The many admirers of Elena Ferrante’s novel “My Brilliant Friend” — the first in her smash series of four books about a pair of Neapolitan women moving through life — likely have two questions about the Italian-language TV adaptation. The first is how faithful it is to the source material, and the second is how well it matches the novel’s effortless ability to move within its protagonist’s mind, tracking subtleties of emotion.
The answers are mainly good news: In the limited series’ first two installments, screened at the Venice Film Festival Sept. 2 before a November bow on HBO, the story closely tracks the movement of the novel. And while achieving the internality of the book is too high an order for this series, its ability to conjure up the world of children confused at the happenings around them is its own achievement. “My Brilliant Friend” is an impressive effort, a translation of novel to screen that preserves certain of its literary qualities while transmuting others into moving and effective TV.
Elena (Elisabetta De Palo), seen briefly in a framing device, receives a call that her old friend has gone missing, and, knowing that this disappearance had been a long time coming, finally sits down to write the story of their intertwined lives. We shift back in time to the dusty and sun-drunk Naples of the 1950s, where Elena (played as a child by Elisa Del Genio) spent her girlhood, in the perpetual company of the bright but troublesome Lila (Ludovica Nasti). Later in the series, we’ll see them as teenagers.
As we see young Lila throwing crumpled paper at teacher’s-pet Elena, De Palo’s voice intones, “She impressed me at once because she was so bad.” The voice-over device seeks to accomplish the same thing as did the narration of the novel, documenting every childish thought with the wisdom of adulthood. But this device is less than necessary. Young Del Genio and Nasti have the unforced chemistry of the kids from “The Florida Project,” the last great entertainment about kids left largely unsupervised. And their frolics in a community whose rules they barely understand make far more potent points about the innocence of youth, and how it falls away, than the voice-over ever could.
In one striking scene, the pair are reading “Little Women” together as a fight breaks out; the viewer has been able to track the complicated social dynamics leading up to it, but to the children, it’s just noise, one among many interruptions that must be endured as a part of a childhood ending too quickly.
Soon to be an HBO series, book one in the New York Times bestselling Neapolitan quartet about two friends growing up in post-war Italy is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted family epic by Italy’s most beloved and acclaimed writer, Elena Ferrante, “one of the great novelists of our time.” (Roxana Robinson, The New York Times)
Beginning in the 1950s in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, Ferrante’s four-volume story spans almost 60 years, as its protagonists, the fiery and unforgettable Lila, and the bookish narrator, Elena, become women, wives, mothers, and leaders, all the while maintaining a complex and at times conflictual friendship. Book one in the series follows Lila and Elena from their first fateful meeting as 10-year-olds through their school years and adolescence.
Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists.
“An intoxicatingly furious portrait of enmeshed friends,” writes Entertainment Weekly. “Spectacular,” says Maureen Corrigan on NPR’s Fresh Air. “A large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman,” writes James Wood in The New Yorker.
Ferrante is one of the world’s great storytellers. With My Brilliant Friend she has given her readers an abundant, generous, and masterfully plotted page-turner that is also a stylish work of literary fiction destined to delight readers for many generations to come.
Seven years ago, it took just one book for an as-yet-unknown Italian novelist to become one of the most prominent personalities of the early 21st century. What made the phenomenon even more unheard of was that it involved an author who had written an epic with undeniable literary ambitions, not a book for young readers, like the “Harry Potter” series. It was a saga with numerous allusions to Italian history, anchored by geography to a small corner of Naples, and these facts seemed to condemn in advance its success as an export.
But the triumph of “My Brilliant Friend” is also stupefying because its author does no promotion at all. Elena Ferrante is a woman without a face, whose identity is known only to her Italian publisher, E/O. Her name is a pseudonym, its sound a discreet homage to the great Italian novelist Elsa Morante, author of “Arturo’s Island” — whose work, Ferrante says here, she has always appreciated. No one has ever succeeded in revealing Ferrante’s true identity, although certain names have circulated in the press: Domenico Starnone, a Neapolitan screenwriter and novelist, and winner of the Strega Prize in 2001; or Anita Raja, a Roman translator. Nearly two years ago, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti published a scoop, identifying Raja as Ferrante, after having scoured her tax returns and deciding that her assets exceeded that of the average income of a person in her profession. Against all odds, the supposed revelation of the identity of Ferrante provoked a worldwide scandal.
For her readers, Ferrante must be allowed to remain anonymous, should she wish to be. An international outcry rose up, from enraged readers who sought to protect the writer they love, and whose anonymity they wish to preserve. Nothing of the like had ever been seen before.
The series that begins with “My Brilliant Friend” has sold more than 5.5 million copies in 42 countries, with more than 2 million copies sold in the U.S. Published in America by Europa Editions, the books are the successful result of an editorial policy that favors demanding work and patience over instant gratification. For literary professionals, it is a sign that in a time of faint-heartedness, there is still another path to follow: Rather than publishing feel-good books for silly entitled people, you can reach a wide audience betting on real literature.
Where does the great enthusiasm for the tumultuous portrait of Lila and Elena (also called Lenù), the products of an underprivileged neighborhood of Naples, whose friendship begins in the late 1950s, come from? Aside from the thirst for long narratives, which we also see in the incredible boom in TV series, readers of the world seem to want to read about genuine feelings. Who among us has not dreamed of living the complex and spellbinding relationship of these “brilliant” friends? Lila gives up her studies to work in the family shoe factory, while Elena decides to receive a classical education and ends up leaving Naples to seek her professional fortune elsewhere. The proliferation of plot points and the multitude of characters, at a time when the hallmark is simplicity, is a further enticement. The fact remains that the book is first and foremost a war machine: It seduces slowly and possesses a hitherto unseen power of attraction and that irresistible je ne sais quoi that makes an overnight success.
And Ferrante? Behind her mask, the novelist distills her public statements with the stinginess of a pharmacist. The interviews she has given may be counted on one hand, and they have been exclusively conducted via email, with her Italian publisher as intermediary. Her desire for anonymity is non-negotiable. For her, once a book has been finished, it must stand on its own. Breaking her near-constant silence here, she explains how she conceived “My Brilliant Friend” in secrecy. She confides the profound joy she gets from writing and speaks of the pleasure she feels in responding to the curiosity of her readers through the volumes she writes. Far from having shut herself in an ivory tower, she discusses #metoo and launches a stirring appeal for the enduring gains of feminism. She compares the experiences of the great Hollywood actresses to those of the poor women of Naples, in a particularly stirring defense. Finally, she gives some unprecedented clues that may help us understand not who she is, but something that all in all is the same: why she writes.
Do you recall when you first had the idea for “My Brilliant Friend”?
I can’t give you a precise answer. It may have had its origin in the death of a friend of mine, or in a crowded wedding celebration, or perhaps in the need to return to themes and images of an earlier book, “The Lost Daughter.” One never knows where a story comes from; it’s the product of a variety of suggestions that, together with others that you are not aware of and never will be, excite your mind.
Did you know from the beginning that the complete work would require four volumes?
No. In its first rough draft, the story of Lila and Lenù fit very easily into a single, substantial volume. Only when I began to work on that first text did I understand that there would be two, three, four volumes.
Was the whole story planned in advance before the actual writing started?
No, I never plan my stories. A detailed outline is enough for me to lose interest in the whole thing. Even a brief oral summary makes the desire to write what I have in mind vanish. I am one of those who begin to write knowing only a few essential features of the story they intend to tell. The rest they discover line by line.
The first book of the series was published [in Italy] in 2011, the last in 2014 — a short period of time for such an ambitious endeavor. Had you written most of the series before the publication of the first volume? Can you tell us about the timing of the writing/publication of the novel?
I started in 2009 and spent a year, more or less, completing the entire story, with its various turning points. Then I began to revise, and I discovered with great pleasure that from the first page, the text was expanding; it grew and grew, becoming more detailed. At the end of 2010, given the mass of pages that had accumulated merely for telling the story of the childhood and adolescence of Lila and Lenù, the publisher and I decided to publish it in several volumes.
I imagine that when the first novel of the series was published, you were able to write in tranquility. Then came the novel’s extraordinary success, which could have jeopardized your writing. How were you able to keep your work from being disrupted by that overwhelming success?
It was a completely new experience for me. As a child, I liked telling stories and finding effective words for the small audience of kids of my age who gathered around me. It was electrifying to sense their encouragement, to feel that my listeners wanted me to continue, to pick up the story again the next day, the next week. It was a thrilling endeavor and an exciting responsibility. I think I felt something similar between 2011 and 2014. Once I was cut off from the media clamor — which was possible thanks to the absence that I chose starting in 1990 — that childhood pleasure returned: of giving form to a story while an increasingly vast and attentive audience wants you to tell more and more. While readers were reading the first volume, I was refining and finishing the second; while readers were reading the second, I was refining and completing the third; and so on.
Looking back, how would you describe the writing process? Was it effortless and smooth from the start? Or, on the contrary, did you have moments of doubt? Did you go through many drafts, with a lot of cutting and editing?
In the past, I’ve had a lot of problems with writing. I’ve always written, ever since adolescence, but it was a struggle, and I was generally dissatisfied with the result. The consequence is that I’ve rarely been convinced that I should publish. In the case of this very long story, things went differently. The first draft rolled along without running into any obstacles: The pure pleasure of telling a story dominated. Also, the work that ensued in the following years was surprisingly easy, a kind of permanent party. The honing of the four volumes, their polishing for publication, was essentially faithful to the first rough drafts and at the same time expanded and complicated the material. No crisis, in other words, no doubts, very few cuts, few rewritings, a cascade of new inserts. In my mind, there remains the impression of a tidal wave, and when it’s gone, you’re happy that you’re still alive.
In a letter to Mario Martone, you said that any distraction could make writing seem unnecessary, pointing out the fragility of it all. However, no writer seems stronger than you are, and more capable of building a colossal work of fiction. Would you agree that this combination of fragility and strength is essential to your writing?
My greatest fear is of suddenly feeling that to devote so much of my life to writing is meaningless. It’s a sensation that I’ve felt very often, and I’m afraid that I will again. I need a lot of determination, a stubborn, passionate adherence to the page, not to feel the urgency of other things to do, a more active way of spending my life. So yes, I’m fragile. It’s all too easy for me to notice the other things and feel guilty. And so it’s pride that I need, more than strength. While I’m writing, I have to believe that it’s up to me to tell this or that story, and that it would be wrong to avoid it or not to complete it to the best of my abilities.
Where does the vital energy of your writing come from?
I don’t know if my writing has the energy you say it does. Of course, if that energy exists, it’s because either it finds no other outlets or, consciously or not, I’ve refused to give it other outlets. Of course, when I write, I draw on parts of myself, of my memory, that are agitated, fragmented, that make me uncomfortable. A story, in my view, is worth writing only if its core comes from there.
In your description, Naples is rough, violent and unpleasant, and even more so in the second half of the fourth volume, where Lila and Lenù have to confront violence on every side. Have you witnessed acts of extreme violence in Naples yourself? How have Neapolitans been able to cope with violence over the years, and have they developed a particular understanding of the violence innate in human beings, and do you perhaps share that?
One has to be very fortunate not to be touched even slightly by violence and its various manifestations in Naples. But perhaps that’s true of New York, London, Paris. Naples isn’t worse than other cities in Italy or in the world. I’ve spent a lot of time coming to an understanding of it. In the past, I used to think that only in Naples did the lawful continuously lose its boundaries and become confused with the unlawful, that only in Naples did good feelings suddenly, violently, without any break, become bad feelings. Today it seems to me that the whole world is Naples and that Naples has the merit of having always presented itself without a mask. Since it is a city by nature of astonishing beauty, the ugly — criminality, violence, corruption, connivance, the aggressive fear in which we live defenseless, the deterioration of democracy — stands out more clearly.
Lila and Lenù suffer a lot throughout the books. Why did you choose to subject them to so many tragic experiences of all kinds?
It doesn’t seem to me that their sufferings are very different from those which women endure every day in every part of the world, especially if they’re born poor. Lila and Lenù fall in love, marry, are betrayed, betray, search for a role in the world, face discrimination, give birth, raise children, are sometimes happy, sometimes unhappy, experience loss and death. I do use the novelistic, but relatively sparingly. The emotional bond we establish with characters is generally what makes their story seem like an endless series of misfortunes. In life, as in novels, we are aware of the pain of others, we feel their suffering, only when we learn to love them.
In the fourth volume, why did you choose to make Nino so cruel and superficial?
I wanted to describe the effects of superficiality when it’s combined with a good education and moderate intelligence. Nino is a smart but superficial man, a type of man I’m very familiar with.
Why did the narrative require the traumatic and nightmarish disappearance of Tina, in the fourth volume, near the end of the story?
Here I will decline to give you my reasons — I prefer that readers find their own way. I can only emphasize that that event was always, even before I began to write, one of the few definite and inevitable stops on the narrative journey that I had in mind.
In life, as in novels, we are aware of the pain of others. We feel their suffering only when we learn to love them.
Lila is enthusiastic about new electronic tools, like PC computers. She seems to be driven by an instinctual brilliance, and yet, surprisingly, she understands these logical machines. Is she more unpredictable than Lenù, or is it the other way around?
Lila, in my intentions, is never enthusiastic. She applies her intelligence to whatever, for one reason or another, comes into the field of action that she herself is given, starting from the moment she is forced to leave school. It’s because her father is a shoemaker that she designs shoes. It’s because Enzo is taking correspondence courses from IBM that she becomes involved with electronics. Unlike Lenù, who uses education to force the boundaries of the neighborhood and escape, eagerly aspiring to write, Lila acts brilliantly on what turns up, without using up her own capacities in any of the things she happens to get involved in. If one wanted to put it schematically, the only long-range project that really excites Lila is the life of her friend.
In the book, women struggle. Men often take advantage of them. How do you feel about the #MeToo protests throughout the world?
I believe that they have put a spotlight on what women have always known and have always been more or less silent about. Patriarchal domination, even — despite appearances — in the West, is still very entrenched, and each of us, in the most diverse places, in the most varied forms, suffers the humiliation of being a silent victim or a fearful accomplice or a reluctant rebel or even a diligent accuser of victims rather than of the rapists. Paradoxically, I don’t feel that there are great differences between the women of the Neapolitan neighborhood whose story I told and Hollywood actresses or the educated, refined women who work at the highest levels of our socioeconomic system. And raising one’s voice, saying, “Me too,” seems a good thing, but only if we maintain a sense of proportion: Just causes in particular are damaged by excesses. Even though the power of [offenders] large and small at the center of the world or on its peripheries lies in not being ashamed of the various forms of rape they subject us to and, by means of a repulsive stratagem, in making us think that it is we who should be ashamed.
Would you predict — and would you call for — a new feminism to emerge from #MeToo?
A certain disdain for the feminism of mothers and grandmothers has spread among the younger generations in recent years. There is a conviction that the few rights we have are a fact of nature and not the product of an extremely hard cultural and political battle. I hope that things change and that girls will realize that we have millenniums of subservience behind us, that the struggle should continue and that if we lower our guard, it won’t take much to eliminate what, at least on paper, four generations of women have with great difficulty gained.
Would you agree that your novel belongs to a tradition of popular narratives (such as those of Alexandre Dumas), with a lot of action and characters, rather than to a modernist, more minimalist approach to storytelling?
No. I can decide to reuse some of the powerful devices of popular literature, but I do so, like it or not, in an era completely different from the one in which that literature performed its task. I mean that with some regret, I can in no way be Dumas. To draw on the great tradition of the popular novel doesn’t mean creating, for better or for worse, that type of narrative but rather using it, distorting it, violating its rules, disappointing its expectations, all in the service of a story of our time. Rummaging in the great historical warehouse of the novel and the anti-novel is today, in my opinion, a duty for anyone who is by profession a narrator. Diderot could write “The Nun” but also “Jacques the Fatalist.” We can erase the boundary between literary experiences that are different from one another and use them both, at the same time, to give a shape to this historical moment. A lot of action, many characters or the minimalism you allude to, taken separately, don’t carry us far today. Let’s try to get out of useless cages.
You once said that you discovered Flaubert when you were quite young, in Naples. When did you first fall in love with a book, or with a character, and also with literature?
Yes, I really loved “Madame Bovary.” As I girl, when I read, I dragged the stories and the characters into the world I lived in, and “Emma,” I don’t know why, seemed close to many of the women in my family. But long before “Madame Bovary,” I loved “Little Women,” I loved Jo. That book is at the origin of my love for writing.
Have you been influenced by women writers (possibly French, like Colette, Duras, etc.)?
As a girl, I read all kinds of things, in no particular order, and I didn’t pay attention to the names of the authors — whether they were male or female didn’t interest me. I was enthralled by [the characters] Moll Flanders, by the Marquise de Merteuil, by Elizabeth Bennet, by Jane Eyre, by Anna Karenina, and I didn’t care about the sex of the writer. Later, in the late ’70s, I began to be interested in writing by women. If I stick with French writers, I read almost all of Marguerite Duras. But the book of hers that I’ve spent the most time with, studied most closely, is “The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein”; it’s her most complex book, but the one you can learn the most from.
How do you feel about female writing? Do you believe that the category exists — that there is female writing and male writing? For example, Elsa Morante versus Hemingway? As for your own style, would you say it’s a combination of both male and female?
Certainly, female writing exists, but mainly because even writing is powerfully conditioned by the historical-cultural construction that is gender. That said, gender has an increasingly wide mesh, its rules have been relaxed, and it is more and more difficult to reconstruct what has influenced and formed us as writers. For example, I learned from the books I loved and studied, by male and female authors, and I could easily name them, but I’ve also been deeply affected by sentences whose provenance I no longer remember, whether it was male or female. The literary apprentice, in short, passes through channels that are hard to identify. So I would avoid saying that I was formed by this or that author. Above all, I would avoid saying that I was formed essentially by women’s writing, even though I very much loved and still love “House of Liars,” by Elsa Morante. We are in a period of great change, and the presentation of gender is at risk of being not only unconvincing but not really valid.
Living is a permanent disruption for writing, but without it, writing is a frivolous squiggle on water.
When you read a book, what do you appreciate most?
Unexpected events, meaningful contradictions, sudden swerves in the language, in the psychology of the characters.
In the book, motherhood is an enemy of writing (Lenù is so busy bringing up her daughters that she can’t get the concentration she needs). In your own experience, how is it best to write? Alone? Seeing no one? Living a secluded life? Or, on the contrary, going out a lot, drawing inspiration from meeting people, possibly being in love?
When one is in love, one writes very well. And, in general, if someone does not have experience of life, what does he or she write about? Spending one’s time focused only on writing is the ambition of an adolescent, of a sad adolescent. Living is a permanent disruption for writing, but without it, writing is a frivolous squiggle on water. That said, life, when it has the force of a tidal wave, can devour the time for writing. Motherhood, in my experience, is certainly capable of sweeping away the need to write. Conceiving a child, bringing it into the world, raising it is a marvelous and painful experience that over a fairly long span of time — especially if you don’t have the money to buy the time and energy of other women — takes away space and meaning from all the rest. Naturally, if the need to write is strong, you sooner or later find an arrangement that leaves you some room. But that holds for all the fundamental experiences of life. They hit us, they overwhelm us, and then, if we don’t end up dead in a corner, we write.
Was it hard to wake up one day thinking, “The story of Lila and Lenù is over. I’m finished with it.” Like giving birth and suddenly feeling empty in some way?
The metaphor of birth applied to literary works has never seemed convincing to me. The metaphor of weaving seems more effective. Writing is one of the prostheses we have invented to empower our body. Writing is a skill, it’s a forcing of our natural limits, it requires long training to assimilate techniques, use them with increasing expertise and invent new ones, if we find we need them. Weaving says all this well. We work for months, for years, weaving a text, the best that we are capable of at the moment. And when it’s finished, it’s there, forever itself, while we change and will change, ready to try out other weaves.
Have you possibly considered writing a sequel, or side stories (the way J.K. Rowling did with Harry Potter)? The ending does allow it, doesn’t it?
No, the story of Lila and Lenù is over. But I know other stories and hope I’ll be able to write them. As for publishing them, I don’t know.
Your novel values friendship more than anything else, even more than love, which is unpredictable and can vanish. Do you value friendship in that way, in your own life?
Yes, friendship has to do with love but is less at risk of being spoiled. It’s not constantly threatened by sexual practices, by the danger that exists in the mixture of feeling and the use of bodies to give and be given pleasure. Sexual friendship is more widespread today than in the past, a game of bodies and elective affinities that tries to keep at bay both the power of love and the rite of pure sex. But with what results I don’t know.
I have been asking many writers about where they write. The most recent was Tom Wolfe, describing his desk and the colors of his office walls — blue. Could you describe the place where you write (or, if not, can you tell us about some objects that you care about and which are around when you write)?
I write anywhere. I don’t have a room of my own. I know that I’d like a bare space, with white, empty walls. But it’s more an aestheticizing fantasy than a real necessity. When I write, if it’s really going well, I soon forget where I am.
This interview originally appeared in the French newsmagazine L’Obs in January 2018. Jacob is a L’Obs staff writer covering books and is the author of a nonfiction book “La guerre littéraire” (Héloïse d’Ormesson publishing).
Our critics chose 15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.
By Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai
March 5, 2018
In 2016, the feminist press Emily Books held a panel in Brooklyn titled, a bit cheekily, “What Is Women’s Writing?” There was no consensus, much laughter and a warm, rowdy vibe. Eileen Myles read from a memoir in progress and Ariana Reines read a poem, wearing a dress with a pattern of a city on fire. All of this felt exactly right.
But even if it puts your teeth on edge to see “women’s writing” cordoned off in quotes, you can’t deny the particular power of today’s women writers — their intensity of style and innovation. The books steering literature in new directions — to new forms, new concerns — almost invariably have a woman at the helm, an Elena Ferrante, a Rachel Cusk, a Zadie Smith.
For Women’s History Month, The Times’s staff book critics — Dwight Garner, Jennifer Szalai and myself, Parul Sehgal — sat down together to think about these writers who are opening new realms to us, whose books suggest and embody unexplored possibilities in form, feeling and knowledge.
As we put together a reading list, we introduced a few parameters, for sanity’s sake. We consigned ourselves to books written by women and published in the 21st century. And we limited our focus to fiction, but not without some grief. Memoir has emerged as a potent political and literary force in recent years (see the terrain-shifting work of Maggie Nelson, for example). And poets like Claudia Rankine, Solmaz Sharif and Tracy K. Smith are some of the most distinctive voices working today.
The books we selected are a diverse bunch. They are graphic novels, literary fiction and works inflected with horror and fantasy. They hail from Italy, Canada, Nigeria and South Korea. They are wildly experimental and staunchly realist.
Any list, especially one as idiosyncratic as ours, is bound to leave off some worthy contenders, like “Wolf Hall,” say, or “Gilead” or “A Visit From the Goon Squad” (to name just a few). This is not a comprehensive list, far from it. We hope it will be seen as a start — a way to single out these extraordinary books and the ability of fiction to challenge and reimagine the world. Some of the books we selected, like “Americanah,” bring a fresh slant to the novel’s natural concerns about character and fate and belonging. Others, like “How Should a Person Be?,” pluck new questions out of the air, in this instance about authorship and authenticity. They ransack classic stories (“American Innovations”) and invent genres out of whole cloth (“Her Body and Other Parties”).
Every one of these books features a woman at the center. She is brainy (Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy), grimy (“Homesick for Another World”), terrorized (“The Vegetarian”) and all of the above (the new mother in “Dept. of Speculation”). Each book’s utterly distinct style emerges as its women try to invent a language for their lives.
You could say these books are on the vanguard, but to suggest just one vanguard feels so insufficient. What makes these books so rich is their plenitude, the variety they contain and embody. “My story flows in more than one direction,” Adrienne Rich once wrote. “A delta springing from the riverbed/with its five fingers spread.” — Parul Sehgal
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante’s blockbuster novels, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, follow the entwined lives of two childhood friends with an intensity and psychological acuity that put contemporary fiction on notice. The books are also social novels of remarkable and subtle power, offering a history of postwar Italy and the terrorism of the Camorra. But everything comes filtered through the personal lives of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, ordinary women who would never make it into the history books. Lila and Elena grew up in the slums of Naples, in a clinch so ardent and dangerous that to call it friendship feels hideously inadequate. The series carries us through 50 years, as the women rescue and betray each other, struggle to escape the slums and their mothers, and become mothers themselves. Ferrante captures the barely contained violence of domestic life and is taboo-shattering in her unsparing and relentless exploration of the secret lives of women — their ambivalence and shame. Like Lena, these books give off “an odor of wildness.” Their intelligence cuts into the skin. — Parul Sehgal
Many love you because you’re unavailable. Despite international acclaim, you have firmly chosen to remain out of the public eye, concealing your true identity and writing under a pseudonym. You choose this in part because, as you’ve said, “Books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” How can we not be intrigued and seduced by you?
Your Neapolitan novels focus on the lives of two girls, Lenu, our narrator, and her brilliant friend, Lila. Both grow up poor in Naples, Italy during the aftermath of WWII. The books follow the pair’s divergent paths to adulthood; one becomes upwardly mobile through education and the other struggles for autonomy and a better life in their poor neighborhood. The book is just as much about the shifting political, economic, and cultural forces at play in Italy during this period. These potentially intimidating themes are brought back to earth by delivering them through the lives and experiences of the two extraordinary characters and their evolving relationship.
Your work is enormous in its scope and deeply layered, while still managing to be relatable. The Neapolitan Novels are about the nuances of friendship and intimacy between women as much as they’re about the epic struggle for autonomy and agency in a deeply unequal and shifting society. You have written a book that is unsentimental yet has a great, bursting heart, a series that explores the light and dark of friendship and the machinations of power. You capture the intense interior experiences of living in a society that works to confine you, and you also beautifully articulate the divine rage and rebellion which seethes within those subject to these oppressive experiences. You have written a ‘serious’ piece of literature with cover art that is unapologetically feminine.
Elena Ferrante, I love you because your work is transcendent. You defy definition and you irreverently rebel against attempts to categorize your writing. You gave me a new understanding of what art can be.
My Brilliant Friendby Elena Ferrante
There’s a good chance you’ve already received recommendations for Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet from gushy friends, fervent booksellers and rhapsodic librarians. So no more excuses: Read it now, because chances are, you’ll love every soapy Italian moment. Plus, Ferrante is handling the screenplay for HBO’s forthcoming adaptation, so your Neapolitan infatuation may continue indefinitely.
Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, not a real name. And that mystery brings up a lot of emotional discussions about the real person behind it and the nature of the books. Some think it’s an autobiography, some even argue that the writer is male, which I find hard to believe having read her books. But everybody agrees that once you start reading her Neapolitan Novels, it’s impossible to break away.
The beginning of the first book disappointed me as it is written in kind of a crude childish manner. The story is set in a poor and run-down neighbourhood of Naples, full of violence. Two friends, the schoolgirls Elena Greko and Lila Cerullo, dream, read books and plan their way out of this little and limited community, they were born into.
The protagonist, Elena Greko, annoyed me all the way to the middle of the first book. She didn’t have any self-esteem, didn’t defend her personal borders, her best friend Lila manipulated her every way possible. But the style of storytelling changed as the heroines grew up and their view of the world developed. The deep voice and the great narration of Hilary Huber, reading the text of English translation of the novel, also dragged me in.
Only much later, when I read about the earthquake in Naples I realised why so many things in this book attracted me and pushed me away the same time. I saw the scenes of the earthquake for real – the crowds of people, the destruction, the overall life put to halt for a long time – I saw it all in Armenia when I was a little child. This whole environment in the book reminded me the small town in Armenia where I spent the first years of my childhood. I was lucky in a way. Having been born to an academic family, I didn’t have to fight for the right to get an education as Elena did. But a lot of the attributes of the environment seemed familiar either from my own memories or from stories told by my parents and relatives.
So the days passed, and I couldn’t get myself away from the audiobooks, listening every moment in the car, every second when my little one was asleep or played on his own on the playground. 4 books, almost 70 hours of audio, I fully immersed in the world of Elena and I realised, why it attracted so many readers. It shows naked feelings, feelings that hurt deeply and keep alive. The heroine has an amazing understanding of those feelings, her own and other people’s. She doubts herself all the time, but at the same time, she is brave enough to write about corruption and crime without having a second thought about the criminals who can recognise themselves in her writing. I am sure, this book could be an excellent subject for a dissertation on shame and vulnerability if Brene Brown got to it. But I am also sure that it’s a book that you couldn’t stay indifferent to. You either love it or hate it.
The narrative that important, authoritative female novelists ultimately owe their brilliance to men refuses to die as we close out 2017—and it’s ensnared one of our newest literary stars. The plagiarism allegations against The Girlsauthor Emma Cline, leveled by her ex-boyfriend, have set off a bruising legal battle and exposed Cline’s personal life. But more than just sordid, they’re a public attempt to silence a young and intriguing literary voice.
The initial claim was that Cline stole part of the book from her ex using spyware. But the story of the lawsuit reads to a casual observer almost like a blackmail attempt, for which Cline has just countersued. According to reports in the New Yorker and the New York Times, the initial complaint—signed by lawyer and Weinstein defender David Boies—contained pages of information on Cline’s sexual habits, with the implicit threat that unless she settled for a large sum, they’d be released publicly.
“I never, in any scenario, could have imagined publishing a novel would have resulted in a bunch of lawyers combing through records of my porn habits,” Cline told the New Yorker. In the second, post-Weinstein version of the complaint, those pages were gone, but the damage to the writer is done. Cline told the Times that she has missed out on priceless time and energy she’d need to write a follow-up novel, calling it “a loss I don’t know how to fully comprehend.”
But as we’re made to pore over lurid details of naked pictures and Craigslist-arranged assignation, a more important and jarring question looms: how could anyone ever think any part of that book was written by a man?
A riff on the real-life story of the Manson girls, The Girls was so firmly rooted in an experience of female adolescence—specifically white, female, disaffected, angry, horny, suburban ’60s adolescence. It was a book about being a certain kind of girl. It was a story about the banality of young female anger and violence. Many readers remain willing to give men authority over these themes; Jonathan Franzen’s Purity follows another directionless young woman into a web of violence. Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides channels suburban female self-harm directly through the collective male gaze. Yet The Girls felt exciting because that gaze was so deliberately absent, its Manson figure so peripheral to the titular characters’ toxic interest in each other.
The assertion that Cline, however subtly, owes her brilliance and accolades to a male hand is recurring in literary circles whenever a woman pens powerfully—like when some critics thought Elena Ferrante was a pen name for a man, even though the Italian novelist’s Neapolitan works told a story that felt so subjective, so deeply and unquestionably female. These novels, too, were a portrait of a lifelong female friendship (or frenemy-ship), set against the backdrop of a community that experienced poverty and domestic and mob violence. In Lila and Elena’s desires for escape, fury at the world and obsession with each other, many of us who succumbed to Ferrante Fever saw an exhaustive exploration of a female psyche—not necessarily ours, but someone’s. That felt new and thrilling. And like The Girls, which commanded a huge advance and was the the big book of its season, Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels dominated online and in-person literary discussion for months, with avid woman fans taking the lead in the analysis.
So naturally, Literary Men were suspicious. For months, rumors swirled in the Italian and international press about the reclusive Ferrante’s true identity. Finally, she was doxxed by Claudio Gatti, a swaggering male journalist who claimed to have discovered her purported identity. Snooping through real estate and other holdings, he pinpointed her as Anita Raja, married to Italian novelist Domenico Starnone. He even went so far as to, again, float the idea that the books were a “collaboration” between the two writers.
He went forward with his quest despite Ferrante’s very clearly expressed wish to be left alone. “I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present,” she once said of her decision to remain anonymous. “To relinquish it would be very painful.” Artists and writers who are not white men continually have to fight back against a public obsession with their personal lives, a desire to link those lives with their work as a way of diminishing their talent. This is what Ferrante avoided by being anonymous, and what Gatti and others foisted onto her.
Both of these novelists achieved something rare in the literary world: books about female experiences that were critically lauded, widely read, and constantly-discussed events. They were staking out specific women’s emotional territory as universal and worthy.
And poof! Both just happen to have been undermined by men questioning their authority and even denying their (or any woman’s) authorship. Both female authors were each then further punished by an unwanted act of privacy invasion. Those twin intrusions—the outing of Ferrante’s identity and the exposure of Cline’s sex life— both attempted to permanently put asterisks on the discussion of these women’s writing. In both cases, it remains unclear whether the work will eventually surpass the “scandal” in people’s minds—many readers have vowed not to think about Ferrante’s unmasking or acknowledge it. But at least temporarily and at least for some readers, Cline is reduced to the ex-girlfriend of the guy suing her. Ferrante became the wife of another novelist.
All this recalls another agonizing literary moment from recent years: In 2014, novelist Jaqueline Woodson was called to the stage to receive her National Book Award for her masterful verse-novel about her own family, Brown Girl Dreaming. After her speech, her friend and presenter Daniel Handler made a crude racist joke. “In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from,” Woodson later wrote.
Clearly, the elevation of diverse stories to a position of centrality in literature still provokes backlash, even from friends in the form of a “joke.” The message sent to other writers whose subjects and identities have previously been marginalized is that even if you do succeed, someone will be waiting to humiliate or discredit you, or simply shrink your stature. And even though readers have rallied around all three these writers in the face of insults, the effect is still discouraging. Because many serious artists want, in Ferrante’s words, “To concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies.” A stupid joke, a cruel lawsuit, an unwanted journalistic investigation—all these acts do their part to yank that freedom away.
Recent authors have made Pirandello’s themes so central that the search for, or absence of, identity have become a defining characteristic of ‘Italian-ness’. Famously, Elena Ferrante has annulled her own authorial identity: ‘Ferrante’ is a cypher for an anonymous writer – possibly a translator, possibly married to novelist Domenico Starnone, possibly a stand-in for both halves of the couple – or perhaps we are all on the wrong track? The absence of a public presence frees Ferrante from ‘the rituals that writers are more or less obliged to perform in order to sustain their book,’ she explained to Vanity Fair.
In an article for The Guardian, Ferrante wrote about Jane Austen, who also published her novels anonymously. ‘Who wrote Sense and Sensibility? Who invented Marianne and Elinor and their mother and the many female characters who appear, disappear, reappear?’ she asked. She might well have been commenting on her own best-selling novels: The Neapolitan Quartet. Their focus is the six-decade-long friendship between Elena/Lenuccia/Lenù and Raffaella/Lina/Lila, whose changing names and the similarities between their nomenclatures (Lenù/Lina) underline the impossibility of pinning down identity across time and space. My Brilliant Friend, the first in the series, begins with Lina/Lila’s disappearance: ‘She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life she had left behind. Everything, including her computer, photos of herself, birth certificates, telephone bills, receipts, had gone.’ Characters stretch their boundaries so far across the course of the novels, that they are almost impossible to define. The most extreme example is the women’s friend, Alfonso, who undergoes a male to female transition so complete that he almost transforms into Lina. And yet, like Italian identity, each personality displays seemingly immutable defining traits. Elena is hard-working and studious and efficient; Lina’s razor-sharp intelligence never fades.
(…. ) The desire to uncover our one true voice, the dread of hearing what it has to say: This seems to me the tension of modern life, the thing that has us searching for a cell signal on yoga retreat. Being in a place where nothing has an agenda for your attention, as Axelrod found, means looking and listening in an unguarded way. “Natural curiosities and affinities emerge,” as he puts it, “becoming the filters for experience.” How we breathe in the world, then, defaults to a function of an unbidden part of identity, rather than a function of what others want us to be — or, perhaps even more crucially, how we want others to think we are.
Elena Ferrante, the Italian author whose pseudonymity became part of her mystique, once wrote to me in an email interview, “If my book were publicly mine from the beginning, I would be careful not to damage my image, I would censor myself.” Writing was a “battle against lying. Only with the confidence of anonymity can I decide occasionally to publish. In the end, if I’m forced to choose, I prefer to lose the role of writer rather than spoil my passion for writing — that’s the way it’s always been.” When she was allegedly unmasked by an Italian investigative journalist, her fans were outraged at the violation. It was invasive, they argued, which it was, but it seemed to me that not only were they defending Ferrante from the indignity of having her financial and real-estate records unveiled, they were also defending their own right not to know, to be free to imagine that she was, in fact, Elena Greco, the narrator of her Neapolitan Novels, the woman they knew with the intimacy and deep interiority only possible in literature.
And so contemporary artists find ways to battle for truth on their own terms. I think of young women like Emma Cline, who push back against having their photos on the dust jackets of their books, or David Hammons, who declines to participate in the accepted machinations of the art world, or Bob Dylan, who took nearly two weeks to even publicly acknowledge that he won the Nobel Prize in literature last year. But maybe the best display of resistance against the role of artist-as-performer was the quietly myth-demolishing article by this year’s Nobel laureate in literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote for The Guardian about the four-week period of seclusion in 1987 he and his wife called the “crash,” a desperate attempt to “reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.” The result was “The Remains of the Day,” a monumental yesteryear portrait of renunciation, and a life passed by, tragically unlived. Now, of course, all is reversed: It’s renouncing the world that requires nerve and imagination, and the roar of silence that dares us to listen.
We follow in the (fictional) footsteps of the heroines of My Brilliant Friend and its sequels, into the alleyways, gritty apartment blocks and piazzas of this energetic and fascinating city
by Sophia Seymour. Photographs: Giuseppe Di Vaio
Lenù and Lila, the fictional protagonists of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, forge their friendship in a deprived area of Naples, just east of the cacophonous central station. The books follow the girls’ fraught relationship as they navigate the distinct social and economic divides of the city, both railing against and succumbing to the expectations of women as they struggle to be defined by something other than the violence and poverty of their post-war upbringing.
A ground-floor apartment in a working class area of Naples.
Ferrante maps out in vivid detail every corner of the unnamed “neighbourhood” where they grow up, yet when the characters move into the rest of the city she is meticulous in naming each street and square, allowing Naples to take centre stage as the stories develop. In this way, the success of the novels has seen an unprecedented number of readers from across the world make a pilgrimage to Naples, in search of the raw and gritty side of the city that has traditionally kept visitors away.
The area where the girls grow up is based on working class Rione Luzzatti, which has hardly changed since the 1950s and does seemingly little to defy the city’s much-maligned reputation as a crumbling rogue governed by intimidating forces. However, those intent on discovering the stomping ground of the brilliant heroines will need to abandon preconceptions, ignore warnings of lawless, unruly Neapolitans, and head deep into the underbelly, to the city’s scarcely explored areas. It is here that the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the city reveal themselves, and the real magic of Naples is to be discovered.
Porta Capuana is one of Naples’ old city gates, built by the Aragonese dynasty and dating back to 1484.
To follow in the footsteps of characters in the four novels, head out of the historic centre on a Dante-esque trip into the Neapolitan underworld. Pass through the vast Aragonese city gates of Porta Capuana, now sitting alone in a square off Via Carbonara, and head into the pulsating heart of O’ Buvero street market.
Naples street markets are a place to experience the energy of the city.
O’ Buvero is a human jumble of activity weaving through the decaying 15th-century palaces of Via Sant’Antonio Abate. It is here that the energy of the city’s street life can truly be experienced, resonating through the neighbourhood and into the cramped flats and echoing stairwells.
As you walk through the alleyways, it is impossible not to project the community of characters described in the book on to the market sellers. Stop to buy a bunch of tiny piennolo tomatoes from the equivalent of the Ada Cappuccio character who ran the fruit stall in Ferrante’s Naples, or watch as an Enzo Scanno equivalent loads crates of produce, like Jenga blocks, on to his cart to take back and sell in the neighbourhood.
A view of the church of Sant’Antonio Abate from behind the market.
If you were wondering where to find intimidating Solara brother types, striking illicit deals, look out for the men manning blackmarket cigarette stalls, their cartons neatly arranged on tablecloths so that they can be removed in one quick motion at the sight of police.
Deeper into the market, lurid insults filter from above, hurled from window to window by women as they lace the streets with laundry, just like Melina and Lidia squabbling over Donato Sarratore in the first book, My Brilliant Friend. Deals are thrashed out in thick Neapolitan dialect, while Vespas arrive loaded with boxes of broccoli-like friarelli, grown on the slopes of Vesuvius. Through a half-open door you may spot an old boy painting the colourful price tags that decorate the market stalls. Nearby may be a woman leaning out of her street-level apartment, cigarette in hand, waiting for a lighter to be lowered by rope in a basket from a floor above.
Old world charm: Pasquale’s family has been making price tags for the markets across Naples for three generations. Right; passing a light with a basket.
Exiting the market, up Via Benedetto Cairoli to Corso Garibaldi, you pass a traditional acquafrescaio kiosk, selling sulphuric Telese from Vesuvius, known for its healing and aphrodisiac properties. Perhaps Elena Greco was under the influence of this potent volcanic liquid when she first laid her lustful eyes on the womaniser Nino Sarratore at the nearby high school.
The infamous ‘stradone’, south-west of the Rione Luzzatti neighbourhood.
Take a taxi down the wide Via Taddeo da Sessa – the stradone of the books – with the financial district on the left, and leave behind the market and enter a seemingly less hospitable corner of the city, Rione Luzzatti. Silent women stare out of the barred windows of apartments in the four-storey Fascist-era housing blocks. The flats face on to shared courtyards, lined with grates into basements like the one where Lila threw Lenù’s doll, Tina. Occasionally, the stillness is punctured by schoolchildren tumbling out of the concrete elementary school on Via Marino Freccia for lunch, or the fishmonger whistling down the vacant avenues in his three-wheeled Piaggio.
Telese mineral water on sale at the acquafrescaio kiosk on the corner of the market.
Children run home after school. The elementary school Lenù and Lila would have attended is on the left and the parish church is behind them.
It’s worth spending some time exploring, however, as there are a number of reputable establishments around the central square. The basement Pasticciello bakery (Via Vesuvio 3C) has been attracting outsiders to the neighbourhood long before Ferrante’s books came out. It is famous for pagnutiello, a typical Neapolitan street snack made from eggs, ham and cheese, baked in crunchy bread and sold for €1. Signor Spagnuolo – Gigliola’s father – would have baked these as a warm lunch for workmen at the nearby central station.
Il Pasticciello bakery, Rione Luzzatti. Below: Lucia and her assistant cracking eggs in the kitchen.
Down an espresso at Bar Pariso (Via Beato Leonardo Murialdo, on the corner of Piazza Francesco Coppola ), alongside men who, according to Ferrante, spend their time “between gambling losses and troublesome drunkness”. Try a vino sfuso – local aglianico wine dispensed straight from the barrel in a plastic cup – from Marco’s slither of a shop next to the tobacconists on Via Buonocore. Wander through the public gardens where Lila would have taught Elena her Latin verbs and past the Sacra Famiglia parish church, originally built in central Naples in the 15th century before being transported to the rione brick by brick, when the area needed a place of worship.
Il Bar Pariso on the corner of the neighbourhood square.
If the bakery’s pagnutiello has your mouth watering, follow the stradone out of the neighbourhood and through the dark, infamous “tunnel with its three entrances” on Via Gianturco where Lila and Lenù skip school and first attempt to leave the neighbourhood to go and see the sea.
The infamous tunnel on Via Gianturco, where Lila and Elena first attempt to leave the neighbourhood.
Turn right into the slighly more upmarket Case Nuove district for lunch at Pizzeria Carmnella. The pizzaiolo, Vincenzo Esposito, has invented a pizza to celebrate Elena Ferrante, mirroring the dishes served at a traditional Neapolitan Sunday lunch: ragú simmered for 24 hours, ricotta, fiordilatte mozzarella from Agerola on the Amalfi peninsula, grated parmesan and fresh basil.
Pizzeria Carmnella: pizza margherita straight from the woodburning oven.
Not all of Ferrante’s bildungsroman is based in poor neighbourhoods. The life of Elena Greco reaches into the privileged pockets of Via Tasso and the Chiaia district too (as well as to Florence and Milan). Her books expose the Manichean elements of the city, the contrast of lightness and darkness, poverty and wealth, opportunity and hopelessness. So when, after lunch, you hurl across the city in a taxi to where the Solaras sold Lila’s shoes in an upmarket boutique in Piazza Dei Martiri, it feels like crossing a border, moving through tangible social and economic divides.
Ferrante’s characters are astonished by the stark contrast in daily life for richer folk, the orderly manner of things compared with the menacing chaos of the impoverished neighbourhoods. Lenù’s impressions of the Chiaia residents is that they “seemed to have breathed another air, to have eaten other food, to have dressed on some other planet, to have learned to walk on wisps of air”. The change in atmosphere is tangible under the central marble column surrounded by sculpted lions, in the square lined with elegant shops.
Follow the line of boutiques up to the top of Via Chiaia and the lavish Gambrinus coffee house on the corner of Piazza Trento e Trieste, where (unlike Ferrante) writers such as Hemingway and Neruda could afford to watch the world go by. As you pass by the familiar chain stores and well-heeled gentry, beware: a longing may set in for the raw and pulsating Naples to the east.
Gambrinus Coffeehouse has been in Piazza Trieste e Trento since 1860, and has always been a meeting point for intellectuals, and for musicians performing in the San Carlo Opera House opposite.
As the writing in the Neapolitan novels attests, Naples is a city of vivid contradictions that summon conflicting emotions of love, loathing, shock and wonder. Searching for Lila Cerullo, the missing protagonist, in the less wealthy areas of the city means encountering Neapolitans who will go out of their way to disprove any negative reputation with the sort of warm, sociable and humble spirit associated with having always felt like the underdog. On the flip side, one can’t but be suspicious of invisible dark forces at play, nepotism and raging inequality. Wandering through the market and into the streets where Lenù and Lila’s friendship blossomed, and crisscrossing the city’s starkly divided neighbourhoods, is like reading the book itself: charged, consuming, and liable to start a lifelong love affair.
Sophia Seymour is a Naples based documentary maker, writer and the founder of Looking for Lila. She curates tours, shoots and events using the Ferrante novels as a frame to explore the city
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When Lena imagines herself in her mind, her actual appearance is not what she pictures. Lena is chubby. Glasses cover her eyes, acne covers her skin. She’s coming of age in a poor and violent suburb of Naples, being hurled towards adulthood, while grasping – as if for a branch in a hurricane – for childhood and a world where time stays still. Adulthood is frightening. It disables like her mother’s limp. It suffocates with the claustrophobia of domesticity and aches with the disappointment of abandoned dreams. Growing up seems, for Lena, what it is for most girls, a winding on of constraints and obligations, an application of social pressure and a submission to its conformity.
Adolescence is the jarring in-between. It’s the time before the substance of our identities hardens into the adults we fear becoming. A present yet fleeting moment of tumult, it offers a final window of hope to shape our lives, our minds, before they ossify into their mature and unchangeable forms.
“My Brilliant Friend” is a journey through the secret thoughts, memories and confessions swirling in Lena’s mind. Paced by the ever-increasing speed of change, the novel exudes uncertainty. At nearly every point in the narrative, Lena is struggling to define her self-worth – and herself. Though she is sought after by boys and praised by teachers, she questions her beauty, her intelligence and her merits. Though she is deeply introspective and thoughtful, she fears being wrong or seeming stupid. Lena’s challenge is Sisyphean, to overcome within herself that which always tells her she is behind. Author Elena Ferrante pours out these insecurities with prose you could drink, but digesting the plight of the young protagonist would be exhausting if it weren’t so acutely familiar.
As a freshman last year, I remember sitting in class with the previous night’s reading whirling in my mind. I had argued over the ideas with my friends last night, ruminated over their meaning. Yet when prompted for questions or comments, my hand stayed resolutely lowered, my mouth steadfastly closed. My piece, which teetered at the tip of my tongue, was knocked off balance by the frenzy of thoughts chasing each other in circles, each one critical of the last. While a hurricane ravaged through my mind, the professor calmly registered the silence and moved on.
Later on, I approached a friend of mine to ask about this phenomenon that followed me from class to class. It felt as if something inside of me were ordering me to stay silent, lest I be wrong, lest my question contain the slightest redundancy. No matter how much I dedicate myself to the material, self-doubt always seemed to creep in. To my surprise, my friend told me that she was experiencing the exact same thing. We resolved that introspecting, overanalyzing, somehow always made us weaker. It set one part of ourselves against another, and left us in a haze, not knowing which “self” to trust.
Like young Lena, we lacked – and perhaps feared – the conviction required to assert our opinions, and thus ourselves. Fearing that we become, inadvertently, what we did not wish to be. Fearing that a false statement might crystallize into a false impression. In general, we just feared.
The world offers a lot for a girl to fear. The threat of violence, abuse, loss of agency or denial of self-fulfillment, all are ominous concerns thumping in the background of “My Brilliant Friend,” and while it’s easy to learn to fear, girls, in particular are much more hard pressed to find models of overcoming it without submitting to artificially mimicking the trope of male supremacy.
On this point, Ferrante offers a brilliant case study. Lila, Lena’s self-assured and powerful friend, doesn’t fear wielding a knife on those who cross her. She dominates with her intellect, and eviscerates all doubt directed at her through forceful outbursts of aggression and merciless cruelty. However, Lila’s extreme displays of courage seem to hint that beneath them lay profound unrest. Midway into her adolescence, she begins experiencing a feeling she calls “dissolving boundaries,” when all around her, people, objects lose their shape and seem but a mass of particles, spilling out of their original forms. The storm of adolescence ravages, leaving nothing behind as it was. Lila’s ambition devolves into doubt, and her courage eventually gives in to fear. She commits herself to provincial life and dismisses the prospect of moving away from her impoverished, lethargic town.
Suppressing self-doubt does not get rid of it, and the contrast between the two friends finally exposes itself in the way the girls respond to self-critique. Whereas Lena grew up and adapted under the constant pressure of crushing self-doubt, for Lila, the shock of finally admitting to such uncertainty, was irreparably destructive.
After reading the first novel in Ferrante’s series, I met with my friend from freshman year once again. She had been reading an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy published a few days prior that seemed to translate exactly what we felt into a polished jargon, as if our recurring dispositions were legitimate academic methodology. The entry is titled “Epistemic Self-Doubt,” and dubs the state of the split, doubting self, as one of “epistemic akrasia.”
The entry sheds light on what it means to be a constantly self-critiquing and doubting being. It notes that while splitting oneself into two factions is not the most straightforward means of existence, it’s almost not a state of perpetual moral tempest, and by all means, is extremely possible to simply live with. Lena’s not a role model – no one in Ferrante’s books is. She never solves the problem of self-doubt, but she does move forward despite it. Her ability to keep going despite her flaws is her most commendable trait, one that fellow epistemic akrasiacs are wont to take note of.
Contact Anna-Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’ stanford.edu.
I have read many books throughout the years, from the heavy classics to the lighter page-turners, and I know exactly what I like to read. For me a good book should be both interesting, well written, light and heavy at the same time. Literature should be something enriching for both the soul, the heart and the brain. I love a well-written page-turner. The Italian writer Elena Ferrante writes those books.
I have read many foreign writers, both for some reason not a lot of Italian writers, but since reading Elena Ferrante I have become increasingly interested in the country and it’s culture. Elena Ferrante is an interesting figure, she (if she is a she) has decided to stay anonymous, she has said that her person and her books should be and stay to separate things and that you don’t need to know a writer for you to enjoy a book. Unfortunately, her wish to stay unknown is also the press wish to unravel that secret. Ferrante has since stated that she would not produce any more books if “they” (the publishing firm) decide to reveal her identity.
But to get back to her books, the most famous ones are the Neapolitan Novels. The four book series that tells the becoming of age story of two girls Elena and Lila growing up in Naples, from the 50’s to today. It’s a story of girls becoming women, but also about a city that is, in my sense, the principal character of the book. Naples is violent, hard, poor but also extremely fascinating. The books are extremely well written, there is everything from love to politics. After reading the books, you feel like you have lived their lives, you travel through Italy’s story and you grow up with them. These books are truly the most realistic and gripping books, I have read in a long time. And have you already read the four books, I can also recommend Ferrante’s other books. The themes of the female struggle, Naples, family are recurrent.
When I first came across My Brilliant Friend, oblivious to Ferrante Fever, in a local bookshop, the title simply intrigued me. Who was this brilliant friend? It was a terrific title.
After abandoning a few dud novels, I was excited to pick up Elena Ferrante’s book because I could tell from the first page that she was an author in control of her craft. Unfortunately, due to my short attention span as a millennial, I put the novel aside after reading the first few chapters. I had a hard time keeping up with the flurry of characters introduced in the beginning. It didn’t help that some characters have multiple names (Lila is also called Raffaela and Lina), and some of the names rhymed: Gino, Nino, Rino.
I missed the old me, pre-social media, when I was able to plow through a thick classic from Dickens or a Brontë sister without getting distracted. I was disappointed in myself for not giving a proper chance to a writer who wrote so well, so I forced myself to pick up the book again months later. Good thing I did. Once I got familiar with the characters, I couldn’t put this book down.
In fact, I found myself reading every spare second that I got. I was back to the old bookworm me again, my nose in a book at all times, and it felt great. My Brilliant Friend is the first in the 4-book Neapolitan Novels, about the lifelong friendship of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, the protagonist. For a few weeks in the spring, this series consumed my life. I was emotionally invested. More than I few times I wanted to throw a book against a wall because I was angry at a character, some event that occurred, or due to the masochistic life decisions of the protagonist.
Elena Ferrante is a pen name and very few people know who she is, although some nosy peeps have desperately tried to find out. Ferrante is an Italian writer from Naples, most likely in her 70s. I don’t need to know more. If she wants to stay anonymous to feel comfortable writing with sincerity and truth, we need to respect it, do the literary world a favour, and let her.
Her descriptions of Naples are so vivid I’m there, postwar, with her, and her characters are so real that I had to tweet about my reaction to one character and was gratified to know I wasn’t the only one who hated this dude with a passion. Yes, you will hate him too.
Ferrante Fever is a thing—there’s even a documentary about it now. People around the world are obsessed. HBO is making a mini-series. As I was reading, I was trying to figure it how Ferrante did it—how did she make the minutiae feel so explosive? Talent like this does not come very often.
As for the controversy over the book covers, people need to get over it. Some are offended because they feel the books deserve more than women’s fiction covers. I think they’re fine. The book is written by a woman, the story is about two complex women, and the publishing house wants to target female readers. Why should “masculine” or “gender neutral” covers equal respectable literary fiction? How many novels by male authors are read by women even when the covers are “masculine”? I think people need to rethink the fact that books with girly covers are automatically not deserving of literary praise. Ferrante’s book covers are helping in this regard—training people to look beyond the covers. If I’d passed on certain books because I didn’t like the covers, I would have missed out on a lot of good reads.
I still haven’t said anything about the plot of this book, aside from the fact it is about two friends. I’ll just say that by the end of the series, it’s still not clear who is the brilliant friend.
The first book covers their lives from childhood to adolescence. Read the books, get obsessed, and get back to me on what you think.