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Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend — Discovering the sociability, the congeniality of NAPLES

Date: Jun 8 2015

In this excerpt from Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, the first book of the four Neapolitan novels, the 12 year old Elena spends the day with her father. She has qualified for high school and he wants to be sure she knows how to navigate the city to get to her new school. Her neighbourhood has been her entire world up to this point, a place described as violent—feuds and recriminations, domestic violence. This is her father's day to day world, he's a porter at city hall. She observes in him traits of habit and character that he never displayed at home or in the neighbourhood. And through observing her father she experiences a very different world, a world of civility, courtesy, congeniality. She witnesses and documents what Jane Jacobs said were the "sidewalk contacts [that] are the small change from which a city's wealth of public life may grow." To my reading Ferrante's account through the eyes of her 12 year old protagonist rivals Jane Jacobs' description of the "sidewalk ballet" of her New York Hudson Street neighbourhood.

"The boundaries of the neighbourhood faded in the course of that summer. One morning my father took me with him. Since I was enrolling in high school, he wanted me to know what public transportation I would have to take and what route when I went in October to the new school.
It was a beautiful, very clear, windy day. I felt loved, coddled, to my affection for him was added a crescendo of admiration. He knew the enormous expanse of the city intimately, he knew where to get the metro or a tram or a bus. Outside he behaved with a sociability a relaxed courtesy, that at home he almost never had.
He was friendly toward everyone, on the metro and the buses, in the offices, and he always managed to let his interlocutor know that he worked for the city and that, if he liked, he could speed up practical matters, open doors.

We spent the whole day together, the only one in our lives. I don’t remember any others. He dedicated himself to me, as if he wanted to communicate to me in a few hours everything useful he had learned in the course of his existence. He showed me Piazza Garibaldi and the station that was being built: according to him it was so modern that the Japanese were coming from Japan to study it—in particular the columns—and build an identical one in their country. But he confessed that he liked the old station better, he was more attached to it. Ah well, Naples, he said had always been like that: it’s cut down, it’s broken up, and then it’s rebuilt, and the money flows and creates work.

He took me along Corso Garibaldi, to the building that would be my school. He dealt in the office with extreme good humour, he had the gift of congeniality, a gift that in the neighbourhood and at home he kept hidden. He boasted of my extraordinary report card to a janitor whose wedding witness, he discovered on the spot, he knew well. I heard him repeating often: everything in order? Or: everything that can be done is being done. He showed me Piazza Carlo III, the Albergo dei Poveri, the botanical garden, Via Foria, the museum. He took me on Via Constantinopoli, to Port’Alba, to Piazza Dante, to Via Toledo. I was overwhelmed by the names, the noise of the traffic, the voices, the colours, the festive atmosphere, the effort of keeping everything in mind so I could talk about it later with Lila, the ease with which he chatted with the pizza maker from whom he bought me a pizza melting with ricotta, the fruit seller from whom he bought me a yellow peach. Was it possible that only our neighbourhood was filled with conflicts and violence, while the rest of the city was radiant, benevolent?

He took me to see the place where he worked, in Plaza Municipio. There, too, he said, everything had changed, the trees had been cut down, everything was broken up: now see all the space, the only old thing left is the Maschio Angioino, but it’s beautiful, little one, there are two real males in Naples, your father and that fellow there. We went to the city hall, he greeted that person and that, everyone knew him. With some he was friendly, and introduced me, repeating yet again that in school I had gotten nine in Italian and nine in Latin; with others he was almost mute, only, indeed, yes, you command and I obey."

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