The historian E. P. Thompson wrote famously that he wanted to rescue the working class “from the enormous condescension of posterity.” For Thompson, the historian’s calling was to give voice to the voiceless and recreate the heroic struggles of everyday life. The aim of writing history, he believed, was to capture faithfully the experiences of those who had been neglected by traditional histories, written out of the heroic narratives of “great men.”
In Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third and most explicitly political book in her celebrated Neapolitan tetralogy, Ferrante tests literature’s capacity to answer Thompson’s challenge. She asks: Can writing actually capture life? Can it give voice to the voiceless? The narrator Elena Greco, herself a writer, has a subject that Thompson would find ideal: her best friend Lila. In contrast to Elena, who leaves Naples to attend an elite university, Lila’s schooling ends in the fifth grade, after her parents refuse to pay for further lessons. Eventually Lila marries a local grocer and then, following her divorce, remains in the Naples neighborhood where both girls grew up, and works for a time in a sausage factory.
But Lila does not want to be written about. “Are you playing the know-it-all, the moralizer? … You want to write about us? You want to write about me?” she asks at the novel’s outset, when the two women are in their sixties. “Let me be, Lenù. Let us all be. We ought to disappear, we deserve nothing,” she says. “Don’t you dare, promise.”
“I won’t write about anyone, not even you,” Elena promises.
Yet Lila is Elena’s subject—we are reading about her. The shadow that hovers over the book is the question of how Elena comes to defy Lila and so entrap us in her betrayal.
Much has been written about the elusive Ferrante, perhaps among Italy’s most famous living authors. She is a mysterious figure—she writes under a pseudonym and jealously guards her privacy. Critics have praised her in particular for her feminism and for her ability to capture the terrifying intimacy of female friendships.
Equally thrilling, but less discussed, is how Ferrante shows the stranglehold of political ideologies of the twentieth century over postwar Italian society. Throughout the novels, we see the clashes of Italian politics through the lens of a Neapolitan neighborhood: the fascist Solaras and Carraccis, the communist Enzo, the liberal elite Airotas, the radical anarcho-communists Pasquale and Nadia, and the budding bourgeois Elena. Ideologies penetrate their lives, shaping the self-definition of some and offering convenient self-justification to others. Among all the characters of the book, Lila is the only one who cannot be mapped clearly onto a political category: she subverts and transcends political labels, looming above everyone else, spitting on their various shrines.
Perhaps more than any other character in recent literature, Lila represents the Nietzschean will, a pure and violent force, all power and no fear. Lila is a female Übermensch. She suffers no false gods. Not fascism, though that would be the safest way to ensure a comfortable life in the town—when she is a child, she puts a knife to the throat of Marcello Solara, son of fascists to whom everybody else in town kowtows. Not communism—she disdains the activists who adore her, commencing her sole political speech by joking that she knows nothing about the working class. Not the bourgeois notion of education as a means of enlightenment—she says to Elena’s teacher: “You professors insist so much on education because that’s how you earn a living, but studying is of no use, it doesn’t even improve you—in fact it makes you even more wicked.” And last, not a radical feminism that, among other things, rejects the nuclear family. Lila explodes when Elena decides to leave her husband and children for her lover, Nino Sarratorre. For Lila, this is not liberation, only stupidity:
You’re throwing away everything you are for Nino? … You know what will happen to you? He’ll use you, he’ll suck your blood, he’ll take away your will to live and abandon you. Why did you study so much? What fucking use has it been for me to imagine that you would enjoy a wonderful life for me, too? I was wrong, you’re a fool.
Lila herself left her husband Stefano Carracci, son of a fascist, in the 1960s—scandalizing her conservative Catholic neighborhood. But as courageous as we may judge Lila’s decision to be, she views it as an admission of defeat: “Tell [their friend Enzo] that I tried [to stay] but couldn’t make it,” she tells Elena. “I have to leave this house before Stefano, without even realizing it, kills me and child.” Neither feminist awakening nor any other ideological commitment drives Lila’s choice. Rather she is driven by necessity, a primal desire to break free of any kind of shackle.
Lila’s power comes from her ability to forge unbridled instinct with blistering intellect. The proof of her magnetism is that she is courted by all sides. “There is no woman like you, you throw yourself into life with a force that, if we all had it, the world would have changed a long time ago,” says Pasquale, a communist who wants her to join his movement. “No one in the neighborhood has kicked the Carraccis and the Solaras in the face as much as you, and I’m on your side.” Similarly, the fascist Solaras fight for Lila’s loyalty. Michele Solara, the most powerful and wealthy man in the neighborhood, in particular recognizes Lila’s genius and seeks to harness it for his own personal desires, as well as for political and financial gain. Lila spurns him repeatedly.
But if Lila rejects all political options available to her, what are her politics? This is perhaps the most enigmatic question that hangs over the book.
Ferrante gives us a brief glimpse of Lila mobilized for political action. At a rally for workers, Lila gives a speech. (She does not do so out of idealism but rather largely out of spite for a former romantic rival.) Of she and the others who work at her sausage factory she says there is “absolutely nothing to learn except wretchedness.” Can you imagine, she asks a crowd that she captivates, and who praise her when she finishes, what it means to spend eight hours a day standing up to your waist in the mortadella cooking water? Can you imagine what it is like you have your body groped by your supervisor, by the guards? Can you imagine what it means to have your fingers covered with cuts from slicing the meat off animal bones? Can you imagine what it means to go in and out of refrigerated rooms at twenty degrees below zero and get ten lire more an hour—ten lire—for cold compensation? If you imagine this, what do you think you can learn from people who are forced to live like that?
Lila’s speech is one of the most electrifying scenes in the novel, because her genius is on stage, a genius that unites her many kinds of intelligence: to use words to make reality visceral, to expose a speech’s conceit, to attract people by alienating them. Her charisma comes from negating the people to whom she speaks. This is the historical subject whom Thompson hopes we can uncover and represent. Yet Lila recoils at Thompson’s desire. If you can imagine this, what do you think you can learn? Nothing—you can learn nothing from me, she seems to say.
If our heroine has such a dim view of the potential for political change, does Ferrante show us any hope? One of the rare sources of pleasure in the books comes from learning. When Elena writes, she forgets time; as Lila teaches herself computer science, she grows “more and more excited each day … frantic to reduce the entire wretched world they lived in to the truth of 0s and 1s.” Yet once the private process contacts the world, magic terminates. The idea or writing or speech is mistaken, flattered, or commodified. Elena makes the statement after winning a literary prize that she feels as happy as the astronauts walking on the moon. Lila recognizes the sentiment as nonsense. A moon is a rock like a million rocks, she says. Instead, she reprimands, “stand your feet firmly planted on the troubles of the earth.”
Like Elena, Lila discovers as well that her personal learning—her expertise in computer science—is tainted when it contacts the world. By the end of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Lila’s prowess at computer science has made her rich. The fascist Michele Solara shows her off as the head of the division intended to streamline labor at one of their plants. Lila is paraded as the victor—she now makes 450,000 lire a month. And Michele, who has yearned to conquer Lila for so long, finally has his prize. Lila’s capitulation to the Solaras is perhaps the bleakest, least hopeful moment in an unendingly bleak portrayal of postwar Italian society. Even Lila, who pursues her own desires, who is brilliant, who can shatter all rules, who can make the world bend to her will, becomes part of the machine. Here, Ferrante seems to say, don’t hang your hats on any political parties, any political labels, or even the process of politics at all. Even the Nietzschean Übermensch must succumb to forces of history.
One moment in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay in particular foreshadows her defeat. Outside of Lila’s sausage factory, four students distribute a leaflet that contains her speech. (The leaflet itself does not make her happy; it has been transcribed without her permission, gotten her in trouble with her boss, and is surrounded by articles that are, in her view, maudlin.) A gang from her neighborhood comes to beat up students. They carry chains and metal bars. Lila is startled to see Gino, a boy from her childhood who copied Elena’s homework, offered money to see Elena’s breasts and became Elena’s first boyfriend. Gino has grown up and become mean. He uses a stick to beat a student from behind, and he spits in Lila’s face and calls her a bitch. Now he works at the bidding of the local fascists.
Fascists, mostly from the neighborhood, Lila knew some of them. Fascists, as Stefano’s father, Don Achille, had been, as Stefano had turned out to be, as the Solaras were, grandfather, father, grandsons, even if at times they acted like monarchists, at times Christian Democrats, as it suited them. She had hated them ever since, as a girl … she had discovered that there was no way to be free of them, to clear everything away. The connection between past and present had never really broken down[.]
The cycle of violence and control are too powerful to defeat. The sons become their fathers, passing down their anger and their sorrows.
In The Story of a New Name, the second book in the tetralogy, Lila “kept repeating that if she had dedicated herself assiduously to every child in the neighborhood, in a generation everything would change, there would no longer be the smart and the incompetent, the good and the bad.” By the end of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Lila has failed at her true and primary aim: to obliterate the repetition of history. For all her attempts “to clear everything away,” she cannot break the connection between past and present. This may explain why she doesn’t want to be written about: she does not want her defeat recorded. “We ought to disappear, we deserve nothing,” she tells Elena.
How do you avoid—can you avoid—the condescension of posterity? At the core of Ferrante’s series is the question of how to represent a person who does not want to be represented. Lila wishes to erase herself. She has burned her own novel. She has destroyed her belongings. She wants to leave no trace of herself—no text, no images, no evidence of her failure to overcome the past’s hold over the present. Speaking of her son Gennaro, Lila says, “I read that everything we are is decided now, in the first years of life.” The words prove prescient. By the time Gennaro is five, she notices that he reads at a drastically lower level than the grandson of a professor, age three. “What a useless struggle to make Gennaro become smart,” she says. “The child was already losing, he was being pulled back and she couldn’t hold on to him.”
The conceit that begins the Neapolitan novels is that Lila has disappeared. Thus the final hope in the book—and this hope is bleak too—is that Lila might get her wish: to disappear. Do we really want her to be found, after all? And why?