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sábado, 13 de dezembro de 2014

Literatura italiana: chi 'e Elena Ferrante? Who Is Elena Ferrante? A escritora desconhecida...

A grande questão literária, e sherlockiana, da Itália contemporânea, é descobrir quem se esconde atrás do nome Elena Ferrante, uma escritora (ou talvez um escritor) de sucesso, mas que ninguém, nem mesmo seu editor, sabe quem é exatamente. Apenas que é uma napolitana já madura, que viveu grandezas e miséria da cidade do sul da Itália. Ainda não li seus romances, mas parecem ser interessantes...
Paulo Roberto de Almeida

Who Is Elena Ferrante?

The writer known by that name has never been photographed, interviewed in person or even made a public appearance, but a collection of fiercely candid novels has earned her (him?) recognition as one of the keenest observers of Italian society. On the eve of the publication of “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the much-anticipated third volume in the author’s Neapolitan series, three admirers celebrate this elusive talent.

CreditThorsten Brinkmann


Elena Ferrante’s “The Lost Daughter,” 2006, which has been (along with her other books) translated into English by Ann Goldstein and published by Europa Editions.CreditMarko Metzinger
On a recent Alitalia flight from Milan to New York, a woman in a neighboring seat said, in Italian, to my girlfriend, “I didn’t want to disturb your privacy, but I couldn’t help notice you were reading Elena Ferrante. Isn’t it amazing?” Carol agreed and politely tried to resume her reading, but the woman needed her moment of ritual speculation about the reclusive author’s identity. “Everyone knows Ferrante is really a man,” she began.
When Italian columnists set themselves to the Ferrante mystery, they assume she must be famous for something else. For what other reason would one possibly decline celebrity? As Ferrante once said in a written interview, “It would not occur to any newspaper to fill a page with the hypothesis that my books were written by an old retired archivist or by a young, newly hired bank clerk.” Part of the point of her withdrawal is to show her country, with its reality shows and cult-of-personality politics, that celebrity — the universal, wrathful demand of the public for complete disclosure — might be graciously declined.
The books themselves are about, among other things, keeping things hidden, and how the partitions we erect permit us the comfort of multiple identities. In Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, her character Elena struggles to reconcile the girl she is in her violent neighborhood in Naples with the girl she becomes at the mixed high school, the scholarship student on campus in Pisa with the political journalist and married mother in Florence. The story is narrated by Elena’s future self — the one who, in her mid-60s, seems to have figured out how it all hangs together — but this narrator is barely present; she steps into the the frame occasionally to clap it into action and then withdraws. The books find their momentum in the narrator’s scenic inventory of the losses her younger self doesn’t yet know she’ll survive.
T remembers 10 iconic writers, from Jonathan Swift to J.K. Rowling, who chose to conceal their identities when publishing their work. More…
Thus with a young, fractured Elena, and an older, integrated Elena, there is simply no room and no need for a third Elena, the one who’s presumably living in Italy somewhere and writing these books. The further comparison — to the person who has figured it all out enough to become famous — is denied. In staying out of the art/life fray, Ferrante is quite unlike the other great serial autobiographical novelists of our time, Edward St. Aubyn and Karl Ove Knausgaard, both of whom invite the life comparison — and who, in two differently macho ways, insist that they are hardy enough to withstand the sorts of conflicts that can and do ensue. In St. Aubyn’s case, the extravagantly artful prose of the five-part Patrick Melrose novels, which detail his relationship to his upper-class English family, makes clear that the author has risen above the story he has inherited: the abuse, the incest, the parties, the drugs. The effortless style of Knausgaard’s confessional six-book series “My Struggle,” on the other hand, promises total disclosure to the reader, even if this should cause the author (and his family) some later discomfort. St. Aubyn is stylist, Knausgaard confessor and Ferrante uninterested.
For Ferrante, becoming a public figure should be a writer’s choice, not an obligation. One ought to be able to make a decision about where and when one wants to be held accountable. One of the things her Neapolitan novels do so well is describe how hard it can be, especially for a woman, to grow into something new when one’s always being dragged back into the muck of the old. In the third volume of the series, after Elena publishes her own book, based loosely on her own experience of awakening sexual desire, she finds, on returning to her old neighborhood, that she’s been overly identified with her narrator — that her novel was not judged for its internal coherence but for what it seems to reveal about the author’s own “dirty” life. What Ferrante shows is that the comparison to life is not only better for the writer to do without, but better for the reader, as well.
“I think she must be a film director,” the woman on the plane went on to say, “because the writing in the books is only so-so. It’s really the story itself that’s so good.” This struck me at the time as silly. But now I think what she meant was that the books feel somehow cinematically real. We are in the theater; the lights are off; the world outside has been banished and forgotten. There is only the text, and our engagement is all the richer for it. The speculation itself becomes a form of absorption. “To my way of seeing,” Ferrante has written, “digging up the personality of the writer from the stories he offers, from the characters he puts onstage, from the landscapes, objects, from interviews like this — always and only, in short, from the tonality of his writing — is nothing other than a good way of reading.”


“The Days of Abandonment,” 2002.Credit Marko Metzinger
While many in the Italian reading public believe that a man must have written these novels — the leading candidate for the “real” Ferrante is the Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone — I hope Ferrante is a woman, and one who might one day find it possible to unveil herself while still writing with the same ferocity.
On the other hand, with a voice so alive in these pages, does it really matter that we don’t know who she is — especially when it’s so easy to feel like we do? The protagonists of her psychological, phantasmagoric novels are accomplished, analytically-minded women who, as we follow them, lose their grip on reality. Each has suffered a major loss — a divorce, the death of a mother, the end of a friendship. Destabilized, they are nearly suffocated by the emergence of long-repressed emotions. The signature quality of Ferrante’s work is the way each narrator’s cool voice slowly betrays a growing hysteria. You might say Ferrante restores hysteria from a pure derangement to a radical form of insight — a way of expressing the damage that marriage, childbirth and sex can do to women’s bodies and minds.
In “The Days of Abandonment” — first published in 2002, and perhaps her finest work outside the Neapolitan trilogy — Olga, a former writer whose husband has abruptly left her, slides into “bitter fantasies” that gradually supplant her reality. She’s persuaded that her phone doesn’t work and that her dog has eaten ant poison. At one point, she attaches a metal clip to her arm as if to hold herself together. At the book’s climax, when she needs to get medicine for her son, who has a fever, she spends hours trying to unlock her door, convinced she can’t. In the hands of a less agile writer, such a scene might feel excessively stagey. In Ferrante’s, it’s frightening — almost Kafkaesque. “You aren’t listening to me,” her daughter calls out in terror, as she watches her mother try to turn the key with her mouth. “You’re doing terrible things, your eyes are all twisted.”
Like Marguerite Duras before her, Ferrante writes candidly, even provocatively, about women’s social roles. Past lives routinely resurface. In “The Lost Daughter,” 47-year-old Leda, a university professor, is vacationing on the Ionian shore, reading on the beach each day, when she becomes increasingly interested in the lives of a “serene” young mother and her daughter, Elena, who sit near her, playing with a doll. Leda’s own daughters have recently gone to live with their father in Toronto, and the distance from them has made Leda feel “miraculously unfettered.” Watching the strangers returns her to her own childhood, “poisoned” by her mother’s unhappiness, and to memories of a time when she abandoned her own daughters. When the little girl isn’t looking, Leda takes her doll. Later, considering whether to return it, she tells us, something “twisted violently inside me.” Past and present collapse as she stands on the beach, near a coconut seller. “It seemed to me that I was Elena,” she thinks, dazedly, “but . . . perhaps I was only myself as a child, climbing back out of oblivion.”
Hysteria — expounded upon by Freud and now known as “conversion disorder” — describes the state that arises when conflicting forces (a woman’s private will, society’s expectations) encounter one another. For Ferrante’s women, the choice is either to escape (at the risk of upsetting all social structure) or to be consumed. Sometimes they are the ones to consume themselves. In “The Days of Abandonment,” Olga offers herself up to her downstairs neighbor, who initially disgusts her; what follows is one of the more arresting descriptions of sex from a woman’s point of view I’ve read. In the second book of the Neapolitan series, the narrator — who has already begun to leave behind her traditional, misogynist and violent slum in Naples — helps her friend Lina, tethered to her home, to deface her portrait. The image, used to sell shoes, becomes an emblem of what the community does to women. This is Ferrante’s world — in which the body is deformed by both emotional and physical conflict, and everything is both symbolic and actual.
Interview with Elena Ferrante (by e-mail, keeping the secret):

‘Writing Has Always Been a Great Struggle for Me’

Q. and A.: Elena Ferrante


The author who writes under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante responded to written questions via email through her longtime Italian publisher, Sandra Ozzola Ferri. The following is a translated transcript of that interview. 

Q. You insist on anonymity and yet are developing a cult following, especially among women, first in Italy and now in the United States and beyond. How do you feel about the reception of your books in the United States in recent years, and your growing readership, especially after James Wood’s review in The New Yorker in January 2013?

 A. I appreciated James Wood’s review very much. The critical attention that he dedicated to my books not only helped them find readers but in a way it also helped me to read them. Writers, because they write, are condemned never to be readers of their own stories. What happens to the reader when he reads a story for the first time is effectively what the narrator experiences while he writes. The memory of first putting a story into words will always prevent writers from reading their work as an ordinary reader would. Critics like Wood not only help readers to read but especially, perhaps, help the author as well. Their function also becomes fundamental in helping faraway literary worlds to migrate. I never asked myself how the women in my stories would be received outside Italy. I wrote first and foremost for myself, and if I published I did so leaving the task of finding readers to the book itself. Now I know that thanks to Europa Editions [Ferrante’s English-language publisher], to Ann Goldstein [her English-language translator] and to Wood and so many other reviewers and writers and readers, the heart of these stories has burst forth, and it is not only Italian. I’m both surprised and happy. 

Q. Do you feel your books have found the following they deserve in Italy? 

A. I don’t do promotional tours in my own country or anywhere. In Italy my first book, “Troubling Love,” sold immediately, thanks to the word of mouth of readers who discovered it and appreciated the writing, and to reviewers who wrote about it positively. Then the director Mario Martone read it and turned it into a memorable film. This helped the book, but it also shifted the media attention onto me personally. Partly for that reason, I didn’t publish anything else for 10 years, at which point, with tremendous anxiety, I decided to publish “The Days of Abandonment.” The book was a success and had a wide readership, even if there was also a lot of resistance to [the protagonist] Olga’s reaction to being abandoned, — the same kind of resistance faced by Delia [the protagonist] in “Troubling Love.” The success of the book and of the film that was made from it focused even more attention onto the absence of the author. It was then that I decided, definitively, to separate my private life from the public life of my books, which overcame countless difficulties and have endured. I can say with a certain pride that in my country, the titles of my novels are better known than my name. I think this is a good outcome.  

Q. Where do you see yourself in the Italian literary tradition? 

A. I’m a storyteller. I’ve always been more interested in storytelling than in writing. Even today, Italy has a weak narrative tradition. Beautiful, magnificent, very carefully crafted pages abound, but not the flow of storytelling that despite its density manages to sweep you away. A bewitching example is Elsa Morante. I try to learn from her books, but I find them unsurpassable. 

Q. The opening scene of the fourth and final novel in your Naples series, “Storia Della Bambina Perduta” (released in Italian this November and to be released in English next November), echoes some scenes in “The Lost Daughter,” a book in which the protagonist, Leda, also writes that she likes the echoes of names: Nani, Nina, Nennella, Elena, Lenù, etc. Why these echoes? Do you see your protagonists as some variation on the same woman or women? 

A. The women in my stories are all echoes of real women who, because of their suffering or their combativeness, have very much influenced my imagination: my mother, a childhood girlfriend, acquaintances whose stories I know. In general I combine their experiences with my own and Delia, Amalia, Olga, Leda, Nina, Elena, Lenù are born out of that mix. But the echo that you noticed maybe derives from an oscillation inside the characters that I’ve always worked on. My women are strong, educated, self-aware and aware of their rights, just, but at the same time subject to unexpected breakdowns, to subservience of every kind, to mean feelings. I’ve also experienced this oscillation. I know it well, and that also affects the way I write. 

Q. It seems fair to surmise from your books that you are a mother. Even if that’s not the case, how has the experience of motherhood — lived or observed — affected your writing? 

A. The roles of daughters and mothers are central to my books; sometimes I think I haven’t written about anything else. Every single one of my anxieties has ended up there. To conceive, to change shape, to feel inhabited by something increasingly alive that makes you feel ill and gives you a sense of well-being is both thrilling and threatening. It’s an experience akin to awe, that ancient feeling that mortals had when they found themselves facing a god, the same feeling that Mary must have felt, immersed in her reading, when the angel appeared. As for my writing, it began before the children came along, it was already a very strong passion, and it often came into conflict with my love for them, especially with the obligations and pleasures of taking care of them. Writing is also a kind of reproduction of life, one marked by contradictory and overwhelming emotions. But the continuum of writing — even with the anguish that you might not always know how to revive it and that no life might ever pass through it again — can be severed, if you need to, out of necessity or other pressing needs. In the end, you have to separate yourself from your books. But you never really cut the umbilical cord. Children always remain an inescapable knot of love, of terrors, of satisfactions and anxieties.  

Q. There are many, many classical references in your work, not least the names Elena, or Helen, and Leda. Why the interest in the classical world? What about it speaks to you? 

A. I studied classics. You’ve recognized the traces of it in my works and I’m pleased by that, but I hardly notice it myself. I recognize my education more in stories that I wrote as exercises and that fortunately have never seen the light of day. I have to say that I’ve never seen the classical world as an ancient world. Instead I feel its closeness, and I think I’ve learned many things from the Greek and Latin classics about how to put words together. As a girl I wanted to make that world my own, and I practiced with translations that tried to remove the lofty tones that I had been taught to use in school. But at the same time I imagined the Bay of Naples filled with sirens who spoke in Greek as in a lovely story by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Naples is a city in which many worlds coexist. The Greek, Latin and Eastern worlds; medieval, modern and contemporary Europe; even the United States, are all side by side, neighbors, especially in the dialect and also in the historical stratification of the city. 

Q. How did the Naples novels come into being? Did you envision them as four distinct novels from the start or did you start writing “My Brilliant Friend” without knowing where the story would end? 

A. Almost six years ago I started writing a story of a difficult female friendship that came directly from inside a book that I’m very attached to, “The Lost Daughter.” I thought I could manage it in 100, 150 pages. Instead, the writing, I would say extremely naturally, unearthed memories of people and places from my childhood — stories, experiences, fantasies — so much so that the story went on for many years. The story was conceived and written as a single narrative. Its division into four hefty volumes was decided when I realized that the story of Lila and Lenù couldn’t easily be contained in one book. I always knew the end of the story, and I knew some central episodes very well — Lila’s wedding, the adultery on Ischia, the work in the factory, the lost daughter — but the rest was a surprising and demanding gift that came from the pure storytelling pleasure. 

Q. The third novel in the Naples books is more cinematic. Have you also worked in cinema? 

A. Absolutely not. But I adore the cinema and have since I was a child. 

Q. How did you start writing novels? What book of yours do you consider a breakthrough in your own writing and why? 

A. I discovered as a girl that I liked telling stories. I did it orally and with some success. Around age 13 I started to write stories, but writing didn’t become a permanent habit until I was in my 20s. “Troubling Love” was important. I felt that I’d found the right tone. “The Days of Abandonment” confirmed that for me, after much struggle, and gave me confidence. Today I think “My Brilliant Friend” was my most arduous yet most successful book. Writing it was like having the chance to live my life over again. But I still think that the most daring, the most risk-taking book is “The Lost Daughter.” If I hadn’t gone through that, with great anxiety, I wouldn’t have written “My Brilliant Friend.”  

Q. In which order did you write your seven novels compared with their publication dates? 

A. As I said, I consider “My Brilliant Friend” a single story, so I’ve published four novels, the last one in four volumes, and all of them written in the order in which they were published. But they ripened during the years when I wrote privately. It’s as if I found them by painstakingly organizing countless narrative fragments. ["Days of Abandonment” (2002) was published in English in 2005 and “Troubling Love” (1991) in English in 2006.] 

Q. Can you describe your writing process? You told The Financial Times that you made a living doing what you’ve always done, “which is not writing.” How much of your time are you able to devote to your writing compared with your other job? Can you tell us what that other job is? 

A. I don’t consider writing a job. A job has fixed hours — you start, you finish. I write continuously and everywhere and at every hour of the day and night. What I call my job is orderly and quiet, and when necessary it retreats and leaves me time. Writing has always been a great struggle for me. I would polish it line by line and I wouldn’t move forward if I didn’t think that what I had already written was perfect, and since the work never seemed perfect I didn’t even try to find a publisher. The books that I ultimately published all came with surprising ease, even “My Brilliant Friend,” although it took me years. 

Q. What about the editing process? You send your work to Edizioni E/O and do they do much editing? 

A. The editing is extremely attentive, but delicate and done with great courtesy. I’m the one who welcomes doubts. I add them to my own questions and write, rewrite, erase, add until the day before the book goes to press. 

Q. I fully respect your choice, and I’m sure you are tired of this question, but I have to ask it: At what stage in your writing life, and in what spirit, did you choose anonymity? Was it meant, as in the ancient epics, to give the story precedence over the storyteller? To protect your family and loved ones? Or simply to avoid the media, as you’ve said in the past? 

A. If I may, I didn’t choose anonymity; the books are signed. Instead, I chose absence. More than 20 years ago I felt the burden of exposing myself in public. I wanted to detach myself from the finished story. I wanted the books to assert themselves without my patronage. This choice created a small polemic in the media, whose logic is aimed at inventing protagonists while ignoring the quality of the work, so that it seems natural that bad or mediocre books by someone who has a reputation in the media deserve more attention than books that might be of higher quality but were written by someone who is no one. But today, what counts most for me is to preserve a creative space that seems full of possibilities, including technical ones. The structural absence of the author affects the writing in a way that I’d like to continue to explore. 

Q. At this point, now that you’ve had a certain success, would you ever reconsider the anonymity and reveal who you are? For Hollywood stars, they say that fame can be lonely. But anonymous literary success must also be a bit lonely, no? 

A. I don’t feel at all lonely. I’m happy that my stories have migrated and found readers in Italy and in other parts of the world. I follow their journeys with affection, but from afar. They are books that I have written to put my writing on display, not me. I have my life, which for now is quite full.

Q. In Italy in particular, people often say that your anonymity must mean that you’re a man. What do you make of that assumption? The Neapolitan novelist Domenico Starnone has given interviews saying that he is very tired of everyone asking if he’s you. What would you say to him? 

A. That he’s right and I feel guilty. But I hold him in great esteem and I’m certain that he understands my motivations. My identity, my sex can be found in my writing. Everything that has sprouted up around that is yet more evidence of the character of Italians in the first years of the 21st century. 

Q. Any comments you’d like to make about the current state of Italy? 

A. Italy is an extraordinary country but it has been made completely ordinary by the permanent confusion between legality and illegality, between the common good and private interest. This confusion, concealed behind verbose self-promotion of all kinds, runs through criminal organizations as well as political parties, government bureaucracies and all social classes. That makes it very difficult to be a truly good Italian, different from the models constructed by newspapers and television. And yet good, excellent Italians exist in every corner of civic life, even if you don’t see them on television. They are evidence of the fact that Italy, if it still manages, in spite of everything, to have excellent citizens, is truly an extraordinary country. 

Q. Besides wonderful material, what else has Naples given you? What for you sets that city apart? 

A. Naples is my city, the city where I learned quickly, before I was 20, the best and worst of Italy and the world. I advise everyone to come and live here even just for a few weeks. It’s an apprenticeship, in all the most stupefying ways. 

Q. Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Which of your books — and which of your protagonists — would you say is closest to your own experience or your own heart, and why? 

A. All my books derive their truth from my own experience. But together Lenù and Lila are the ones that best capture me. Not in the specific events of their lives, nor in their concreteness as people with a destiny, but in the movement that characterizes their relationship, in the self-discipline of the one that continuously and brusquely shatters when it runs up against the unruly imagination of the other. 

Q. What is the best thing that you hope readers could take away from your work? 

A. That even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard — out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness — we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved. 

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

A. No.


Book review of one of Ferrante's novels:

A Connection as Vital as It Is Toxic

Elena Ferrante’s ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’


Book Three of the Neapolitan Novels
By Elena Ferrante
Translated by Ann Goldstein
418 pages. Europa Editions. $18

Nothing you read about Elena Ferrante’s work prepares you for the ferocity of it. And with each new novel in her revelatory Neapolitan series, she unprepares you all over again. The story follows the lifelong friendship-hateship of Lila and Elena, two women from an impoverished neighborhood in Naples, a city that “seemed to harbor in its guts a fury that couldn’t get out and therefore eroded it from the inside.”

The residents live out their lives in the shadow of Vesuvius, but Ms. Ferrante’s characters have no time to worry about volatile volcanoes. Closer things are constantly falling down, falling apart, falling away. “My Brilliant Friend,” the first of the series, opens with Lila throwing Elena’s only doll into the cellar of Don Achille, a loan shark the children fear like an “ogre of fairy tales.” The tormented bond of the girls is established with that one toss, which also anticipates the power struggles in every relationship depicted in these novels.

The third book, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” just published in Ann Goldstein’s admirable English translation, begins not with a doll falling, but a woman fallen. Elena and Lila’s childhood friend, the formerly beautiful Gigliola, is lying dead in a church flower bed, exposing her “enormous” ankles, the hole in the stockings on her unshod foot and her red hair, so thin it reveals “whitish patches of skull.”

Gigliola is the castoff wife of a local despot, and her ruined body is a reminder that women here are in continual danger of condemnation — by friends, family and society. It’s 2010, Lila and Elena are in their 60s now, and Elena realizes that, though she escaped the neighborhood — she married, moved to Florence, published a novel — she never escaped Lila, who, she says, “had understood everything since she was a girl, without ever leaving Naples.” 

Lila scolds her, as she has been doing through the decades of their friendship, and accuses her of gathering material for an autobiographical novel. Lila warns her against writing it and says that she will find the computer files and erase them. “I can protect myself,” Elena responds. Lila laughs “in her old mean way” and says, “Not from me.” Elena, now writing that very novel, is haunted by those three words, and reflects on the time, some 40 years earlier, when her first book was selling well and her dull fiancé, “so respectable in every detail,” came to Naples to meet her family. She was summoned by Lila, who had shut herself in her apartment “consumed by an unknown anguish.”

Lila talks to Elena all through that night, describing her wretched work at a sausage factory, where her boss molests women in the seasoning room, and explaining how she became involved in the anti-fascist movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Elena feels inferior and guilty: “This is the life that could have been mine, and if it isn’t, it’s partly thanks to her.” But there’s also a painful distance as Elena understands that she and Lila, who was forced to stop school after the fifth grade, do not speak the same language anymore. “The coarse language of the environment we came from was useful for attack or self-defense, but, precisely because it was the language of violence, it hindered, rather than encouraged, intimate confidences.”

One of the remarkable qualities of Ms. Ferrante’s work is her nuanced portrayal of class distinctions, especially among the working poor. Many American novelists, if they touch on class at all, confine themselves to the broad categories imposed by race and geography. But Ms. Ferrante exposes the intimate humiliations of being seated and served last at a wedding or the differences children discern between those whose parents take them to the sea and those, like Elena’s and Lila’s, who “weren’t like that, they didn’t have time, they didn’t have money, they didn’t have the desire.”

Ms. Ferrante’s books differ greatly not only from American novels but also from most modern ones. She writes like a classical tragedian dropped into the contemporary. The prose is not pretty; the sentences are long but not ornate. There’s a lack of waste, a sinewiness that fits the scalding directness of the story.

Lila herself seems a classical character, dominant and opaque, full of rage and fury. She is described as part saint, part mythic figure, with the remoteness of one and the almost unhuman force of the other. When Lila is called into her boss’s office after delivering a list of workers’ demands, “she went like that saint who, although she still has her head on her shoulders, is carrying it in her hands, as if it had already been cut off.” And one night in Florence, exhausted by her baby who refuses to sleep, Elena seems to “hear the sound of Gigliola’s voice, faint, repeating throughout the neighborhood that Lila had a tremendous power, that she could cast an evil spell by fire, that she smothered the creatures in her belly.”

“Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” is the story of a furious friendship, and the internal violence suffered by two women set against the turbulent landscape of a fractured Italy. Elena and Lila grow up, their lives converge and diverge, they have children, they share a passion for the same man, they leave their husbands. But essentially, this is a woman’s story told with such truthfulness that it is not so much a life observed as it is felt. The reader is ransacked and steps back into the world gingerly, with lingering questions about estrangement and belonging.

As Elena notes when she returns to Naples after a long absence, “As soon as I got off the train, I moved cautiously in the places where I had grown up, always careful to speak in dialect, as if to indicate I am one of yours, don’t hurt me.” But, as anyone who has left the fold recognizes, leaving never kills the tribe’s punitive power, only its redemptive one.

A version of this review appears in print on September 18, 2014, on page C2 of the New York edition with the headline: A Connection as Vital as It Is Toxic.

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