My Brilliant Friend: Jill, June 22: "In this novel, female friendship takes center stage, as a social relation equally mysterious, difficult, and precarious as the bonds we most often, most exclusively, attribute to romantic love.
Date: Jun 22 2015
Dear Katherine, Merve, and Sarah,
I don't like love stories, as a general principle. It's not that they are too precious. It's the death or marriage trajectory of the couple form that I find particularly depressing, though it must be said, I have a very cranky attitude towards marriage. Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend looks like a love story and is one, sort of. The novel has all the pieces of a coming-of-age romance: two female friends, difficult childhoods, education, a courtship, marriage, seemingly limitless social mobility, all against the shifting terrain of postwar Italy. But everything is somehow tilted at the wrong angle. Here the friend is not the natural given, off to the side. She is not that handy, lurking person with whom the future-bride, the Daisy or Estella or Emma, discusses the mysteries of her husband-to-be. In this novel, female friendship takes center stage, as a social relation equally mysterious, difficult, and precarious as the bonds we most often, most exclusively, attribute to romantic love.
Lila and Lenù grow up together. They grow out of each other, increasingly unable to name which behavior first belonged to whom. They are perpetually in competition, in an economy of two. In Lenù's words, "what I lacked she had, and vice versa, in a continuous game of exchanges and reversals that, now happily, now painfully, made us indispensable to each other." (259) In this social division of personality, L&L switch places within the familiar dyads: one is beautiful, one is smart; one is slutty, one is chaste. This divvying up of personality is a kind of balancing act, where the two girls exist at opposing poles. L&L are so perfectly matched, as though each girl were stepping into the negative left by the other. Then again, there is something fantastic, almost charmed, in the very real persistence of the categories so often imposed upon adolescent girls: smart or beautiful; slutty or chaste. I think of The Babysitter's Club: Claudia is artsy; Kristy practical; Dawn the hippie; Mary Anne the shy one. So normalized, at such an early age, is this bizarre suggestion that amongst friends, what makes you you has to bounce off everyone else, in a claustrophobic pool game of limited personalities. L&L's mutual resentment manifests itself in sometimes vengeful ways, but it is also a frustration about this social directive to be only one thing.
The novel doesn't start like that. Lenù has to catch Lila, keep up with her, literally tail her, as though she might get away. Lenù wants to be Lila, first, in a lived series of mimicked behaviors, but she also want to have Lila, to keep her, less out of possessiveness than survival. Over the years, this friendship is not a supplement to family or romantic love. It is almost an atmosphere, an intermediary between Lenù and everyone she knows, every place she knows, and all her imagined futures. There is antagonism here, even hatred, but it is all about maintaining the right balance to stay afloat, so that the other one doesn't drift too far out of reach. L&L drag each other down and then bandage the wounds. They are vicious, sabotaging other's chances for escape, then regretting it halfway through and changing course. All the while, the strange thing about Ferrante's prose is the way you sort of disappear into it, into Lenù's so often matter-of-fact narration. That confidential voice is so close to speech feels like realism—this happened, then this, then that. But, here and there, the couple form that is L&L goes blurry and the sentences stick together, in a cascading series of mutual entanglements: the intention behind this act; the regret at its consequence; the forgiveness for the intention; the resentment at the forgiveness; the guilt about the resentment, and on and on.
What is tricky is the way that, while these strings get tangled across the novel, there remains that symmetry of matched persons on the course of social mobility: Lenù goes to school and Lila marries rich. For Lenù, Lila's marriage is a catastrophe. If Lenù is only half of a person, and Lila cannot be had or kept, then someone else has to fill this gap. So Lenù embarks upon an increasingly desperate series of replacements. At the wedding, Lenù panics, in one of those cascading moments when the prose goes windy:
I felt an urgent need to be caught up again by Nino, I didn't want him to start talking to my classmate exactly the way, until a moment earlier, he had been talking to me. I needed—in order not to rush to make up with Antonio, to tell him, in tears: yes, you're right, I don't know what I am and what I really want I use you and then I throw you away, but it's not my fault, I feel half and half, forgive me—Nino to draw me exclusively into the things he knew, into his powers, to recognize me as like him (327)
Lenù wants to be caught up and pulled in, as though a satellite orbiting a larger planet. The syntax here is weird, so that whoever exists on the other end of Lenù's proposition gets confusing. Nino or Antonio? Does it matter? What's funny about this quotation is that it shifts the drama of the friendship into a more familiar arena—the drama of romantic love. This is a scene we can recognize, or rather, it allows the world to recognize Lenù. Because there isn't really a good language for friendship: best friend, work friend, friend of a friend, sex friend, ex-friend. To describe L&L, I am perpetually borrowing from another language that doesn't quite fit: seduction, eroticism, romance. But then the progression narrative is off, because, despite my hopes for a contrary denouement, L&L appear decidedly heterosexual. All the same, what I like about this bit, more than anything else, is the way that it entirely fails to tell a story of progress about feeling, as a child to adolescence coming-of-age where everything might fit together and make sense, leading towards the cumulative self that is the adult. For Lenù, settling on an account of how she came to be remains, at best, a compromise between this orbit or that one, depending on who she is trying to convince.
In retrospect, all of this has been rather Lenù-centric. She is my favorite, of course. I am not immune to the gravitational force of Lila, that dazzling, magnetic personality that seems to live more and better than everyone around her. But Lila makes me wary. One is, it seems, perpetually guarding their fingers and toes around the Lilas of the world. The way that I can just pluralize Lila's name, as a type of magical person, then makes me wonder: What is it, about this particular friendship, that makes you pick a side? That makes that choice a kind of categorization about you, the reader? What would the story be like were it told from the other end, from Lila's perspective?
Utterly different, I expect, because Lenù is hardly forthcoming. Lenù has a number of stories about herself and Lila that are more currency than truth. I think of that moment when Lila shuts herself up in her parent's house, threatening to cancel her wedding. In a series of hypotheticals typical for My Brilliant Friend, Lenù imagines what she would do in Lila's place, what Lila might be capable of doing, what she most wants Lila to do, and then convinces her best friend to do the opposite, what she thinks Lila wants to be convinced to do—to marry Stefano. Practical, the brilliant friend, Lenù uses the version of their story that will work, as a means to an end that someone else wants. By now we know that Lenù is a good talker. She is also a liar: "I reshuffled the cards that by now we knew well enough. I spoke of the before and the after, of the old generation and of ours, of how we were different, of how she and Stefano were different." (311)