Michelle Kuo and Albert Wu at The Point:
The historian E. P. Thompson wrote famously that he wanted to rescue the working class “from the enormous condescension of posterity.” For Thompson, the historian’s calling was to give voice to the voiceless and recreate the heroic struggles of everyday life. The aim of writing history, he believed, was to capture faithfully the experiences of those who had been neglected by traditional histories, written out of the heroic narratives of “great men.”
In Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third and most explicitly political book in her celebrated Neapolitan tetralogy, Ferrante tests literature’s capacity to answer Thompson’s challenge. She asks: Can writing actually capture life? Can it give voice to the voiceless? The narrator Elena Greco, herself a writer, has a subject that Thompson would find ideal: her best friend Lila. In contrast to Elena, who leaves Naples to attend an elite university, Lila’s schooling ends in the fifth grade, after her parents refuse to pay for further lessons. Eventually Lila marries a local grocer and then, following her divorce, remains in the Naples neighborhood where both girls grew up, and works for a time in a sausage factory.