Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is the first of a trilogy about a pair of friends living in Naples in the second half of the 20th century. My Brilliant Friend covers the youth and adolescence of the pair, Elena and Lila, and various other characters from their neighborhood who slide in and out of their lives, at times as enemies, at times as lovers.
Readers of Days of Abandonment will be familiar with the psychological brutality of the narrator. Here it seems the natural offshoot of a violent childhood. “We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died.” After delivering a litany of ways she knew people to die or be injured, she reveals how deeply these dangers affected her as a writer. Words themselves became representative of danger.
“Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.”
Elena’s rightness in fearing her world is proven time and again throughout the book. Young Lila’s appearance is defined by her various cuts and scrapes and lack of proper nourishment. There’s violence amongst children, but it is neither viewed shallowly nor given artificial deepness. The children themselves do not know why they are hurting one another; they stand and throw stones at one another until blood is drawn and then want to pair off as boyfriend and girlfriend the next day.
As they grow older, the threat of violence remains, but its form changes. Lila learns from a friend the words ‘Fascist’ and ‘Nazi’. Suddenly everything in the neighborhood has new meanings. Where did the grocer get the money to invest in his business? Why can this family afford a car when others cannot? What did our parents do in the ‘before’, the time that no one talks about?
Puberty introduces new forms of violence as well. As with the rest of her life, this violence is also dictated by economics. Elena’s first experience with sex is when a boy pays her to see her newly-formed breasts. Her second is when a pair of brothers buy a flashy new car and, one day, force a neighborhood girl into it. They drop her back off in the neighborhood a few hours later.
“‘You know why the Solara brothers think they’re the masters of the neighborhood?’”, Lila asks Elena.
“‘Because they’re aggressive.’
‘No, because they have money.’”
And why did they choose that particular girl as a victim? Because she “‘doesn’t have a father, her brother Antonio counts for nothing, and she helps [her mother] clean the stairs of the buildings.’”
This could book could easily become bleak, but Ferrante’s writing never dips into despair and only occasionally into sentimentality. Instead, as her narrator transforms from a child to a young woman, she maintains the naïvities and bewilderment of that age, youth’s acceptance for the world as it is. When the boy pays to see her breasts, his motives are unclear so she has trouble assessing how she should feel towards him. The grown Elena, who is recording all of these events, does not editorialize and allows the reader to make her own judgement.
The unflinching portrayal of youth is what make this book a true masterpiece. At the core of this portrayal is, obviously, the friendship between Elena and Lila. Ferrante acknowledges the truth that childhood friendships are rarely based on the qualities we associate with ‘friends’. ‘Amicable’ comes from the same Latin root as ‘friend’, as witnessed by the Italian ‘amica’, part of the book’s native title. But childhood friends are not amicable. They are jealous, violent, fearful, generous, shameful, serendipitous. While staying true to the central characterizations, Ferrante manages to show the friendship as a microcosm of the world at large, showing how all of these adjectives apply too to Italy itself. We live in a world, she suggests, that has not lost the cruelties of youth, but has lost the idealism.