Violence and Ascendance in Elena Ferrante’s MY BRILLIANT FRIEND

Italian author Elena Ferrante has had quite the effect on the American literary community–with her Neapolitan quartet of novels starting with My Brilliant Friend especially. Much of the more recent response (My Brilliant Friend was published in English in 2012) is likely due to this New York Times article: “The Ferrante Effect: In Italy, Women Writers are Ascendant.” And then there are the spoofs, including this one in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency called, simply, “I am Elena Ferrante,” that confirm Ferrante (a pen name, her real identity a mystery) has captured the American imagination.

She has captured this American’s imagination, anyway. Selfishly, I love the idea of women writers being ascendant anywhere, especially in a patriarchal culture dominated by, well, men–in literature and at home, in the neighborhood, at church…

Not all women readers have been as impressed by Ferrante as I have been, albeit only one novel into the quartet. A quick scan of Goodreads reviews of My Brilliant Friend, which follows the childhood and adolescent friendship between Lila and Lenú–sometimes fond, sometimes rivaling, always close–set against the backdrop of a poor neighborhood in post-war Naples reveals some dissent. “Why are the kids always throwing stones at each other?” one confounded reader asks.

Having studied up a bit on Italy between the wars for my own writing, it’s the stone-throwing, writ large–over the girls’ neighborhood, over their city, and over their country–that is most interesting to me. Often it’s stone-throwing in lieu of seizing any real, lasting power. (No real spoilers in this post–if you’ve read the summary.)

Oddly, some of the moments that describe the history of violence in this place are more lyrical than the moments devoted to friendship:

So she gave concrete motives, ordinary faces to the air of abstract apprehension that as children we had breathed in the neighborhood. Fascism, Nazism, the war, the Allies, the monarchy, the republic–she turned them into streets, houses, faces…

Isn’t this act of turning formless fear into places and characters just what a good writer does? So too do Ferrante’s characters expose this strange place to us through the everyday, the neighborhood. Leaving one of the girls to believe the other “…enclosed me in a terrible world that left no escape.”

The domestic, the old hearth-and-home, offers no respite from the violence, but only offers a different kind of violence. The neighborhood in this novel produces rival gangs, even agents of the Camorra (Neapolitan Mafia). Even inside Lina and Lenú’s homes there is violence–between husbands and wives, parents and children, mothers and daughters. No one is safe; certainly no one is ascending anywhere.

Perhaps the most startling admission in the (at least somewhat autobiographical) novel:

I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.

How to rise above it all? How to escape the cycle of violence and poverty? This is Italy. So, God? No, Lenú ranks faith wholly inadequate to the task of pulling anyone out of her neighborhood, in a scathing derision of the Catholic Church–made all the more scathing as it’s delivered by a teenage girl:

[I] said that the human condition was so obviously exposed to the blind fury of chance that to trust in a God, a Jesus, the Holy Spirit–this last a completely superfluous entity, it was there only to make up a trinity, notoriously nobler than the mere binomial father-son–was the same thing as collecting trading cards while the city burns in the fires of hell.

Of course, this speech of Lenú is devastating–if also a bit humorous. We faithful, and we writers, alike, love a trinity, don’t we? But what a powerful image, those trading cards–reminiscent of the prayer and saint cards we Catholics receive at funerals and other ritualistic events. Were I to write about my own childhood and adolescence adhering to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church, there wouldn’t be much grasping at God. Rituals and ceremony, yes. What do I remember of my first communion in second grade? The white dress and veil I wore–the last veil I wore, not carrying on that particular tradition at my wedding, when I wore a tea-length dress to show off my legs.

If not God, where then can these adolescent girls, Lila and Lenú, turn to ascend from this violence they call home? Like all young people they dream of riches and fame–that would result, in their fantasies, from publishing a book “like Little Women…” But that dream fades as the girls’ intellectual and feminine powers grow. Lenú goes to high school, excels in languages, history, and even religion, mentored by a female teacher, a Communist distrusted by Lenú’s very-traditional mother. Lila turns her attention to a young man as savior. “He’s rich,” she says to her friend. “Also nice, also good.” Lenú considers those two adjectives as providing the “final blow to the shrine of childish fantasies.”

“Blow” such a telling action there–a violent end to a kind of shrine (a place of faith–even if fanciful). One chapter of life ends. The friends’ lives have diverged, a bit violently, one down the path of marriage and family, the other down the path of education:

Was it not true, then, that school was my personal wealth, now far from her influence?

Lenú weeps at this realization of the separation between the friends who have known each other, always.

This is a book that captures the violence of a time and place as it captures a female friendship, the portrayal of which–in my mind–makes these characters ascend (like their creator, Ferrante, a female writer in Italy) from their hurtful home. At least, I hope they do. There is more to come.

I can’t wait to see where Lina and Lenú go next.

Have you read any Elena Ferrante? Have you read My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the quartet? (No spoilers!) What did you think?

Have you known any of your current friends since early childhood? How have you traveled the same paths in life? How have your paths diverged?

Looking for a review? See my categories above for book reviews, author interviews, and more. And find me on Goodreads, where I try to at least rank what I’ve read. Let’s be friends there!

To Dream: 2020 Distractions and Intentions

Dreamy word cloud from my current novel-in-progress created at wordclouds.com

Remember daydreaming? That old creativity-inducing distraction? I do–if just barely.

Now, even our distractions are automated and customized and curated by an algorithm that seems to know what we should be daydreaming about before we can even get to it. What’s more, the rabbit holes we find ourselves distractedly falling down end not in a constructively weird place–but all too often in a place that might be weird but probably will cost us money. So, a destination that leaves us both distracted and poorer. Happy 2020! From a fun piece by Kathryn Schulz from 2015 in The New Yorker. She saw it coming:

How did “rabbit hole,” which started its figurative life as a conduit to a fantastical land [in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland], evolve into a metaphor for extreme distraction? One obvious culprit is the Internet, which has altered to an indescribable degree the ways that we distract ourselves.

Thank you for Internet-ing right here, this Monday morning, when there are so many rabbit holes clambering for us, desiring to drive us to distraction–to forget our intentions, our destinations, our worth, even ourselves.

Can I tell you I’ve been distracted?

While others have been setting down their 2020 resolutions, and even committing them to blog post (and, as such, according to the court of blog, making them treaties never to be broken!), I’ve been distracted. While others have been new-decade-to-do-ing and vision-boarding, I’ve been distracted.

Two weeks of 2020 in the crapper already, and I’ve made a word cloud. (See above.) Well, not me, but a website. OK, I plopped in the words–from my novel-in-progress–and out came a word cloud. I did pick the shape and the color scheme: blue.

Here’s another thing: I found a website, literature-map, that will show me (in an attractive visual-thesaurus web sort of way) which authors are most like my faves. A new-to-me fave:

If only I could pick the color scheme…

Hold up! You haven’t visited the visual thesaurus? Inconceivable! Here:

Which reminds me of The Princess Bride. What a movie. Inconceivable! Who was that actor? He’s still alive, right?

You see what I mean? This exercise in rabbit-holing isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with distractions, or daydreams, but that I might be better served by being a little more intentional. You know: dreaming with intention, design, volition, even, dare I say, a goal.

So, I’m goal-setting-lite, meaning with enough wiggle room for constructive rabbit holes and even breaks. (Like, “intention” comes from the Latin intentus, meaning “a stretching out,” also “a leaning toward, a strain.” I mean, that sounds like exercise, which is never supposed to be easy, right?)

I’m reading with intention–right now Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan quartet of novels by the highly-acclaimed Italian author–to inform my historical novel about an Italian family in WWII America. And I’m back over at Goodreads, where I’m going to try to keep better track of what I’ve read–outside of Rust Belt authors.

I’ve also been taking some lovely reading detours–having read over the last month a children’s book, a literary thriller, and a sci-fi screenplay–for friends and fellow bloggers who are highly-acclaimed in my eyes. And reading thinker-blogposts, like this one “On Breaks and Connections.” And next up on the ol’ TBR is a book of poetry–because poetry is the best kind of distraction.

Writing? OK, I didn’t use my Christmas break to gain great headway on my novel-in-progress (outside of the groovy word cloud)–what with Christmas and Christmas carols, cookies, and more cookies. However, I did get another chapter down. And then, in response to a call from a journal I admire, I wrote a thing–a creative nonfiction piece about Ordinary Time and ordinary time and making the everyday a holiday worth singing about and feasting over; and finding the blissfully mundane in a holiday. It’s a working rabbit hole, anyway. And the novel draft will be out of my brain and on paper, come June (wish me luck).

And editing. I wore that hat a lot over at Parhelion Literary Magazine, last year. My 2019 saw me shepherd three book reviews, five essays, and an author interview into the world, plus I conducted two interviews, and penned a piece on finding “twin skin” and solace in the essays of Randon Billings Noble. I adore this PLM gig and hope you’ll check me out over there, too. More good stuff to come in 2020.

Of course, it’s publishing that’s considered to be the big win, the brass ring, the dream destination for us writer-types. The agent querying continues, but I did have a couple short stories published last year in journals I love. And, lest I forget that this writing thing is about the path, and not the destination, I read this post for a different kind of “Resolution,” today.

Goals. I’ll get on it. I will. Right now, you’re here and I’m here, which means we’re in the very same rabbit hole (#bloggoals), if for only a few minutes–and that’s a win these days. As was being nominated for the Bloggers Recognition Award by one of my favorite blogging friends, Silvia, from Italian Goodness, who, when I told her I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to hop on the nomination train, said these wise words: “Life is busy. Family comes first. Never stop dreaming, but prioritizing is the secret of happiness.” Truer words, folks… Thank you, Silvia! (And go make one her Italian recipes and make yourself so happy.)

Here’s to more connecting and dream-making in 2020–by a little luck and a pinch of intention.

Have you recovered from the Christmas cookie coma? New Year’s resolution-failure guilt getting to you, or is that just me?

Care to social media rabbit-hole together? You can find me at FB, on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark, and at Goodreads, where it appears as if I’m just getting the hang of this whole literary thing.