out of that neighbourhood tightens. It’s clear they are white-collar criminals and probably worse.

(No more spoiler alert)

Again my attention was divided between a complicated plot and human and philosophic questions. It’s clear the story’s significance centers on Lila, so like Elena I kept trying to figure out what is going on with her? Is she tuned in to something that is more real than the ordinary world where Elena lives, but much more terrifying? I sense in Lila a consistent precise vision that never deviates, but what kind of consistency does that really have? I remember the times she has viciously betrayed and pushed away her dearest friend.

There is a nice appreciation of student radicalism as an example of the force of political ideology. It made me nostalgically nervous, if you can be both at once, about our uncontested beliefs and behaviour in university in the 1960s and early 70s. Lila cuts to the bone dismissing sanctimonious rich educated liberals and professional students who have no idea of workers’ misery. I heard that message clearly then, and I still do now.

Women in the story watch men helplessly tumbling into violence when confronted with hard human conflicts. Ferrante’s female characters reemphasize her practical feminism:

Good or bad, all men believe that after every one of their undertakings you have to put them on an altar as if they were St. George slaying the dragon.

(Lila) had never felt what it was said she was supposed to feel when she was penetrated, that she was sure of, and not only with Stefano but also with Nino. Males were so attached to their penis, they were so proud of it, and they were convinced that you should be even more attached to it than they were.

I manage to find in these comments a reasonable female point of view, not something angry or aggressively divisive. I don’t think this author is anywhere near ruling out such a thing as a good man. She seems to me a rational skeptical female who recognizes in a guarded friendly way the differences between the sexes. Nobody is perfect.

By the end of this third book I understood again that in Elena’s relatively ordinary life two characters are terribly important but also dangerous: Lila and Nino. I don’t think it’s useful, or that we are intended by the author, to name what either or both of them represent. They are frightening but irresistible. They are the kind of people who leave us clinging for dear life to after-all simple childish motives, to keep from completely losing our way.

Speeding through the jumble of Ferrante’s plot events and ambiguous lives I can’t help wondering about these imaginary people, but it seems my response to them resembles my response to real people. That’s convincing fiction. Maybe we need, and so for better or worse we go out and find (or delegate, or create) people like that. Maybe we are people like that and we don’t know it. 9.6/9.2

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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