My Brilliant Friend: Sarah, June 26: "I wonder if Ferrante's point is to highlight the fact that all friendshipsespecially real, deep, true onesare, on some level, built on fantastic projections."
Date: Jun 26 2015
Dear (brilliant) friends,
How real are we to each other?
This is a weird but fitting question to ask, as we write from far-flung locations to each other (and to the mysterious, invisible denizens of the Internet). And it's a provocative and sometimes painful one that Ferrante's been making me ask a lot lately about friendship, one that's demanded by the opening pages of My Brilliant Friend. Upon hearing of Lila's total disappearance, Lenù is flatly unsurprised for, as she writes, “[Lila] wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world” (21).
Lenù accepts Lila's magical vanishing act without batting an eyelash, as one of the things she "knows" best about Lila is that her friend desires complete disappearance, and furthermore, that she is capable of it. But this odd certainty gives the reader pause: ultimately, the true and most intimate sum of Lenù's knowledge about Lila is that her friend will someday attain complete unknowability. And tellingly, Lenù's phrasing here betrays the necessary fault line at the heart of any true friendship, the crack of doubt that lets the thing flex and shift and grow: "I know her well, or at least I think I know her." Lenù has known Lila for more than sixty years, for that vague time most easily periodized as "forever." There is no doubt in this reader's mind that they do know each other well, perhaps better than anyone else. But that knowledge is necessarily incomplete and, like many of this book's proffered forms, it is deceptive—for, as I think the book proposes, perhaps friendship isn't exactly about "knowing" your friends at all.
At first, Lenù and Lila's friendship seems to fit a classic genre of literary friendship: the very human, sympathetically flawed narrator can't tell her own story without looking longingly at that brighter, scarier, more alive other, that "brilliant friend" that shines too bright, has an edge so keen she shouldn't get too close, but can't resist cutting herself. You know, Nick to Gatsby, Gene to Phineas, Sal to Dean, and so on. These characters are dangerous to the narrator, to themselves, to the reader, and as a result, they usually die or collapse into themselves—because, we're told, perhaps we shouldn't aspire to burn so brightly, for people who do must end by immolating themselves in the blaze of their own terrifying brilliance, that hackneyed old Kerouac refrain about the person that burns, burns, burns like a Roman candle, et cetera.
Yet while The Great Gatsby or A Separate Peace or On the Road—these bro-love tales of masculine exceptionalism—suggest to us that bright-burning human fireworks like this might actually exist somewhere, Ferrante's "brilliant friend[s]" show us the opposite. Rather, I wonder if Ferrante's point is to highlight the fact that all friendships—especially real, deep, true ones—are, on some level, built on fantastic projections. We don't get to know the real Lila (Lina to everyone else in the neighborhood) and can't ever, really. For as long as Lenù is our narrator, we'll be blinded by the too-bright blaze of her particular and singular understanding of Lila as her enigmatic and "brilliant" friend, her opposite, her better half. It's a weird depiction of friendship that offers a frightening revelation: to some extent, all our friends are imaginary ones.
But even if our friends are somehow unreal to us, it doesn't mean that friendship, and friend-love, aren't real or true. And though this may sound shifty and makes me seem like something of a sociopath, I don't honestly think it's a bad thing. It's also kind of a beautiful thing—it's what lets us see our close companions through the bifocals of friendship (critical on top, rose-colored on bottom) and describe them in that particular non-erotic language of love that Jill evoked. It's the imaginary, malleable quality of our friends that allows us to shape them into desirable and aspirational definites, visions of personhood clearer than our own uncomfortable partial views of our misshapen, amorphous selves. Thus, a large part of Lila's magnetic draw is in the specificity of her depiction. Through the form-giving lens of Lenù's friendship and admiration, Lila is as magical and frightening as the fairy tale changeling, who shifts forms with no warning, transforming with utter precision. Each of her stages is described in terms cleanly specific, and she is always the sharpest, clearest thing in a world of "things not identifiable, dark masses" (55). Witness tiny Lila in elementary school, possessed of a certainty that attracts and terrifies Lenù:
"I saw in her, in her posture more than in her face, something that disturbed me and is still hard to define, so for now I'll put it like this: she was moving, cutting across the street, a small, dark, nervous figure, she was acting with her usual determination, she was firm... firm in the pain, firm in silence as a statue is firm." (41)
Notably, another Lenuvian paradox: just as Lila's desire to be unknown is the most certain thing Lenù knows about her, what's "hard to define" is her very sense of clear self-definition. Later on, when she transforms from precocious gnome-child to graceful elfin beauty, she is described in equally clear and definite terms, as Lenù observes wonderingly that, “Lila had become shapely. Her high forehead, her large eyes that could suddenly narrow, her small nose, her cheekbones, her lips, her ears were looking for a new orchestration and seemed close to finding it. When she combed her hair in a ponytail, her long neck was revealed with a touching clarity” (142).
This is in opposition to the disturbing, baggy monster of Lenù's self portraiture: she imagines her own "cheeks like balloons, hands stuffed with sawdust, earlobes like ripe berries, feet in the shapes of loaves of bread" (57). As adolescence sets in, she feels her alien body overcome by eruptions, swellings, and uncontrolled formlessness in her new form, which, she writes, "expanded like pizza dough" (112). We briefly and tantalizingly find out that Lila also suffers from a lack of self-definition analogous to Lenù's own, in the nightmarish vision of the "dissolving margins" that threatens her sense of self and other. And so perhaps it's this desire for definition, the purely imaginary idea that another human being can be clearly and beautifully legible—and thus more fascinatingly enigmatic to the illegible, imagining self, again the paradox—that feeds into the fantasy of the brilliant friend. This title is, as you all point out, bidirectional in its force: Lila is Lenù's brilliant friend, while Lenù is Lila's.
If this were a different kind of novel, we might get a kind of Fight Club twist at the end: Lenù is Lila, light is dark, formlessness is form, one or the other actually never existed, blah blah blah. But Ferrante doesn't seem interested such narrative tricks. Instead, we just have the original fact of Lila's disappearance, of her total elimination "without a trace." Whether or not she ever really existed and whatever that existence was really like, all that eventually matters is what Lenù writes about her, the clear and defined shapes she molds Lila into. And that, I think, is the simultaneously poignant and alarming truth about friendship—real friendship—that Ferrante draws out beautifully here. The friends we truly love are at once the most real people in the world to us, and the least real.
Of course, this shifting nature of friend-reality also brings up a stylistic question: what's the status of realism overall in the novel? I'm intrigued by the way Merve framed Ferrante's style as "slow burn realism," thinking about the slowness and buildup of anger in her writing, something that links up with Katherine's questions about Lila and Lenù and "what they know, what they're wrong about, how they lie," and with Jill's interest in the novel's weird invocations of enchantment that violently resist categorization under "magical realism." Perhaps it's the diaphanous and deceptive smoke screens of fiction that hover above the surface of seemingly defined things (events, people)—the speculative and phantasmagoric aspects of Lenù's recollection, the "dissolving margins" of Lila's visions—that are the real realism of Ferrante's account of friendship and its fundamental unreality?
But more on that next time. Til then, I remain
Your imaginary friend,