My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
When we watch a film we have to assume that everything we see is what the film-maker wants us to see: that dreadful yellow coat the woman on the left is wearing in the airport scene is delibate; the bad hair on the star in the night-club scene is also deliberate. This book reminded me that the same assumption applies to books.
My Brilliant Friend begins with a series of events, reminisesces by the narrator, Elena, about her friend, Lila, the ‘brilliant friend’ of the title. They are scenes like, ‘I remember one day when she …’ and ‘and then one evening when we were six she ….’ Ferrante is colouring a picture which isn’t going anywhere. There is no clear narrative, no feeling of time passing. I was getting impatient and a little frustrated; and then the teacher in me was getting annoyed at the sloppy grammar, the confusing pronouns, and the profuse scattering of seemingly random commas, as if from a sloppy pen: comma splices proliferate like ants.
And then on page 74 I came across this line …
“Trained by our school books to speak with great skill about what we had never seen, we were excited by the invisable.”
I found this line profound. I read it again. Thought about it and read it again. That’s when I was reminded about the veracity of the above assumption. I was forced to find a reason for the grammatical sloppiness and such a reason wasn’t hard to find. The voice is extremely informal, like a mate sitting with you over a coffee latte telling you a story. It’s very conversational and, I eventually conceeded, intentionally so. In fact about half way through the book Elena eventually receives a longed for letter from Lila and describes it thus,
“The voice set in the writing overwhelmed me, enthralled me even more than when we talked face to face; it was completely cleansed of the dross of speech, of the confusion of the oral; it had the vivid orderliness that I imagined would belong to conversation if one were so fortunate to be born with the head of Zeus.”
This description of Lila’s writing as ‘vivid orderliness’ as if from the gods put Ferrante’s writing into focus as ‘the dross of speech’ and ‘the confusion of the oral’ and I understood that the sloppy grammar and punctuation had a purpose; it was a writerly technique designed to create the conversational tone and the confusion of the oral just as Lila’s letter wasn’t.
My Brilliant Friend is about self awareness and female friendship told by an elderly Elena Greco looking back at her lifelong friend, Lila Cerullo, from 3 years old to 16 years old, childhood and adolescence. Elena is the third-person narrator but very much part of the action; it feels like an autobiography.
Lilia’s family, like all the families in this book, is scarred with fillial violence. “What do you mean by love?” Lilia murmured to her brother, “what does love mean for our family?” Love seems to be at the heart of everything but it’s rarely visable. The Neapolitan characters, especially the men, wear their arrogance and ego so confidently and so visably but when it is challenged even ever so slightly they react as if such confidence and ego were tissue-thin: a side-ways glance is responded to as if a stab in the back; a smirk, a snide remark, as if a throat is cut, a eye gouged out and revenge is metered out ruthlessly.
This threat of violence is ever present, and terrifying since when it erupts it is life-threatening; not just between husband and wife but between father a daughter, brother and sister and usually over the purpetrator being made to feel foolish by circumstances that no-one has control over. It is the women who suffer the most. The blame, when its origins are unclear or undefinable, is always planted on a woman: a truely mysoginistic culture. Ferrante describes it as common-place, like doing the washing up and putting out the garbage. It is part of the fabric of their lives.
Despite what I said at the opening of this review the seemingly anacdotal descriptions give way to a narrative and a time-line slowly evolves and towards the end of this book, the first of a trilogy, tension and narrative builds slowly but firmly to Lila’s wedding day, at the age of sixteen, as a final act threatens to explode everyone’s lives. You don’t get the explosion, just the gasp, as someone who shouldn’t be there walks into the room, sits, crosses his legs, shows off his gleaming new shoes; the explosion, we assume, must open book two in the series. What a cliff-hanger!
We know that Elena Ferrante was born in Naples, and that’s about it. If you google images of her you get several pictures of Italian looking women which, if you pursue them, lead nowhere or to women who have written about Ferrante. However on ‘her’ website I found this …
” … guesswork around Ferrante’s identity proliferated, with reviewers speculating that “she” might be a mother, a man, or a sentient cabal of fire-ants,” says a reviewer Katy Waldman in her article for Slate (an online journal) heralding the Paris Review’s coup at gettng the first in-person interview with Elena Ferrante; in their Spring 2015 issue. So, soon, we may find out more about this intriguing writer that no-one has up until now seen and no-one up until The Paris Review has seemingly spoken to.