My Brilliant Friend
Elena Ferrante’s “amiably peopled bildungsroman,” as James Wood refers to My Brilliant Friend, paints a vivid, credible, engaging and ultimately endearing portrait of life in a particular barrio—or neighborhood—in a very particular city in southern Italy, Naples, at that particular time in contemporary history when those who owned, instead of rented, an apartment with “a bathtub, a refrigerator, a television and a telephone” distinguished themselves from everyone else.
Written in a deft and fluid prose, that pours across the page as effortlessly as rain water running down one of those narrow streets paved with setts—or sampietrini—that provide the setting for the novel, My Brilliant Friend tells the story of two girls destined to mirror each other. Though the apparent subject of the novel is the “bad friend” who acquires, by the end of the first book of Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels—“a wealthy husband, economic security for her family” and that apartment of her own complete with those comforts which, a few decades later, practically everyone in Europe would take for granted, the brilliant friend of the title is actually the narrator who, in the process of telling the story of everyone else in the barrio reveals her own anxieties about having grown up like everyone else in the neighborhood and yet no longer feels she belongs there.
“Yes, you’re right,” she imagines saying to her working class boyfriend, after ditching him at the wedding of her friend, Lila, “I don’t know what I am and what I really want, I use you and then I throw you away, but it’s not my fault, forgive me.”
And it’s not Elena’s fault because she was simply born into a world of poverty and ignorance and casual violence, where most people speak in dialect, instead of the more literary and intellectual Italian that Elena learns to use, through exceptional and extended schooling, as a tool of potential liberation from the limitations of life in that world.
What makes this novel so charming though is not so much its faithful portrait of the characters who people that world—and Ferrante provides a three-page Index of Characters the reader can refer to when in doubt about who is who and how they are related—as the direct, yet elegant, language Ferrante uses to tell their stories. This almost reader-friendly language—hence Wood’s “amiably peopled” qualifier, when many of those people are anything but amiable—allows Ferrante to relate simple—by which I mean more or less common—experiences imbued with huge doses of psychologically nuanced observation and feeling. When Lila asks Elena—who throughout the novel doubts both the strength and the future of their friendship and commitment to one another—to come over to her house in order to prepare Lila for her wedding, Lila takes off her underpants and bra in order to allow Elena to wash her with water heated in a copper tub.
I had never seen her naked, I was embarrassed. Today I can say that it was the embarrassment of gazing with pleasure at her body, of being the not impartial witness of her sixteen-year-old’s beauty a few hours before Stefano touched her, penetrated her, disfigured her, perhaps, by making her pregnant. At the time it was just a tumultuous sensation of necessary awkwardness, a state in which you cannot avert the gaze or take away the hand without recognizing your own turmoil, without, by that retreat, declaring it, hence without coming into conflict with the undisturbed innocence of the one who is the cause of the turmoil, without expressing by that rejection the violent emotion that overwhelms you, so that it forces you to stay, to rest your gaze on the childish shoulders, on the breasts and stiffly cold nipples, on the narrow hips and the tense buttocks, on the black sex, on the long legs, on the tender knees, on the curved ankles, on the elegant feet; and to act as if it’s nothing, when instead everything is there, present, in the poor dim room, amid the worn furniture, on the uneven, water-stained floor, and your heart is agitated, your veins inflamed.
The friend of mine who, having read the entire tetralogy, wondered what I might think of these stories, told me that they were about the friendship between two women, beginning with their childhood. Though that much is true, the first of these three Neapolitan novels is already about so much more than the origins of that friendship. It is the story—and I think this explains Ferrante’s enormous appeal and success with these novels—of an era and a world, a time and a place, both particular—Naples in the fifties—and universal. The story of all our friendships, and everything we have ever left behind.