Elena Ferrante’s My brilliant friend

Discussed by Artizan reading group

reading-groupThe pseudonymous Elena Ferrante’s My brilliant friend, the first of her foursome of Neapolitan novels, charting the course of two women’s friendship, was the subject of our scrutiny this time around. Immensely popular and in-the-news because her anonymity has been scandalously challenged by an Italian journalist, Ferrante is usually celebrated for her feminist sensibility.

What did we think? Tim had loved it. Even in what he considered the absence of a plot, the atmosphere of postwar Naples was wonderfully recreated. It was, we all agreed, a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel. But an unusual one. How many of them had sequels, for example?

Rory had liked it too. A brilliant translation from the Italian, reading so easily. Sara knew about the translator, an accomplished renderer, and no, despite the many references to Neapolitan dialect in the book, none of the text was originally written in it. Malcolm had had experience of being addressed in this oral phenomenon, which he considered impenetrable.

The premise of the book is that the first-person narrator, now in her 60s, is giving a minute account of herself and her friend, Lila, dating back to their earliest years, including details of a great number of colourful characters, their homes and families. So, a phenomenal feat of memory about which we must suspend our disbelief.

One thing Malcolm had doubts about was whether Ferrante, so enthusiastically inhabiting the persona of a little girl, then of a teenager, is ever tongue-in-cheek. Take for example, her serious complaint about a fellow school student who insists on talking to her in dialect, which makes it impossible for them to discuss ‘the corruption of earthly justice, as it could be seen during the lunch at the house of Don Rodrigo’. That was a reference to a scene in a classic of Italian literature, Manzoni’s I promessi sposi . Probably doesn’t matter, but the effect is certainly comic.

Rory had wearied a bit of the rivalry between the two girls. But, of the two, who envied whom? It appears that Elena, the narrator, envies her friend Lila. Then, late in the novel, the title, My brilliant friend, is quoted and addressed by Lila to Elena. What a turnaround!

You had to be engaged by this sort of thing to enjoy the book properly. Ferrante is more thorough in detailing the girls’ development In a very realist way than, say, Alcott’s Little women. You’ve got dolls, menstruation, breasts, bras, boys, and so on, all presented very convincingly from the narrator’s experience. So would anyone excuse Malcolm for his observation that at some point, as he read the book, he became convinced that he was reading the highest order of chicklit? No, no one would.

What it was about, according to Sara and Jenny, was the trapped nature of the girls’ life, the deprivation and violence from which they had little chance to escape. To which Janet could only add that the same thing applied to the men in the narrative.

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