“A Continuous Game of Exchanges and Reversals”: Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

my-brilliant-friend-ferranteElena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first in her trilogy of ‘Neapolitan novels,’ tells of the childhood and adolescence of two friends, Elena and Lila, living in a rough edge of Naples in the 1950s. This is not the familiar Brit. Lit. Italy of balmy escapism or emotional liberation. “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood,” Elena reports:

it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall ever having thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us. . . . The women fought among themselves even more than the men, they pulled each other’s hair, they hurt each other. To cause pain was a disease. As a child I imagined tiny, almost invisible animals that arrived in the neighborhood at night, they came from the ponds, from the abandoned train cars beyond the embankment, from the stinking grasses called fetienti, from the frogs, the salamanders, the flies, the rocks, the dust, and entered the water and the food and the air, making our mothers, our grandmothers as angry as starving dogs. They were more severely infected than the men, because while 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.

 As the girls grow older, they gradually learn more about the histories — both personal and political — behind these daily hostilities. One of the big questions of the novel (though Elena doesn’t articulate it clearly for herself until near the end) is how, or even whether, it is possible to move beyond the intricate web of hatreds, obligations, and loyalties that entangle all the families in the neighborhood. What else is there? Where else is there to go? In an early escapade that comes to seem symbolic, Lila convinces Elena “to skip school, and cross the boundaries of the neighborhood.” “What was . . . beyond its well-known perimeter?” Elena wonders, as she lies awake the night before. They head out through the “shadowy light” of a tunnel, and Elena feels “joyfully open to the unknown.” But as they walk and walk down the road that they believe leads to the sea — past the “small snotty children” and the “fat man in an undershirt who … showed us his penis” — the adventure becomes tiring; they get hungry and thirsty, and then a thunder storm moves in, and they end up running, “blinded by the rain,” soaked, frightened, back towards home, where anger and beatings await.

For most of My Brilliant Friend it seemed obvious that the title referred to Lila. But near the end, it’s Lila who turns to Elena and says, “you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.” It’s an important moment, because up to that point we have been given little idea what Lila thinks of Elena or why, from her perspective, they have been friends for so long. Naturally enough, given the novel’s point of view, we know a lot more about what Elena thinks about Lila, who is part muse, part rival, part antagonist. Yet Lila herself seemed oddly opaque to me: I couldn’t really understand her or her motivations, and I can’t tell if this is a problem with the novel or one of the points of the novel (the result, for instance, of Elena’s limitations, perhaps of her inability to see Lila except in relation to herself).

Throughout the novel there is a constant push and pull between the two friends, at least in Elena’s mind. Her incessant measurement of herself against Lila motivates her and shapes her response to her own life; even as they take different paths, it seems to her that they are playing some kind of zero-sum game, as if she can only flourish if Lila falters:

I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences. In that period it became a daily exercise: the better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighborhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become. It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other; even our physical aspect, it seemed to me, shared in that swing. In Ischia I had felt beautiful . . . But Lila now had retaken the upper hand, satisfaction had magnified her beauty, while I, overwhelmed by schoolwork, exhausted by my frustrated love for Nino, was growing ugly again.

“What I lacked she had, and vice versa,” Elena reflects, “in a continuous game of exchanges and reversals that, now happily, now painfully, made us indispensable to each other.” Close as they are, the distance between them widens as they mature. Though as a child Lila excels at school, seemingly without effort, her family circumstances and her own aspirations turn her away from her education, and it’s her physical beauty (which has always set her apart) that makes her exceptional: “When you saw her, she gave off a glow that seemed a violent slap in the face of the poverty of the neighborhood.” Elena, in contrast, persists with her studies, even continuing to the high school in Naples. Lila dedicates herself to the family business and eventually becomes engaged to someone who can finance her ambition to transform it from a simple cobbler’s shop to a  high-end artisanal footwear company. Elena dreams of being a writer — and, as always, holds herself up against Lila and feels inadequate:

she would start talking about . . . shoes, shoe factory, money, and I would slowly feel that the novels I read were pointless and that my life was bleak, along with the future, and what I would become: a fat pimply salesclerk in the stationery store across from the parish church, an old maid employee of the local government, sooner or later cross-eyed and lame.

Perhaps their two different paths both lead away not just from the poverty of their neighborhood and the brutality of their immediate families, but from the past that surrounds them all. After Lila’s engagement, Elena wonders at the way she and her fiancé decide to “rise . . . above the logic of the neighborhood”:

They were behaving in a way that wasn’t familiar even in the poems I studied in school, in the novels I read. I was puzzled. They weren’t reacting to the insults . . . They displayed kindness and politeness toward everyone, as if they were John and Jacqueline Kennedy visiting a neighborhood of indigents. . . . Was this her latest invention? Did she want to leave the neighborhood by staying in the neighborhood? Did she want to drag us out of ourselves, tear off the old skin and put on a new one, suitable for what she was inventing?

But Lila’s path is not an escape route after all: though she marries well, as the novel ends Elena looks at her brilliant friend and sees that Lila is, in fact, trapped:

As a child I had looked to her, to her progress, to learn how to escape my mother. I had been mistaken. Lila had remained there, chained in a glaring way to that world, from which she imagined she had taken the best. And the best was that young man, that marriage, that celebration, the game of shoes for Rino and her father. . . . I should take note, I thought: not even Lila, in spite of everything, has managed to escape from my mother’s world.

But “I have to,” Elena realizes; “I can’t be acquiescent any longer.” If she wants a different life she has to embrace her own alienation from those she has grown up with. She sees how — through her education, through her writing — but even as she grasps at the possibility, it seems to elude her. Years before her teacher, Maestra Oliviero, pressed Elena to be ambitious for herself: “Do you know what the plebs are,” asks Maestro Oliviero;

“The plebs are quite a nasty thing.”

“Yes.”

“And if one wishes to remain a plebeian, he, his children, the children of his children deserve nothing. Forget [Lila] Cerullo and think of yourself.”

There at Lila’s wedding, she tries to do just that, but she meets instead with a disappointment that seems to her a sign that she has no higher destiny:

At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer.

Elena is left feeling that her best is not good enough — that “studying was useless.” But though My Brilliant Friend ends on this dispiriting note, we know from the Prologue, which takes place many years later, that Elena does move on, while Lila “had never left Naples in her life.” And we also know that though, in their ongoing “game of exchanges and reversals,” it was Lila who was the better writer (or so Elena thought), the novel itself stands as Elena’s ultimate triumph: angry at her friend’s latest trick, “I turned on the computer and began to write — all the details of our story, everything that still remained in our memory.” What we don’t know is how she got away — these details of the story are presumably told in the sequel.

I found My Brilliant Friend very interesting, and yet I can’t decide how high a priority it is for me to read on in the series. As I tried to write about the novel, it seemed richer and more complicated in some ways than it had while I read it, yet I didn’t find myself emotionally gripped by it and I’m curious but not anxious to know what happens next. One issue was, as mentioned, Lila’s opacity, though the one thing we do know about her experience of the world — her occasional bouts of “dissolving boundaries” — made her less, rather than more, understandable to me. I also (and this may just be a failure of my reading, of course) had persistent trouble telling the other characters apart, especially the boys (eventually, the young men). Even when I looked them up in the Index of Characters, I could not summon up more than a perfunctory recollection of what was notable about them (except the thug-like Solara brothers). Is this, again, perhaps a feature rather than a failure of Ferrante’s characterization? Is the tendency of their lives to suppress their individuality? By the final chapter, I had Nino and Stefano straight, at least. On the plus side, there’s a wonderful particularity to Ferrante’s descriptions, and though words like “evocative” and “atmospheric” seem like reviewers’ clichés nowadays, they do seem apt for the way she conveys the sights and sounds of Lila and Elena’s gritty, turbulent environment. As a story of female friendship, My Brilliant Friend is perhaps also notable for its unsentimentality and the room it makes for jealousy (but not, refreshingly, romantic rivalry), anger, and ambition.

I know Liz has read My Brilliant Friend, because she very kindly sent me her copy: I’m eager to hear her thoughts about my mixed reaction, and also to hear from anyone else who has read this or any other of Ferrante’s novels. She’s getting a great deal of attention (e.g. here, here, here – I have not read these closely yet, as I have been trying to sort out some of my own thoughts first, and also fear spoilers about the second book, but I notice James Wood calls My Brilliant Friend “a large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman,” at least one word of which takes me by surprise).

7 Comments to “A Continuous Game of Exchanges and Reversals”: Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

  1. RT's Gravatar RT
    February 13, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    The copy-editor in me regrets to suggest that you meant to write “than” rather than “that” in this: “more complicated in some ways that it had while I read it.” Perhaps my annoying tendency to correct comes from too many semesters as English Composition teacher.

    BTW, your review is excellent. However, I think I would not enjoy _My Brilliant Friend_.

  2. RT's Gravatar RT
    February 13, 2014 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Feel free to delete my comment and your reply. It will be our editorial secret.

  3. February 13, 2014 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Since I bought the second book, I hope I eventually read it–and I’ll send it on if you like!

    I didn’t try to grapple with this as thorougly as you did, but my response was similar. I can’t really imagine how someone could describe it as “amiably peopled.” Everyone in this book is kind of awful, at least at some points, but their awfulness is often understandable, and one reason I found it hard to read is that it’s often the kind of awfulness I was forced to identify with (why yes, I have envied female friends, competed with them). It reminded me of Atwood in some ways–Ferrante’s frankness about how awful girls and women can be too each other, even when they love each other (friends, mothers and daughters).

    I also really liked (?? admired, anyway) the representation of childhood; I thought the first section gave a really good sense of how frightening the world can be to children, how strange their understanding of what is going on around them (this also reminded me of Atwood’s CAT’S EYE, and of some Dickens, or the beginning of JANE EYRE). I think it’s unusual to see childhood represented so unsentimentally.

    I was interested by Elena’s growing understanding and self-awareness. I had trouble distinguishing a lot of the characters too (and I agree Lila is pretty opaque), but I began to wonder how much of that had to do with the narrative perspective; so much of the novel is caught in (pre)teenage solipsism and self-absorption. It may end in Lila’s wedding, but they are still only 15 or 16. So I am curious to see if/how the perspective opens out in the next volume, as it did in this one with Elena’s growing political/historical understanding. And I was really struck by the way their culture (right down to the neighborhood) shaped their choices and who they are, how trapped and limited they are. Even Elena’s educational attainments–how much true understanding of anything or ability to think has she gained so far? My attention did wander sometimes as I read this, and it’s not my usual kind of thing, but there were some amazing scenes that really stuck with me and made it worthwhile.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      February 14, 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      That’s a good point about childhood: now that you’ve said it, I can see the Jane Eyre connections especially. The question about narrative perspective — that is, how much it accounts for limits in what we see — I guess can be answered only by reading more. As she is explicitly writing back from adulthood, there could have been more done to integrate an “as I see things now” perspective (Pip-like, speaking of Dickens!) but it does stay pretty much all in the moment, as far as I recall.

  4. February 20, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Fascinating review. I have this one sitting on my TBR shelf but haven’t picked it up yet. I suspect I’m a bit hesitant over the size; knowing that it’s really three volumes won’t help, I’m afraid. But you have me thinking that reading it will be worth the effort. I’m reminded of “The Best of Youth” which is about two brothers covering the same time period more-or-less. If you have not seen it you really should. It’s only six episodes and it’s wonderful.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      February 20, 2014 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      I haven’t seen that – or even heard of it! – so thank you for the suggestion. I do think it’s worth the effort, though I realize this post is not a rave review. Unlike a couple of other books I’ve read recently (and haven’t felt motivated to blog about), My Brilliant Friend seemed significant, as if it was really grappling with things that matter. If it didn’t work 100% for me, it’s still more interesting than most books. I happened to find the sequel at the library last week so that settled my inner debate about whether to read on: might as well!

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