Violet wells's Reviews > Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
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really liked it
bookshelves: italy, 21st-century

I finished this today, the day Elena Ferrante’s identity has reportedly been revealed. I confess I feel a bit guilty now because while reading this there were several times I found myself wishing I knew how much was fiction and how much autobiography. I wondered this because it struck me that when Lila disappears from the pages so too does the electric charge Ferrante’s writing has. Ferrante writes well about Elena’s initiation into university life, the Milan literati, Italian political unrest, about marriage, child rearing, and infidelity but not markedly better than lots of other writers. The best parts of this book were when Lila returned. For me, no Lila, no party. And Lila is absent for a lot of this book. So I couldn’t help wondering if Lila, Ferrante’s muse, is a real person. Did she luck out as an author in having such a compelling brilliant friend or is she an inspired invention of Ferrante’s? It doesn’t really matter but I was curious.

If this disreputable journalist/culture - yet another indictment of how misplaced and trivial investigative journalism has become. How about spending your time and energy on uncovering secrets of corruption and conspiracy in governments and multi-national corporations, guys, instead of harassing a writer? - is right then it turns out these Neapolitan novels are even more a triumph of imagination than perhaps they would have been perceived were they a literary transcription of Ferrante’s personal experience. Because we discover Ferrante, though born in Naples, moved to Rome when three and had a German mother who fled to Italy to escape the Holocaust. It always struck me that the descriptions of Naples were quite generic – could have been Bari or Palermo or Reggio Calabria or even Rome minus an occasional ocean. The same is true in this book of Pisa and Florence where Elena finds herself. I never really felt she was in Pisa or Florence. She could have been in any Italian university town. The settings were perhaps Ferrante's way of concealing her tracks.

Ferrante was always going to have a problem keeping her anonymity because of the apparent intense realism of her work - you can't help wondering how much is true while reading her. The irony for me is that these books were never about Naples, or at least specific to Naples. In fact it doesn’t surprise me at all that she never lived in Naples for long. And yet it’s the depiction of Naples that has caused a lot of the fuss. They are about the difficulties women face to achieve autonomy and identity in any milieu where men still often have the final word – as such they could be set in Bagdad or Birmingham, Rome or Nairobi. It’s interesting that in Italy many have claimed her books were written by a man and even now there’s talk they were written by this translator’s husband. Would even that matter? It says a lot about Italy which, though I’d argue is not generally misogynistic, does tend to be chauvinistic – the disparagement of women more an intellectual insecurity than an emotional distaste). Were her books written by a man it’d certainly be a phenomenal achievement because Ferrante, whoever she is, will probably go down in history as one of the very best exponents of unravelling the inner lives of women.

So, yep this was really good too, though not quite as good as Book Two. Interestingly and for the first time Elena isn't always likeable in this book - often you feel because the wise and inspirational influence of Lina is not at hand. And it ends on a real cliffhanger and I’m annoyed I didn’t already buy the forth book cos now I have to wait for it to arrive.

I only hope Ferrante doesn’t stop writing now that her privacy has been so crudely invaded.
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Reading Progress

September 23, 2016 – Started Reading
September 23, 2016 – Shelved
October 3, 2016 – Finished Reading
August 1, 2017 – Shelved as: italy
August 1, 2017 – Shelved as: 21st-century

Comments Showing 1-47 of 47 (47 new)

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message 1: by ·Karen· (new)

·Karen· I don't understand the logic of that journalist: saying that because she wrote that she she may occasionally resort to telling lies about herself “to shield my person, feelings, pressures.” she therefore loses the right to privacy. Most bizarre reasoning.


message 2: by Jen (new) - added it

Jen This is interesting - I wasn't aware of all the buzz around this author. I'm going to have to do some digging now. I am still very excited to start this series. Nice review, Violet


message 3: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Nice review. I'm with you, Violet. I always find it a sad moment, when an author's privacy glass house is shattered. Why spend so much time trying to harass a writer, when so many more crucial oddities in the world need investigative journalism? I'm just so glad she's already made a name/brand for herself that most likely won't be shattered by all of this.


Violet wells ·Karen· wrote: "I don't understand the logic of that journalist: saying that because she wrote that she she may occasionally resort to telling lies about herself “to shield my person, feelings, pressures.” she the..."

Yep, vacuous nonsense. However it's probably unfair to come down solely on the journalist. Clearly he was paid by newspapers/magazines. It's a problem of our culture that we demand to know everything about the private life of celebrities. I'm amazed she got away with remaining anonymous for so long. I wish i were in Italy today as I'd love to know how the media are reacting - are they camped outside Anita Raja's door? I hope not.


Violet wells Jen wrote: "This is interesting - I wasn't aware of all the buzz around this author. I'm going to have to do some digging now. I am still very excited to start this series. Nice review, Violet"

All kicked off last night, Jen. Tawdry and sad.


Violet wells Cheryl wrote: "Nice review. I'm with you, Violet. I always find it a sad moment, when an author's privacy glass house is shattered. Why spend so much time trying to harass a writer, when so many more crucial oddi..."

Hopefully it won't affect her future writing, Cheryl. It's still a mystery why she wanted to remain anonymous. The idea that the Mafia would bump her off seems absurd to me - especially now it's looking likely that she was writing fiction and not a memoir. I suspect it was simple shyness. In which case she's in for a really trying time.


Louise The author may have uncovered herself. In Nov. an autobiogrphical piece is coming out.http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/10/...


Violet wells Yep, that's the piece I read, Louise that has caused the rumpus. The next article is more claims by the journalist rather than an autobiographical piece by Ferrante unless you've seen something I haven't.


message 9: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Interesting timing, Violet - finishing the book just when the author's supposed identity is revealed. I can imagine, at least from the 'Story behind a Name' article I read, that if it is proved to be true, people will be reading new meanings into all of Ferrante's work.
One of the things I read referred to Calvino's claim that a writer was entitled to lie to protect his life from being used to explain his fiction. I really agree with that. I wish this author's identity had been left a mystery.


Candi I always enjoy reading your thoughts, Violet. I am starting this series next month and am really looking forward to it. Excellent review.


message 11: by Violet (last edited Oct 04, 2016 01:35AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Violet wells Fionnuala wrote: "Interesting timing, Violet - finishing the book just when the author's supposed identity is revealed. I can imagine, at least from the 'Story behind a Name' article I read, that if it is proved to ..."

Yep Fi, the journalist using Ferrante's citing of Calvino's quote as a justification for outing Ferrante was at best vacuous. Ferrante though was always going to have a problem keeping her anonymity because of the apparent intense realism of her work - you can't help wondering how much is true while reading her. This isn't the case with say, Zadie Smith. Had Smith wanted to remain anonymous she might have succeeded because her novels, narratively more emotionally and intellectually detached, don't make you anywhere near so curious about autobiographical detail. The irony for me is that these books were never about Naples, or at least specific to Naples. In fact it doesn’t surprise me at all that she never lived in Naples for long. And yet it’s the depiction of Naples that has caused a lot of the fuss. They are about the difficulties women face to achieve autonomy and identity in any milieu where men still often have the final word – as such they could be set in Bagdad or Birmingham, Rome or Nairobi. It’s interesting that in Italy many have claimed her books were written by a man and even now there’s talk they were written by this translator’s husband. Would even that matter? It says a lot about Italy which, though I’d argue is not generally misogynistic, does tend to be chauvinistic – the disparagement of women more an intellectual insecurity than an emotional distaste). Were her books written by a man it’d certainly be a phenomenal achievement because Ferrante, whoever she is, will probably go down in history as one of the very best exponents of unravelling the inner lives of women.


Violet wells Candi wrote: "I always enjoy reading your thoughts, Violet. I am starting this series next month and am really looking forward to it. Excellent review."

Thanks Candi. Prepare yourself for a major treat!


message 13: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Violet wrote: "...The irony for me is that these books were never about Naples, or at least specific to Naples. In fact it doesn’t surprise me at all that she never lived in Naples for long. And yet it’s the depiction of Naples that has caused a lot of the fuss..."

It was smart of you to spot that early on, Violet. And your reaction echoes slightly my own thought about MBF - that it could have been about any city in many countries during the fifties, which may have been what pissed me off with it: I felt I'd read it before and better (I know you've told me the next book moved the story up several notches and I mean to follow your guidance and read it for myself).
And it's true too that The Days of Abandonment, though set in Milan, I think, had no flavor of 'place' about it at all. It was very much about the main character spinning within the small circle of her dilemma. It could have been set anywhere.
It's funny what you say about Zadie Smith - I have the opposite feeling. Though I try to resist reading autobiographical elements into writer's stories, White Teeth, balanced as it was between Anglo-Caribean communities and the academic world seemed full of personal experience. As did NW, again straddling two worlds, the sueccessfull professional one and the ethnic community one.

And isn't it typical that Ferrante because she's thought to be married to a writer, must necessarily have had his help with her writing. Groan....
Your last sentence is impressively confident about Ferrante's achievement. I'll get back to you on it ;-)


message 14: by Violet (last edited Oct 04, 2016 02:12AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Violet wells Yep, I see what you mean about Zadie Smith. Probably I didn't use the best example. If one didn't know her ethnicity and background one would be curious. How about Hilary Mantel? I don't think I'd be super curious about her biography!


message 15: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Beyond BlackViolet wrote: "Yep, I see what you mean about Zadie Smith. Probably I didn't use the best example. If one didn't know her ethnicity and background one would be curious. How about Hilary Mantel?..."

Hilary Mantel is a good example - the Cromwell and French revolution themes remove her from the danger of having her work interpreted in terms of her life.
But what about the early stuff? When I read Beyond Black which is about a medium and her relationship with a host of ghosts, I did wonder what could have lead her to such a theme. And then I heard that her autobiography was called Giving Up the Ghost and featured ghosts...


Violet wells I saw a fascinating documentary about her in which she spoke about her fascination for haunted places. It was an interesting bit of biographical detail but hardly jaw-dropping. I think I could have read her early novels with nothing but a very mild curiosity about how she gathered up her material. Same as most writers. There's always some curiosity but I think with Ferrante this curiosity is much more nagging. I kind of hope there was a playful mischievous element in Ferrante's determination to remain anonymous. Which would mean she expected the eventual unmasking and is, at least to some degree, prepared for it. Worst case scenario is that it's traumatising which, equally, could be more than possible.


message 17: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala But what about the so-called biography Ferrante is releasing in November about her life in Naples which doesn't seem to chime with the reporter's findings of the writer/translator living in Rome?
That sounds like a good joke to me. I cheered when I heard it. People wanted a story and she's giving them the story they wanted.


message 18: by Angela M (new) - added it

Angela M Violet , fantastic review and discussion here . I have only read the first book but plan to read the others .


message 19: by Violet (last edited Oct 04, 2016 04:19AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Violet wells Fionnuala wrote: "But what about the so-called biography Ferrante is releasing in November about her life in Naples which doesn't seem to chime with the reporter's findings of the writer/translator living in Rome?
..."


I hadn't heard about that! There's plenty of evidence in her novels that she is mischievous and it wouldn't surprise me at all if she has the last laugh. If that journalist picks a fight with Lila there's only going to be one winner.


message 20: by Michael (new)

Michael Wonderful to be following your journey. "No Lina, no party", which makes me wonder if there is coverage of internalizing the missing Lina. So different but so tied together, such that in book one it felt like two alternative halves needed to make a survivable personality. You give me the spur to read past the first, which had felt complete in itself. Or like the early growing up was the essential story and the adult life paths a coda to their launching. Obviously not true.

In the course of time maybe she can gain back some privacy. Supposedly people and journalists have come to leave Pynchon alone and somehow photos of him are still rare as hen's teeth.


Violet wells Thanks Michael. The absence of Lila was fascinating as it marked a decline in Elena’s well-being. When Lila becomes Elena’s nemesis Elena becomes a whole lot less likeable. One of the best elements of this book was the profound distress you feel when Elena and Lila fall out. It brings you back to the central theme of the books too - the friendship between two women. Because, though men sometimes take over the narrative, you’re always rooting for Lina and Elena to forget about men and team up again.


Violet wells Angela M wrote: "Violet , fantastic review and discussion here . I have only read the first book but plan to read the others ."

Thanks Angela. It took me a year before I read the second book after the first. Thing is, you can't do that with the second and third books: you have to read the next one immediately. I think it's the second which really immerses you in the saga.


PorshaJo Great review! I'm just about to start book #3. I had no idea her identity was revealed and not in a kind way. It's very sad that someone felt the need to do this. But a wonderful series that I see myself reading again.


message 24: by Teresa (last edited Oct 04, 2016 10:02AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Teresa I'm loving this conversation and wanted to jump in. One of the things I find interesting is that Ferrante's first novel is the 1992 Troubling Love (not translated into English until after her success with The Days of Abandonment, her 2nd novel published in Italy 10 years after her first). Obviously, she made a decision to use a pseudonym way before she became famous. After reading her first novel (TL) I felt that if -- and it's a big "if" that doesn't really matter to me -- she wanted to conceal her identity over any autobiographical elements, it would likely have to do with her relationship with her parents.


Kelly I totally agree, btw. Book Two is where it's at. It's my favorite of the four by far- the acuteness of the observation, how close she seems to be living to the characters- and it's a time of life I just recently left and I was at the right time to hear a lot of what it had to say. Team Book Two!


Violet wells PorshaJo wrote: "Great review! I'm just about to start book #3. I had no idea her identity was revealed and not in a kind way. It's very sad that someone felt the need to do this. But a wonderful series that I see ..."

Thanks Porshajo.


Violet wells Teresa wrote: "I'm loving this conversation and wanted to jump in. One of the things I find interesting is that Ferrante's first novel is the 1992 Troubling Love (not translated into English until a..."

I think you’re spot on, Teresa. It’s highly unlikely she even gave a thought to the possibility of widespread fame or knew she was going to write the Neapolitan series when she published her first novel and so the decision to publish anonymously would have been made solely in relation to that first book. Nothing to do with her being a man or being afraid of the mafia. Interesting that she probably did it to keep herself and the book secret from her mother. I can completely see that. If I wrote a novel I think I would be most worried about hurting my parents, especially because I’d feel compelled to be critical of them! And then perhaps the pseudonym gave her the freedom to write very close to life in the subsequent novels without fear of offending people.


Violet wells Kelly wrote: "I totally agree, btw. Book Two is where it's at. It's my favorite of the four by far- the acuteness of the observation, how close she seems to be living to the characters- and it's a time of life I..."

I too thought maybe I loved Book two the most because it's where I am in life. Not being married I found it tough to embrace the relentless misery of marital life depicted in this book!


Violet wells A passage from the DeLillo novel I'm reading - "What's the importance of a photograph if you know the writer's work? But people still want the image, don't they? The writer's face is the surface of the work. It's a clue to the mystery inside."


message 30: by Rae (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rae Meadows Wonderful review, Violet. I found it quite sad about the reveal. Of her work I definitely like the Neapolitan novels the best, though I totally agree that when the story leaves Lila, we lose energy. I think Lila is one of the great literary characters. (Also interesting to see in her earlier novels, versions of Lila)


Violet wells Amazing how pertinent DeLillo's Mao II is to the Ferrante situation - "When a writer doesn't show his face, he becomes a local symptom of God's famous reluctance to appear."
"But we're all drawn to remoteness. A hard-to-reach place is necessarily beautiful. Beautiful and a little sacred, maybe. And a person who becomes inaccessible has a grace and wholeness the rest of us envy."


message 32: by Violet (last edited Oct 05, 2016 11:06AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Violet wells Rae wrote: "Wonderful review, Violet. I found it quite sad about the reveal. Of her work I definitely like the Neapolitan novels the best, though I totally agree that when the story leaves Lila, we lose energy..."

Thanks Rae. As a novelist yourself you must base characters on people you know. Do you ever worry people you know might recognise themselves in your books? You kind of sense this was Ferrante's dilemma. However she became so well known that it's hard to believe at least one of her friends didn't cotton on and pass the word. The biggest irony really is that giving her a name hasn't solved any of the mystery about her characters' relationship to real life! In fact, this "expose" seems completely pointless.


Violet wells Thanks Marita.


message 34: by Emma (new) - rated it 5 stars

Emma I wonder if her choice to use her non de plume's first name for the character fuelled the fire of biographical curiosity; it suggests a strong identification with the character or that the work is autobiographical.


message 35: by Emma (new) - rated it 5 stars

Emma That's nom sorry


message 36: by Rae (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rae Meadows Violet wrote: "Rae wrote: "Wonderful review, Violet. I found it quite sad about the reveal. Of her work I definitely like the Neapolitan novels the best, though I totally agree that when the story leaves Lila, we..."

As one of friends said, the big reveal was, she is an Italian woman! I think there is always interest in what an author draws from his/her life, more now with the rise of memoir and authors as public presences. With Ferrante, there was an assumption that she must have grown up poor in Naples, so the fact that she didn't takes even more air out of the reveal. I have definitely based characters on people I know, though not much anymore. In my first book very much so, and I always worried a little about that. It is fraught, for sure. (a couple people recognized themselves but liked being made into characters in a book.) I assume she will keep writing as Elena Ferrante, and maybe she will never confirm her identity, which I'm sure will be a point of frustrations for the exposer!


Violet wells Emma wrote: "I wonder if her choice to use her non de plume's first name for the character fuelled the fire of biographical curiosity; it suggests a strong identification with the character or that the work is ..."

My boss, a grumpy cynical Florentine man with a hidden heart of gold, actually used the fact that the narrator shares the author's name as part of his argument that these books are, apart from everything else, a mischievous joke and as such possibly written by a man. In part he adopted this argument to wind me up as he enjoys it when I get angry but in Italy some have used it as a clue that one of Elena Ferrante’s aims in these books is to make mischief of the relationship between an author and her material – in other words to write what appears barely veiled autobiography but which is in fact pure fiction. The joke within the joke is the author uses her own name for the narrator but goes to extreme lengths to remain anonymous. There is an element of Nabokovian mischievousness in all this though why this should act as evidence that she’s a really a man I don’t know!


message 38: by Violet (last edited Oct 07, 2016 02:40AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Violet wells Rae wrote: "Violet wrote: "Rae wrote: "Wonderful review, Violet. I found it quite sad about the reveal. Of her work I definitely like the Neapolitan novels the best, though I totally agree that when the story ..."

I’m guessing your portraits of friends were essentially generous, Rae if they were pleased to find themselves in a novel. This can’t be said of many of Ferrante’s which are often brutal! Especially, for example, the mother, or some of the men. As Teresa said above the desire not to hurt her mother would have been sufficient grounds alone for publishing anonymously. And again as Teresa said, the decision was made before her first novel came out which counteracts the argument my boss made (see post above) that she’s really a man poking fun at literary conventions. I agree the big reveal has revealed essentially nothing and shouldn't impede Ferrante from continuing to write as Ferrante.


PorshaJo Coming back to your review Violet since I just completed this book. I agree entirely with your review. You captured everything so perfectly that probably many readers of this book ponder. I too get the impression much of this story comes from someone who lived it. (Perhaps hope it does) Or, at least some of it. Lila is truly the heart of these books and I feel that Elena is pushed constantly and in the shadow of Lila. I do feel bad that Ferrante was unmasked though it takes nothing from my reading of these books. Now, I just need to read the final book (sobs).


Ekaterina Novozhilova Thanks Violet for your review, I couldn't agree more! I enjoyed reading this book, first pages about Napoli and how the city has been changing all these years were so beautiful. I also appreciated the narrator's franchise about family life, the non-judgemental narration of her very human issues about assuming her new role of wife and mom.

However I found the end of the book disappointing: the last 40 pages have become a romanesque sentimental story with cliché phrases and very banal fade moments depicting love and passion. Strangely enough my disappointment of how this book ends made me think of the critics Elena Greco's book has received - however, while Elena (Greco) states with pride that she wants to describe all the life experiences as they are, i couldn't say the author took courage to turn her story in a more realistic and less romantic way.

Totally agree as for Lila. They relationship becoming more and more toxic created a specific atmosphere in the book, that was oppressing and captivating at the same time. Waiting for the 4th book to see if Lila will reappear with all her destructive and stimulating energy!


Violet wells PorshaJo wrote: "Coming back to your review Violet since I just completed this book. I agree entirely with your review. You captured everything so perfectly that probably many readers of this book ponder. I too get..."

Thanks Porshajo. Sorry i missed this. You wrote a great review.


Violet wells Ekaterina wrote: "Thanks Violet for your review, I couldn't agree more! I enjoyed reading this book, first pages about Napoli and how the city has been changing all these years were so beautiful. I also appreciated ..."

Shame you didn't write a review - though I guess you wrote it here! Great thoughts. I think you'll love the 4th even more.


message 43: by Joan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Joan I just completed Book 3, and now realize that Book 2 is by far my favorite. I raced through it devouring each word I only hope that Book 4 will be an improvement over Book 3 since I felt it was full of suspected surprises and honestly not as thought provoking.


Warwick It's strange for me reading how disappointed everyone was in this book, because for me, having had a somewhat lukewarm reaction to the first two, this was the first one where I really felt I was enjoying myself. I'm wondering what is wrong with my sensibilities…

The reveal of her identity was an interesting case study for the age-old debate of whether it matters, or should matter, who actually wrote a given piece of literature. I think it does matter, personally, and I've never believed in the death of the author – not that I agree with violating someone's privacy in this way, of course.


Violet wells Warwick wrote: "It's strange for me reading how disappointed everyone was in this book, because for me, having had a somewhat lukewarm reaction to the first two, this was the first one where I really felt I was en..."

I can only guess you're not quite feeling the love for Lila. I found her a groundbreaking character in literature. If she was absent from this books I think I'd find Elena's story accomplished and interesting but nothing particularly special.
I agree it does matter who wrote books. It's enriched my reading of many books to learn about the authors - Woolf, Mansfield, Proust, Fitzgerald, Henry James, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Emily Bronte, Nabokov all spring immediately to mind. And it's so frustrating we don't know more about Shakespeare.


Violet wells Joan wrote: "I just completed Book 3, and now realize that Book 2 is by far my favorite. I raced through it devouring each word I only hope that Book 4 will be an improvement over Book 3 since I felt it was ful..."

Book 2 was my favourite, Joan.


Irina @Violet, I was wondering if you could recommend a few good books set in Italy? I’ve finished all of Ferrante’s novels, a few by Moravia and in the middle of Elsa Morante now. Do you have any favorites by Italian authors or simply set in Italy that would would recommend?


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