I have been reading Elena Ferrante, and so I’ve found myself needing to have an opinion about Elena Ferrante for those who ask. Everyone’s heard of her, of course. More than once, people have expressed their enthusiasm for the fact that I am reading her work, even though they haven’t read it themselves. A couple of weeks ago an acquaintance saw me with a copy of “My Brilliant Friend” and started a brief conversation with me. She said something like “I feel like we should normalize novels about friendship.” I nodded, unsure what to do with that statement.
Whenever I read a famous writer I always feel a puerile, instinctive need to have a unique take on their work, or at the very least to be able to say “yes, and also…”. In spite of my best efforts, I find I don’t really have very much to say about her books. I mostly just love them, emote at them and find myself living inside them like a dream. I’m getting used to this. Unlike other famous authors, it’s hard to glean a useful composite of Ferrante’s style, methods and themes from the discourse that surrounds her work; the most I got from reading article after article about her without reading her books is a vaguely reverential tone shared by women writers of a certain temperament.
Her monumental Neapolitan series is weirder than I had imagined and condenses to a straightforward interpretation less readily than I thought it might. It’s very intense, has a feeling of immersion and resists summary. She’s not a realist or a modernist, doesn’t write in a memoir-tinged way (despite naming her protagonist Elena) and doesn’t write journalistic or polemical novels. Her work rests somewhere in between these specific camps, incorporating this or that aspect as it suits her purposes. What’s so stunning about the Neapolitan novels is how readily psychological portraiture coexists with historical processes, how they dovetail and jostle each other. Friendships and social scenes are rendered in these books as dense nets of details and impressions that constantly shift, coalesce and disappear under the surface only to reappear in a different form. Old associations give way to new ones as people get older, often with no explicit reason.
“My Brilliant Friend” changes shape and registers rapidly, following along with the protagonists’ development. The opening has the fluid, intuitive quality of early childhood, one that doesn’t hold back on childhood’s unique anxieties. At one point Elena describes a “tactile dysfunction” she feels early on, where she describes her perception of her own body as “cheeks like balloons, hands stuffed with sawdust, earlobes like ripe berries, feet in the shape of loaves of bread.” Generally, the opening of this first novel is riven with a vague anxiety that slowly and gradually assumes form as the residue of World War II (the novels begin in the late ‘40s). Later on, when Lila and Elena find out about the recent history of their country — war, fascism, organized crime in Naples — they are suddenly able to “[give] concrete motives, ordinary faces to the air of abstract apprehension that as children we had breathed in.” But even before that, the neighborhood where the girls live is a violent place. Elena recounts that “we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.” “My Brilliant Friend” is, at least in part, a novel about how violence comes to condition people, comes to constrain them in ways both overt and covert.
Violence is also sublimated into competition, first between all of the children and then between Elena and Lila. The very beginning of the novel has the cohort of elementary school classmates competing with each other in academic games: when one of the boys is humiliated, his older brother gets involved and threatens to prick Lila’s tongue with a pin. This twinning of violence and intelligence never really goes away, it just gets subsumed into the relationship between Lila and Elena itself with fierce competition. There’s something so unexpectedly true in the way Ferrante paints the friendship between Elena and Lila — that Elena’s affection is so closely combined with an almost destructive desire that veers between wanting the attention of Lila to wanting to be Lila.
If this isn’t what I expected, at least at first, it’s probably only because I’m too used to images of female childhood, indeed, of female adulthood, that are shorn of rage, obsession and ugly, indeterminate feelings. I found myself thinking about how closely bound my own friendships are to desires that feel murkier to me, that reside somewhere in the realm of envy or crushing.
For this reader, this feeling is often continuous with just plain old crushing. At times the relationship between Elena and Lila starts to resemble simple desire, but it never really coheres. Still, there are moments — a scene where Lila and Elena tango together, multiple moments where Elena fantasizes about running away with Lila and living together, a scene where Elena bathes Lila the night before the latter’s wedding rendered in cascading, reverent prose.
This reading undoubtedly is more or less a projection of my own experiences onto the text. The more I write it down, the more ridiculous and untenable it seems. Realistically, Lila represents for Elena a certain freedom that is difficult to pin down the source of. Their friendship forms an alternative to the ceaseless violence of their neighborhood, a way of being outside of the structures the girls are offered — school, marriage, business. I guess my point in including this is that their relationship contains both possibilities equally — that in Ferrante’s telling, their friendship has enough space in it for all sorts of unspoken possibilities, representations and hopes. More than anything, it feels like it speaks to something beautiful about friendship — that there’s always more in it.