In case you don’t want to read a post about a non-genre book: I may post my plans for holiday reading in a couple of days (if I can make them more specific than All The Books); I’ll post about my favorite reads of the year after Christmas; and I’ll do a round-up of my recent reading/listening sometime over the holidays, too.
I’ve had Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, in my TBR for a while, and I pulled it out after a Twitter conversation with a few friends about how we have more trouble than we used to getting into slow books. Is it age? busyness? distractions? All those, but maybe, someone speculated, reading a lot of genre fiction–romance in particular, which emphasizes starting with action–had atrophied our concentration. She was planning to pick up a book that would give her a challenge, and I decided I wanted one too, especially because I haven’t been in the mood for romance. My Brilliant Friend is part of a projected trilogy about two friends from a working-class Naples neighborhood, Elena and Lila; Ferrante describes the books in a fascinating interview as “one long story.” This volume covers childhood and adolescence. (The idea of reflecting on a chunk of 20th century history by depicting a woman living through it reminded me of A. S. Byatt’s Frederica quartet.)
I can think of a handful of books that capture the weirdness of childhood, the parts we’d rather forget once we’re grown: the strange fears and imaginings, the confusion, the cruelty children are capable of. On my list would be Dickens’ Great Expectations and David Copperfield (Dickens is often deeply sentimental about childhood, but he gets it too), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (and really, Emily’s Wuthering Heights), Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. And now I’d add My Brilliant Friend.
The story of the girls’ encounter with Don Achille, whom Elena thinks of as “the ogre of fairy tales” because she has been forbidden even to look at him, is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the first section of the novel, with the result that it casts a menacing shadow over the episodes which introduce us to their families and neighbors–which is fitting, since the whole neighborhood fears Don Achille.
My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment. . . . We climbed slowly toward the greatest of our terrors at that time, we went to expose ourselves to fear and interrogate it.
At the fourth flight Lila did something unexpected. She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand. That gesture changed everything between us forever.
“Exposing ourselves to fear [and other dark things] and interrogating it” is not a bad description of the novel’s way of proceeding, really: Ferrante’s picture of childhood is anything but sentimental. “I feel no nostalgia for my childhood,” narrator Elena declares, “it was full of violence,” much of it inexplicable to her.
Along with the tensions of the neighborhood, Ferrante does not shy away from depicting the envy and resentment that is often as much a part of Elena and Lila’s friendship as love. Elena, who narrates, often feels she is in Lila’s shadow, but it’s Lila who actually says “my brilliant friend,” describing Elena. Competition with each other, as well as a desire to escape their violent, circumscribed world, drives them on. If you’ve ever wished you could be a friend who seems smarter, or more beautiful, or more interesting than you are, you’ll recognize Elena’s feelings for Lila.
As children, they never leave the neighborhood; it comes as a surprise to the reader that the beach and downtown Naples are only a bus ride away. But adolescence enlarges their world. Not only do they venture farther afield (Elena to middle and high school, Lila to work in her father’s shoe repair shop) but they begin to understand the history underlying the violence, battles, and interdictions of their world.
Off-hand comments in the first section tell us this is a just post-war childhood: they pass rubble and wrecked tanks; another child is killed when he finds an unexploded bomb. This past marks the neighborhood in ways beyond the physical. Lila in particular begins to ask questions, and, “gripped by a frenzy of absolute disclosure,” reports to Elena on the wartime sins of their neighbors: “that one turned in a lot of people . . . these people’s money comes from the hunger of others, this car was bought by selling bread adulterated with marble dust.” The ogre Don Achille ran the black market.
Gradually their world begins to make more sense, but will that growing understanding help them find a way to escape it? Can a younger generation escape the past and the violence memory perpetuates, or will their relationships, too, be governed by it? Those questions remain unanswered at the end of this novel, a point when at 16 Lila and Elena seem to be drifting apart, seeking different ways to escape into a wider, better life. We know from the prologue, set many years later, that they won’t lose sight of each other altogether. I have the next book, The Story of a New Name, and I’m looking forward to seeing what becomes of them in young womanhood.
I have totally failed to do justice to this book, but I had to say something. It’s not an easy book, but (or because) it captures the intensity and difficulty of coming of age, but narrated from an ironic, reflective distance. I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.