One of my favourite discoveries of 2014 was Elena Ferrante whose My Brilliant Friend I read after numerous recommendations. The Story of a New Name quickly followed and now, having completed Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third volume in her series of Neapolitan novels, I am left awaiting volume four later this year like everyone else who has been converted to her talents as a writer. My Brilliant Friend is such an impressive novel that it has been difficult for the subsequent volumes to make a similar impact, particularly as the mirroring between the narrator, Elena, and her childhood friend, Lila has weakened as their lives have taken different paths: ”It’s the fault of our lives diverging, the fault of distance.”
The first volume ended with Lila in ascendance. Despite her intellectual brilliance she had been unable to continue with her education, seemingly giving Elena the advantage as she goes on to succeed academically with university beckoning. However, Lila instead marries Stefano who owns the local grocery store, allowing her and her family a more prosperous life, and also making Elena feel Lila has grown up in a way she hasn’t. In volume two, roles reverse. Lila’s marriage to Stefano falls apart and she leaves him for Nino (also from the neighbourhood, but, like Elena, clever enough to have escaped to university) with whom she has been having an affair; Nino, however, does not stay with her long. By the end of the second volume, Elena is engaged to a young man from a middle class family, Pietro, who seems destined for a successful academic career like his father, and has published her first, largely autobiographical, novel. At the beginning of volume three, Lila is working in a sausage factory, supporting her young son with the help of Enzo, another childhood friend. Elena is preparing for marriage and considering her second novel.
Whereas the first two volumes were very much about the contrasting fortunes of Elena and Lila, in volume three Ferrante can now show us the two different worlds which intersect through their friendship, and through politics as a radicalised middle class attempt to fight on behalf of the working class. This is seen later in the novel in the relationship between Pasquale, a Communist construction worker and Nadia, the daughter of a university lecturer, once Nino’s girlfriend. Politically the centrepiece of the novel is the sausage factory where Lila works: at a Communist meeting, angered by what she feels is a lack of understanding among the students, she speaks eloquently about conditions in the factory:
“She left in a daze, with the impression of having exposed herself too fully to people who, yes, were good-hearted, but who, even if they understood it in the abstract, in the concrete couldn’t understand a thing.”
The next day the students begin a protest outside the factory; Lila is furious as she now risks losing her job. This section of the novel brilliantly dramatizes the problems of political action, with Lila torn between protecting her livelihood and standing up for what she feels is right. This inner conflict is reflected in violence outside the factory gates between communists and fascists. Elena finds herself peripheral; as an old boyfriend tells her:
“You’ve remained the petit bourgeois you always were.”
She uses her new contacts in the professional world to help Lila, and writes an article for a newspaper about conditions in the factory (like so much of her work, based on something Lila has written), but Pasquale mocks her restrained involvement:
“Excellent. You mean that in all the factories, in all the construction sites, in every corner of Italy and the world, as soon as the owner kicks up a fuss and the workers are in danger, we’ll call Elena Greco: she telephones her friends, the labour authority, her connections in high places, and resolves the situation.”
Lila is such an electric character, so unpredictable, that when she fades form the narrative, the narrative urgency also fades. Elena seems so much tamer in comparison, with a desire to take us through her every feeling (so keen is she at times to tell us everything, it is tempting wonder what she is hiding). When she begins an affair with Nino, whom she has loved since volume one, it feels telegraphed rather than inevitable. This is, however, part of a feminist strand that runs alongside the class politics. Elena may not suffer the class exploitation of Lila, but this does not mean she is free. She tells Lila that when she is married she will take the new birth control pill – she wants children but first she has a book to write, but soon after the wedding she is pregnant. An old friend from the neighbourhood tells her, “He’s marrying me to have a faithful servant, that’s the reason all men get married,” and soon she feels the same:
“I carried the stroller with the baby in it up and down, I did the shopping, came home loaded down with bags, I cleaned the house, I cooked, I thought: I’m becoming ugly and old before my time, like the women of the neighbourhood.”
She may have escaped poverty but she has not escaped the role assigned to women. She struggles with her writing, and also to win Lila’s approval of it:
“I expect the bets from you, I’m too certain that you can do better, I want you to do better, it’s what I want most, because who am I if you aren’t great, who am I?”
We have always been aware that Elena measures herself against Lila, but here we see that Lila also uses Elena to measure herself. As Elena’s marriage falls apart, we might consider whether this is partly an echo of Lila’s marriage; certainly the recklessness involved seems to be in Lila’s spirit. Except, of course, that is the Lila presented to us by Elena, whose actions often appear raw and sudden, as opposed to the lengthily justified actions of the narrator. Signs that Elena’s marriage is just as expedient as Lila’s are evident early in the novel:
“He gave me the certainty that I was escaping the opportunistic malleability of my father and the crudeness of my mother.”
Elena and Lila, and indeed the series itself, can only be judged when the final volume is published, when the “many bad things, and some terrible” are all finally revealed. It is to be hoped the final volume brings the story to the conclusion it deserves.