My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Europa, 2012, 328 p. Translated from the Italian L’amica geniale by Ann Goldstein.

Book One: Childhood, Adolescence

My Brilliant Friend cover

Ferrante’s writing – especially her Neapolitan Quartet, of which this is the first – has been attracting a lot of attention if not hype. The mystery surrounding her identity – Ferrante is a pseudonym whose real-life counterpart has not revealed herself – is one of the elements in that I’m sure.

This volume is the tale of two childhood friends growing up in the back streets of Naples – not quite two children dressing in rags but poor certainly. Our narrator is Elena Greco, daughter of a porter, her friend is Lila Cerullo, the shoemaker’s daughter. Lila is gifted intellectually – at least according to Elena – but does not progress at school, as she decides not to. (Not that her parents would have allowed her to.) Elena is given every opportunity by her teacher who persuades her parents to allow her to continue her education beyond the normal for her milieu.

While still young Lila reveals to Elena the conspiracy of silence about before, before the war, before they were born, seeing all her elders as complicit. Elena realises, “Without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us, too.”

Through Elena, Ferrante is good on the absurdities and embarrassments of puberty, the lack of control over the body and of how others perceive you. In time and in contrast to Elena, Lila begins to exert a magnetic attraction on all males. She is well able to defend herself (and Elena) against any unwanted advances however. She throws herself and her talents into designing shoes but her father has no faith in their ability to sell and scorns the possibility. Elena’s continuing education and the necessary separation as the new higher schools are across the city gradually puts a distance between the pair.

An element of fantasy – undeveloped in this volume – appeared when on New Year’s Eve 1959 Lila experienced what she will later describe to Elena as dissolving margins. To her the outlines of people suddenly dissolved, disappeared. How much this contributes to Ferrante’s overall story arc I can’t say but her story-telling in general I found irritating. There was too much telling not enough showing, too much concentration on boring minutiae – every test score Elena ever got seems to be included. In addition there were many cases in which the characterisation was lacking. There is an index of characters – inserted before the novel proper – so that you can tell them apart by name but many of them, the young males especially, do not stand out from each other on the page. I felt too that there was a stretching towards significance in phrases like, “there are no gestures, words, or sighs that do not contain the sum of all the crimes that human beings have committed and commit,” and “‘When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities,’” which actually don’t bear scrutiny. Moreover the book ends on a point of imminent conflict. Yes, there are three more instalments of Ferrante’s quartet to go but this still felt like a breach of the contract between writer and reader.

I would agree that as a social document of a time and a place, of certain attitudes, My Brilliant Friend is interesting enough but despite that “cliffhanger” I wasn’t moved to seek out further instalments with any alacrity.

Pedant’s corner:- The text has been translated into USian. Otherwise; “an anti-gas mask” (this may be a literal translation of the Italian, but the English term is simply, gas mask.) “To not be second.” (Not to be second,) pubis (is the pubic bone not the pubic area,) knickers (conveys a different meaning to a British reader than the knickerbockers or plus-fours I took it was intended,) an useful (technically correct I suppose, but not a common usage,) Aeneas’ (Aeneas’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech.

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