Life Is Grand (as long as You Keep Your Hands off My Sister)

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante.  Europa Editions.  331 pp.  $17.00.

I stand in awe at the power and variety of literature that I can read two novels consecutively that are so great—I don’t think the word is an exaggeration—and so completely different as Infinite Jest and My Brilliant Friend, which is the first novel of a tetralogy that, in its entirety, rivals Infinite Jest in length.  Infinite Jest is a huge broad satire on the subject of addiction, but it presents a vision of today’s world—an accurate one, I would say—in which the whole world is addicted.  It’s a post-modern novel if there ever was one.  My Brilliant Friend is what I would call a realistic novel, though I haven’t used the term in years.  It reminds me of the neo-realistic Italian films of the twentieth century.  It has the power and truthfulness of a memoir; we can’t help thinking that it is a memoir, that the writer is using the term novel only as a convenience.  It seems as real as our lives every day.  It seems more real than they do.

Elena Ferrante herself is controversial.  That is a pen name for an Italian writer who wants no publicity whatsoever, who published her first novel with the condition that her publisher would never require her to reveal who she is or ask her to do any kind of publicity.  She wants the work to exist by itself with no personality behind it.  She has done one fascinating interview, with the Paris Review, but that was conducted by her publisher.  Various writers have said through the years—usually after they’ve become famous—that they wish they had done what Ferrante has.  She had the courage to do it from the beginning.

This is a book—like Loving Day—that my wife and I found ourselves reading at the same time.  I brought it home from the bookstore, highly recommended by my friend Sally[1], one of my important guides in sniffing out new books, and my wife had it on her Kindle, was already reading it.  She copied the Paris Review interview for me, and told me about the controversy, and all the speculation, about who Ferrante is.  Much of it takes place on that weird fount of gossip and speculation, the Internet.  There are even people who think Ferrante is a man.

Preposterous!  If a man wrote this, he’s the greatest genius in the history of world literature.  Because one of the most interesting things for me, as I read it, is tracing the subtle differences between male and female friendships, as well as all the similarities.

The narrator of this novel is my exact contemporary.  Th novel takes place during my lifetime.  But it seems a world apart from my experience, not just because it takes place in Europe, not just because the characters are working class, not just because the two friends are women.  It is some combination of all those things.  I’m reading this book and discovering lives that I had no idea of.  It’s mind boggling.  It’s breathtaking.

Any number of novelists have written books about the brilliant friend.  John Knowles comes to mind.  Fitzgerald.  Kazantzakis.  I’ve even written one.  But Ferrante is at once less and more ambitious than these other writers.  She’s written an intimate novel about a deeply intense friendship between two girls.  But she’s also written a book about a whole community, a whole culture.  I’m always slightly intimidated when there’s an Index of Characters at the beginning of a volume, in this case listed by family.  But I’m glad there is one.  This is a novel where you can’t tell the players without a scorecard; there are too many.  And in some way they’re all important.  The story is the story of the community.

The narrator is named Elena, another tantalizing and suggestive detail (she also called Lenuccia, or Lenu).  She is the daughter of a father who is a porter at the city hall and a mother who is slightly lame, somewhat beaten down by life.  Her brilliant friend Lila, also called Lina, is the shoemaker’s daughter.  Other families are headed by a carpenter, a railroad worker, a fruit and vegetable seller, a baker.  It’s a community of acquaintance, but seems also to be a section of town, and not the nice section.  It’s a place where, when the kids have feuds when they’re young, they throw stones at each other.  Not snowballs, or buckeyes.  Stones.  It’s a rough place.  People are playing for keeps.

Lila is the kind of little girl who looks different from everyone else—thinner, pretty in a different way, ragged and dirty, more intense—and also acts different.  She is in some way the smartest girl in the school, but not the kind of girl who the teachers love and who becomes their pet.  Elena is more like that.  Lila is the kind of girl who goes her own way, sees things nobody else sees, doesn’t become a model citizen.  She’s as likely to exasperate the teacher as to make her proud.  Yet everyone can see her potential.  Everyone can see she’s got a unique mind.

When I had my first girlfriend, who eventually became my first wife, she had two friends she was close with.  It was the same as in this novel: she had known them since first grade, or nursery school.  They had been a trio ever since (which is more complicated than a duo.  Two of the girls can gang up on the other, or can seem to be).  It was very important that I meet these young women.  It was very important that I like them, and that they like me (though it was also true that, because my girlfriend liked me, they were pre-disposed in my favor).  The feeling among these three young women was love.  There was no other word for it.

Yet there was also, at the same time, an undeniable rivalry.  My girlfriend was always saying things like, “I think she’s ahead of me.”  Or, “She was ahead of me, but now I think I’m ahead.”  That was partly a matter of life experience, like who had had the first boyfriend, who had had sex first, who traveled the most.  It was also, partly, a matter of achievement.  I too had friends from an early age, and I felt no such sense of rivalry, no sense that one of us was ahead or behind.  That seems to be a girl’s thing.

That same factor is part of the friendship of Elena and Lila.  They’re deep friends, and fierce rivals.

The other thing is just that everything seems so much more serious in this culture.  The stakes are higher.  (It’s the same as the fact that they throw stones in their childhood fights, instead of snowballs.)  Even when these kids are in grade school, some are doing well, some aren’t; some are able to continue, because their parents have the money; some aren’t.  These apparently minor differences have major effects on their lives.  The fact that someone doesn’t have money for schoolbooks means a whole world of possibilities is cut off from them.  Lila is a person who, in my milieu, would have shined, would have been a cheerleader in high school and gone on to a great college.  But in her situation, she doesn’t even go on to high school.  She seems not to be doing so by choice. But Elena, plodding Elena, because she does continue, and because she works very hard—she has to; so many people put pressure on her—herself becomes the brilliant friend.  She’s the intellectual, not Lila.  Lila makes a choice about boyfriends that means she’ll be getting married young, at 16!  She’s ahead in that way, Elena in another.

And I must say, these girls at 16 have done more with their lives, and are more genuinely mature, than most college students I meet.  There’s something to be said for having a difficult background.

The other funny fact about this situation, though it’s not actually funny most of the time, is the whole male-female thing.  I’m somewhat familiar with it, because I had a number of Italian friends in the very Italian city of Pittsburgh.  Italians are sexy people; they have a huge appreciation of beauty (and are often beautiful themselves); they love to flirt, to seduce; they’re terribly romantic.  At the same time, every man in Italy wants no other man to flirt with, appreciate, or—God forbid—have sex with any member of his family, his sister, his daughter, his mother.  Guys beat other guys bloody over this; they wreck their cars; they kill guys because of it.  It’s a massive dysfunction at the heart of this society.  All the guys want to fuck all the girls, but all the girls are fiercely protected—to the death—by the guys in their family.  Can’t the whole culture just relax about all this?  No!  Absolutely not.  Sex is beautiful when you do it, it brings tears to your eyes, you want to sing an aria from an opera, but it’s disgusting and degraded and immoral if some guy does the exact same thing with your sister.  Go figure.

There’s a painting of a wedding on the front of the book, and the wedding is Lila’s.  She’s sixteen.  She’s made that choice; Elena as the novel ends has a boyfriend but has stayed in school.  These are spoilers, I suppose, but nothing could spoil anything about these novels.  They’re all about insights into life, and the constant surprises.  This book is about the most banal aspects of people’s lives, but in the hands of Elena Ferrante they’re astounding.  They’re marvelous.  That’s the truth about human experience.  Life is marvelous.

It takes a great artist to show us that.

[1] Sally was my seventh grade student in my third year of teaching.  She was 12; I was 24.  Even at that age, she was one of the most interesting people I knew to talk to about books.  She still is.