In a rare interview, Italian author Elena Ferrante talks about My Brilliant Friend, the first in a trilogy that takes main characters and best friends Lila and Elena from childhood to old age.
This first volume ends with Elena and Lila aged 16. How did you decide where to break the trilogy into its constituent parts?
I consider My Brilliant Friend a single novel that, because of its length—the story spans the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st—is being published in several volumes. Formally speaking, the division was dictated by the phases according to which convention demarcates individual lives: childhood, adolescence, youth, maturity, old age. In truth, the flow of the narration is subject to a more profound division: Each volume ends when the two main characters seem, on one hand, to have fully exhausted a phase of their friendship, and, on the other, are about to be buffeted by external events that will change everything.
My Brilliant Friend is dense with detail: though the focus is always Elena and Lila, their world is never just background, indeed, it has an almost tactile quality.
Anything bearing the moniker "literary” has a duty to make readers see, feel, touch, smell, and taste the worlds it describes. “Represent” means to make something present, to place something before the eyes of readers, to make it immediate: homes, entire towns, open spaces, single individuals, the community to which those individuals belong and with which they enter into conflict. It’s not a question of banal attention to detail, to background, or to setting. An individual’s story comes from adhesion to a specific world, the world from which that individual emerged and with which she is in conflict. Narratively speaking, without the concreteness of the world that he carries within, and that pushes against him from without, a character is only a hollow shade.
The book is set in Naples, where you’re from, and the narrator, who’s shown turning on her computer to write this story, bears your first name. What interested you here in terms of setting up this overlap?
The great Italian writer Italo Svevo said that, when we invent a story, the first person who must believe that the story is not pure invention but intimately real is the author. In order to begin such a long novel, I felt the need to anchor it as much as possible to that which I am, that which I know, even to the point of using my own name for one of the characters.
Lila and Elena are born into a very narrow world whose confines they struggle to expand. It’s notable that while as girls they have fewer options, at the same time they seem to have almost more freedom to move than the boys they grow up with. Do you think that’s true, and if so, why?
The female experience during the second half of the century was characterized by the battle to get out from under patriarchy. Enormous numbers of women realized that the limits imposed on them were not natural but merely a function of sexual discrimination, which in turn was a model for every other kind of discrimination. This made their need for liberation acute. So, while men limited themselves to redefining the rules of their games, women stormed the field of play, widening it and enlarging it. Male conservatism gives the impression of greater mobility for women, but the truth is that it is never the jailer who is most restless, but she who is forced to find an escape.