My Brilliant Friend: Book One: Childhood, Adolescence by Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Europa editions. 2012 (27th printing, 2018).
I have begun the great voyage into the mind of Italy’s most known and unknown writers, Elena Ferrante (her pen name). To say a few words about her anonymity. She was first published in 1992; remained anonymous since then. There have been several literary sleuths who have managed to identify who she is, but to my knowledge she has not yet stepped out of the dark. I have no idea why she chose to be anonymous. Some say it was for more publicity; others say she has a right to be private, and still others get indignant and even a bit snobbish when it comes to literature and the public’s demand to know who she is. I find it difficult to talk about the author as having written the book since I cannot be certain who wrote it or whether or not the person is a team of writers or a male instead of female. I am not sure whether it matters or not. I will admit I sometimes feel I’m being played. I suppose the question for me is why did she even put a name on it? Why not say it was by anonymous? Perhaps that would have looked too much like a ploy. I suppose in the end it would have been better to put her own name on it since the game around it is making a lot of people look stupid. On the other hand, her first book deals with invisibility, an invisibility not chosen. Life is quite different when it is chosen. The fact that she gets to chose is powerful.
I read the translated into English novel, and while I’m sure there is much missing in translation I have found this first book, My Brilliant Friend, which starts a four volume epic, to be heart wrenching, frustrating, annoying, confusing, intense, close, painfully accurate, and oddly global. One of the things it is not, as the book back cover suggests, is a story about a friendship in which “two girls learn to rely on each other” — at least not in the first book; and certainly not the way most people think when they think of friends relying on each other. For some reason, no one knows how to advertise this book. Perhaps it has something to do with the HBO series (2018) based on it. I found the book to be uncompromising. It engaged me as a reader, and I was definitely not in control of the scenes, that is, I was simply dragged into scene after scene of bodies colliding into each other.
It is possible that it is difficult to make sense of a novel that presents so openly jealousy, fear, violence, desire, and poverty in post-war Italy. It is possible that we cannot accept all the pain. Americans have a tendency to romanticize violence. And certainly we want to talk about the beautiful way the story is presented to us. But beauty and poverty? Beauty and violence? Beauty and injustice?
The novel starts with an amusing prologue. I thought it was Italian funny. European funny. Hard. Brutal even. But funny because this idea of completely erasing yourself from life — not suicide; not insanity, but erasing yourself because you want to do it, it is an amazing idea, and the characters do not flinch when erasure appears before them. We begin with the unfamiliar main protagonists, Lenù, Lila, (and Lila’s son Rino). Lila has gone missing. Left without a trace. A brilliant excuse for Lenù to start writing; to begin to retrace her steps from the point at which the two converge, which is at school in their barrio in Naples. They are children, first or second grade. Lenù is the narrator. She guides us through Naples after WWII, the 50’s, and what we find is not pleasant. In some ways the unpleasantness has little to do with the war because really we find the same unpleasantness in our own homes during the 50’s as well. This realization alone should make you cry. It is a heartache to read because you realize how we have always been global. The world has grown together. Its consciousness is shared. It is a heartache because many of us have experienced the violence of poverty; and many of us have experienced the violence of male dominance; and many of us have experienced the violence of suffocating families; and many of us have experienced a world that was dangerous.
We are told right from the beginning just how violent Lenù and Lila’s world was:
“We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died. One of the daughters of Signora Assunta, the fruit and vegetable seller, had stepped on a nail and died of tetanus. Signora Spagnuolo’s youngest child had died of the croup. A cousin of mine, at the age of twenty, had gone one morning to move some rubble and that night was dead, crushed, the blood pouring out of his ears and mouth. My mother’s father had been killed when he fell from scaffolding at a building site. The father of Signor Peluso was missing an arm, the lathe had caught him unawares. The sister of Giuseppina, Signor Peluso’s wife, had died of tuberculosis at twenty-two. The oldest son of Don Achille — I had never seen him, and yet I seemed to remember him — had gone to war and died twice: drowned in the Pacific Ocean, then eaten by sharks. The entire Melchiorre family had died clinging to each other, screaming with fear, in a bombardment. Old Signorina Clorinda had died inhaling gas instead of air. Giannino, who was in fourth grade when we were in first, had died one day because he had come across a bomb and touched it. Luigina, with whom we had played in the courtyard, or maybe not, she was only a name, had died of typhus. Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection.”page 33
What strikes me as so magnificent about the above paragraph which is a summation of Italy’s past is its similarity to our past here in the United States. When I read the paragraph in which Lenù lists all the ways in which death visited the neighborhood I immediately ran to my husband and read it out loud. We have come a long way, I concluded. Who would want to go back?
For this reason it is made clear:
“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.”page 37
It is important, I believe that nostalgia is ruled out from the beginning. Nostalgia for the past is dangerous. It is a willful blindness of all the abuse heaped on to vulnerable people. Nostalgia is confessing — while not understanding — you long for a time when you felt powerful. You are admitting you long for other people’s oppression.
And so we are taken through the mean streets of Italy. And they are mean. But, how could they not be? Each family worked hard, but if something happened that was unforeseen; if you worked hard each day but you still could not afford rent, medicine, glasses, books for school or even to go to a wedding, then you begin to feel you are in a vice. A discussion could quickly turn into an angry argument and then a physical manifestation of all the fear, hatred, vulnerability and lack of understanding which possessed everyone. It did not matter if you were a woman or if you were a child you were hit when the men around you felt frustrated. And if you were a child you were hit by both men and women. At one point Lila gets thrown out the window by her father; her brother hits her when he becomes frustrated by Lila’s stubborn nature. Lenú is smart but her parents have to be convinced to let her sit for entrance exams into middle school. She does not know how to approach her parents about school, and is afraid to tell them anything. She needs glasses and is afraid to tell her parents. No one tells the girls about menstruation. The world is brutal. They are lucky to have made it to the end of the book!
The local economy is run by one or two families. The gap between the poor and the rich is evident in everything from the clothing one wears to the Italian one speaks. The pressure is constant. Everyone aspires to be rich, which is not unusual, but they, as is common, believe all will be solved by money. First Lila and Lenù think they will become rich by writing a famous book; then as time goes by and we are jolted back and forth by Lila and Lenù we find Lila working with her father repairing shoes, and Lenù going to school. Will it be work that provides the wealth? Will it be education? Who will be happier? Who is happier Lenù or Lila? According to Lenù, when she is happy Lila is not; when she is not happy Lila is happy. They cannot seem to share in any joy that is constant.
Not only did wealth hold out the promise of comfort, by being free from the violence, the violence that came from the stinking sewage and hard work, from the daily discomfort of living in poverty, and from the blows that were meted out by the anger one felt from living in a suffocating closeness to everyone, but also it meant being seen. As Lenù describes what she felt when she and her friends, dressed up and with make-up walked through the rich neighborhood.
“It was like crossing a border. I remember a dense crowd and a sort of humiliating difference. I looked not at the boys but at the girls, the women: they were absolutely different from us. They seemed to have breathed another air, to have eaten other food, to have dressed on some other planet to have learned to walk on wisps of wind. I was astonished. All the more so that, while I would have paused to examine at leisure dresses, shoes, the style of glasses if they wore glasses, they passed by without seeming to see me. They didn’t see any of the five of us. We were not perceptible. Or not interesting. And in fact if at times their gaze fell on us, they immediately turned in another direction, as if irritated. They looked only at each other.”page 192
The petty jealousies arising from Lila’s marriage to Stefano, a man of relative wealth, were, on the surface, jealousies of comfort. For Lila “would be the mistress of a house of her own, with hot water that came from the taps, and a house not rented but owned” (p. 288). These jealousies also ran deeper when considered again, as Lenù reiterates during Lila’s wedding ceremony:
“…— my mother, even if her wandering eye seemed to gaze elsewhere, looked at me to make me regret that I was there, in my glasses, far from the center of the scene, while my bad friend had acquired a wealthy husband, economic security for her family, a house of her own, not rented but bought, with a bathtub, a refrigerator, a television, and a telephone.”page 315
Lenù’s “bad friend” had gotten what was good. Lenù, the good one, the educated one, still lags behind Lila. What’s good? What’s bad?
My Brilliant Friend frustrates the reader who wants to feel comfortable. You want to get into your big chair and sit with a heartwarming story of friendship. There is friendship here, it is true. But, it is not sentimental. In fact, throughout the book Lenù is perpetually comparing herself to Lila, which drives the reader crazy. Lenù is externally driven. She cannot help to compare herself to her friend, and the worst of it is that she always loses.
Finally, as Lenù goes through high school she realizes that she is smart and she does have qualities that are more refined than Lila’s and even some of the educated boys in the neighborhood. For this reason it could be said to be a “Bildungsroman” — a German word for coming of age book. But, it is more than a Bildungsroman — which is a category too simple for this book. Interestingly, the author breaks everything by showing how it is broken. Life is hard and uncompromising. And it was even harder in the past when injustice wore a death mask and was visible all around them.
As we witness both girls grow up we see that Lenù and Lila have genuine insights which arise from their particular circumstances. This knowing through living a certain amount of years begins to shape their actions and, as one would expect, has consequences for their future. Lenù finds herself reflecting honestly on her writing and being able to distance herself from Lila at the same time as she can give credit to her conversations with Lila for her ideas in her essays. She concludes, almost triumphantly, that the real school resides within the “discussions” (p. 188-189) she has had outside of the institution. An amazing insight considering she unceasingly competes with Lila. It is not through the competition, though, that she is enriched, but rather through her continued attempt to connect with Lila in friendship. It is friendship and love that ultimately are the force behind any learning that takes place for her.
Lila has a penetrating mind, a mystic of sorts who can see clearly. She has a different path. It is not through formal education that she gains knowledge of the world. As she thinks about a forced marriage with Marcello, the man who she abhors, but who wants to marry her nevertheless, and of whom her parents approve, she writes to Lenù and tells her that
“good and evil are mixed together and reinforce each other in turn. Marcello, if you thought about it, was really a good arrangement, but the good tasted of the bad and the bad tasted of the good, it was a mixture that took your breath away.”page 229
The novel ends on a precipice. The second novel awaits.
A last word on the anonymity of the author: it is human beings who write and communicate in written form. A community of writers and readers is created through such a union. There are no longer good reasons to hide behind anonymity especially since in this particular instance, unlike the past, the anonymity does not open a creative space; but rather shuts it down by permitting the real dialogue and energy to be diverted. I believe there is too much distrust of the written word for writers to withdraw from the world and disallow for the humanness of their own words.