The Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s new novel, My Brilliant Friend, the first of a trilogy, has been much lauded. Publishers Weekly ran an interview with Ferrante in November, The New York Times praised the book (albeit in brief) in December, and a long essay by James Wood was recently published in The New Yorker. If you didn’t know who Ferrante is, and no one knows who she is because she writes under a pseudonym, now you know, or rather don’t know, who she is.
It is hard to imagine a more elegant stylist than Ferrante, at least in the translations of Ann Goldstein, an editor at The New Yorker. (I wish I could read the Italian, too, because the structure and sound of Italian are so different.)
I loved Ferrante’s 2002 novel, The Days of Abandonment, and described it (at my old blog, Frisbee: A Book Journal) as “Kafkaesque, but crossed with the realism of Marilyn French and Doris Lessing.” It is narrated by Olga, a housewife whose thoughts are tempestuous yet often comical after her husband of 15 years deserts her without explanation. She had thought she and Mario were living happily ever after with their two children and dog, and cannot believe he is gone. She stays up all night and writes letters to him. She descends into sadness and craziness, and her cruel friends will not tell her for whom he left her.
I feel much compassion for Olga as she wonders what has happened.
“I spent the night thinking, desolate in the big double bed. No matter how much I examined and reexamined the recent phases of our relationship, I could find no real signs of crisis. I knew him well, I was aware that he was a man of quiet feelings, the house and our family rituals were indispensable to him. We talked about everything, we still liked to hug and kiss each other, sometimes he was so funny he could make me laugh until I cried.”
Part of the reason I liked this book so much was that she finally triumphs (well, in a way) over the man who leaves her for a much younger woman.
You will not necessarily love My Brilliant Friend if you appreciated the stream-of-consciousness of Abandonment. My Brilliant Friend is stunning in a very different way. Rich in detail, it is a witty, moving, but very traditional chronicle of the friendship of two girls, Elena and Lila, who grow up in Naples in the 1950s.
Elena, the narrator, and her friend, Lila, are the two best students in school. But Elena feels inferior to staunch, determined Lila, a prodigy who is always in trouble until the teacher finds she has taught herself to read. Lila vanquishes everyone, even the older students, in academic competitions, initiates games, and teaches herself Latin from a library book. But ironically it is Elena, the second best, who continues in school, while Lila is yanked out after elementary school to work at her father’s shoe shop.
Life is violent in My Brilliant Friend, as it sometimes was in The Days of Abandonment. Elena says she feels no nostalgia for her childhood in their poor neighborhood in Naples: parents beat their children, boys get into fights, someone gets murdered, and a fireworks competition ends in gunfire.
Yet Elena and Lila have rich imaginative and intellectual lives apart from what happens in their neighborhood. They are absorbed in their own world of study and play.
Lila is the leader. At one point in their childhood, they trade dolls, and Lila throws Elena’s doll down a grate into a basement. Elena does exactly the same, because she does not want to be outdone. They cannot find the dolls, and Lila concludes that Don Achille, a man with a terrible reputation whom they are frightened of, has stolen them. When they knock on his door and accuse him, he gives them money for new dolls. But they don’t buy dolls: they buy a copy of Little Women instead.
And since Little Women is one of my favorite books, I was delighted.
After Lila returns the borrowed copy of Alcott’s masterpiece to Maestra Oliviera, the teacher, she
“regretted both not being able to reread Little Women continuously and not being able to talk about it with me. So one morning she made up her mind. She called me from the street, we went to the ponds, to the place where we had buried the money from Don Achille, in a metal box, took it out, and went to ask Iolanda the stationer, who had displayed forever in her window a copy of Little Women, yellowed by the sun, if it was enough. It was. As soon as we became owners of the book we began to meet in the courtyard to read it, either silently, one next to the other, or allowed. We read it for months, so many times that the book became tattered and sweat-stained, it lost its spine, came unthreaded, sections fell apart. But it was our book, we loved it dearly.”
As they grow older, Lila becomes conventional, busy working for her father the shoemaker. Eventually she stops trying to keep up academically with Elena. Lila has taught herself Latin and the rudiments of Greek from library books. But then she starts dating, older men with money propose to her, and she begins to dress like a movie star.
But she still has artistic aspirations. She designs a line of shoes, which her father refuses to make until her fiance, Stefano, the owner of a grocery store, insists. The shoes are elegant.
Meanwhile, Elena takes on Lila’s role at school. She studies endlessly, manages to be the best student, and writes, as Lila used to. She loves The Aeneid, which she reads in Latin (it’s my favorite Latin poem, too), and talks often about Dido and Aeneas. But she always misses Lila, who was her most brilliant friend.
Ferrante records in a literary way the coming of age of a woman in a poor neighborhood, with humor and without sentiment.
It feels like an important book, but someone who knows Italian literature would have to explain why.
Loved the book!