Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan Novels – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child – have become something of a sensation. After all the hubbub regarding the apparent exposing by Claudio Gatti of the formerly pseudonymous Ferrante’s actual identity – good commentaries are available here and here – I thought it was finally time to find out for myself what makes Ferrante’s books so appealing for people.
The series as a whole examines the friendship of Elena, the story’s narrator, and Lila, her “brilliant friend,” starting in 1950s Naples and extending over the next fifty years. As the book’s subtitle explains, the first novel – beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein, who in addition to her much-acclaimed translating work is head of the Copy Department at The New Yorker – begins with their “Childhood, Adolescence.” Both born in 1944, Elena and Lila meet in first grade. Elena, the narrator, writes that their life was in large part defined by their fears – “words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection.” The poverty and violence surrounding the girls as they grow up are, for them, normal, matter-of-fact: “Men returned home embittered by their losses, by alcohol, by debts, by deadlines, by beatings, and at the first inopportune word they beat their families, a chain of wrongs that generated wrongs.”
Each of the girls comes from humble backgrounds. Lila’s father is a shoemaker, and Elena’s a porter at city hall. Lena is blond, tends toward being overweight, and is relatively passive. Lila, on the other hand, is dark in color, thin, and energetic, and occasionally suffers from episodes of what she calls “dissolving outlines,” in which people, sounds, the entire world, seem strange and unfamiliar, even monstrous, as though some awful part of their true natures was being revealed.
From the first, Elena regards Lila with a certain amount of awe for her extreme, apparently effortless, intelligence. Lila, for the very same reason, is despised and resented by her other classmates. Elena grows to define herself to a large extent by Lila’s example. “I, I and Lila, we two with that capacity that together – only together – we had to seize the mass of colors, sounds, things, and people, and express it and give it power.”
Ferrante creates a rich, immersive portrait of Elena and Lila, as well as the milieu, the neighborhood and neighbors, of their upbringing. Ordinary events seem elevated, take on an outsized importance. As Ferrante said in an interview, her goal is to create works “where the writing is clear, honest, and where the facts – the facts of ordinary life – are extraordinarily gripping when read.” There really isn’t that much dialogue in the book. Most of it is given over to Elena’s inner monologue, descriptions and analysis of her thoughts and feelings.
As they grow up, Elena’s and Lila grow together, then apart, and back again. Elena, who has the advantage of a family that is slightly better off financially than Lila’s, pursues her education in middle and high school, whereas Lila goes to work in her father’s shoe repair shop. This proves to be an important break in their respective paths. Although Lila had an ambivalent relationship with formal schooling, she continued her self-education, using four library cards, her own and those of family members, so that she could check out more books for herself.
Elena is given the opportunity to take her first real trip, a few weeks in Ischia. She ends up loving her time there: “I felt a sensation that later in my life was often repeated: the joy of the new.” Soon the home where Elena was staying has visitors – the Sarratore family from their neighborhood, whose father Donato, a railroad worker, was also a published poet and with whose son Nino, who attends Elena’s school, Elena is quite infatuated.
While Elena is away, Lila finds a new suitor: Stefano, the son of the late Don Achille (a powerful man in their neighborhood who through Elena’s and Lila’s youth took on a supernatural, even sinister air as they dubbed him “the ogre of fairy tales”). Stefano not only proposes to Lila, but also goes into business with her family to manufacture Lila’s shoe designs.
Their different circumstances were increasingly drawing Elena and Lila apart: “I was becoming, as the months ran by, a sloppy, disheveled, spectacled girl bent over tattered books that gave off a moldy odor … She went around on Stefano’s arm in the clothes of an actress or a princess, her hair styled like a diva’s.” Yet Elena still couldn’t help seeing her life in relation to Lila’s. “It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other; even our physical aspect, it seemed to me, shared in that swing.” And with Lila’s new connection with the well-off Stefano, “Money gave even more force to the impression that what I lacked she had, and vice versa, in a continuous game of exchanges and reversals that, now happily, now painfully, made us indispensable to each other.”
After a dispute with her religion teacher, Elena is asked by Nino Sarratore to write a short account of it for a journal. Elena naturally seeks out Lila’s opinion on what she wrote, but Lila finds it difficult “to free from some corner of herself the old Lila, the one who read, wrote, drew, made plans spontaneously.” Ultimately, she finds out (at Lila’s wedding, toward the end of the book) that her piece wasn’t published; one gets the impression that this will prove important in the remaining three novels in the series.
Meghan O’Rourke, in a column for The Guardian, perceptively noted of Ferrante’s anonymity, “Our relationship to her is like that which we have with a fictional character. We think we know her, but what we know are her sentences, the patterns of her mind, the path of her imagination.” Ferrante felt that her anonymity would allow her “a space of absolute creative freedom,” especially as her books, she felt, would stick “a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected.” My Brilliant Friend feels like a very personal work, but that doesn’t necessarily make it directly autobiographical. And, now that we apparently know Ferrante’s actual identity, one can’t help but ask – what difference does it make? How does this knowledge affect the experience of the book?
The rich inner lives of her characters, the details of their experiences, the way in which every one of Elena’s and Lila’s adventures, no matter how trivial, seems of the greatest importance, and the perceptive way in which all of this is conveyed to the reader makes Ferrante’s writing very seductive. As Elena says at one point of Lila, so we might say of Ferrante: “…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 with energy.”