Elena Ferrante (2013) Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.


This is the penultimate book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. It picks up where it left off in the second book, with ‘Middle Time’ and Elena Greco narrating what happened to her and her brilliant friend Lila Cerrulo after her disappearance in the winter of 2005. As the storyteller Elena has access to Lila’s motives and actions because her friend had given her diaries to her –asking her not to read them. She did, of course. There’s no secrets between brilliant friends. Immediately when they return to Naples they are dragged into the past, with a body in a flowerbed, near their old elementary school. Lila recognises her immediately. It’s Gigolina Spagnuolo, ex-wife of  gangster Michele Solaris.

‘I hadn’t seen her for several decades. Her beautiful face was ruined and her ankles had become enormous’.

This is a familiar figure in Ferrante’s books, the woman abandoned that goes mad and becomes suicidal. Love has sharp edges and women, rather than men, fall off the sides and are lost to themselves. The other constant is everyone loves Lila and the apparent success of Elena has its foundations in Lila’s charisma and brilliance. As a first-time author Elena draws on her experience of rejection by Nino Sarratore, whom she has always loved and desired for literary success. Her dream lover takes up with Lila, even though she’s married. The drives of lust and competitiveness with Lila combine to let Donnato, Nino’s father, have sex with her on a beach, as a kind of way of getting her own back – on Lila and Nino, even though they don’t know about it – and depite Donnato having sexually abused Elena, when she was a girl, . But more than that Elena draws on the magic of Lila’s childhood book The Blue Fairy, which she’d penned when she was ten, and a precocious child.   Lila flings the copy of The Blue Fairy, Elena presents her with as a precious memento, into a brazier outside the sausage factory in which she works and faces daily humiliations. Bruno Soccavo, the owner, for example, and son of a rich industrialist, tries to grope and rape her, because, droit de seigneur, he could. Circles within circles. Bruno Soccavo, the gallant and gauche boy that courted Elena on the beach in Ischia, a friend of Nino and tried to kiss her on their holiday vocation, but was rejected.

Elena’s life is on the rise. As she rises Lila’s life turns to shit and vice versa. Elena is engaged to be married, does marry, Pietro Airota and lucks into the higher echelons of the movers and shakers in Milan and Italian society. Pietro is destined for a brilliant academic future and already has tenure at a university when they marry. He too, when he meets Lila, at the house of Marcello Solaris, who lives with Elisa, Elena’s younger sister, is drawn to his wife’s brilliant friend, affected by her, in a way he doesn’t seem to be affected by others. He describes her as highly intelligent, but evil.

Lila is on the way up, Michele is obsessed with her, in the similar way his brother was, and wants to own her and be near her. He hires her, paying her thousands of lira a week to manage his computer stock system for his stores. Lila picked up programming skills from Enzo Scanno, who saved her after Nino had deserted her, the former fruit and vegetable seller, bringing up the bastard child, Gennaro, whilst living in San Giovanni, near the sausage factory. Elena gets published and, later, is much praised for her insight into working conditions of woman in the sausage factory that leads to violence, but much of the writing is culled from Lila’s notes.  Lila wants to return to her former home in Naples, and Enzo a devoted follower gives her what she wants. Lila admits she’s not really interested in sex, always found it disappointing, but hints she might sleep with Enzo, as a kind of reward for his unfailing love and loyalty, which she values more.

Elena loves sex, but doesn’t really love Enzo. Although making her pregnant with a boy and girl, he’s a bit of a disappointment in that regard and more generally. But she and her friends are over thirty, she’s no longer able to write and settled for domestic existence. She still fantasizes about Nino and when Enzo bring a university colleague home, Elena tries to hide her delight. Nino is married and has a daughter. His wife is rich and loves him, but Nino, finally admits he loves Elena. Love conquers all –only it never does, if you are Elena Ferrante (or mankind, generally). I look forward to the next instalment.


Elena Ferrante (2002 [2015]) The Days of Abandonment translated by Ann Goldstein.


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I recently watched a film by Andrew Haigh on DVD, 45 Years. It came with the usual plaudits, but was in an ugly word: boring. 45 Years never felt so long. Elena Ferrante The Days of Abandonment is, I guess, all the things 45 Years was trying to be, without sticking its tongue out in the form of a short novel and saying: Fuck You.  The plot is very similar, a woman coming to terms with loss of the things she thought she knew and held true. In Ferrante’s opening Olga has been married for fifteen years to Mario and they have two children, boy and girl, the sickly Gianni and the more spiteful Ilaria and an Alsatian dog, Otto. The opening perfectly captures the wistful tone that quickly turns to fury and madness and then understanding.

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, our children and admitted he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me.

A short-hand explanation here is to superimpose the however many stages of grief. Olga is in denial. She believes she can make thing better by being better, more herself than she’s ever been. Mario will then recognise what a terrible mistake he has made and everything will go back to the way it was before. But haunting Olga is the childish memory of the poverella, a woman from Naples, a kind woman that smelt good and gave children in the streets treats to eat and was married to a man from Abruzzi, who admittedly wasn’t up to much, but was her world and they had two children. When the man from Abruzzi left her for another woman, the poveralla lost everything, including the name she would be remembered by and drowned herself. The poverella turns up, a presence, in Olga’s apartment in Turin to warn her modern heir that her son has an infection and urgently needs a doctor and  unless she gets the dog to a vet it will die as it has been poisoned. Olga knows that to be true, but she cannot open the front door. The key doesn’t seem to work and she is in such a daze Illaria is given the job of hitting her with a tool used in a botched attempt to open the door, whenever she zonks out. A task her daughter takes to with great zest, drawing blood from her shin.

Prior to this Olga herself had drawn blood, battered Mario in the street and tried to rip the earrings he’d once given her and were now worn by Carla, a student her husband had tutored when she was fifteen, and who he was now fucking and had probably being doing so since then. ‘For five years he had been secretly enjoying that body.’

But there is a kind of biblical lament of Olga’s memories (and all women’s) that give the book such a punch.

‘I thought only of him.’

‘Mario expanded. We contracted…’

‘I had gone with him when he didn’t have the courage to appear…’

‘I had taken away my own time and added it to his to make him more powerful…’

‘I had put aside my own aspirations to go along with his.’

‘At every crisis of despair I had set aside my own crises to comfort him.’

‘I had disappeared into his minutes and into his hours.’

Like the poverella, Olga has been erased.  But unlike the poverella Olga refused to be erased. She questions instead what she had become. Not what Mario had made her become, what she had chosen to become, ‘a reed that emits the sound of falsehood’. Again there is that biblical tone, the most powerful knowledge is that of the self. ‘He was blinded by the blonde, but I have given myself the task of analysing point by point, our fifteen years together’.

As the poveralla said so long ago: ‘I am clean. I am true. I play my cards on the table.’

Elena Ferrante plays her cards on the table, some turn up aces, some twos and some trumps, but all are true. This is a powerful book which shows (not tells) what it means to be fucked over by a weak man, as so many woman are, and yet rise up again and claim her dignity. Olga come not to despise Mario, but understand him and herself better.