Earlier this year, I read (and loved) My Brilliant Friend, the first in a series of Neapolitan novels by the Italian writer Elena Ferrante. She’s one of Italy’s leading contemporary writers, but her true identity remains something of a mystery.
My Brilliant Friend begins in the present day as Elena, a woman in her mid-sixties, receives a phone call from Rino, the son of her lifelong friend Lila (known to others as Lina). Lila has vanished, taking all her personal belongings with her. Elena, who narrates the story, recalls ‘it’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace and I’m the only one who knows what she means’. To Elena, it appears as though her friend wants to ‘eliminate the entire life that she has left behind’, so much so that Elena beings to document the story of their lives – ‘We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself.’ (Europa Editions)
From this compelling opening, we travel back in time to Naples in the 1950s where Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo meet in the first grade of elementary school. Elena is immediately intrigued by Lila’s confidence, determination and wildness, and is drawn to her from an early stage in their relationship. It’s almost as though Lila possesses a powerful (and possibly dangerous) aura, one that Elena finds hard to resist:
Already then there was something that kept me from abandoning her. I didn’t know her well; we had never spoken to each other, although we were constantly competing in class and outside it. But in a confused way I felt that if I ran away with the others I would leave her with something of mine that she would never give back. (Europa Editions)
Elena is clever, diligent, accommodating and eager to excel in school. But Lila quickly reveals herself to be fiercely intelligent; despite her impoverished background, she taught herself to read at the age of three and is now ahead of her classmates, Elena included. Elena devotes herself to studying, just so that she ‘could keep pace with that terrible, dazzling girl’. Lila triumphs in school competitions, her quickness of mind is ‘like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite’, and Elena feels destined to remain in the shadow of her friend:
Lila, too, at a certain point had seemed very beautiful to me. In general I was the pretty one, while she was skinny, liked a salted anchovy, she gave off an odour of wildness, she had a long face, narrow at the temples, framed by two bands of smooth black hair. But when she decided to vanquish both Alfonso and Enzo, she had lighted up like a holy warrior. Her cheeks flushed, the sign of a flame released by every corner of her body, and for the first time I thought: Lila is prettier than I am. So I was second in everything. I hoped that no one would ever realise it.
Regardless of the fact that Elena feels somewhat outshone by Lila, the two girls develop a close bond over a shared love of books. Born into a tough, working-class environment, they see education as a potential means of escape from their neighbourhood in later life. There’s a key moment in their final year of elementary school when the girls are encouraged to take the exam for entry to middle school. Elena’s parents agree to pay for extra schooling to prepare her for the exam, but Lila’s do not. Elena enters middle school while Lila leaves to work in her father’s shoe shop and workshop. While helping in the family trade, Lila imagines another route away from the poverty of her childhood. She produces designs for new shoes, beautiful and unique models (these are Lila’s ideas, after all), and she dreams of establishing a Cerullo shoe factory with her father and brother. For a time, the girls drift apart but are soon reconciled. Lila’s thirst for knowledge returns and she encourages Elena to bring her Latin books and to study with her; Lila continues to read, even teaching herself other languages ahead of Elena, despite having missed out on the opportunity to attend middle school herself.
This first book in the Neapolitan novels follows Elena and Lila’s relationship from childhood through adolescence and ends when the two girls are sixteen. Ferrante brings tremendous vibrancy, passion and depth to Elena and Lila’s characters; we see how each conversation, each encounter leads to a subtle change in the dynamics of their relationship. Elena is constantly reflecting, analysing and questioning herself, comparing her intellectual, emotional and physical development to that of her closest friend.
There are many times when Elena feels Lila is already ahead or about to overtake her:
Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me? She eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels to pass me by?
Every day I felt more strongly the anguish of not being in time. I was afraid, coming home from school, of meeting her and learning from her melodious voice that now she was making love with Peluso. Or if it wasn’t him, it was Enzo. Or if it wasn’t Enzo, it was Antonio. Or, what do I know, Stefano Carracci, the grocer, or even Marcello Solara: Lila was unpredictable. The males who buzzed around her almost men, full of demands.
But at other times, Elena convinces herself that Lila is the one being left behind:
Sometimes I even had the impression that it was Lila who depended on me and not I on her. I had crossed the boundaries of the neighbourhood, I went to the high school, I was with boys and girls who were studying Latin and Greek, and not, like her, with construction workers, mechanics, cobblers, fruit and vegetable sellers, grocers, shoemakers.
This wonderful novel, admirably translated by Ann Goldstein, has the feel of a classic. It is broad, almost cinematic in scope with a vast cast of characters, many of whom I haven’t even mentioned yet. Alongside the Grecos and the Cerullos, we meet the members of seven other families and their characters add richness and more layers to the narrative.
Ferrante describes Naples in the 1950s and early 1960s with vivid detail. The city is undergoing political and economic development, still struggling to establish itself following the wars. The neighbourhood in this story is a violent place, one governed by unwritten rules and family rivalries fuelled by tensions over love, money and reputation in the community. Men typically occupy the most powerful roles in the family. Fights and incidents of domestic abuse are commonplace:
At the Bar Solera, in the heat, between gambling losses and troublesome drunkenness, people often reached the point of disperazione – a word that in dialect meant having lost all hope but also being broke – and hence of fights…Blows were given and received. 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.
I’d like to avoid giving too many details about the plot, but the novel ends with a key event in the girls’ lives. Elena, now sixteen, is left wondering if she will ever be able to escape the confines of the neighbourhood, And Elena’s brilliant friend? Well, I don’t want to reveal how things stand for Lila, but the final pages left me eager to move on to the next instalment in their story.
I’ve also read the equally captivating second volume in the series, The Story of a New Name, so I’ll return soon with some thoughts on that one. In the meantime, I can’t recommend My Brilliant Friend highly enough. It’s an excellent novel – utterly engrossing and absorbing.
My Brilliant Friend (tr. Ann Goldstein) is published in the UK by Europa Editions. Source: personal copy.