Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
If you haven’t yet read My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (about childhood in a poor neighborhood in 1950s Naples) read this extract and if you like it, go away and read the novel then come back and please give me your thoughts:
At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer. They were all laughing, even Lila, with the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost.
For my birthday last week (39!) I received the book My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. The next day I traveled to Kuwait for a week of work which gave me ample time to read the first three quarters of this remarkable book. I was home for the weekend and we had excellent ice so we ice skated and glorious snow so we toboganned in Trondheim, both near our home. It’s easy to see why Norwegians love winter!
On Monday I flew to Brno in Czech Republic also for work. Typically I don’t take with me books that I’ve nearly finished due to space and weight limitations in my only carry-on luggage but I made an exception this time because I really wanted to know what was going to happen to the two main characters!
My Brilliant Friend is the story of friendship between two girls, Elena and Lila. Friendships are fascinating to read about and this is no exception. The protagonist is Elena, daughter of a public servant, and we follow her from age 8 til 15. The book is set among the working class in Naples in the 1950s. It’s a world of male domination, violence that is accepted at all scales and organised crime.
When I went to Naples in 2003 I had read about the dark days of the Camorra. I didn’t like the feel of Naples. While walking from the railway station to our cheap hotel in the red light district a man opened his coat asking if we wanted to buy the digital cameras hidden in there. It seemed likely that they’d been stolen from other tourists. When we returned early to our hotel in the afternoon, the manager frantically called to the cleaner that we had returned. I don’t think he realised that my husband could understand him (his parents are Italian) and presumably the cleaner was looking through our meager possessions. Poor her, we were in the 4th month of a backpacking trip! Anyway, we were glad to move further south and leave Naples behind.
Elena and Lila are neighbours in a poor part of Naples. Their parents are uneducated and have low expectations for the girls. Their needs are provided for but there isn’t any spare money and they live in intellectual poverty. They have no experience beyond the confines of their neighborhood and amazingly don’t even know about the sea despite living tantalizingly close-by.
Their friendship is odd and entirely controlled by the unpredictable Lila. Some friendships are unbalanced and one friend will dominate the other but this is an extreme case. Lila is only accessible to Elena when and how it suits Lila. Elena feels, at all times, inferior to Lila and in all aspects of their lives (with a few exceptions).
The book is written as if it’s a retelling of real experiences, not fiction. I was never conscious of Ferrante at all. Often I can notice literary devices being used by authors but this story wends it’s way with a series of everyday vignettes mixed with important events but all told with the same weighting. The only reflection I can offer is to wonder if Elena is the narrator for the purpose of telling Lila’s story through the lens of her friend?
Ferrante has said that she likes to write narratives “where the writing is clear, honest, and where the facts—the facts of ordinary life—are extraordinarily gripping when read.”
Education is a central theme of the novel. Both girls are very bright and academically gifted. Elena, through the repeated intervention of her primary school teacher, is allowed to continue attending school into her mid-teens whereas Lila, who is astonishing in her intellectual abilities is not able to continue beyond primary school. For a couple of years Lila learns outside of school in parallel with Elena, devouring books from the library and quizzing Elena thoroughly so that she can keep up. Elena is inspired to try harder and harder to try to surpass Lila. As her friends drop out of school to take up the trades and businesses of their fathers, Elena is extremely diligent and works her way to the top of her year at school. During the school year she disappears into her studies and loses track of the people around her. At the end of the novel Elena realizes that she has matured and expanded her intellectual horizons so much that she no longer fits into her community.
One pivotal summer of her teenage years Elena emerges from the darkness of her studies and spends 5 weeks on Ischia where she learns how to enjoy the sunshine and beach. She expands her horizons and makes friends from outside her neighborhood. It’s also a time of sexual awakening and loss of innocence when she is assaulted by a man that she trusts. Sadly her friendship with Lila is so tenuous that she isn’t able to tell her about her bad experience.
At the end of each school year Elena hopes to share her academic prowess with Lila but she never seems to show interest. Elena quickly returns to her feelings of inadequacy compared to Lila. It’s only towards the very end of the book that Lila reveals her love and deep admiration for Elena
the two girls briefly discuss Elena’s continued schooling. Lila urges Elena to keep on studying; if necessary she—soon to be a comfortably married woman—will pay for it. “Thanks, but at a certain point school is over,” Elena says with a nervous, doubtless self-deprecating laugh. “Not for you,” Lila replies ardently, “you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”
So why is Lila so inaccessible? I think that life is torturous for Lila. She feels everything strongly and can’t resist being dragged down by life. She seems deeply disappointed that she’s unable to continue at school but also resigned to it because of the poverty of her home. She feels deep empathy for her widowed neighbour who becomes mentally unstable as she pines for a lover that left her. When she discovers the Camorra and the extent of organised crime that dictates the poverty and rhythms of her community and the fascism of her government, Nazi supporters and other grim aspects of her neighbours, she is unable to think of anything else. Lila wants financial independence above all things and devises various schemes to achieve that. I was quite sad at the close of the book but I won’t spoil it so that you can read it too!
Lila is a wonderful character and I strongly wish that I could be her friend and have conversations with her or at least a real person like her! Now I’m looking forward to reading the sequel!
Ferrante does not have a public life and has never toured to launch her books nor are there any photos of her. When she submitted her first novel to a publisher she accompanied it with a letter stating:
I believe 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.
What a great philosophy and how different from the cult of author worship that often occurs. I think that Ferrante and Haruki Murakami would have some things to talk about if they met!