Book Reviewlets: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

HOW HAVE I NOT BLOGGED SINCE SEPTEMBER!?!?!?

UGH.

Onward.

All these American feminists fretting about egg freezing and catcalling and work/life botox and leaning in, lean.

Elena Ferrante has your number, friends.

The result was that we found ourselves, we three women, in the situation of drowsy heifers waiting for the two bulls to complete the testing of their powers. This irritated me.

That’s right. Ferrante’s narrator transformed a Smart Dude Pissing Contest, a garden-variety garden party wrassle, into something without the possibility either of glory or of its opposite. Something dully animalistic. Something smacking of husbandry–breeders manipulating one’s testosterone and estrogen, a sexuality based on calculating levels.

All that, some dusty, vaguely masculine sweat, but also something that cannot amount to more than a pebble in a shoe, sunscreen dripping in an eye. An irritant.

I read the Neapolitan novels as a story of Italy. Of poverty. Of revolution and its failures.

But it’s also a story of feminism. Of the dizzying variety of misogynies and whether or not a woman can make herself into a human despite them.

An intellectual history of feminism, from attending college to consciousness raising to clitoridian theory.

And while the political movements of feminism are inadequate, the intellectual movements endure.

Feminism teaches that bodies are knowledge. Ferrante fixates on this intellectual legacy of feminism. Especially in the Neopolitan novels, where power manifests as violence and bruises speak.

The most basic premise of feminism, really. That bodies are knowledge itself. Not simply as metaphor, as a “body of knowledge.” Ferrante’s deep commitment to physicality shows this. Lila’s body during her time working at a sausage factory: bony, wheezing, scarred. Her body after her honeymoon: perfumed, moisturized, bruised. Elena’s indeterminate body: sometimes tan, sometimes blond, sometimes slender, sometimes pregnant. Myopic.

Elena and Lila’s friendship is a bodily fact, as here, when a meeting of radicals reminds Elena of the two women’s distance from each other:

The wave that I had felt in the classroom would reach as far as San Giovanni a Teduccio, but she, in that place where she had ended up, demeaning herself, would never be aware of it. A pity, I felt guilty. I should have carried her off, kidnapped her, made her travel with me. Or at least reinforced her presence in my body, mixed her voice with mine.

Elena and Lila’s fraught relationship, their alternating twinned and alien passions, is the story of feminism.

I am fascinated by the way Ferrante processes the history of feminism, and in particular the way she wedges open the cracks implicit in any identity-based movement.

Elena may have been bored by consciousness-raising, but it helped her get out of a degrading marriage. However, no amount of solidarity has prepared her for the Feminist Womanizer, the most insidious type of all. And at the end of book 3, she appears to be snookered.

No amount of feminist theory or solidarity can fix poverty. And the most feminist women you’ve ever known still have to reckon with a sexist culture. And with trying to forge an equitable straight romance using tools built by the patriarchy. That damn patriarchy.

But patriarchy relies on poverty. As Elena’s brief dalliance with the intellectual monied elite will surely reinforce.

Does poverty make solidarity impossible? Is that Elena and Lila’s main problem?

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay shows the limits of feminism and the consequences of failed theory.

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