Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Book Three of the Neapolitan Novels (Europa editions, 2014) 418 pages

The third book in the Neapolitan Novels series opens with the revelation that Gigliola, Michele Solara's wife and a former friend of our protagonists Lila and Lenu, is dead. The once beautiful Gigliola is now a broken, physical wreck - her beauty and body ruined, her dead body abandoned on a roadside. For the reader, it appears a terrifying harbinger of the future troubles of our two protagonists that we have come to love.

It is now 2010. Lenu has not seen Lila in five years and recounts a night spent with Lila in which Lila details the difficult time she has had since she abandoned her husband, the successful grocer Stefano, and her comfortable life style as a stylish Napolitana matron married to one of the richest men in the neighborhood forty years before. Things have not gone well for Lila it seems.

At the end of The Story of a New Name, Book Two in the series (please see here for a review), Lenu has published her first book of fiction and is poised to be married to Pietro, a mild mannered if dull academic from an important family. Italy is in the throes of political chaos in the 1960s. Lenu's book is promoted (and scorned) as a prototype of an exciting, new type of modern woman in Italian society provoking mixed reviews for its risqué material some of which is based on her real life experiences as a young woman such as her unpleasant deflowering at the hands of Nino's lecherous father Donato on the beaches of Ischia. With despair, she notes that the only thing that her Naples neighbors want to speak of regarding her book is the "dirty bits".

Lenu is thrilled (and mortified) to re-encounter Nino, her long-time object of love and now also an academic, at a public reading at which he defends Lenu's book before the old guard - a cantankerous professor who dismisses her book. When Lenu's future mother-in-law invites Nino to a post-launch celebration she is both terrified and aroused at the possibility of a final tryst with Nino before her impending marriage. With the arrival of her fiancée Pietro, these hopes are dashed. But that is not the last we see of Nino.

With a lingering regret, Lenu proceeds with her engagement to Pietro. The sting of class disparity wounds her - it's not just the clothes and material possessions of her in-laws, it is the manner in which they speak, their political and cultural interests, their confidence that fills her with insecurity and despair. She feels that the stigma of her humble origins clings to her like a bad smell.

Invited to speak at a university campus about her book, Lenu gets swept into a student demonstration and re-encounters her old university flame Franco with whom her future sister-law Mariarosa is sleeping. She also meets Silvia, a young radical with a newborn baby, which triggers an almost nostalgic desire to be with Lila as well as new maternal feelings in the soon-to-be bride. Lenu learns that Nino is the father of the newborn, whom he has abandoned (as he did Lila's child Gennaro). The ugliness of this revelation is like a punch in the face for the reader; we have pinned our hopes on the virtuous Nino as an exemplar of a new type of manhood which shines against the background of the young women's brutal upbringing and dealings with men.

This encounter cements Lenu's desire to reunite with Lila and try and help her and her child Gennaro.

Lenu returns to her family home in Naples before the wedding, drowning in her mother's hostility and resistance to her modest, areligous wedding plans. Pietro must (and does) charm the Carraci family - the hostile mother, the under-confident father, the boorish siblings. (Later we learn from Lenu’s biting perspective that Pietro is only natural when dealing with his “inferiors.”)

Soon Lenu is summoned to Lila's bedside; Lila is ill and appears to be dangerously hallucinating. Lila speaks of her experience in the sausage factory where she works: the harsh working conditions, the sexual harassment of female employees, the interminable hours, the brutality of Bruno the owner and one time friend of Nino's. Meek, gentle Bruno has become the ruthless, abusive employer who invites female employees into a private room to sexually harass them and suppresses union activity.

As Lila becomes more politically active, she also immerses herself in the violence surrounding the labour conditions in the factory. Anti-union fascists clash with left wing activists - Lila notes with surprise old friends and neighbors on both sides of the political conflict – on the factory grounds. Lila is blamed as she had provided information about conditions at the factory. After being summoned to Bruno's office, Lila encounters her old nemesis Michele Solara who, it appears, has been paying Bruno to keep her employed. After suffering through his insults, Lila quits in a rage - an act of rebellion she can ill afford.

Lenu takes charge of Lila and her child using all of her power and in-laws' contacts to protect her friend - obtaining her final wages, seeing to her medical needs, caring for Gennaro. We see the advantage of class and connections that Lenu's pending marriage to Pietro affords - access to the best doctors, lawyers and political contacts. But an encounter with her old professor and her daughter Nadia, who has taken up with Pasquale, a construction worker from the old neighborhood, present a different slant on Lenu's involvement in the affairs of the factory. Conditions have worsened they say bitterly - those brave ones who agitated for reform were punished, those were remained silent rewarded. Worse, for Lenu, her professor appears to have more respect for Lila's efforts than Lenu’s writing and barely speaks of Lila's book. Ah, the ego of a writer. Lenu leaves mortified and angry.

Her brief sojourn in Naples reveals a group of unhappy and dissatisfied friends and family. What use are all the fine things that Lenu has purchased for her own family if she cannot bear to be with them? Despite her marriage to Michele, Gigiola bitterly complains that Michele is still in love Lila and treats his wife like a whore. Alfonso confesses he is gay and marries Marisa only to escape detection of his true desires.

Once married and living in Florence, Lenu immediately becomes pregnant regardless of her desire to put off bearing a child for a while. Lila meanly predicts difficulties ahead for Lenu and has somehow “jinxed” Lenu’s pregnancy. The child has trouble latching, likely has colic and Lenu is worn down caring for both child and household. We finally see what Pietro is made of - apparently not much. He resents Lenu's complaints of being overwhelmed, does little to help her and even complains when his mother comes to assist them. There is some sort of bitterness between mother and son – does he resent his mother's professional accomplishments? Would he prefer that Lenu remain a devoted housewife and mother whose career is secondary to his? It is a terrible realization for Lenu - no matter what your class or status - in this society, at this time, your needs are always secondary to your male partner's.

When Lenu learns that Bruno, the factory owner, has been savagely murdered in his office she first suspects that it is Lenu who was responsible – but the truth is more shocking than that. The leftist violence seems to engender a desire in her to leave and join the orgy of violence and percolating revolutionary strife rather than remain a wife and mother.

Reluctantly, Lenu bears a second baby. She appears to withdraw into a more domestic role, her confidence shattered. But unlike Lenu, Lila appears to be excelling - obtaining a career in the computer industry with Enzo, now her partner, and forging a relationship with Solaras’ businesses much to Lenu’s horror. Lenu cannot escape the old neighborhood when her sister begins to live with Marcello Solara, when the Solara matriarch is murdered, when she learns that Bruno was likely murdered by Nadia and Pasquale. Violence in the old neighborhood continues - old friends die or are beaten for their political beliefs. The subtext is ominous – she will never escape from these people, from the violence and treachery, from the sense of degradation and self-hate.

Lenu attempts a second novel. Pietro is uninterested in her progress. Her mother-in-law dislikes it and even Lila appears repulsed by its explicit content. Marriage appears a kind of nightmare which "stripped coitus of all humanity". Pietro disappoints, motherhood disappoints; she feels that her education has been for naught.

And then re-enter Nino, our presumptive Prince Valiant of the Naples slums who approves of her creative efforts and urges her to finish her second book (is there a more potent aphrodisiac for a progressive woman – a man who thinks you are smart and a talented writer?). Now married with a rich if vulgar wife and a son, Nino befriends Pietro only to betray him.

Shockingly (am I the only reader to think so?) Nino and Lenu start an affair. She demands that he leave his wife, he demands she leave Pietro. Both do and in the final scene they are aboard a plane to France. Is it possible that Lenu will finally be happy? On to Book Four …

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