‘Every day I felt more strongly the anguish of not being in time’: Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’

“My father held tight to my hand as if he were afraid that I would slip away. In fact I had the wish to leave him, run, move, cross the street, be struck by the brilliant scales of the sea. At that tremendous moment, full of light and sound, I pretended I was alone in the newness of the city, new myself with all life ahead, exposed to the mutable fury of things but surely triumphant: I, I and Lila, we two with that capacity that together – only together – we had to seize the mass of colours, things, and people, and express it and give it power.”

In Charles Baudelaire’s poem, Le Soleil, the poet goes out into the streets questing for words. “Along the old street on whose cottages are hung/ The slatted shutters which hide secret lecheries,/ When the cruel sun strikes with increased blows/ The city, the country, the roofs, and the wheat fields,/ I go alone to try my fanciful fencing,/ Scenting in every corner the chance of a rhyme,/ Stumbling over words as over paving stones,/ Colliding at times with lines dreamed of long ago.” There is a sense of language as a physical obstruction, condensed in words such as “stumbling” and “colliding’, a barrier against expressing meaning. In the next two stanzas, Baudelaire turns to the sun for clarity: “This foster-father, enemy of chlorosis,/ Makes verses bloom in the fields like roses;/… commands crops to flourish and ripen/ In those immortal hearts which ever wish to bloom!” With the right catalyst, then, language (words) can serve to make the world “flourish and ripen”, replacing “chlorosis” with “bloom”.

On similar lines, the protagonist of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (also called Elena), writes of her friend Lila: “… she took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she identified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy.”  And this, I think, is the aptest description of Ferrante’s writing as well. To borrow a line from the Irish playwright Brien Friel, Ferrante’s novel is all about how “an experience, an event, even a small unimportant happening [can be] isolated, and assessed, and articulated.” It is not quite as simple as just glamourising the quotidian; rather, it is about taking that collage of human life – love, loss, friendship, growing up – and, like Baudelaire’s sun, casting a light upon the ordinary language of experience that makes it flourish, ripen, and bloom.

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in a four-volume series called The Neapolitan Novels. It is an account of a rough Neapolitan neighbourhood in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, told through the eyes of the narrator, a young girl called Elena Greco. The novel features a generous ensemble of characters (James Wood calls it an “amiably peopled bildungsroman“), tracing out the intertwined lives of a number of families of the neighbourhood, a neighbourhood whose dense past hangs over it like a thick cloud of regret, unhappiness, and unresolved tension, and which continues to choke the lives of its residents: “and they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us too.”

At its heart, however, My Brilliant Friend is about the intense, passionate friendship between Elena and another girl her age, Lila. Like all things intense and passionate, it is never quite equal, and invariably causes Elena equal amounts of joy and pain. In the beginning, Lila’s fierce intelligence and fiercer wit makes her a subject of near-worshipful adoration. And although as they grow up, it is Lila who bends more to the demands of society and of convention, Elena can never quite shake off their initial equation, much though she tries (“… maybe I should erase Lila from myself like a drawing from the blackboard.”) The relationship between the two comes to define, to characterise, and to colour the world around, even as it presses in upon them, constricting their choices and suffocating their desires.

My Brilliant Friend has been called a ‘bildungsroman’, a coming-of-age novel. I’m not so sure. A significant part of it is, indeed, about how Elena’s interior landscape transforms and evolves in response to the world around her, and Ferrante describes this with rare sensitivity: “I was absorbing much of that sight, many things, too many, were scattering around me without letting me grasp them.”

Far more than that, however, My Brilliant Friend – as I wrote above – is about “isolating, assessing, and articulating” that core of experience that might (with some trepidation) be called “universal”. Many reviews respond to this by using adjectives such as “honest” and “authentic” (fraught words, both) to describe Ferrante’s writing. There is a kernel of truth there, of course, but that’s not all there is to it. Honesty of expression is all very well, but My Brilliant Friend has something more. Like the “sublimation of sorrow” that Adam Perry invokes to characterise how Virgil’s Aeneid transforms raw grief into art, what is unique about My Brilliant Friend is the range of experiences that it sublimates in this fashion. Consider, for instance, Elena’s musings as she reflects upon her fraught relationship with Lila, at one of its particularly low points: “I wanted her to be curious, to want at least a little to share my adventure from the outside, to feel she was losing something of me as I always feared losing much of her”; and “it was an old fear, a fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance.”

These are sentiments that we all, I suppose, have felt at one point or another (for my part, I can personally affirm to it). But they have been inarticulable: perhaps, partly, we fear to articulate them for what they reveal about ourselves; but perhaps, mostly, because they are buried so deep within us that they defy articulation. Ferrante – to go back t0 Baudelaire’s image – is the sun that casts its light upon them, illuminating them in a way that we can recognise them as our own, claim them, and yet (somehow) not be ashamed of them. That’s why “honesty” does not quite capture it – it is something more, something elusive and fleeting, almost unnameable. “Sublimation” is the best that I can come up with.

Yet more than this, Ferrante is also equal to the task of writing one of the most sensitive and difficult of experiences: the infinitesimally slow, yet infinitely painful process by which our childhood imaginations run up against the rocky shoals of the world, and after an agonising resistance (whether long or short), break upon it. Because of the structure of our society, this is something that I’m sure will resonate far more with Ferrante’s women readers than it will with men (and there are other scenes that will as well: “I myself – especially after the incident with the Solaras – had learned instinctively to lower our eyes, pretend not to hear the obscenities they directed at us, and keep going.“) But consider this:

“… she was struggling to find, from inside the cage in which she was enclosed, a way of being, all her own, that was still obscure to her.”

I cannot think of a word out of place, a word that is not perfect in this pellucid half-sentence. I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art, with its last, almost desperate cry of Write it! – write it so that it can be named, so that language can save us from the wilderness of unsayable sorrows, so that words can anchor us safe from the “terrifying ambiguity of… experience.” Ferrante writes it. And who can be the same again after reading this frisson-inducing account of Elena bathing Lila a few hours before her wedding:

“At the time it was just a tumultuous sensation of necessary awkwardness, a state in which you cannot avert the gaze or take away the hand without recognizing your own turmoil, without, by that retreat, declaring it, hence without coming into conflict with the undisturbed innocence of the one who is the cause of the turmoil, without expressing by that rejection the violent emotion that overwhelms you, so that it forces you to stay, to rest your gaze on the childish shoulders, on the breasts and stiffly cold nipples, on the narrow hips and the tense buttocks, on the black sex, on the long legs, on the tender knees, on the curved ankles, on the elegant feet; and to act as if it’s nothing when instead everything is there, present, in the poor dim room, amid the worn furniture, on the uneven, water-stained floor, and your heart is agitated, your veins inflamed.”

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