Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

I finished this today, the day Elena Ferrante’s identity has reportedly been revealed. I confess I feel a bit guilty now because while reading this there were several times I found myself wishing I knew how much was fiction and how much autobiography. I wondered this because it struck me that when Lila disappears from the pages so too does the electric charge Ferrante’s writing has. Ferrante writes well about Elena’s initiation into university life, the Milan literati, Italian political unrest, about marriage, child rearing, and infidelity but not markedly better than lots of other writers. The best parts of this book were when Lila returned. For me, no Lila, no party. And Lila is absent for a lot of this book. So I couldn’t help wondering if Lila, Ferrante’s muse, is a real person. Did she luck out as an author in having such a compelling brilliant friend or is she an inspired invention of Ferrante’s? It doesn’t really matter but I was curious.

If this disreputable journalist/culture – yet another indictment of how misplaced and trivial investigative journalism has become. How about spending your time and energy on uncovering secrets of corruption and conspiracy in governments and multi-national corporations, guys, instead of harassing a writer? – is right then it turns out these Neapolitan novels are even more a triumph of imagination than perhaps they would have been perceived were they a literary transcription of Ferrante’s personal experience. Because we discover Ferrante, though born in Naples, moved to Rome when three and had a German mother who fled to Italy to escape the Holocaust. It always struck me that the descriptions of Naples were quite generic – could have been Bari or Palermo or Reggio Calabria or even Rome minus an occasional ocean. The same is true in this book of Pisa and Florence where Elena finds herself. I never really felt she was in Pisa or Florence. She could have been in any Italian university town. The settings were perhaps Ferrante’s way of concealing her tracks.

Ferrante was always going to have a problem keeping her anonymity because of the apparent intense realism of her work – you can’t help wondering how much is true while reading her. The irony for me is that these books were never about Naples, or at least specific to Naples. In fact it doesn’t surprise me at all that she never lived in Naples for long. And yet it’s the depiction of Naples that has caused a lot of the fuss. They are about the difficulties women face to achieve autonomy and identity in any milieu where men still often have the final word – as such they could be set in Bagdad or Birmingham, Rome or Nairobi. It’s interesting that in Italy many have claimed her books were written by a man and even now there’s talk they were written by this translator’s husband. Would even that matter? It says a lot about Italy which, though I’d argue is not generally misogynistic, does tend to be chauvinistic – the disparagement of women more an intellectual insecurity than an emotional distaste). Were her books written by a man it’d certainly be a phenomenal achievement because Ferrante, whoever she is, will probably go down in history as one of the very best exponents of unravelling the inner lives of women.

So, yep this was really good too, though not quite as good as Book Two. Interestingly and for the first time Elena isn’t always likeable in this book – often you feel because the wise and inspirational influence of Lina is not at hand. And it ends on a real cliffhanger and I’m annoyed I didn’t already buy the forth book cos now I have to wait for it to arrive.

I only hope Ferrante doesn’t stop writing now that her privacy has been so crudely invaded.



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