Discover Italian Novelist Elena Ferrante with My Brilliant Friend
By Abigail Pollak
"Books, once they are written, have no need of their authors," declares the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, the most widely praised contemporary Italian writer you've never heard of. My Brilliant Friend, the first volume of a projected trilogy entitled Neapolitan Novels (The Story of a New Name was published last year; volume three is due this fall), is a densely textured chronicle of the complicated and fevered friendship between two gifted girls, born into the austerity and chaos of post-World War II Naples.
Set in an impoverished working-class neighborhood in the 1950s, the novel reverberates with the city's rough dialect, the din of the crowded dusty stradone, the violent quarrels between generations and among families helplessly enmeshed in never-ending cycles of brutality, rage, disperazione, and resignation. Into this turmoil come Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, who meet at the age of eight in the local elementary school. Bespectacled Elena is a city hall porter's daughter, a thoughtful cautious girl who likes school, works hard amid appalling domestic conditions, and dreams of being a real writer. Her best friend and nemesis, Lila Cerullo, is a wild child: brilliant, fearless, gimlet-eyed, sharp-tongued, deformed but not defeated by the violence and prejudice that rule her world. Both are exceptionally driven but whereas Elena's father allows her to continue to middle school, Lila is yanked from the classroom and put to work in her father's shoemaker's shop.
Mutually indispensable, yet implacably jealous of each other, the trapped and restless girls - both identify with Dido, the beautiful self-sacrificing Queen of Carthage - dream of books and boyfriends, of money and romance, of a way out. Lila, a frustrated artist with unusual talent and "an intelligence so dazzling as to sometimes appear as a kind of black magic or witchcraft," is prey to powerful repressed feelings ever on the verge of exploding. Elena, the would-be novelist, is in awe of her, her quickness of mind "like a hiss, a dark, a lethal bite." Most painful, however, is Elena's awareness that Lila is the better writer, that she can "speak through writing ... with no trace of effort, you weren't aware of the artifice of the written word. I read and I saw her, I heard her." As both girls struggle to escape the crush of a vicious patriarchy, their lives diverge and their friendship frays. Elena moves up to high school while Lila, voluptuous and dangerous, sinks into an abusive marriage with a rich grocer. Yet Elena still feels that "fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of [Lila's] life, mine lost intensity and importance."
Compressed and compelling, Ferrante's novel opens with a mystery: the disappearance of sixty-six-year-old Lila, which leaves her friend to parse the few residual clues. "She wanted to vanish," an exasperated Elena muses, "to eliminate the entire life she had left behind." Elena's voice is meticulous, elegant and analytical on the surface but pulsing with barely contained emotion. This is a tale of demonic invention, of madness and great love, of cruelty, rebellion, missing persons, and the terrible toll of both surrender and escape.