My Brilliant Friend
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?), one part eager devotion (Where is she, I want to be her best friend!), enthusiasm over Ferrante was reignited when the third book in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel series was published this month.
Her fans, reviewers, and interviewers don’t know who she is, where she is, whether her name is really Elena Ferrante, how much her books are drawn from her life or the lives of friends, family. Even her translator, the fantastic Ann Goldstein, has corresponded with her only sparingly. What is known is that her works have great, deep, broad feelings. Mammoth feelings. Feelings like a spiny barrier reef coating the entire bottom of the Mare di Napoli. And readers, it seems, are really into those feels.
I, too, was caught up. My Brilliant Friend evokes those familiar yet almost indescribable feelings about long friendships, adolescence, and home. You’re inextricably tied to a person, a place, but you hate how strong the connection is, how it drags you back in when you try to escape it; slowly it tears you apart.
That sounds melodramatic. In real life, we tend to downplay drama, shake off the pain. Feels are for Tumblr. But those moments of “suffering” (perhaps the most prevalent word in My Brilliant Friend) exist. When elementary school “best friends” were established and betrayed. When a very close friend goes off and gets married young. When someone you love moves smack dab across the country. Rarely do we find the tension, the dissatisfaction, or the fear created by the completely natural and expected changes in friendships articulated as clearly as we find it in these novels.
Ferrante captures the unnerving and beautiful elements of human relationships with vivid precision and dramatic seriousness. While the main character and narrator of My Brilliant Friend is Elena Greco, the true protagonist is the bond between Elena, called Lenu, and her childhood friend, Raffaela “Lila” Cerrullo. Elena and Lila are two children of a lively, dirty, poverty-stricken ghetto in Naples. Elena and Lila are best friends, but at times one or the other of them isn’t so sure of it. The friendship is dynamic, as much in flux as anything in their world—a world where adults grease the palms of Mafiosi, scream at one another, beat their children, and throw irons out of windows.
The two grow up dreaming of gem-filled treasure chests, they dream of escape through education, wealth, and notoriety. They are each vying, sometimes together but more often independently, to become Masters of their Universe. At first, the Universe is bordered by the cluster of homes that make up their neighborhood, with the stradone at its extreme border. But as they grow, they push the boundaries of their parents’ world. Like two people on a single ladder, they push one another up and push against one another. Where the ladder leads, they don’t know . . . but wherever it leads, it’s better than the perpetual grime of the neighborhood—that much is clear. They might fall off into the routine existence of their parents, but then again they might reach somewhere beyond.
In one another, they recognize a competitor and a confidant. From an early age, Elena finds that the only thing that gives her dedicated studying any color is discussing it with Lila, who is rangy, mercurial, and completely captivating. Lila’s feelings and motivations, on the other hand, aren’t entirely clear. She’s one of the cagiest characters in all of literature. While writer-Elena hints that she has figured Lila out, she plays her hand carefully, ensuring we share in the ignorance and confusion of her younger self. The mystery grows as the girls enter their teenage years and their paths start to diverge. To Elena and to the reader, Lila’s choices appear illogically banal and suspiciously disappointing. If survival in the neighborhood involves building up the hand you’re dealt, Lila is either playing the wrong cards or is about to pull off the biggest bluff imaginable. In the shocking festivities of the final pages of Book I, you find out who got had.
While the book has a handful of families at its heart, it gives the impression of a whole undiscovered world, which Ferrante brings into being, page by page. And translator Ann Goldstein is our faithful screever: she traces over this world with bright chalk, holds your hand and, Dick-Van-Dyke-style, jumps you into the picture. It needs to be said that not only are these books deftly and beautifully rendered into English, the speed with which Goldstein has produced them—while also holding a position as editor of the _New Yorker_—is incredibly impressive.
For a number of reasons, one in particular, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook sprung to mind while reading this book. While the themes of the two books are distinct, each boasts an emotional timbre that is at once exhausting and addicting. Both books chronicle the narrators’ states of mind in minute detail, truthfully and powerfully, even as their worlds crumble around them.
The phrase “female friendship” has appeared frequently in reviews about the Neapolitan novels; also, the word “feminist.”
Why is that? There is the obvious fact that Elena and Lila are girls and Ferrante is also a woman— I’m not being an ass. My question is, why is “female friendship” more accurate than simply “friendship”? Is My Brilliant Friend more a book about women specifically than a book about human beings generally? I really don’t think so, and I worry that the appearance of this language ultimately diminishes the novel.
Enter again The Golden Notebook, which also revolves around the lives of two friends striving to make sense of a shifting society, almost at the cost of sanity. Lessing’s novel has often been called a great feminist work, a label the author resisted day after day until
she died at the age of 94. She thought it missed the point.
“Oh, it’s just stupid; I’ve seen it so often,” Lessing said. “I mean, there’s nothing feminist about The Golden Notebook. The second line is: ‘As far as I can see, everything is cracking up.’ That is what The Golden Notebook is about!”
I don’t believe those who emphasize the female in these works are necessarily trying to deny other, broader qualities, but I fear that is the effect. Qualifying descriptions and praise (“a brilliant depiction of female friendship”… “a great feminist work”) puts Great works of Literature in some subsidiary genre. The labels are overburdened. They are by their very nature delimiting. They strip away the universality of Literature, leaving behind the partial, the particular, the confined. They convey: this is about ladies, for ladies, by a lady writer.
Strike the words “female” and “feminist” and see what you get: a nuanced friendship, a striking coming-of-age story, a powerful work. A novel about human beings immobilized by the numbing, normalizing tendencies of poverty. Two young people trying to disprove that worn dictum “geography is destiny” by any means necessary. A narrator trying to shape an identity and enter new realms, chained by her past and by the love she bears for others.
Now tell me that ain’t universal.