Book Review: “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante
“Besides, she offered no openings to kindness. To recognize her virtuosity was for us children to admit that we would never win and so there was no point in competing, and for the teachers to confess to themselves that they had been mediocre children. Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dark, a lethal bite. And there was nothing in her appearance that acted as a corrective. She was dishevelled, dirty, on her knees and elbows she always had scabs from cuts and scrapes that never had time to heal. Her large, bright eyes could become cracks behind which, before every brilliant response, there was a gaze that appeared not very childlike and perhaps not even human. Every one of her movements said that to harm her would be pointless because, whatever happened, she would find a way of doing worse to you.” p.38
Over the past 12 months or so, Elena Ferrante’s name seems to have become ubiquitous in the literary world. After reading about her in the New Yorker, the Guardian or probably any other piece of journalism, you cannot be but intrigued by the mystery of the woman. Stubbornly defying the age of information, very little is known about Ferrante and she admirably allows her writing to do the talking. What is known about her seems to have been desperately gleaned from short letters written to her publishers alongside her work: she comes from or around Naples, she is supposedly a mother and has spent time abroad at some point in her life. At a time when authors are strongly encouraged to throw themselves headlong into the publicity of their work — whether engaging fans on Twitter and Facebook, doing a book tour or as many public readings as possible — Ferrante refuses any public involvement in the marketing of her novels and takes the stance instead ‘that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t’.
My Brilliant Friend is the first in Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels (often referred to as a trilogy — was this the original plan?), published in Italian between 2011–2014 and translated into English by New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein between 2012 and this year. In short, the opening novel depicts the childhood and adolescence of two girls, Elena Greco and Lina Cerullo (or Lila as she is known to Elena), in a small, tight-knit Italian community just outside Naples. Narrated in first-person from the perspective of Elena, the book comes to centralise on Lila, whose brilliance shines through from her earliest youth. She is full of zest, wise beyond her years and relentlessly driven; by the age of six, Lila is astounding teachers having autodidactically learned to read and write:
“Lila went unwillingly to the blackboard, the teacher handed her the chalk.
“Write,” she said to her, “‘chalk.’”
Lila, very concentrated, in shaky handwriting, placing the letters one a little higher, one a little lower, wrote: “chak.”
Oliviero added the “l” and Signora Cerullo, seeing the correction, said in despair to her daughter:
“You made a mistake.”
But the teacher immediately reassured her:
“No, no, no. Lina has to practice, yes, but she already knows how to read, she already knows how to write. Who taught her?”
Signora Cerullo, eyes lowered, said: “Not me.”
“But at your house or in the building is there someone who might have taught her?”
Nunzia shook her head no emphatically.
Then the teacher turned to Lila and with sincere admiration asked her in front of all of us, “Who taught you to read and write, Cerullo?”
Cerullo, that small dark-haired, dark-eyed child, in a dark smock with a red ribbon at the neck, and only six years old, answered, “Me.”” p.33
A bookish youth ensues, and Ferrante, in a style harking back to Virginia Woolf, slows down and preserves time to describe with exacting detail the blooming of the friendship between our narrator Elena and her ‘brilliant friend’. It is one shared through books, with Lila devouring every text she is able to lay her hands on and Elena, simultaneously stunned with wonder and driven on by Lila’s thirst and ambition for life, striving to match but constantly and acceptingly feeling second best to her companion.
Yet despite her intellectual vigour and drive, Lila’s infectious personality soon sees her venture away from the pathway of education and towards projects at home with her brother Rino. Her father Fernando is a shoemaker, and the two siblings become apprenticed to help out in his workshop. It isn’t long, however, before the pair work up a surreptitious plan to create a luxurious pair of shoes that would transform the fortunes of the Cerullo workshop. It is around this time that Lila, who is strikingly beautiful as well as talented and intelligent, begins to be courted by local men. Elena, however, remains on the academic straight and narrow, and begins learning Greek after having mastered the Italian language with help from Lila. The pair meet up after school to discuss the new developments in their lives, but it isn’t long before Lila’s ambition and playful rivalry with her friend sees her secretly taking Greek grammar books out of the local library and helping her friend with her schoolwork.
As My Brilliant Friend proceeds towards its conclusion, the lives of Elena and Lila become increasingly disparate and Elena is clearly saddened to see herself and her childhood friend taking decidedly different paths through life. While Elena remains on the academic pathway and focuses on fulfilling the pair’s childhood dreams of having their own writing in print, Lila, unequivocally the most daring, adventurous and ambitious of the pair, strangely becomes consumed by the microcosm of their local neighbourhood. Yet throughout the narrative the reader is made aware of Lila’s enigmatic, zealous, volatile personality, and so despite the situation she finds herself in by the end of the novel, we know she is very capable of changing her circumstances if she so wishes.
Ferrante’s work has become something of a phenomenon in Italian as well as in English (perhaps also in other languages, although I am not sure?). One of the principal reasons for this is Ferrante’s writing style, which is candid, intimate and seems almost effortless. As I write above, Ferrante seems to be the descendent of Virginia Woolf who boiled her fiction down to artfully capturing the beauty of individual moments and events. This is something Ferrante does in My Brilliant Friend to create snippets of Elena and Lila’s childhood and chart the development of their friendship. In fact, literary style is something Elena, our narrator that is, touches on in the novel, and I think the words she uses to describe Lila’s writing style are ones that sum up Ferrante’s own writing much better than I ever could:
“It seemed to me — articulated in the words of today — that not only did she know how to put things well but she was developing a gift that I was already familiar with: more effectively than she had as a child, she took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it the energy.” p.123
Yet, to me, the greatest achievement of My Brilliant Friend, and the main reason I can’t wait to begin my next fix of the series, is the characters. The two central characters, and in particular Lila, are both fascinating portraits of admirably strong, ambitious women tackling a male-dominated world. They are precocious, highly intelligent and thoughtful but also enigmatic and tactful, and with Lila especially it is intriguing to read on and find out just what exactly she is up to. This suspense is heightened by the fact that the novel begins from the perspective of Elena as a sixty-something-year-old woman being told by Lila’s son that his mother has suddenly disappeared. I can’t recall having read about many female characters as strong-minded and independent as Lila and Elena, but one who did constantly spring to mind when reading My Brilliant Friend was Harriet from Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend. Harriet is an enigmatic, brooding, precocious and influential (in the sense of having the ability to influence those around her, like Lila) protagonist who lives out a bookish childhood and defies her years to conduct her own investigation into her brother’s death. Tartt’s style is similar to Ferrante’s in its attention to detail, elegance and deceptive effortlessness, and both books also offer rich descriptions of place, one being the gothic American South and the second the outskirts of urban Naples. If you enjoyed My Brilliant Friend or Ferrante’s work in general and you haven’t yet explored Donna Tartt’s oeuvre, I think you’re in for a treat. As for me, I’m just sitting around cursing the postman until The Story of a New Name lands on my doorstep.
Originally published at Bookish Ramblings.