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Times Literary Supplement: "Cinematic in the density of its detail."

Date: Feb 1 2013

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Elena Ferrante’s novel opens with the disappearance of the enigmatic Lila, one of her two principal protagonists, half a century after the events that the novel will trace. Disappearance is a recurrent trope in Ferrante’s fiction, which it is tempting to read as a sly nod to the author’s notorious reclusiveness; in an age when it seems that every novelist spends almost as much time tweeting as writing, Ferrante refuses even to be photographed and grants interviews only rarely, giving rise to occasional speculation that she writes under a pseudonym.

Whatever the truth of this, MY BRILLIANT FRIEND, translated by Ann Goldstein, is stunning: an intense, forensic exploration of the friendship between Lila and the story’s narrator, Elena. Ferrante’s evocation of the working-class district of Naples where Elena and Lila first meet as two wiry eight-year-olds is cinematic in the density of its detail, its atmosphere heavy with barely suppressed brutality. Naples in the aftermath of the Second World War remains suffused with almost medieval suspicions and fears: “You could die if you were sweating and then drank cold water from the tap without first bathing your wrists: you’d break out in red spots, you’d start coughing, and be unable to breathe.” The war still casts a shadow, with the half-understood darkness of Fascism present in the nightmarish figure of Don Achille, who in the girls’ fevered imaginations steals their dolls and spirits them away in his sinister “black bag.”

The girls become friends at school, where Elena is studiously successful and Lila shines with a wild brilliance. When Lila’s parents refuse to allow her to go on to high school, she studies for a while on her own, using Elena’s books, picking up ancient Greek and English with a speed that puts her former classmate to shame. Everything about Lila leaves the plodding Elena in her shadow; while Elena grows into a heavy, spotty teenager, the tomboyish Lila becomes a stunning young woman, a magnet for every male in the district. She wields a shaming power over her closest friend. Even her disappearance is a way of erasing not only her own life but that of Elena, too. It is fitting, in a story that is seamed with tiny tales of vengeance, that in writing this story Elena thwarts both Lila’s desire to disappear and her attempt to recast her friend’s as well as her own past.

Elena claims to “feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence” – though the very act of writing about it could be seen as a refutation of this claim. In a poignant episode towards the end of the novel, she experiences a terrible confusion when she watches Lila having a bath on the morning of her wedding. Though Elena has already lost her virginity to her boyfriend Antonio, it is the sight of Lila’s nakedness that seems to awaken her sexually for the first time. Through the prism of age and experience, the adult Elena, looking back, recognizes “the embarrassment of gazing with pleasure at her body, of being the not impartial witness of her sixteen-year-old beauty”; but she then slips into the present tense, recalling how “everything is there, present, in the poor dim room, amid the worn furniture, on the uneven, water-stained floor, and your heart is agitated, your veins inflamed.” This is no longer a memory but a feeling, transgressing the boundaries of time; the acknowledgment of the confusion of adolescence and the headiness of passionate teenage friendship becomes a gesture of forgiveness from the adult Elena to her younger self.

The novel’s climax brings all the characters together for a wedding, where the intense dramas of this tight-knit community are played out. But we are told that this is the first novel in a trilogy; the wedding is not a happy ending but a precipice.

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