Friday, May 27, 2016

Elena Ferrante, "Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay"

- Book Three of the Neapolitan Novels  (Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta) Translation from the Italian by Ann Goldstein – e-book

Read from May 17th to 20th 2016

My rating 

This third book of the Neapolitan novels (which, by the way, I liked better than the second but not as much as the first), is surprisingly well- written for a sequel, I say surprisingly because, with some notable exceptions I usually find sequels very diluted, shadows that try to suck their force from a first, more vigorous narrative.

Well, this is not the case of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, which reinforced the impression I had while reading the second book (The Story of a New Name – my review here   to whom may interest) that Lila and Lenù are the two faces of the same coin, or better, that each of them is the creation of the other. In a complicated mirror technique, the two characters assume in turn, either the Dr. Jekyll or the Mr Hyde’s role, in a hate-love relationship sometimes beneficial, sometimes destructive:

Everything I read in that period ultimately drew Lila in, one way or another. I had come upon a female model of thinking that, given the obvious differences, provoked in me the same admiration, the same sense of inferiority that I felt toward her. Not only that: I read thinking of her, of fragments of her life, of the sentences she would agree with, of those she would have rejected.

(…) I had been forced by the powerful presence of Lila to imagine myself as I was not. I was added to her, and I felt mutilated as soon as I removed myself. Not an idea, without Lila. Not a thought I trusted, without the support of her thoughts. Not an image.

There is an endless game of approaching and distancing, of identifying and separating, of imitating and reasserting oneself, until you are not sure anymore not only of who is one and who is the other, but also of who is the better half of the other J:

We had maintained the bond between our two stories, but by subtraction. We had become for each other abstract entities, so that now I could invent her for myself both as an expert in computers and as a determined and implacable urban guerrilla, while she, in all likelihood, could see me both as the stereotype of the successful intellectual and as a cultured and well-off woman, all children, books, and highbrow conversation with an academic husband. We both needed new depth, body, and yet we were distant and couldn’t give it to each other.

Anyway, their lives flow inexorably together, follow the same meanders, even change, to use the same metaphor without malicious implying, the riverbed. Each one pretends to have found her ideal self in the other whereas secretly wishing to destroy her other self, to break her mirrored image into thousand pieces. Like them, their men seem at the same time alike and different – Enzo with his devotion for Lila and Pietro with his intellectual background have the same positive impact in the (two?) heroines’ lives, whereas Michele and Nino ominously shadow them.

The theme of leaving and returning, suggested by the title, is also ambiguous and complicated, because you cannot escape what you have never truly left behind as the beginning of this third volume, with a five-year old memory of the neighbourhood suggests, with a powerful, brilliant image that asserts that, if the regressus ad originem does not really exist, it is only because you have been forever caught in the uterus of the world, your umbilical chord has never been cut, you have never made it outside, you have never been born:

I had fled, in fact. Only to discover, in the decades to come, that I had been wrong, that it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighbourhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighbourhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth, it’s the universe, or universes. And shrewdness means hiding and hiding from oneself the true state of things.

The image of the city as a huge, monstrous, hungry organism, although not new, is powerful enough to deserve to be compared with Henry Miller’s Paris or John Dos Passos’ New York. In the same way, Naples refuses to remain a mere background and occupies, with angry pride, a foreground where it cries out its violent and inevitable story:

In that season of rains, the city had cracked yet again, an entire building had buckled onto one side, like a person who, sitting in an old chair, leans on the worm-eaten arm and it gives way. Dead, wounded. And shouts, blows, cherry bombs. The city seemed to harbour in its guts a fury that couldn’t get out and therefore eroded it from the inside, or erupted in pustules on the surface, swollen with venom against everyone, children, adults, old people, visitors from other cities, Americans from NATO, tourists of every nationality, the Neapolitans themselves.

Yes, I liked to hate it, this ill, frenzy world, which doesn’t care to redeem itself, built by a gifted writer who doesn’t spare us the ugliness of the human nature, even in the most celebrated human traits, often idealized (according to her, at least) into qualities, like self-sacrifice, like geniality, like friendship, like love. A world that prays to be forgotten, a world that prays to be told.

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