A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I have finally got around to reading My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Unless you have been living under the proverbial rock, you will already know that this is the first of the four ‘Neapolitan’ novels written by Ferrante, a series that has propelled the author to literary superstardom over the last few years.
The books follow the friendship of two women, Lila and our narrator Lenù, with the first novel covering their childhood and adolescence, up to the age of 16. They live in a run-down neighbourhood of Naples, where money is scarce and expectations for the future are no higher than either staying in the neighbourhood and working in the family business or marrying well. Both girls are intelligent and curious, with Lila devouring as many books as she can borrow across all of her family’s library cards and teaching herself Latin and Greek. Lila’s prodigious intellectual talents push Lenù to do just as well, if not better, and both girls are encouraged to stay on at school beyond the standard age of 12. However, like so many things, whether they can or not comes down to money. Lenù’s family (begrudgingly) scrape it together; Lila’s refuses.
Lenù and Lila’s friendship is ridden with conflict. While they need each other, they are also in constant competition. When Lenù talks about what she is learning at school, Lila takes it upon herself to teach herself the subjects, often surpassing Lenù’s knowledge. They are alternately beautiful and gawky, interest from boys comes and goes, some showing interest in one then the other. Their contemporaries in the neighbourhood may be (mostly) friends, but no one can quite penetrate the tightness of Lenù and Lila’s friendship. Despite (mainly intellectual) competition, it is Lenù who Lila relies upon to temper her volatile home situation, while Lenù needs Lila to give her confidence in staying in school. Yet Lila can be cruel, and Lenù knows it. There are occasions when she begins to distance herself but somehow Lila reaches out to her at exactly the right time and Lenù is pulled back in.
I found My Brilliant Friend an absorbing, frustrating, emotional read. It is an extraordinary portrait of childhood friendship with all its small cruelties and huge passion, and one in which I saw echoes of myself as a child. I was a quiet, anxious child who latched onto a much more outgoing girl who lived in my neighbourhood. I was in awe of her, but also slightly scared of her. As we grew up, things went a different way to Lenù and Lila’s friendship: she grew crueller and I eventually got up the courage to sever ties. It went a bit more Cat’s Eye than My Brilliant Friend. Some childhood friendships – especially, I will be as bold as to say, between girls – is a very delicate balance. Acts of kindness and cruelty can be carried out at almost the same time, and the relationship can easily teeter between being a positive and negative force. My own experience was negative, though things look better for Ferrante’s protagonists.
As an exploration of the interior life of these girls, and of the fragile nature of friendship, I can think of almost no one to rival Ferrante. Indeed, part of the controversy about Ferrante’s true identity has centred around how much autobiography is written into the Neapolitan novels, and therefore how much protection she is offering her neighbourhood by not using her real name (Lenù’s full name is Elena). I don’t know how true that is, and so much debate has raged about Ferrante’s real name that it has actually confirmed to me that I really don’t care – don’t want to know – who she really is. She is a great writer, that’s all I’m interested in.
Will I go on to read the rest of the series? You bet I will. Not just because of the very classy cliffhanger at the end of My Brilliant Friend, but because I now feel utterly invested in these girls and their friendship. I need to know what happens next.
Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend (New York: Europa Editions, 2012), translated by Ann Goldstein. ISBN 9781609450786. RRP £11.99.