My Brilliant Friend: Merve, June 25: "My Brilliant Friend is the portrait of the artist as not one, but two young women; a portrait limned by the convergences of language and the divergences of class."
Date: Jun 25 2015
Dear Sarah, Jill, and Katherine,
Burn (n.): A manifestation of anger or frustration; usu. in phr. "slow burn," a display of slowly mounting anger; the act or state of gradually becoming enraged. —Oxford English Dictionary 
As a child, I was often told not to do things out of anger. Don't speak in anger. Don't let your anger get the best of you. Whatever you do, don't go to bed angry, and if you do, in your anger, do not sin. None of this was particularly meaningful to someone with my temperament: someone for whom anger was both impossible to suppress and acutely motivating. I liked doing things out of anger and I did things well when I was angry.
I tell you this not in a spirit of confession, but so that you may understand why I am drawn to the frame narrative that introduces My Brilliant Friend: Lila's sudden and silent disappearance from her home in Naples provokes in Lenù neither worry nor anxiety, but hostility tinged with a desire for revenge. "She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life she had left behind," Lenù observes. She continues: "I was really angry. We'll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write—all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory" (23). We are meant to believe that the novel we hold in our hands is the product of Lenù's swift recourse to writing; a move that counters Lila's wordless abandonment of her life with the simmering of narrative prose. If Lila has sought to eliminate her entire life, Lenù's payback will be to restore it in its every last, painstaking detail.
What does it mean to write angrily? For me, the production of the novel's slow burn is just one endpoint in a long history of anger—not just Lenù's particular anger towards Lila, but the widespread poverty and dispossession that made "our mothers, our grandmothers as angry as starving dogs." That this anger lodges itself differently in women that in men is, for Lenù, the natural order of things. Whereas the "men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end" (38). Anger is a never-ending infection; violence a disease that draws women together only to pull them apart as they scheme, scream, punch, pull hair, and draw blood.
Yet through her avowedly flat, anti-nostalgic relation of her childhood, Lenù seems to insist that we consider her productive anger as a distinct structure of feeling altogether. More reflective in its consideration of the past, and less childishly presentist than the anger of all those other women who lash out at one another blindly, Lenù's anger has been tamed by some force external to its point of origin. It is anger shaped into a very particular generic form; an anger taught to control its tone, to pace itself across more than 1,000 pages, to look back and assess its growth and development over nearly half a century.
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that a distinctlyfe literary education is what sets Lenù's anger with Lila apart from the novel's other female pairs. After all, who can bother to distinguish Melina from Lidia, Carmela from Gigliola, in Naples's never-ending "chain of wrongs that generated wrongs?" (83) Whereas the other women ud pointlessly over men—crude and stupid men, without exception—Lila and Lenù's friendship begins by staking out the classroom as their battlefield, "challenging each other, without ever saying a word" (28). "Lila appeared in my life in first grade and immediately impressed me because she was very bad," recalls Lenù, in what is without a doubt one of my favorite sentences of all time (31). (I can only hope that one day my impish child will be sent home with a report card containing this very sentence.) Lila is very bad, but she is also very brilliant; a relentless and greedy autodidact who has taught herself to read from the dusty newspapers her father and brother use to wrap shoes in the Cerullo family's workshop. "The fact was this: Lila knew how to read and write, and what I remember of that gray morning when the teacher revealed it to us was, above all, the sense of weakness the news left me with," Lenù observes. And Lila exploits that sense of vulnerability mercilessly, leaving no room for kindness. She thinks as violently as others fight.
"Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite. And there was nothing in her appearance that acted as a corrective. She was disheveled, dirty, on her knees and elbows she always had scabs from cuts and scrapes that never had time to heal. Her large, bright eyes could become cracks behind which, before every brilliant response there was a gaze that appeared not very childlike and perhaps not even human. Every one of her movements said that to harm her would be pointless because, whatever happened, she would find a way of doing worse to you. (48)"
Lila's bright, slitted eyes are her weapon of choice in the girls' games of literary one-upmanship, which are both delightful to behold and terribly disheartening. Delightful because Lenù's memories of learning to read, and even of learning to read in fierce competition with another person, can turn hushed and reverent—a brief respite from the anger and violence of the home, the school, the streets. When the girls buy a yellowed copy of Little Women, they sneak off to the church courtyard "to read it, either silently, one next to the other or aloud." They read it so many times that the book becomes "tattered and sweat-stained," loses its spine, comes unthreaded, falls apart. "It was our book, we loved it dearly," Lenù writes of her and Lila's conversion to literary worship under the auspices of Meg, Beth, and Amy, but especially Jo March, everyone's favorite bookworm turned successful author (68).
The appreciation and manipulation of literary language thus emerges as a magnetic bond, one that Lenù believes sets the girls and their friendship apart from the anger of Naples as they grow older. Unlike the literal-minded Carmela, the moony Gigliola, or any of their bitter, feuding family members, Lila and Lenù alone possess "the capacity that together—only together—we had to seize the mass of colors, sounds, things, and people, and express it and give it power." This too is a competitive process, but one that yields a shared way of looking at the world. In a sentence that might double as a description of Ferrante's own breed of slow burn realism, Lenù observes, "More effectively than she had as a child, [Lila] took the facts and in an natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy." "But I also realized," she continues, "with pleasure, that as soon as she began to do this, I felt able to do the same, and I tried and it came easily. This—I thought contentedly—distinguishes me from Carmela and all the others" (130).
Yet disheartening because literary pleasure has its limits—it can't put food on the table or pay the rent. As such, it can never fully thwart the anger borne of deprivation. When Lila's father refuses to pay for her to continue her education, the girls channel their obsession with books into an obsession with wealth. "Things changed and we began to link school to wealth," Lenù observes. "We thought that if we studied hard we would be able to write books and that the books would make us rich." But even this stance of partial pleasure can't be sustained once the question of money looms. Whereas Lenù continues to harbor dreams of writing throughout middle school and high school, Lila devotes herself to the shoe business. In attempting to modernize her father's faltering repair shop against his wishes, she roars and rages, falling into a fury that knows no bounds and respects neither the bonds of friendship nor family—just money. "I felt grieved at the waste," Lenù laments, "because I was compelled to go away, because she preferred the adventure of the shoes to our conversation, because she knew how to be autonomous whereas I needed her" (132). Eventually, Lenù's grief transforms into an uneasy sense of self-superiority, secured by her access to the institutions of higher education that Lila can only yearn for. "I was with boys and girls who were studying Latin and Greek, and not like her, with construction workers, mechanics, cobblers, fruit and vegetable sellers, grocers, shoemakers" (163). Lenù's invocation of their original childhood competitions in her frame narrative—"We'll see who wins this time," she says as she begins to write the novel—may seem spiteful, but is in fact a return to a purer scene of literary togetherness.
I suppose I see all of this competitive to-and-fro less as a love story, as Jill does, and more as a twinned Kunstlerroman. My Brilliant Friend is the portrait of the artist as not one, but two young women; a portrait limned by the convergences of language and the divergences of class. It is precisely this intertwining that makes it difficult for me to take sides or even to perceive clearly what each side may represent. I suspect I'm not the only one who assumed, when I started reading, that the title My Brilliant Friend was Lenù's homage to Lila's brilliance. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be the other way around. ("You're my brilliant friend," Lila says to Lenù on the eve of her wedding, without a trace of anger. "You have to be the best of all, boys and girls" (312).) But really it is— and it always has been—both.