Rebecca Lerner: Ferrante and the mysticism of female friendship

Monday, September 5, 2016 - 3:07pm

Female friendship is beautiful and entirely terrifying. There are expectations for friendships to be some of the most important relationships in a woman’s life — that is, until husbands and children typically take over these roles. Novels and films detailing the plight of the modern woman often list the dissolution of female friendships after marriage as concerning, but not overly important. Only rarely do circumstances allow for friends to continue to play as influential a role as they may have in girlhood.

This intense lifelong connection between two women is the center of the Neapolitan novels, the acclaimed work of the pseudonymous Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. In the four-part bildungsroman, Ferrante details the evolution of a female friendship between Elena and Lila. Told from the first-person perspective of Elena, the story reads like the diary of a vicious and vulnerable teenage girl. After they grow into adulthood as best friends, Lila disappears without a trace and without letting Elena know where she’s going. Elena vengefully writes their story, juxtaposing the intense volatility of Lila’s actions with her own normalcy. Even when Lila is not physically near her, Elena is inextricably bound to her best friend, each one struggling to define herself outside the terms of the other.

The novel is electric, because in between the strange instances specific to a low-income neighborhood in Naples exists the elements of life that makes your heart race — sex, jealousy, violence, fireworks. Reading Ferrante feels eerily similar to the moment when someone asks if you can keep a secret. The urgency of her words creates a bond between reader and author that is exceptional and infrequent. Ferrante’s description of the female experience creates an intimacy with the author so vivid that the reader feels like they know her, or that she knows them.

“My Brilliant Friend” presents as almost confessional, with Elena painting an incredibly vivid picture of the life of her best friend as an act of revenge. But Elena is so deeply entrenched in the story of their upbringing that Ferrante differentiates her work from the simplicity of gossip. She puts aside the pettiness of the social currency that gossip and information provide, eschewing the values of works like Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 play “School for Scandal.” In the play, the characters revel in the tensions caused by knowledge and scandalous divulgences. But in the Neapolitan novels, Ferrante concentrates on the substance of her characters, watching them grow and change rather than simply forcing them into different situations for reactions.

In a rare interview with The New Yorker, Ferrante said “writing is an act of pride.” She explains that she always wanted to hide her work, as writing felt presumptuous and shameful. The reader can clearly see this reluctance for ostentation in Ferrante’s novels — not only because she literally hides her identity, but because the exigency of her words forces her stories out into the open.

Stories like the Neapolitan novels, with unafraid first-person narration and a storyline focused on transforming the mundane into the extraordinary, are inextricably linked to women’s writing. Novels like Ferrante’s feel like they conform to a strictly gendered style of writing. It’s fluid and fast-paced, with subtle undertones of conflicting emotions. The distinctly feminine writing of these books lies in their imperative languidness — these stories desperately need to be told, but also want to be coaxed with encouragement. They are complex, unapologetically requiring the full attention of their audience.

There’s been some discussion recently of whether or not we should be reading to make friends with characters, and the role that likability should play in literature. Although wielding expectations of friendship for fictional characters is a flawed approach, it is true that we read for many of the same reasons as the ones for which we pursue friendship. We read to connect, to recognize the other minds that are constantly reverberating around us. Ferrante’s novels especially reject solipsism as we look into the lives of others who exist with thoughts and feelings strikingly similar to our own. She takes the friendship between women seriously, which is unusual in a place like Naples where societal norms dictate the prioritization of other relationships. Ferrante gives space to the complex feelings of these overlooked and sometimes neglected relationships, returning meaning and power to the bearers of female friendship.