My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Late last month I reviewed the Best Translated Book Award shortlisted “The Story Of A New Name” and as fans of Elena Ferrante will know that novel was part two of the “Neapolitan Trilogy”, the third “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” will be published in September this year.

Personally I probably made an error in reading the opening two works in the wrong order, even though “The Story Of A New Name” can be read as a standalone work.  Coming back from the teenage years to Elena (our narrator) and Lila’s childhood with a few revelations already known slightly spoiled this work for me.
That is not to say this is not another wonderful instalment from Ferrante, this novel slowly revealing to the reader the major (and even minor) events that shaped Lila and Elena, their friendship beginning in school, Elena’s first experiences defining their ongoing relationship :
Besides, she offered no openings to kindness. To recognize her virtuosity was for us children to admit that we would never win and there was no point in competing, and for the teachers to confess to themselves that they had been mediocre children. Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite. And there was nothing in her appearance that acted as a corrective. She was dishevelled, dirty, on her knees and elbows she always had scabs from cuts and scrapes that never had time to heal. Her large, bright eyes could become cracks behind which, before every brilliant response, there was a gaze that appeared not very childlike and perhaps not even human. Every one of her movements said that to harm her would be pointless because, whatever happened, she would find a way of doing worse to you.
The prose of this novel is crystal clear, all of the motivations and behaviours of both characters fully revealed on the page. Elena being slightly more privileged in being able to continue schooling, whereas Lila has to do as most poor people needed to do in Naples in the 1950’s, go and work in the family business, or a local grocery store:
The next day, as we were going to school, Lila said to me in her usual tone: I’m going to take the test anyway. I believed her, to forbid her to do something was pointless, everyone knew it. She seemed the strongest of us girls, stronger than Enzo, than Alfonso, than Stefano, stronger than her brother Rino, stronger than our parents, stronger than all the adults including the teacher and the carabirnieri, who could put you in jail. Although she was fragile in appearance, every prohibition lost substance in her presence. She knew how to go beyond the limit without every truly suffering the consequences. In the end people gave in, and were even, however unwillingly, compelled to praise her.
This book is another wonderful work by Ferrante, peppered with a raft of characters from the working class areas of Naples. A handy reference table of all characters is included in the front, and although I did use it occasionally in “The Story Of A New Name”, this time around I had enough depth of knowledge of these peoples to not need assistance.
One thing I discovered was that the series opens with Elena in middle age, reflecting upon her life as Lila is missing, so she starts their story. A story of a deep relationship, one that has obviously endured, a narrator that spends her whole life in awe:
I liked to discover connections like that, especially if the concerned Lila. I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences. In that period it became a daily exercise: the better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighbourhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become. It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other; even our physical aspect, it seemed to me, shared in that swing. In Ischia I had felt beautiful, and the impression had lingered on my return to Naples – during the constant plotting with Lila to help her get rid of Marcello, there had even been moments when I thought again that I was prettier, and in some of Stefano’s glances I had caught the possibility of his liking me. But Lila had now retaken the upper hand, satisfaction had magnified her beauty, while I, over-whelmed by schoolwork, exhausted by my frustrated love for Nino, was growing ugly again. My healthy color faded, the acne returned. And suddenly one morning the spectre of glasses appeared.
The linear plot is of Elena and Lila meeting, attending school and through their teenage years, their juvenile loves, awkward puberty and Lila’s relationships with the richer men (boys) of the City. However as this “plot” is unfolding we are learning more and more about the dangerous, rebellious Lila, her relationship with Elena, and through that constant comparison we learn more and more of Elena, her hopes, her desires, her failing character.
I looked at her white, smooth skin, not a blemish. I looked at her lips, the delicate shape of her ears. Yes, I thought, maybe she’s changing, and not only physically but in the way she expresses herself. It seemed to me – articulated in words of today – that not only did she know how to put things well but she was developing a gift that I was already familiar with: more effectively than she had as a child, she took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy. But I also realized, with pleasure, that, as soon as she began to do this, I felt able to do the same, and I tried and it came easily. This – I thought contentedly – distinguishes me from Carmela and all the others: I get excited with here, here, at the very moment when she’s speaking to me. What beautiful strong hands she had, what graceful gestures came to her, what looks.
Interestingly, this novel did not make the longlists of Independent Foreign Fiction Prize or the Best Translated Book Award (“A Story Of A New Name” making the 2014 shortlist of the Best Translated Book Award). Personally I didn’t enjoy this work as much as the second in the series, this may have been due to the fact that I read them in the incorrect order, so the foundations being laid here were not required as I’d moved beyond that phase. It may also be that I enjoy the late teenage, early 20’s fiction more than the childhood memories style, the basic coming of age stories!
Having said that, this is still a magnificent read, a revelation of female relationships, an in depth look at the moulding of our narrator and the slow peeling back of life long motivations.

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One thought on “My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

  1. Great review, Tony. As you know, I'm a huge fan of these books, and the depth with which Ferrante portrays the relationship between these two girls. I'm so glad you enjoyed both books.

    The opening's quite compelling isn't it? it had me from the off.

    Like

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