I’m finding the twenty-first century such an exciting time to be a reader. What with Harper Lee’s newly ‘discovered’ long-long manuscript and the explosive popularity of the anonymous author writing under the name of Elena Ferrante, it feels like all of the mystique of the novel-writing tradition is alive and well. When I used to teach ‘Jane Eyre’, the class would often come unstuck as we tried to understand what it would have been like to have read an anonymous best-seller. It seemed inconceivable that a book could achieve such fame when even the gender of the author was a mystery. It’s wonderful to realise that all of the technology and social media in the world cannot diminish the thrill of a good old back-to-basics ‘who-wrote-it’ mystery.
Basically, what I’m saying is that I love the idea of Elena Ferrante. For a long time I was willing to leave it at that. I didn’t really want to read her novels you understand, I just wanted her to go on writing them and confounding the modern world of surveillance and on-the-spot information. I’ve succumbed though. If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s wall to wall advertising and Ferrante has been dominating the display cases in my local bookshops for months now. It was with genuine reluctance that I let go of the myth of the writer and decided to actually engage with the reality of the first volume of her Neapolitan novels. It felt rather greedy to want the book to be as enjoyable as its background story.
‘My Brilliant Friend’ begins with the disappearance of Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo. The narrator appears less than impressed; when Raffaella’s son phones to tell her, we’re told:
‘I let him act out his desperation, sobs that began fake and became real. When he had stopped I said:
“Please, for once behave as she would like: don’t look for her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just what I said. It’s pointless. Learn to stand on your own two feet and don’t call me again, either.”
I hung up.’
Elena Greco comes off as fantastically unsympathetic in the above exchange; she’s suspicious, unsentimental and fiercely independent in a way which we rarely associate with female narrators. Either that, or she is so hurt and damaged herself she cannot bear to engage with others’ pain. Given that the title of the novel is about relationships and friendships the instruction to ‘learn to stand on your own two feet‘ seems ominous and incongruous. I’d only read the first page and I was already starting to understand the hype.
As the novel progresses, we learn more about the relationship between Elena and Lila. It’s an uneven friendship to say the least. For English language counterparts it reminded me in parts of the power dynamics in Atwood’s wonderful ‘Cat’s Eye’. Other elements of the relationship made me think of Catherine O’Flynn’s excellent début ‘What Was Lost’. Ferrante’s novel explores a deep and long-lasting female relationship that seems free from all of the usual clichées. While the two girls are close, they do not share every thought. Also, their relationship is based on mutual advantage as much as anything else; both girls are frequently remarkably hard-hearted when making use of the other. On the other hand, they are also firmly bound together and romantic jealousy plays little, if any role, in their conflicts. Their relationship is powerful, uneasy and impressively complex, during one break Elena tries to create a life without Lila’s presence:
‘I became very friendly with Carmela Peluso, who, although she laughed too much and then complained too much, had absorbed Lila’s influence so potently that she became at times a kind of surrogate. In speech Carmela imitated her tone of voice, used some of her recurring expressions, gesticulated in a similar way, and when she walked tried to move like her … that sort of misappropriation partly repulsed and partly attracted me. I wavered between irritation at a remake that seemed a caricature and fascination because, even diluted, Lila’s habits still enchanted me.’
If female friendship forms one key thread within the novel, another is violence. Looking at my bookmarks and notes, I’d say roughly half refer to the personal intricacies of Elena and Lila’s friendship while the other half point to moments of public macho antagonism. At one point Elena is invited to go for a drive with two brothers: ‘I said no because if my father found out that I had one in that car … he would have beat me to death, while, at the same time my little brothers … would feel obliged, now and in the future, to try to kill the Solara brothers. There were no written rules, everyone knew that was how it was.’ The legacy and the reality of a brutal lifestyle and culture are evident at every stage in the story. I haven’t yet read the later novels in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, but I am anticipating further exploration of the city’s past and how this created such a violent present for all of the characters.
Given the harshness of her childhood and the complex dance of attraction and repulsion that makes up her most significant friendship, maybe it’s not surprising that Elena is so blunt with Lila’s son. The novel which follows is an exploration of her own past as well as a slow reveal of her friend’s. Without being nostalgic, the book is consumed with history, tantalisingly hinting that the present will become comprehensible if the past is fully understood. Like the best first-person narrators, Elena investigates her own story as she tells it, providing exposition and retrospective commentary on her own memories. As I should have expected from Ferrante though, a lot of it is just a tease. ‘My Brilliant Friend’ stops in medias res. Much like a Victorian multi-volume novel, the suggestion is that the sequel, ‘The Story of a New Name’, will pick up seamlessly where the first volume left off. This is not a book to read if you like your novels tidy and rounded off, but it’s an excellent place to start if you want to get to know one of the most mysterious novelists writing today.