My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels, Book One). Elena Ferrante.

Ferrante, Elena. My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels, Book One. See also Books 2, 3 and 4). Edizioni, 2011 in Italian as L’amica genial. Europa Editions, 2012 in English, translation by Ann Goldstein. Kindle Location 96. F; 3/16.

They taught us in post-structuralist 1960s English lit that it’s about the work of art, not the author, and I still tend to see things that way. The experience! (we raise up our hands and look into the middle distance…)  This book (the first of four I’ve read and plan to review) is a massive exciting thing, but in spite of my education it’s hard not to wonder who this Italian lady, writing under a nom de plume, is. Not what’s her real name or where does she live, but what is she doing? I’ll do my best to describe these complicated and thrilling four books, but just for openers everywhere and always there is a gripping mix of stark human emotion and Real Housewives soap opera or TV series, but presented without apology as real, but also as dirty, in the colloquial sexy sense. Racy and fast-moving. That’s pretty compelling just by itself.

But while enjoying (and I enjoyed) that momentum I started to sense moral foreboding and danger. Part of this is inseparable from the swing-ass plot packaging, but part of it is the honest feeling that explodes out of this writer’s imagination, and that part is also accessible without much critical effort.

Then a bit more deeply embedded, what you might call Major Themes jump up like collateral scare-props, almost with bright labels attached, so I felt ever off guard riding the plot’s dark madhouse rollercoaster. Hey, there’s that (not-unusual artistic or literary theme), I see en passent!  Ah… but why is it, like the characters’ emotions, so stark and…obvious? Is the author so preoccupied with the emotion of writing that she doesn’t bother to make subtle these academic-literary ideas? Or is she tossing them at me with an ironic smile: go ahead little man. Imagine you’re in a grad-school seminar, but you’ll notice it’s the middle of the night, the wind is howling and the building feels like it might collapse. So don’t get all comfortable and smug. These themes include writing, friendship, worldly and academic achievement, tradition, money, politics and social class. But also ambivalence and lies, deceit, cruelty, poverty, grief, crime, conspiracy, violence and a dark and frightening existential void. Plus a determined feminism holding on for dear life in a hurricane of romantic love and sex. Quite a ride.

Old literary-charm favourites of mine like Nabokov, Cunningham, Wallace, and Nadas gesture toward many of these same themes, but they half-hide them artfully so I have to reflect, if I’m so inclined, to try to separate the ideas from the smooth and charming flow of the story. Here the ideas have no beguiling clothing. They appear as big as life and as real and jarring as the amazing stuff going on in the plot.

The four Neapolitan novels span Elena Greco’s life from childhood to old age. This Book One starts with her as a schoolgirl and ends in her late adolescence, with Lila, her sixteen-year-old contemporary, already launched into marriage and business.

Lila Cerullo is Elena’s Gatsby and our central metaphor. Best friend, worst enemy, arch-enigma always three steps ahead and five behind, protective, viciously hurtful, gorgeous, haggard, rich and poor and finally, we know from the start, just mysteriously gone, a bit like the mother in Troubling Love. It’s left to her genius to confront the huge obscure evil or existential void that Elena senses, although Elena understands that enduring Lila’s apparent treachery is the price she pays for never having to face all that herself.

The girls’ childhood in the rough Neapolitan neighbourhood resurrected for me the wonder and fear of being seven or eight. Their relationship deepened against the mundane and predictable realities of childhood competition and early adolescent romances. Elena developed as a female first, but then ugly duckling Lila was suddenly slimmer and more classically gorgeous, eclipsing her friend’s appeal and marrying a wealthy merchant at the age of 16:

They displayed kindness and politeness toward everyone, as if they were John and Jacqueline Kennedy visiting a neighborhood of indigents. When they went out walking together, and he put an arm around her shoulders, it seemed that none of the old rules were valid for them: they laughed, they joked, they embraced, they kissed each other on the lips. I saw them speeding around in the convertible, alone even in the evening, always dressed like movie stars…

Writing remains a theme through everything, and Lila, who drops out of school, is a natural and in Elena’s eyes surpasses her here too:

Lila … expressed herself in sentences that were well constructed, and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but— further— she left no trace of effort, you weren’t aware of the artifice of the written word.

Lila’s literary skill extends to fiction. She produces a childish but beautiful story The Blue Fairy, which Elena treasures. But in the face of all Lila’s gifts and success, she has terrifying visions of the world and the people in it dissolving, which deeply disturb her.

Through this story of childhood and adolescence Ferrante introduces her (to me, a not-particularly-critical bystander and sometimes victim of current feminism) unique take on the subject which is founded in the sexually realistic world of the neighbourhood. Men exposing themselves to twelve-year-olds is as traumatic to the little girls as walking past the corner store. At Lila’s big wedding, Elena feels the pressure of any unattached single girl to present a credible appearance. What emerges as Ferrante’s feminism is nothing like aggressive anti-male politics or womens-studies theorizing, but a direct, self-respecting and sincerely felt exposition of being a woman as if it were, as of course it is, the most natural thing in the world.

The book ends abruptly with unanswered questions. Why does Lila disappear? What’s going to happen between the competitive warring commercial factions in the neighbourhood? How deep is the criminal involvement of the Solara family? Where will the girls’ lives and friendships go next?

I wanted more, and knowing there was a Book Two and beyond, I didn’t mind at all submitting to the authority of this hidden author’s emotion and great writing, and reading on to find out what’s next. 9.4/9.2.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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