Sunday, June 28, 2015
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
The good girl is tired of being good; the bad girl pulls herself together.
In this installment, scholarly Elena marries a superior scholar, accidentally gets knocked up twice, thinks herself better than the neighborhood that made her, writes a shitty novel and gets bored out of her mind. Lila endures her horrific job, accidentally unionizes the sausage factory and her midnight studying of flowcharts pays off big. The book is also a portrayal of the 1960s in Italy, and a study of what happens to society and the economy when women are released from their bonds.
I haven’t had such an intense, purely pleasurable, reading experience for several years. The end of each chapter is propulsive -- the reader wants to know what happens next. Like a Jane Austen novel, or a soap opera, one event keeps happening after the other, and, just like a murder mystery, this book commences with a dead body. There is a meticulous attention to plotting, really coming into view in Volume Three in which no character introduced in Volume One is wasted, but used to illustrate a point. The question is: how does Ferrante suck you in, what narrative techniques does she use to make the reader identify with the characters, get annoyed when they waste their lives? The ending of each book is powerful and moving, each books concluding with an unforgettable very powerful image.
Elena finally gets what she thinks she always wanted, the literary fame, the wonderful apartment, the sophisticated in-laws, though almost with her realizing it, her success is slowly swamped by the suck of domestic life, the babies and the dinner needs of an absent-minded professor. Elena also comes to the realization that her loyal husband loves her, but views her as kind of a charity case dolt. Meanwhile, little by little, Lila starts to crawl out of the mess she made of her life. This volume reminded me of The Golden Notebook. All the men are shits except for Elena’s cheerfully corrupt dad. One of the themes is that Italian men (all men?) are clueless about how to give a woman an orgasm. The only one who understands is the disgusting old scuzzbag Nino Sarratore’s dad who took Elena’s virginity. In these books, pregnancy is a disaster.
The shadow of the corrupting Mafia hangs over everything, including Lila, of course, who never left Naples, but also, much to her annoyed surprise, Dottoressa Elena. Virtually everyone in society is in their debt, vulnerable to their terrible violence. Nothing happens without the Solaras' say so.
The story is also about how people's minds differ. Elena’s is plodding but with good judgment. Lila's is brilliant but crazy. Elena’s husband is loyal and boring. Nino Sarratore is exciting and untrustworthy. Nobody here, however, has a sense of humor.
The translation is wonderful, seamlessly switching between the high scholarly language of the university, the technical language of Marxist revolution and the vulgar shit filled language of the streets. Lila’s phone call at the end when she rips Elena a new one is just so satisfying – she says exactly what the reader is thinking.