I feel that Elena Ferrante by now really needs no introduction; she is the pseudonymous Italian novelist who has had the most extraordinary success. Reviews of her novels appear continually on book blogs, so much so I feel I probably have nothing to add – her novels having even gained their own hashtag #Ferrantefever. I came fairly late to this particular party, late perhaps but enthusiastically on the back of all I had seen and heard.
My Brilliant Friend is the first novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series of novels, the fourth of which is due to be published in English in September. I confess that only a hundred or so pages into this book saw me buying the next two – well sometimes you just know! This is a novel of friendship and discovery, a coming of age novel in which two girls grow up to young womanhood with an ever gradually expanding realisation of their potentialities.
The relationship between the two central characters in My Brilliant Friend is immediately captivating, with the world they inhabit, vibrant, real and frequently dangerous. I think the reader cannot help but carry the memory of Naples with them each time they lay this book aside. The sights, smell, noise and sun bathed roof tops of that poor neighbourhood are richly rendered by Ferrante, and I look forward already to returning to it.
The novel opens with a prologue, immediately captivating, in which Elena – now a woman in her sixties, receives a telephone call unexpectedly from the son of her lifelong friend Lila. Rino informs Elena that Lila is missing, has in fact completely disappeared. The story which follows, the story of their friendship, their childhood and adolescence, is Elena’s furious reply to her friend’s deliberate disappearance.
“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”
When Elena and Lila become friends as young children in the 1950’s, the neighbourhood in which they live is their whole world, a place beyond which they cannot imagine and never venture. It is a place of poverty, a place of fragile allegiances and dangerous feuds, with practically all the adults having an unexplained fearful respect for Don Achille. In their young, imaginative minds Don Achille assumes an ogre like status, causing them to dare each other to mount the steps to his apartment. It is on this day that their true friendship really begins.
“My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment. I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage.”
Both girls are very bright, their teacher is soon made aware of Lila’s almost prodigious intelligence, and where Lila leads, Elena is determined to follow. In her emulation of Lila, Elena explores the possibilities of her own mind, going on to ever greater lengths to keep up with up brilliant friend. Lila’s education stops after elementary school, her family refusing to pay for her further education, but as Elena moves on through middle school and later high school, her achievements waxing and waning as they are wont to do in all of us, Lila never stops learning. Lila uses the library, taking out books on the tickets of each member of her family teaching herself Latin and Greek at the time when Elena is studying those very subjects. In time, though it is Elena who continues to get a conventional education – it is Lila’s education of herself which drives Elena forward. The rivalry between the girls which started when they were so young propels Elena to fulfil her full potential, with Lila, still very much leading the way. It is Elena however, who first begins to see the world beyond their neighbourhood.
When adolescence hits, Elena’s childhood prettiness is replaced by acne ridden awkwardness, a discomfort in her own body, while Lila’s childish gawkiness is replaced by a beauty that stops the local men and boys in their tracks. Lila is courted by rival young men, fights break out over her honour and by sixteen she is marring a local business man. As the novel comes to an end, the roles of the two girls have almost reversed from where they started.
“At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer. They were all laughing, even Lila, with the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost.”
For me there is an intriguing ambiguity in the title My Brilliant Friend, who is the brilliant friend? Is Elena the brilliant friend of Lila – or is Lila the brilliant friend? I assumed at first that Lila was the brilliant friend of the title, but like so much in the relationship between these two young women, nothing is that clear. Perhaps, each is really the brilliant friend of the other.
There has it seems been a good deal of speculation about Elena Ferrante’s identity – but in a sense it doesn’t matter, this novel certainly speaks for itself – but the mystery does add a certain frisson of fascination (although no author photo for me to use at the end of this post).