I’ve only set foot on the outskirts of Naples, in the ruins of Pompeii, but even there it is clear there is something different about the ancient port city. Perhaps it is that the earth feels thinner there, under the shadow of Vesuvius, the boundary between the our world and the roiling fire beneath all too apparent. Touring around the Bay of Naples in his “intimate history” of the Earth, palaeontologist Richard Fortey writes that “Even the most apparently ephemeral of the earth’s memorials are a reflection of a deeper reality”. I have no image in my mind of the volcano, but it must have been there, maybe fading into the haze. The city and its people have a reputation for threat and combustion that is partly myth-making. But still. It is this volatile, tectonic atmosphere that pervades Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. La dolce vita this is not.
This first of four novels begins with a disappearance. Sixty-six-year-old Rafaella – Lila – Cerullo has vanished from Naples, again, leaving her son Rino in despair. He calls his mother’s old friend Elena Greco in Turin, who sharply rejects his pleas for help. This time, it seems, Lila has disappeared properly, taken all belongings, even cut herself out of photos. Hurt, vengeful, begrudgingly admiring, Elena begins to write their story. “We’ll see who wins,” she says.
The mystery of this disappearance is not solved in this first novel. Instead what follows are two almost discrete stories of Lila and Elena’s childhood and adolescence in a working class suburb of Naples in the 1940s and ’50s. In the first, The Story Of Don Achille, nine-year-old Elena finds herself drawn, almost unwillingly, to Lila, who is as headstrong as the neighbourhood boys, and therefore perhaps more dangerous. It is an almost fairytale world, haunted by artefacts of the war and the ogre-like figure of Don Achille. Theirs is a friendship founded on mutual rivalry, exploitation and admiration; they spend as much time wounding each other as lifting each other up. From the outset there is competition, Elena equally envious of and puzzled by Lila’s precocious capabilities and forthright sense of right and wrong.
The second, much longer Story Of The Shoes charts their adolescence and schooling, and their diverging paths. Elena goes to high school in the city to further her intellectual capabilities; Lila stays behind to initially help her father in his shoe shop, and later court the neighbourhood boys. It is an intensely drawn portrait of friendship and coming-of-age and a richly conjured setting of disperazione, “having lost all hope but also being broke”. Everyone is angry, the men explosively so, the women corrosively. They are the downtrodden, the powerless, the plebs. It is a tightly woven narrative, only occasional extending beyond the confines of the square where the characters live and the stradone they walk between school, work and home. I was impressed by its containment and Ferrante’s acuity on the way class and history shape relationships between people.
My Brilliant Friend conceives of friendship as a kind of Faustian pact, as suggested by the epigraph from Goethe’s translation. “It was as if,” Elena writes, “Because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other”. At its most pure, their friendship is ecstatic, evoking the pleasure and richness of finding an intellectual equal. “She took the facts,” Elena writes breathlessly, “And in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy … I get excited with her, here, at the very moment she’s speaking to me”.
This type of pact becomes more literal when Lila courts one of older boys in the neighbourhood. His family’s wealth, derived in part from organised crime and with possible links to Fascists, might enable Lila to secure her family’s future. What is the cost of escape, the novel asks, and Elena and Lila illustrate two pathways, both with their own pitfalls. The children’s neighbourhood rivalries fall along old schisms between families; as they grow up and the town changes they try to heal and overcome this past. Lila in particular becomes obsessed at one point with the weight of history, that “there are no gestures, words, or sighs that do not contain the sum of all the crimes that human beings have committed and commit”. The Aeneid, Virgil’s epic of the founding of Rome, is the other old story that pervades Elena and Lila’s; both coming to see in the neighbourhood the same lovelessness that led to Dido’s downfall after being abandoned by Aeneus. The novel has a similar classical chill; feels similarly foundational as it lays the grounds for a lifelong friendship, and the trajectory of Italy today.
For all its austere themes and grey setting, there are flashes of possibility and light. It is there in the sea that Elena visits for the first time as a teenager, it is there in the town changing around them, “everything … quivering, arching upward as if to change its characteristics, not to be known by the accumulated hatreds, tensions, ugliness but, rather, to show a new face”. It is there of course in the love that grows between Lila and Elena, the feeling of care and protection Elena feels towards Lila as she bathes her on her wedding day; the way Lila reads Elena’s textbooks as much to coach her friend as to expand her own knowledge.
Gay rating: not gay.