Elena Ferrante’s four volume series Neapolitan Novels (of which this is the first) has been touted pretty much everywhere and lauded by pretty much everyone – both by professional critics and (rather more importantly) by trusted fellow-readers: everyone on my Goodreads friends list who has read My Brilliant Friend has given it at least four stars, and (almost) everyone else has it on their to-read list.
In spite of those overwhelming recommendations, I was very hesitant to pick it up myself, precisely because of the reasons it was universally lauded for, namely the realism of its depiction of life in postwar Naples and the authenticity of the narrative voice. Both of those concepts I consider highly problematical (which won’t come as a surprise for any regular reader of this blog): modernism has taught us that simple representational realism simply does not work how it is supposed to (cf. Brecht’s saying that “less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality. A photo of the Krupp factory or the AEG tells us almost nothing about these institutions.”) and one of the things to take away from postmodernism is the lesson that authenticity is a literary effect, achieved by literary means like any other, and thus always and inevitably deeply inauthentic.
As in previous cases, it was Leander reading it and posting about it on her blog which got me to change my mind, or at least weakened my resistance sufficiently to give My Brilliant Friend a try.As it turned out, the book was nowhere near the kind of naive confessional writing I was afraid it might be, and instead does not pretend to any immediacy, but, while not exactly pushing the borders of the novel form, is well aware of being literature and constantly reflects on its status a work of language and as fiction. This is established right from the beginning: My Brilliant Friend starts with a frame narrative which does several things: it sets a very concrete situation in which the following novel (and, indeed, novels – we will catch up with this initial narrative only in the fourth volume of the series) is being written, thus making the writing itself a subject and reminding readers that the events described are seen from a certain perspective, the perspective of someone who may not always be reliable and who as her own motives of writing what she does in the way she does.
The frame narrative also introduces what will gradually reveal itself as one of the central themes of the Neapolitan Novels: the conflicting desires of Elena / Lena and Raffaela / Lila – the former tries to conserve herself and the world around her, fix them, define them, while the latter attempts to erase both herself and the order of things, make things fluid, indeterminate, ever-changing. It will be no surprise then that it is Lena who narrates the story, and that the goal of her narration is to catch in writing what constitutes the essence of the enigmatic Lila – something which – as really becomes clear quite early on – she can in the end only fail to do, despite all her efforts at describing, defining her, Lila continues to elude Lena’s authorial grasp.
The novel proper then starts out with describing the childhood of the narrator and her friend in Naples during the fifties.This is the period where the two are closest, and while they both come from lower-class families and there is a thin but quite visible thread of poverty and violence running along in the background, overall it seems a time of happiness for both of them. But even that happiness is not quite unadulterated, as becomes most clear in an almost emblematic scene where the two girls try to leave the quarter of the city they live in, resulting in a very intense passage where they wander through a street tunnel and then re-emerge in the light of unfamiliar, frightening surroundings: their bliss, this seems to say, is owed mostly to ignorance of the wider world outside the charmed and familiar circle of their childhood.
That ignorance starts to fade in the novel’s second part, concerning itself with the girls’ adolescence – the world surrounding the girls takes on more distinct features, and more often than not they are threatening. Also, they begin to grow apart, Lila becoming the “brilliant friend” of the title, with Lena never quite able to catch up with her, no matter how much effort she puts into it. As the reader already knows from the framing narrative, this marks the essential trait of Lila and Lena’s friendship and will not really change even when they have both grown old – it is, in fact, the driving force behind Lena’s narrative which forms this novel.
This second part also brings into sharp focus what will be the central theme for the whole series of novels (and of which I’ll write some more a propos the second novel), namely what it means to be a woman in Italy during the second half of the twentieth century. In retrospect, after having read all four novels, I have to say that My Brilliant Friend really offers only a glimpse of what the series is about, and definitely should not be considered stand-alone but as the first part of a longer work whose promise it foreshadows but does not quite fulfill yet.