My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

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Translated by Ann Goldstein

My Brilliant Friend, Book 1 of Ferrante’s four volume Neapolitan Novels, is both deservedly famous and outside the range of my usual reading, so I hesitate to attempt a review. But geology daughter requested it as a present last Christmas and here on the train from Milan to Naples is an obvious time to read it and to at least record some of my observations.

The story concerns two girls, born about 1945, growing up in one of the poorer sections of Naples. Much of the background – the War, Mussolini, gangsterism – is assumed, but left unsaid, so that our intertextual reading necessarily forms part of the work.

The girls, Lena, the narrator, and her ‘brilliant friend’ Lila, find that they excel at school work, though Lila when she puts her mind to it is often way ahead in reading, in languages, in mathematics, and in writing and constructing arguments. Lena works hard to keep up but still often finds that a few words from Lila show more insight than she has been able to extract from hours of study. We might assume from the narrator and the author having the same name, Elena, that My Brilliant Friend is autobiographical – I haven’t read any reviews or interviews to check – but I hope that it is at least authentic, written out of the author’s lived experience.

Surprisingly in such a ‘popular’ work, the central concerns are literary – the efficient use of words; the efficacy of ‘facts’ laid out as argument over facts presented as fiction – though, in the end, Ferrante has chosen fiction; and the baggage of ‘before’, of history, being carried into the present.

They hated Don Achille and were afraid of the Solaras. But they overlooked it and went to spend their money both at Don Achille’s son’s and at the Solaras’, and sent us too. And they voted for the Fascists, for the monarchists, as the Solaras wanted them to. And they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us too.

But of course there are also personal stories – the girls and their friends growing up from childhood, through puberty, to young womanhood; the violence to which the girls are routinely subjected by their fathers, their brothers, and sometimes their mothers; Lila’s brilliance in elementary school on which she seemingly turns her back, to fall back into the life of their community, while Lena works her way up and out through high school. And there are the secondary stories which, as in any tightly knit community, wind their way in and out of the lives of the main protagonists.

Two of these stories indicate ways out of the cycle of poor education, manual labour, early marriage, and constant violence. The first is of the railway conductor (and serial womaniser) Sarratorre who writes poetry and articles for magazines. He and his family leave the neighbourhood to escape the consequences of his relationship with the disturbed widow, Melina. Later, the girls are astonished to find a book of poetry bearing his name and fantasise that he must be rich ‘like Louisa May Alcott’. Lena is attracted to his intellectual son, Nino, who is ahead of her at high school, though when she begins experimenting sexually, it is with Melina’s auto mechanic son, Antonio.

The second is of Stefano, a few years older than the girls, whose father, Don Achille, a minor gangster or loan shark, is murdered by the father of another of their friends. Stefano makes a conscious decision to break with the past, to be both a good citizen and to break the cycle of feuds which underlies all their relationships. The final scene though, a wedding breakfast involving all the neighbourhood families, leaves us hanging – has there has been any progress after all? Maybe.

The prologue, brief, set ‘now’ when Lena and Lila are in their sixties, suggests that Lena has escaped – escaped Naples, yes; escaped the working poor, probably – and that Lila has not escaped, but has diverted her considerable intellect into mastering computers, as far back as the 1960s when she was in her twenties.

Ultimately though for Elena the author and Lena the narrator, it is the writing which is important. While on Ischia, on a summer holiday job, Lena receives a (rare) letter from Lila.

From the first lines I thought of The Blue Fairy [a story written by Lila in elementary school], the only text of hers that I had read, apart from our elementary school homework, and I understood what, at the time, I had liked so much. There was, in The Blue Fairy, the same quality that struck me now: Lila was able to speak through writing; unlike me when I wrote, unlike Santorre in his articles and poems, unlike even many writers I had read and was reading, she expressed herself in sentences that were well-constructed and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but – further – she left no trace of effort, you weren’t aware of the artifice of the written word. I read and I saw her, I heard her.

Later, Lena persuades Lila to read an article she has written for publication which, with a few, quick edits Lila completely transforms. Ferrante I’m sure is setting out here her ambitions for herself as a writer – to write directly, precisely and well – and in this acclaimed novel she achieves them.

 

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, translation by Ann Goldstein, first pub. 2012. This edition, Text, Melbourne, 2015