My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante

After reading A Little Life, I floundered about, starting and not finishing several books, getting to the end of one only by skimming through the last twenty pages. Some of them are surely good ones, I just wasn’t in the mood for them. As September neared and Ferrante fever grew in anticipation of the publication of the fourth and final book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, I borrowed a copy of #1 and thankfully fell under its spell. I needed something to break the trauma hex I was under.

I’m writing this as I’m about 80% through the second book, so it’s hard to really just write about this one. I can already see why people have said that the series of four is truly one long novel together. In some ways it’s a very simply constructed story; aside from a brief prologue here that establishes the circumstances under which the character Elena begins writing about her friend Lila when they are adults, it’s an entirely linear narrative. Written all from Elena’s perspective, her language is conversational and confessional. But within that straightforward narrative Ferrante constructs a rich story, weaving in social and political depths that become more pronounced as time goes on. It’s about so much more than the friendship of two girls.

Yet that friendship is also deliciously complicated from the beginning, infused with a competitiveness that at times feels decidedly unkind. As young kids they are constantly testing each other’s courage and boundaries, yet through that develop a steadfast loyalty, even if Elena admits to not being sure what Lila’s true intentions are much of the time. The tension between their rivalry and their love for each other fuels much of the energy of the book; there is something remarkably alive about this dynamic.

As with any fictional story that feels so real, many wonder how autobiographical it may be. Since Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym for a writer who has done very few interviews, it’s difficult to say. In her interview with the Paris Review, she describes how “the emptiness of [her] absence was filled by the writing itself,” quoting Meghan O’Rourke’s review of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third book in this series.

O’Rourke wrote that the reader’s relationship to a writer who chooses to separate herself, radically, from her own book “is like that which we have with a fictional character. We think we know her, but what we know are her sentences, the patterns of her mind, the path of her imagination.” It may seem like a small thing, but to me it’s big. It has become natural to think of the author as a particular individual who exists, inevitably, outside the text — so that if we want to know more about what we’re reading we should address that individual, or find out everything about his more or less banal life. Remove that individual from the public eye and, as O’Rourke says, we discover that the text contains more than we imagine. It has taken possession of the person who writes. If we want to find that person, she’s right there, revealing a self that even she may not truly know. When one offers oneself to the public purely and simply through an act of writing — which is all that really counts — this anonymity turns into part of the story or the verse, part of the fiction.