In October of 2012 Europa Editions will release My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. I consider that a publishing event since My Brilliant Friend is the first novel in a trilogy. That means I’m in line to be ravished three times.
After I read My Brilliant Friend I went back to the beginning and read its prologue again. This story seems to begin at its end and I wanted to read that opening again, this time armed with the insight I had gained about the friendship between Elena and Lila, growing up in late 1950’s Naples. And watch out when a writer names a lead character after themselves!
Lila’s son Rino is calling from Naples. He’s calling Elena, Lila’s best friend, who now lives in Turin. The 66 year-old Lila has vanished. Elena is the same age. That’s an important fact in their contested friendship.
Rino’s quite a sap. He’s forty years old and has never held down regular job, preferring petty thievery to regular employment. Now he’s in a panic because his momma has disappeared. A better word is vanished. His mom’s been gone for two weeks but only with Elena’s prompting does it occur to Rino to check her closets. As Elena has suspected not even a hairpin of Lila’s is left in the apartment. In a wonderful touch, Lila has gone through the family photos and cut herself out of the group shots.
While Elena firmly fends off the mama’s boy….Rino wants to come to Turin and stay with her…she recalls that her friend has talked for decades about the appeal of vanishing. I don’t mean moving to another town and starting a new life. I mean vanishing from the face of the earth as if you has never been.
The lead characters Lila and Elena are in their mid-sixties. But now Ferrante throws us backward and we’re at the start of these seniors’ lives. Elena and Lila are now eight years old. My Brilliant Friend will move the characters from 8 years old to sweet sixteen.
Ferrante has a wonderful way of depicting her characters as sheltered. Ferrante’s characters live in a ghetto of the mind. They’re goldfish who don’t realize that they’re swimming in a bowl.
They can barely conceive of what lies outside their restricted territory. And it’s decisive that Elena calls her friend Lila. That’s not her real name. That’s what Elena calls her. It’s her private nickname for her friend which has the effect of cordoning her off. Lila is the emotional center of Elena’s life.
Lila and Elena are playing with their dolls on either side of a basement window. Elena’s doll Tina is made of real plastic. This is a prestige doll in comparison to Lila’s doll Nu. If a doll could look like a homeless person, Nu would qualify. She’s constructed of old worn rags. She’s shabby. This reflects the difference in the material resources of their parents.
Elena’s father is a porter at Naples City Hall. Lila’s father is a cobbler. Both families are poor but poverty is relative. Lila’s parents are worse off.
The dolls Tina and Nu take on the burden of the childhood fears of their owners. The basement window has a metal grate on its front that’s bent at either side exposing an access to the dark cellar below. When Lila and Elena exchange dolls in a bit a parallel play, Lila, without a second of hesitation and in a demonstration of who’s in charge in this friendship, throws Tina through the gap in the grate into the rat-threatened basement. You feel for Tina, now terrorized and helpless in the dark, even though she’s just a damned doll. I guess I’m a very impressionable reader.
Elena responds by immediately throwing Nu down through her opening in the grate. This reciprocal move shocks Lila. Ferrante understands that friendship is an interplay between alliance and competition.
This dance of friends emulating and then pulling away from each other continues through their adolescence. Lila is the rebel, her courage unrelenting. She can even stand up to the roughneck boys of the neighborhood who try to bully her. Pity the boys.
She’s also as bright as hell. By far the brightest child in school just on the basis of her native ability. She can best any other child in class competitions where the children stand in front of the room and have to solve math problems in their head. Elena by contrast is the good girl who has to study hard in an frustrating attempt to keep up with her friend. But no other child can keep up with Lila, who doesn’t even bother to study.
Slowly the friends diverge in original ways that keep the reader guessing. Elena also shows academic distinction. So much so that her teachers recommend her for a classical high school where Elena will study Latin and Greek. Going to high school is apparently a big deal if you’re poor in 1950’s Naples.
It’s sadly comical that Elena’s parents throw a fit. Every time in the story that Elena shows academic distinction her parents are enraged because it will mean more spending, straining their limited budget. Money for textbooks and for the private lessons from her teachers that are considered essential if Elena is to remain competitive in class.
There’s a wonderful scene where Elena is stumped in class because she can’t read what’s been written on the blackboard. When her teacher realizes this, she writes in Elena’s notebook that she must see an oculist. Elena’s parents must sign the note to verify their compliance.
Elena is mortified. She knows her parents will throw a hissy fit when they are forced into the expense of buying their daughter glasses. Elena gets her glasses which naturally look better on Lila then they do on her because everything looks better on Lila. Lila has the force of personality to carry anything off. Boys are noticing.
Later on when Elena is identified as college material, her parents are traumatized. College is only for rich people. Elena didn’t even realize that there was such a thing as college. She can’t imagine a life where you can just keep studying for years. Elena’s parents know their daughter is bright but they think that would make her an excellent candidate to be a shop assistant and work the register. They want the best for their daughter and they think that would be it.
Lila with so much potential, tragically, doesn’t make it to high school. For a while she competes with Elena by getting texts out of the library. She’s learns Latin faster than Elena just by picking it up from borrowed books. She amazes Elena, who, when she begins classical Greek, finds that Lila has already learned enough Greek to give her pointers.
Based on native ability Lila has the edge. But Elena eventually overcomes her friend by diligence in her studies. Elena’s advantages methodically pile up. She a favorite of her teacher who arranges for a summer vacation for her away from Naples. This is unheard of for someone in Elena’s economic class. Lila without resources, no matter how bright she is, can’t keep up. But throughout the story, Elena continues to benefit from Lila’s original mind. Elena the good girl. Lila the misfit. Best friends.
Elena the good girl. When one of the thuggish rich kids offers Elena a ride in his car (and almost no one in this neighborhood owns a car), Elena refuses. Her mother would kill her if she found out she was riding around town in a car. This is not a metaphor. Violence is endemic, especially within families. Husbands commonly beat their wives and children are thrashed.
Elena attends high school in downtown Naples. That’s the only way she gets to see the city center and she’s blown away by the sophistication. Her sheltered mentality keeps weakening throughout the story. Later on, she takes Lila and two guys from the neighborhood on the metro to see how the rich people live downtown. Lila is astonished by the wealth, the clothes, the buildings, the freedom. For once she is tongue-tied.
As for the guys, on the metro they do guard duty and make sure that their girls are not felt up. Is this necessary? We are in a primitive social world. If Elena or Lila were touched in the metro, the required response from the guys would have to be violence. There would be no other option. There would have to be a brawl.
Lila, roadblocked from using her mind, decides to achieve success by marrying into it. With Elena’s help her conquest of a rich kid in town takes on the trappings of a complex math problem that must be solved by taking sequential, logical steps. Lila achieves her goal by getting betrothed at sixteen while at the same time arranging for an investment opportunity for her hapless father and brother. Her fiance will provide the funds and management intelligence to turn their cobbler’s shop into a shoe shop. Lila has designed the shoes.
A veteran teacher, lamenting Lila’s missed opportunity for further schooling, makes the striking remark that now Lilia’s intellectual energy will move to her ass. That is, the force of Lila’s personality will now become focussed on her appearance, an ephemeral quality. A couple of summers and that sensual beauty will be lost.
Meanwhile Elena rises to the top of her class. Her intellectual prowess seeps into her ordinary life when Lila and her future in-laws are disputing over which of five wedding dresses Lila should select. Elena solves this problem with elan by carefully qualifying the pros and cons of each gown. But it’s all a dodge that Elena picked up in school in order to evade difficult questions. After dazzling the company with fine distinctions between the garments, Elena picks one dress at random and declares it must be the best.
At the wedding party Ferrante is an outstanding stage manager. She places Lila and Elena at opposite ends of the banquet hall. This event should be Lila’s great triumph. The former social outcast is now the envy of all the unmarried young women in the neighborhood. But all Lila has done is move from the poor part of the ghetto to the richer part of the ghetto. She moves from her parent’s crummy apartment with no view to a white cube of a flat across the neighborhood with a fine view of Mount Vesuvius. She now has a telephone, a television and access to her husband’s beautiful convertible.
Elena comes of age at the wedding party. She leaves the ghetto mentally before she leaves it physically. But she literally has to tear herself away from a seat next to her mother who has kept a grip on Elena’s dress in a last ditch attempt to keep her daughter under control.
Elena looks at her neighborhood friends as if for the first time and wonders what she ever saw in them. She’s leaving the whole scene emotionally while we watch. Ditching her conventional boyfriend right at the party in favor of Nino, the very cool son of a local poet who has had the effrontery to come to the wedding reception in his scruffy, everyday school clothes.
I’ve just grazed the surface of Ferrante’s dense plotting which shows how this whole community works. There’s a useful index of characters in the galley. I wish more writers would employ this device. There are nine families enumerated, each with four or five members and a list of the teachers who play such an important role in this story. There’s not one name that’s superfluous. In the course of 300 plus transfixing pages you get to meet them all. They step off the page to either pal around with you or slug you in the jaw.
It seems that I’ve been reviewing more Europa Editions books than any other publisher over the past several months. Europa Editions is the small press with the big books.