A short trip to Venice seemed like the ideal opportunity to read the third volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series- ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’. I’ d enjoyed hugely the first volume ‘My Brilliant Friend’ reviewed here and the second ‘The Story of a New Name’ reviewed here and was looking forward to the third – though reading about 1960s Naples in the Veneto must be a bit like reading ‘A Kind of Loving’ in Oxford….
The story of the friendship between the narrator, Elena Greco and her friend Lina Cerullo, is picked up when both women are in their early twenties. Elena’s star is rising in that she has graduated from the prestigious Normale university in Pisa and written a novel which has been widely acclaimed, whereas Lina, who has left the husband from the neighbourhood whom she married at 16, is utterly ground down by the inhuman working conditions and tedium of her job at Bruno Soccavo’s sausage factory. During this novel their relative happiness and prosperity is reversed. Elena marries Pietro Airota, an academic from an established intellectual family, and, despite the social cache of her marriage, becomes bored and frustrated by married life and motherhood and finds it difficult to pursue any serious writing herself. Lina has been helping her friend and partner Enzo to study an early computing course at night school and when she leaves Soccavo’s factory lands a well paid job working with the earliest computers, earns an excellent salary and so has her independence.
Of course this is only a rough outline, and the plot has several twists and turns on the way, often bringing back old characters from the Naples neighbourhood who had faded out in the previous book. One set of these is the Solara brothers, a Mafia like duo who run the neighbourhood, its businesses and families and who become involved in Elena’s life in an unexpected and truly spine chilling way. It’s as if, try as she might, she can never escape the neighbourhood in Naples and this theme of escaping your class background but always returning to it or being returned to it by others is played out in different ways in this book.
The development in the friendship between Elena and Lina is more complex too. The women are close at the beginning of the book, when Elena spends time in Naples before getting married and, seeing her friend on the verge of a mental and physical breakdown, uses her contacts and money to get her medical care. After Elena’s marriage and move to Florence they initially communicate by phone and share gossip and laughs on a regular basis. But, as in the other books, there are then huge gaps in their contact, when Elena feels Lina is uninterested in her , her ideas and her life. And Lina too seems to play with ideas of escaping from the neighbourhood, often telling Elena that she has put all her own hopes and ambitions on to her, the real writer and intellectual, who has escaped into another world. At other times she mocks Elena for her pretensions and what she sees as her failure after the initial promise of the first book, vaunting her own good salary, remarkable achievements and, above all, her autonomy.
What I enjoyed most about this book however was its historical and social context- its vivid depiction of Italy in the late 60s and early 70s, particularly the tremendous political upheavals throughout Europe at that time and the huge change in gender relations. The appalling exploitation of the workers, and specifically the gross sexual exploitation of the women workers at Soccavo’s factory, are described in detail, as well as the attempts of the union and the Communist party to empower the workers and improve their conditions. The workers’ strikes and protests are invariably accompanied by horrendous violence from the Facists at the time, but also in later attacks of vengeance, and I was sobered to read of the risks political activists took to bring about change. But social and political change went beyond improvements in working conditions:we are in 1968 when the students at Nanterre were tearing up the paving stones to hurl at the police- authority in every area of life was being questioned and Ferrante conveys these broader changes in her descriptions of chaotic communal households, overt sexual activity and frequent changes of sexual partners, debunking of conventional standards of polite behaviour and delight in exchanging formal Italian for the rough swear words of the street.
And part of these broader changes of the 60s and 70s were of course changes in the role of women and we see these illustrated interestingly in the character of Elena. So at the beginning of the book she’s written a successful novel which has achieved notoriety in some quarters, particularly the neighbourhood she comes from, for its depiction of ‘disgusting things’, unspecified but we can assume involving female sexual desire, experiences hitherto never mentioned. But Elena and Lila do, in this book, have frank exchanges about their sexual experiences and desire, as women were starting to do in many other parts of the world at that time. Elena’s boredom and dissatisfaction at being a wife and mother seems identical to the ‘problem which has no name’ described in 60s writer Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’. Elena is an intelligent, graduate writer and yet has no career plan or public life outside the family- she exists simply to care for her family as if that should be enough. During this time Elena explores her position as a woman by studying for and writing a short book, looking at representations of women from a historical point of view. She finds examples everywhere of women as secondary to men because derived, created from them, just as Eve was made from Adam’s rib, (when God could just have made her separately as another piece of creation in her own right!). In other words, she discovers patriarchy and yet this discovery is at this stage theoretical: the challenge for her, as was the case for many young adult women in the 70s, is how to use this awareness to live differently.
So this third novel works on many different levels-the friendship between the two main protagonists is further developed against a background of enormous political and social change. And our interest is maintained not only by the intense first person narration of Elena Greco but by the reappearance of old characters from the neighbourhood, from childhood, who move the plot along. We are led to reflect on which of the two women has left, which one has stayed and to ask whether we do ever really escape our background, our childhood, that neighbourhood which defines our social class and our identity?