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?
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