I‘m hooked on Elena Ferrante, having recently finished My Brilliant Friend (L’Amica Geniale), the first novel of her Neapolitan trilogy. Not more than five minutes after I closed that book I ordered the next two volumes. How could I not? Well, to be perfectly honest, I will say that the book is a page-turner and very rarely do I read page-turners. I do not read for plot. I like complexity of language, and subtext, and the book has little to none of that. Ferrante’s language is for the most part unvarnished, the tone direct and conversational. But after the first fifty pages I happily signed on for what I suspected might be, and what turned out to be, a roller-coaster ride: Ferrante’s a storyteller who pushes her tale forward with fierce, palpable emotion and density of detail. Simply stated: she writes a great story and her characters are unforgettable.
Elena Greco and Lila Cerrullo are two girls growing up in 1950s working-class Naples, best friends as intensely loyal to each other as they are competitive. Elena’s family allows her to continue school beyond the fifth grade and Lila’s family does not. For Lila, the “brilliant friend” of the title, school is over. That divergence in their paths, despite the differences in their personalities, determines their fates more than anything else. As they grow into adolescence, Lila seemingly accepts her lot, despite the fact that she has a brilliant mind and knows it; she becomes determined to raise her shoemaker father and family out of poverty and obscurity with her design of a pair of men’s shoes. At the same time, she shows less and less interest in the world outside family and neighborhood and instead attempts to reap all the benefits that accrue to a large fish in a small pond. Meanwhile, Elena grows as a young scholar and writer and, as she gains the respect of her teachers and two young men who are her peers, slowly accepts that she’s ready to leave her neighborhood in order to lead a life of the mind.
The book opens with Elena, now somewhere in her sixties and the book’s narrator, receiving a Naples-to-Turin phone call from Lila’s good-for-nothing son: Lila’s been missing for two weeks, he’s looked everywhere, even gone to the hospitals and the police. On top of that Lila hasn’t left a trace. All her clothes, papers, photos, her computer, everything’s gone, swept away as if burglars had cleaned them out. No no, Elena says, no one would have any interest in that stuff. Then she thinks: “So . . . she’s finally gone and done it . . . “ Because once, thirty years earlier, Lila told Elena that someday she’d disappear without a trace. Okay, Elena thinks angrily, “This time we’ll see who wins,” and she revs up her computer, determined to write the story of their friendship in as many details as she can recall. If Lila’s decided to erase her life story, a story that’s informed the greater part of Elena’s own life, well then Elena would do just the opposite.
Elena Ferrante is a pen name, the author’s identity a mystery to her growing audience. Perhaps necessarily so, because the novel bursts with baroque verisimilitude, the personalities and events of the Neapolitan neighborhood in which it’s set dramatically depicted in details so precise, and larger-than-life, that given my familiarity with both Southern Italian and Italian-American cultures I’d say they are not products solely of the imagination. My Brilliant Friend has all the elements of verismo opera—think La Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, Tosca—would that someone write the score. A brute who’s murdered from behind, by a knife to the throat, in his own kitchen. A pair of handmade shoes Lila dreams will someday enrich her poor family and transform the Cerrullo name into a brand. The philandering poet whose lover falls into madness when he abandons her. The nefarious Solara brothers in their Millecento, prowling for girls in the dark narrow streets. A copper cooking pot that bursts into pieces for no detectable reason other than to mark a prophetic moment. Lines ready-made for chorus and arias: “Greco—do you know what a commoner is? You know what riffraff means?” “A city without love goes from good to evil . . . ”
“A tapestry of memory and invention” is how I recently heard Colm Tóibín describe the making of his fiction; it’s how many fiction writers could describe their writing process and I assume Ferrante employs a similar strategy. Yet I believe there’s also an element of doppelgänger at play in My Brilliant Friend. Author Elena Ferrante (whoever she is) has given her narrator the same first name. What do we make of this? Elena Ferrante The Author is reflected on every page as Elena Greco The Narrator. How does this affect the act of telling? How does it raise the stakes of the fictional game? Why did it thrill me so to read the narrator challenge her lifelong friend to a duel—that of telling vs. not telling, testifying vs. disappearing—truly thrill me, causing the hairs on my arms to stand on end? Well, I’ll tell you why. For starters, I think that the verisimilitude reflected in the character of best friend Lila Cerrullo is likely based upon not one woman but a composite of several young girls and women in Ferrante’s past (easy enough to do and accept). I think that best friend Lila Cerrullo’s fate—marriage at age 16 to the neighborhood grocer—would have been similar to Elena Greco’s had Elena not come to understand she’d have a more interesting life outside the ghetto in which they were born, through dint of hard work and education. I also think that the life and fate of best friend Lila Cerrullo is the life and fate the real Elena Ferrante would have had, for the above same reasons. But, and this is where it gets really interesting, I posit that the foil Elena Ferrante created for her character Elena Greco in the form of Lila Cerrullo is the very foil that Elena Ferrante once wished for herself in her own real life. Lila is the other, the double that Author Elena Ferrante likely desired but never had.
Elena Greco and Lila Cerrullo spend many hours at various points in their young girlhood and adolescence analyzing their difficulties, their entrapments; together they design strategies for managing people—their parents and boyfriends, other girls—and awkward or compromising situations. I can easily imagine the same young narrator/writer conspiring with herself, her interior double, over how to extricate herself from overwhelming demands and impossible fealties. Is Lila Cerrullo the girl Elena Greco/Elena Ferrante wanted to be? More cynical, more brazen, more confident of her mind and body, more fiercely loyal to her family? Is Lila Cerrullo the woman Elena Greco/Elena Ferrante would have become had her parents not allowed her to continue on to middle school and high school? Had she not followed her instincts as a sixteen-year-old to pursue friendships with young men who valued and desired a life of the mind, just as she herself did? All the passionate and detailed remembering and telling in which fictional author Elena Greco engages: Are they not the ruminations of real-life writer Elena Ferrante asking What if? What if I’d never gone to middle school, high school, university? What if I'd married one of the guys in the ‘hood?
Early on both girls dream of becoming writers, and of writing a book together. In the fifth grade, they read a battered copy of Little Women, several times over, and fantasize that someday they'll write a novel together, a novel that will make them rich. But Lila doesn’t wait. While Elena attends tutoring sessions to prepare for the admissions exam to middle school, Lila, left to her own diversions, dives into writing the novel. Disappointed but proud of her friend, Elena shows the book, entitled The Blue Fairy, to their teacher, La Oliviera. We never actually learn what the novel’s about; we can guess from the girls’ daydreams that it involves finding a treasure chest. What we do read about is La Oliviera’s reproach when Elena asks her opinion of Lila’s work. “Greco,” La Oliviera says, “do you know what a commoner is? You understand what riffraff means? If someone never wants to leave the riffraff, then he, and his kids, and his grandkids don’t deserve a thing. So forget about Cerrullo, and focus on yourself.” This is something Elena Greco cannot and will not do.
At times Elena adopts aspects of Lila’s braggadocio, as if asking herself What would Lila do in this situation? The most memorable of these events is when Elena takes a few boys up on their offer of a few lire, enough for a gelato, if she would show them her breasts, in an abandoned building not far from school, in order to prove that her large breasts are not fake. Afterwards she reflects upon what she’s done, and realizes that had Lila been at her side, she would have urged that they run away, knowing that Lila would have wanted to stay and take up the dare, but without Lila there, “At first I hesitated, then I put myself in her place, no actually, I placed her inside myself. . . and mimicked her tone and her way of moving . . . and I was happy.”
When Elena goes off to middle school and Lila starts work in her father’s shoemaking shop, Lila attempts to stay abreast of Elena’s schooling. She single-handedly teaches herself Latin, even clueing Elena into the best technique for translating a Latin sentence. Then she teaches herself Greek. She reads The Aeneid in its entirety before Elena does, and talks to her at length about Dido, sharing this thought: “Without love, life withers not only for the individual, but for the city too.” That thought strikes a deep chord within Elena, reflecting, it seems to her, the nature of their neighborhood, with all its violence and squalor. Later, Elena develops that same thought in an essay—“ . . . when love is exiled from a city, the city changes in nature from benevolent to evil . . . examples being Italy under Fascism, Germany under Nazism”—earning praise from her teachers. Ultimately Elena feels guilty for having taken credit for an idea that originated with the “brilliant” Lila, and she feels intensely lonely, since by then Lila has abandoned her reading to pursue her family’s shoemaking business.
Elena credits Lila with being the better writer. During the summer they’re both fifteen, Elena lives and works in an inn on the island of Ischia and writes religiously to Lila. When finally Lila returns the favor, with a densely inscribed letter of five pages, Elena is struck by Lila’s eloquence, and is embarrassed by what she considers her own childish scribblings. She also notes that the tone Lila struck in her letter-writing was familiar—in fact, Elena was hearing the same voice she’d heard years ago in The Blue Fairy: “Lila knew how to speak through writing; so different from my way . . . she expresses herself with phrases so well-honed, and without error even though she’d stopped her studies, more so there wasn’t a trace of the unnatural, nothing artificial in what she wrote . . . I read and I saw her, I heard her . . even more than when, face to face, we spoke.”
Towards the end of the book, on Lila’s wedding day, Lila invites Elena into her room, so that they can be alone, so that Elena can help bathe Lila and dress her in her wedding gown. Before Lila disrobes, and Elena sees her friend in the nude for the first time in their lives, at which point begins one of the most beautiful passages describing the love of one woman for another that I have ever read, they have this conversation:
L: “Whatever happens, you have to continue your studies.”
E: “Two more years. Then I get my license and I’m finished.”
L: “No, don’t you ever finish: I will give you the money, you need to go on studying.”
E: “Thanks, but school does end after a point.”
L: “Not for you: You are my brilliant friend, you must become the best of all, of men and women.”
And so at the end of the book we witness an unexpected reversal: Elena Greco has inherited the eponymous title of Elena Ferrante’s novel, and she has gained the respect of the friend she most loved, and of the writer she wished to emulate.
I’m not proposing that Lila’s character serves a singular purpose, far from it. Lila is unforgettable, as is the story of her friendship with Elena, a relationship of broad dramatic range. But the ways in which the characters of Lila and Elena merge and detach, fuse and dissolve, and finally reverse, are too delicious to not point out. I suspect that, given the blurbs I’ve read regarding the next two volumes, Ferrante uses the divergent life courses of Elena and Lila to tell the story of Italy as a nation, from post-WWII to the present. You can bet any amount I’m looking forward to that, so check back for another post. But not too soon—I’m reading in the original Italian, so my pace is a bit slower than usual!