The true story is that I almost did not get past the first thirty pages. The true story is also that Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is one of the most immersive, fascinating, and disquieting novels that I’ve read in the last few years. But the prose does not boast of its merits; it is not flashy with its best features. Its narrator is unsentimental in a way that seems off-putting, until her honesty warms through and finally bewitches. This book simmers on a slow burn.
Elena Ferrante is one of Italy’s most famous novelists, albeit one of which, ironically, little is known. The Naples native that once studied classics is nearly as reclusive as J.D. Salinger was, even as she still fires her devastating novels into the world. “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors,” she wrote to her publisher in 1991, shortly before her first novel was to appear. She was informing him that she had no intention of going on publicity tours or showing up at award ceremonies, should the novel be honored. “If (books) have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.”
It has been twenty-two years since that first book was published. (It was The Days of Abandonment, Ferrante’s most widely read novel in English; all her novels are translated by Ann Goldstein, head of The New Yorker copy department, and published by the excellent Europa Editions.) And since then, Ferrante has kept her commitment to respond to interviews rarely, and then only with written answers. She says she translates and teaches, in addition to writing, and she has lived outside of Italy for periods of time. Many believe her name is a pseudonym, and speculate openly about her identity and place of residence. We know next to nothing about her. She refuses our hunger for biography. Instead, we have her fiction, and the promise of more.
My Brilliant Friend is the first in a trilogy. (The second, The Story of a New Name, was published recently.) We meet Elena Greco, our cautious and watchful narrator, as a disappearance cues her to look back at her childhood as a porter’s daughter in post-war Naples from the late 1940s through late 1950s. This is a city of profound scarcity, a violent sort of quietude. “You could also die of things that seemed normal,” she tells us. And elsewhere: “we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.” The people of this place take on a mythic nature, set as they are before a landscape that offers little. Everything is noticed — watched — by others. Of her closest friend, Elena tells us: “We were twelve years old, but we walked along the hot streets of the neighborhood, amid the dust and flies that the occasional old trucks stirred up as they passed, like two old ladies taking the measure of lives of disappointment, clinging tightly to each other. No one understood us, only we two — I thought — understood one another.”
Is it any one wonder that here, brilliance stands out as a threat to the deprivation — of both things and ideas — that it illuminates?
The friend Elena walked with is Lila Cerullo, a shoemaker’s daughter. She is striking as a child for a rabid viciousness that thwarts expectations for what she must accept from others, and Elena admires her certainty, her ability to inspire fear and awe, even from the boys and the adults. Lila is also enormously intelligent, as book-smart as she is street-smart; she astounded teachers (and bewildered her illiterate mother) when she taught herself to read at age three. Elena is a smart and studious girl herself, but she falls behind Lila in their classes — she has to work for what Lila has naturally, carelessly. But Elena clings to Lila as another creature whose sharp mind might unlock a world beyond their dysfunctional neighborhood.
But it is Elena, not Lila, who moves on with her education after taking a test for middle school that requires costly lessons to prepare for; Lila’s parents refuse to pay for them. It is Lila, not Elena, who is rejected by their schoolteacher, and whose battles turn more ferocious as it moves to new terrain. For a while, Lila attempts to shadow Elena’s schooling through borrowed textbooks and persistent questions, but she eventually loses her heart. Elena finds that “Lila had stopped pushing me, anticipating in my studies and my teaching, school, and even Maestro Ferraro’s library, had stopped being a kind of adventure and had become only a thing I knew how to do well and was much praised for.”
As both Elena and Lila fight for survival amid the cryptic dynamics of class and power in their town, they are themselves infected in ways they cannot name. The novel deepens as we see unnerving echoes from its epigraph: words spoken by the Lord — or the Creator — in Goethe’s Faust:
Therein thou’rt free, according to thy merits;
The like of thee have never moved My hate.
Of all the bold, denying Spirits,
The waggish knave least trouble doth create.
Man’s active nature, flagging, seeks too soon the level;
Unqualified repose he learns to crave;
Whence, willingly, the comrade him I gave,
Who works, excites, and must create, as Devil.
Ferrante writes with an austere grace: a matter-of-factness of prose that might seem bleak if the story it tells weren’t so rich and textured. A wedding dress lying on a bed looks “like the body of a dead woman.” A classroom stinks of “an acid odor of sweat, dirty feet, fear.” But even in a book that straightly faces entrenched poverty, rage, sexism, and power, there are the enlivening things of life: Ferrante is funny and true when she writes of a schoolgirl’s crush and a child’s reasoning for the ways of the world, of how a bored adolescent creates ways to feel passionate about something, and the way friends play a game of revealing and obscuring themselves from one another.
But in the end, there is a burning violence beneath Ferrante’s language. It becomes difficult to distinguish creation from deformation. What is the difference between existence and erasure, between appearance and disappearance? How do you create a self, and how are you created — or consumed — by others? An ensemble cast, listed in an index in the beginning of the book, carries these fraught questions, each character in a uniquely pivotal way. But it is our transcendent leads that embody them. While Elena is away on a rare visit to the sea when the girls are fifteen, Lila writes to her of “feeling all the evil in the neighborhood around her … the good tasted of the bad and the bad tasted of the good.” And then she tells Elena of a copper pot that exploded strangely, with no reason, while she wearily washed dishes after a dinner with her family and her toxic suitor. Her mother hears the noise and rushes in, blaming her for ruining the pot by dropping it. But there is no explanation for how a dropped pot could be so misshapen, and where the hole came from.