Reviews — From the October 2014 issue

The Secret Sharer

Elena Ferrante’s existential fictions

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( 4 of 5 )

In the latest novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, we witness Elena and Lila’s growing estrangement. As both struggle, neither very successfully, with the demands of motherhood, they see each other even less, and when they do meet up or speak on the phone, there is much that goes unsaid. Lila, Elena thinks, probably sees her 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,” which from the outside is exactly what she is. And Elena suspects Lila of secretly killing people, of being an ultra-leftist urban guerrilla: “She would know how to devise the most effective plan, she would reduce the risks to a minimum, she would keep fear under control, she would be able to give murderous intentions an abstract purity.”

The book is centrally concerned with politics and political activism and its effects on the inner lives of the characters. Both Elena and Lila find themselves involved in the explosive events that followed Italy’s Hot Autumn of 1969, “the underground war that occasionally erupted into the newspapers and on television — plans for coups, police repression, armed bands, firefights, woundings, killings, bombs, and slaughters.” Ferrante’s handling of this difficult material is sensitive, inward, and devoid of slogans or programmatic clichés, even at the meeting of the students’ revolutionary committee. Lila tells the students that she “knows nothing about the working class,” but she adds that she does know “workers, men and women . . . , from whom there [is] absolutely nothing to learn except wretchedness. Can you imagine . . . what it means to spend eight hours a day standing up to your waist in the mortadella water? . . . If you imagine this, what do you think you can learn?”

By the end of the book, however, Lila has returned to “the old neighborhood” and is poised, as Elena sees it, “between backwardness and modernity.” She had started studying computers when she was working in the salami factory and gets a job as technical director of a data-processing center, earning more than her boyfriend at 420,000 lira a month. “But it’s a boring job,” she tells Elena, “still too slow, you waste a lot of time, let’s hope that the new machines get here soon — they’re a lot faster . . . You understand, Lenù, what happens to people: we have too much stuff inside and it swells us, breaks us . . . The day will come when I reduce myself to diagrams, I become a perforated tape and you won’t find me anymore.” It’s the mid-Seventies, and already she can see that computers will be the future of everything. And already she is frustrated by their limitations and looking ahead to the day she disappears.

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