I finished reading Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay this weekend. I actually took it with me to Vancouver and had started reading it on the flight out — a bit to my own surprise, since I’d brought another book I thought would make better airplane reading (Elizabeth Renzetti’s Based on a True Story) only to find it wasn’t interesting enough (at least, not right away — I’ll come back to it!) to distract me from my fear of flying. Ferrante, on the other hand, whom I had expected to add unpleasantly to my tension, worked out better: her prose has a headlong, uncompromising momentum that kept my attention. But once arrived I did little reading, and then on the flights home I mostly watched Season 1 of Last Tango in Halifax, which I’d saved to my iPad. (I’m really enjoying it, by the way, and now I’m annoyed that I hadn’t heard of it in time to be recording Season 2 on PBS. It’s not my Halifax, of course, but the Yorkshire one.)
It took me a while to settle back into Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay once I picked it up again: the same pushy style that kept my mind busy on the plane seemed a bit grating under different circumstances. And then all the ambivalence I’ve felt about her other books, including both the first two in this Neapolitan trilogy — My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name — and (even more so) her earlier The Days of Abandonment,was renewed. Once again I was interested in the book but I didn’t exactly enjoy it, and by the end I wasn’t at all sure that it is a good novel. Though it does move forward, its energy seemed ultimately rather purposeless: it’s just the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing, until it stops — rather than concludes. Collectively, the series is perhaps a Bildungsroman, perhaps even a double one, given how closely intertwined the stories of Elena and Lila are, at least in Elena’s mind and in her version of their lives. But as Lila tells her, with her usual enigmatic ruthlessness, “Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.”
Why does it suit Elena to narrate her life the way she does? I thought perhaps some clues to her meaning or purpose were being laid out for us in the possibly metafictional discussions of her own book, the one so many of her friends and family consider a “dirty” book, the one that brands her as the one who wrote an “ugly, ugly book.” Is the Neapolitan trilogy self-reflexive in that way? Is it an “ugly” book that lays bare what Ferrante sees as truths about life, perhaps her life? Does it, in this way, attempt to be her confession, maybe even her repentance (for the Elena in the novel is never uncompromisingly happy about her novels, and indeed is often ashamed of them), or is it her justification — saying, on her behalf, see, you read such an ugly, dirty book as this, so Elena — both Elenas — are right, are artists, are truth-tellers? But Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay does not resolve any questions about either Elena’s fiction: the character does not achieve any triumphant culmination, the novel does not offer any epiphany, the metafiction does not (as far as I have been able to tell) offer us a theory by which to understand what we are reading. If it’s a Kunstlerroman, it’s not one that, like Great Expectations, could only have been written by the character who has undergone the experience — learned the lessons — of the novel itself.
It is, also, an “ugly” book: I found myself thinking of Zola and wondering if the atmosphere of general grimness and disillusionment Ferrante seems to specialize in belongs to some extent in that naturalistic tradition. Certainly it has little in common with the “realists” I’m most used to and fond of. Its possibilities in this respect are limited by its intense first-person narration: I don’t think that Elena is an unreliable narrator, strictly speaking (we don’t get the literary signs we’d need to second-guess her altogether) but she’s certainly a partial and limited one, and our inability to rise above her festering consciousness means that the moral and social reach of the book is relatively constrained. That made me impatient, after a while: I wanted to know and see more than she could. I think this is another instance of me wanting the book to be a different kind of book, though, not necessarily a flaw in the novel’s execution.
Having said that, though, I will say that the book offers little of formal interest. Since I have to work with the translation, I can’t safely judge the prose: I’m curious to know if in Italian, she comes across as a stylish writer, because in English she seems pretty flat — energetic, again, moving forward almost restlessly, but with few phrases or descriptions that made me want to linger instead of keeping up. The overall story arc seemed to me to go crooked, too, as Elena’s artistic and intellectual struggles were crowded out by an affair which — though it did bring a kind of completion to one pattern in her life — did not seem integral to anything the novel was fundamentally about. What is the novel about, though? Maybe I’m asking the wrong question again: if it’s just the narration of a life, why should it be “about” anything? I think it should be, actually, because it’s supposed to be art and I like my art to have design, more design than life. But the Knausgaard phenomenon suggests that some people are fine with art that refuses to actually be art, or at least art that insists on hewing as close as possible to the formlessness of life.
I know these are fairly impressionistic comments so far. A lot actually happens in the novel, and for all my reservations about it I did find something gripping about it. I think I’m going to try to write something more deliberate and thoughtful about it for Open Letters. I find I’m particularly curious about why Ferrante seems to have had such an ecstatic critical reception since her books began appearing in translation: what is it about these books that many people find so exhilarating? There’s a bit of a Ferrante fad right now — why? I’ve wondered in my previous posts (about Ferrante but also about Claire Messud) about whether there isn’t a trend to value angry women. (Perhaps their anger makes them safe “literary” protagonists — there’s no mistaking Elena and Lila, or Olga, for a “chick lit” heroine!) But anger is not only a partial truth, it’s hardly a new truth. I’m about to reread Villette in preparation for fall teaching — now there’s anger, repression, and resistance that, to me, is more coherent and rewarding to immerse myself in imaginatively.