Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein) – 2015 Best Translated Book Award

“We made a pact when we were children: I’m the wicked one.”

Today is not one of my “Twelve days of Translated Fiction” entries, it is simply another translated review of a novel I recently finished and I thought it timely to blog my thoughts given yesterday I posted book two of the Neapolitan series “The Story of a New Name” as my eighth favourite translated book of 2014.
“Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” is book three in the “Neapolitan Novels” series and was released in September this year and follows the opener “My Brilliant Friend”, the story of the girl’s teenage years in “The Story of a New Name” and will be finalised with the release of book four, the final instalment will be coming to us from Europa Editions on 1 September 2015. I must admit I was eager to attack this work after the first two instalments and am actually a little surprised at myself for taking three months to get to it.
Our story continues the relationship between Lila (Lina or even Raffaella) and our narrator, writer Elena (Lenu or Lenuccia) this time as twenty (thirty?) something’s. Only fourteen pages in and we are straight back into the over bearing nature of Lila, with Elena’s long secret love, Nino, asking after her:
For a moment I thought I’d been wrong, that Lila had never gone out of his life, that he had come to the bookstore not for me but only to find out about her. Then I said to myself: if he had really wanted to find out about Lila, in so many years he would have found a way, and I reacted violently, in the sharp tone of someone who wants to end the subject quickly:
“She left her husband and lives with someone else.”
“Did she have a boy or a girl?”
“A boy.”
He made a grimace of displeasure and said: “Lina is brave, even too brave. But she doesn’t know how to submit to reality, she’s incapable of accepting others and herself. Loving her was a difficult experience.”
“In what sense?”
“She doesn’t know what dedication is.”
“Maybe you’re exaggerating.”
“No, she’s really made badly: in her mind and in everything, even when it comes to sex.”
The first twenty or so pages are a great opening for the readers of the first two volumes as it lays bare Elena’s loves, her fears, her longings, her uncertainty, her failings. It is a raw introduction back into her world.
However, for those unfamiliar with the characters of the first two novels and the plot that leads up to this work, there is an “Index of characters and notes on the events of the earlier volumes” at the start of this book, I feel this work is less of a stand-alone book than the second one was. Here we have a strong assumption that you understand quite a detailed background, relationships and emotions as well as the circumstances leading to the events that transpire. I would suggest you read the earlier works before picking this one up (I read the first two in the incorrect order!!!)
Nino has allegedly fathered many children (although none with Elena) and the longing for motherhood, her desire to bear children is also an undercurrent throughout:

What a handsome child: it was a memorable moment. Mirko charmed me immediately; he had folds of rosy flesh around his wrists, around his legs. How cute he was, what a nice shape his eyes had, how much hair, what long delicate feet, what a good smell. I whispered all those compliments, softly, as I carried him around the house. The voices of the men faded, as did the ideas they defended and their hostility, and something happened that was new to me, I felt pleasure. I felt, like an uncontrollable flame, the child’s warmth, his mobility, and it seemed to me that all my senses became more vigilant, as if the perception of that perfect fragment of life that I had in my arms had become achingly acute, and I felt his sweetness and my responsibility for him, and was prepared to protect him from all the evil shadows lying in wait in the dark corners of the house. Mirko must have understood and he was quiet. This, too, gave me pleasure, I was proud of having been able to give him peace.
Our novel contains a very detailed plot of the political state of play in Italy at the time with the Communists and Fascists playing a central role. There is a large section dedicated to Lila’s working class struggle as she works in a smallgoods factory. Personally I found this section a little too detailed, our writer explaining too many thoughts and facts of Lila’s struggle to ring true, given she’d been away for such a long period of time. Then we have the involvement of the Communist Party in attempting to sort out the smallgoods factory issues and the trouble that causes Lila and then the arrival of the Fascists and the further struggles that adds to the life of a woman who simply wants to feed her child (or does she?)
To be honest I personally found the political themes a little overbearing, the day to day drudgery of being a wife and a mother a little too detailed. My personal attraction to the earlier works was the detailed and open descriptions of these two women’s relationship, as the cover says “one of modern fiction’s richest portraits of a friendship”, unfortunately that is lacking in this work:
“You’re strong,” she answered, to my astonishment. “I have never been. The better and truer you feel, the farther away you go. If I merely pass through the tunnel of the stradone, I’m scared. Remember when we tried to get to the sea but it started raining? Which of us wanted to keep going and which of us made an about-face, you or me?”
Don’t get me wrong, this is still a very fine work, a history lesson of Naples and Florence at the time, a book where scenes, like the one above, have you recalling passages from the earlier novels, the continuing story of Elena’s love for Nino, her marriage and the monotony that contains, a revelation on the human struggle:
I began to have some ugly thoughts on the beach. Lila, I said to myself, deliberately pushes away emotions, feelings. The more I sought tools to try and explain myself to myself, the more she, on the contrary, hid. The more I tried to draw her into the open and involve her in my desire to clarify, the more she took refuge in the shadows. She was like the full moon when to crouches behind the forest and the branches scribble on its face.
In this work Lila is reduced to mere facts, the emotional connection has been broken by the tyranny of distance, something I wanted to continue – but…those who leave….

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