Having had such fun during Spanish Lit Month, it seemed a foregone conclusion that I should make some attempt to participate in Women in Translation during August (with thanks to Biblio). It also seemed entirely natural that I begin with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (translated by Ann Goldstein), a novel so many have read and recommended. My Brilliant Friend is the first in a trilogy, the third of which (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) will be published by Europa editions in September, though Ferrante has said that she views it as one novel, the division into volumes simply necessitated by the mechanics of publishing.
My Brilliant Friend is set in post-war Italy in a poor neighbourhood and tells the story of two friends, Elena (the narrator) and Lila who begin as young children and end this first volume as adults. This story is prefaced by a contemporary scene where an elderly Elena is told by Lila’s son that Lila has gone missing, along with all her belongings – something we will presumably return to in the final volume. What follows is Elena’s attempt to write Lila’s story so that Lila cannot make herself disappear in the way she seems to want to.
The story struck me as one common in the Scottish tradition – the poor but intelligent youngster who stands out at school and whose parents are encouraged to allow them to pursue their education despite financial difficulties and a certain lack of understanding of its purpose or importance. Normally these would be young men (though Sunset Song would be an exception here) and the setting would be earlier in the century (presumably the timing links to the arrival of universal education) but scenes such as the teacher’s visit to the house would generally feature. A growing alienation from their parents (which always makes me think of Tony Harrison’s poem ‘Bookends’) and from their community would follow.
Ferrante tells this lassie o’pairts tale as well as anyone but adds another dimension in viewing it through the lens of friendship. Elena takes the traditional role of the talented youngster who is encouraged to continue through school, but Lila, we learn, is at least equally clever, teaching herself Latin and Greek when denied the chance to progress with her formal education. Throughout Elena is generally in awe of her, as, it seems, are most of her peer group, particularly the boys (though, of course, we see this from Elena’s perspective). While Elena is naturally cautious and careful, Lila seems confident and decisive, though it is noticeable that, by the novel’s end, it is Elena who has acted with the most freedom and recklessness, though she does not see this herself.
This first volume presents a wonderful picture of adolescence with all its doubts, dangers and discoveries. It doesn’t neglect its male characters, whose lives are circumscribed by rules of machismo. In fact, unlike many bildungsroman, this is also a novel of community (again it bears comparison with Sunset Song), painting in great detail the small area of Naples that Elena rarely leaves. It is an area where grudges originating in the war are still strong and violence is commonplace.
I can now see why so many people have been praising this novel: it is the kind of novel that it is difficult to imagine someone disliking, while at the same time knowing that is the result of its artistry and truthfulness rather than its accessibility. I will now join in with the recommending.