My brilliant friend – the first novel in the Neapolitan series written by the famous Italian novelist Elena Ferrante – is about two friends who think of each other as their brilliant friend. Neapolitan series comprises four novels –My brilliant friend, The story of a name, Those who leave and those who stay and The story of the lost child. It covers the life story of two friends Elena Greco (Lenu) –the narrator and Raffaella Cerullo (Lila). Elena writes about her brilliant friend Lila.
When I started reading the Neapolitan series I felt that it shared something with Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin. It is the story of two sisters Iris and Laura and how they cope with their emotionally violent adulthood. It could be the concept of dissolving boundaries itself. Atwood makes the elder sister Iris relate and at times recreate the story of Laura in a novel, while attributing its authorship to the Laura (posthumously). The story of Iris becomes the story of Laura in the novel. In this case, Lenu tells the story of Lila, which in turn becomes her story. Apart from Lila’s longing to erase the boundaries and dissolve into nothingness, there is another instance of erasure of boundaries – the boundary between the writer and the written. Elena Ferrante is a pen name and the person behind it does not wish to reveal her identity. But I believe that it is a woman and she has immense understanding of the inner
lives of women.
Both Lila and Lenu had a tumultuous and often violent childhood. In fact, in the beginning of the novel itself, Ferrante writes that they did not have a happy childhood and feel no nostalgia for it. The time span covered in the series also witnesses the violence of the Italian society and politics. The novel seems too personal to be taken out of its immediate context. That could be one reason why the author Elena Ferrante decided to remain invisible. Her decision to assume a pseudo name could likewise be read as a political statement. She has maintained in all the written interviews that it is the text that has to be acknowledged and discussed and not the person that penned it. There is no need for personal acceptance or approval.
Every other line in the first novel reverberates with the violence and inexplicable abuses that filled their childhood – a feature of their neighborhood in Naples. Whereas Lenu was eager to leave the neighborhood and explore the outside world, trying to prove herself, Lila never ventured out except a couple of times for a short while in her life. It is a story if female friendship. The friends Lila and Lenu felt close to each other, and shared an immensely intimate relationship which was unique. They felt more than family in each other’s presence or absence thereof. In a sense, none of their family, parents, siblings or children was as close to them as each other. It could be said that one lived through the other. Only rarely did Lila acknowledge this fact to Lenu. She was often taken unawares by these confidences from Lila. It would be interesting to try to imagine what Lila thought of Lenu. Lenu finds in herself, and everything that she ever does, a trace of Lila. She tries to find it even after separating from Lila.
As we read her more, we realize that Ferrante is not merely writing about two friends but about female companionships in general. Even in this particular series, various instances of such companionship are available. Be it Lenu’s relationship with her mother, mother-in-law and sister-in-law or between Lenu and her teacher, there always surfaces instances of love, mutual understanding (and at times an attempt to understand).
I have come to try to understand my relation with the world in a novel light after reading Ferrante. That is exactly what distinguishes Ferrante from other writers. You can never be the same person after reading Ferrante. Reading Elena Ferrante makes one look into oneself just the way great literature is supposed to do. Even as I write about Elena I feel I must not use the worn out expressions in my limited vocabulary. She herself writes about avoiding the domestication of truth.
A constant backdrop of these novels is that at some point in their lives, at least one of the female characters in these novels have tried their hand at writing and found it their own fort. But most of them had to give it up for their family. The husband does not approve of it or does not find her writing good enough.
Lila reserved all the violent experiences for herself, and tried to keep Lenu away from them. She urged Lenu to continue her studies, leaving the filth and violence of Naples behind. At the same time, she studied secretly and surprised Lenu with her knowledge and intuitions. Lenu says that she tried to imagine how Lila would deal with an idea and write likewise. For Lenu, Lila was the epitome of genius. Lenu cherished Lila’s approval. When they talked to each other they always used standard Italian instead of the Neapolitan dialect. Lenu writes “me and Lila and well crafted words”. [As if they have found a separate peace]. That Lila depended on her for intelligent conversation was a comfort to Lenu. They liked understanding people, deciphering patterns in the incidents that happened around them in their Neapolitan neighborhood. When Lenu leaves those premises to study further, she retains this love for understanding people, incidents and things. And when she finally comes back to the Naples, it is this trait that erases the distance between the friends.
Lenu describes a couple of instances that Lila relates when she felt the urge to dissolve into nothingness. Lila felt the boundaries of space and time dissolve so that she could no longer distinguish them. Lila describes an instance when the boundaries of space with respect to a person get erased and she could see the person for what he really was made of, in all their evil characteristics. The experience of dissolving of boundaries let her see through the pretenses of people; understand and connect everything that happens around her. Lila and Lenu together tries to read between the lines, to know a thing for what it really is; what it is made of.
Reading Elena Ferrante is an act of elevating oneself. Moreover, it provides an insight into the inner lives of women. It is in a way comforting to realize that friendships may not be devoid of conflicts and hostility. Unlike the popular idea of eternal friendship, the companionship of Lenu and Lila gives a more realistic picture where there is space for mutual jealousy and ill-will at the same time each support the other in their moments of desperation. One has to accept things and people as they are; attempt to make sense of things and read the stories hidden in the distorted letters of life without being judgmental.