My Brilliant Friend

Book cover showing a bride and groom from behind, walking towards the sea

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions 2013

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.




The Flamethrowers

The Flamethrowers is the story of “Reno” (not her real name) as she tries to go from small town western gal to big city artist. She moves to New York City after graduation from her small art program and lives on her own, imagining all of the excitement that she will have once she finds a crowd and fits in. Eventually she does find that crowd, a crowd that is coincidentally perfect for her. It just so happens that she loves motorcycles and Italian and wants to create land art. She is “discovered” by Sandro Valera, accomplished artist and Italian heir to a motorcycle mogul. Oh, and he has an interest in land art. And an interest in beautiful younger women. He sweeps her into the 70s New York art scene, and later, accidentally into the radical elements of Italy during the country’s Years of Lead. Think the Red Brigade and molotov cocktails that utilize espresso makers.

The plot is at times thrilling, at other times simply heady as you get to peep behind the curtains at late 70s evenings at the Chelsea Hotel, at the kind of games that drunk artsy people play. There are also moving scenes of the American west and a peek into the lifestyles of the rich and famous in Italy. If there’s one thing this novel has it’s enjoyable, if dark, escapist fun.

What I didn’t enjoy, initially, was the narration. The book is mostly told from the first person point of view of Reno, except for a few exceptional chapters primarily told from the point of view of Sandro’s father. Reno’s point of view was full of pithy M.F.A. aphorisms that were far too clever. I only have the experience of my own mind to pull from, but in my experience, my running narration is more like, “Wow, I’m bored. I wonder what’s for dinner. I kind of need to pee. No, I’ll wait until this episode of the West Wing is over.” Beautiful, deep-sounding interior dialogue from characters is one of my pet peeves and this book was strong in that area. Let’s just say I think that next year, this will be a primary candidate for the Tournament of Books.

I got over my problem with the narration as I got deeper into the plot. As she entered Sandro’s alternate universe, she became an observer, giving up herself to simply try to absorb whatever magic these artists had that allowed them to just be so cool. She began relaying more of their dialogue, more physical observations, and I was able to sink in. I began to remember similar good times in my life, I began to let my pet peeves go . But this is when my deeper problem with the narration became evident. I knew everything the narrator thought about everything and I knew the things she loved, but I didn’t know her. I didn’t even know her name. I didn’t know how people thought of her, I didn’t know how she reacts in social situations. She says what the other characters tell her but she does not give response. Is she rude? Talkative? Shy? She presents herself as an emotional blank slate. Usually this is a writerly technique to allow the reader to imprint themselves upon the character and deepen their sympathies. Except it doesn’t work in this case. Reno is so strongly defined by her hobbies and her background. Even her moniker derives directly from one of the elements that makes her unique. It’s hard to slip myself into her leather jacket.

So what we get is a book about political action where the heroine appears to have no political feeling. And maybe she doesn’t and that’s the point. A point I miss because I can only ever see her actions obliquely, so I have to imprint my personality on her, and I could never ever be apathetic. Apathy is a prerequisite in her art crowd. She implies that she is only feigning it, but it is hard to tell because she’s gotten so good.

Despite my complaints herein, I still give the book 4 stars. There is absurdity and humor and warmth. And violence. The moments of violence punctuating the novel are beautifully written and make the diffidence of the narration seem more purposeful. The characters don’t care for the world, but the world keeps asking them to care. With muggings and rape and attack dogs. This dissonance is what makes the novel powerful.