Sometimes, a literary phenomenon comes upon the scene, and you just have to lay things down and see what’s up. For instance, there’s the “Neapolitan Quartet” by Elena Ferrante (a pen name; the author’s identity remains a secret).
The final book in this series — “The Story of the Lost Child” — is landing on many best-of-2015 lists, and Ferrante’s being hailed as “one of the great novelists of our time,” as well as the most important Italian writer of her generation.
Belatedly, I go to the first volume, “My Brilliant Friend,” to report what makes her work stand out.
In the prologue, a man named Rino calls his mother’s old friend, Elena Greco, the narrator, to report that Rino’s mom has been missing without a trace for two weeks.
“What a good son,” the narrator says sarcastically, “a large man, forty years old, who hadn’t worked in his life, just a small-time crook and spendthrift. I could imagine how carefully he had done his searching. Not at all. He had no brain, and in his heart he had only himself.”
This is wonderful. We’re going to be led through the story by a narrator with an attitude, and we’ll want to learn how that developed. When the story finishes its 10 years of life from a half a century ago, we’ll come back to the prologue to read more into it.
Elena directs Rino to search his mom’s house to confirm that her friend, Lila, has indeed left not a single scrap of her possessions behind. Then, Elena says to herself, “We’ll see who wins this time,” and begins to write, she says, “our story, everything that still remained in my memory.”
Part 1, titled “Childhood,” leads off: “My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment.”
Twinned from childhood
“My Brilliant Friend” is, first of all, a story about a twinned relationship between a brilliant bad girl (Lila) and a very smart good girl (Elena), though the takes on the meanings of brilliant, bad and good keep shifting.
“You’re my brilliant friend,” Lila tells Elena toward the end of the book, when Elena seems to be playing handmaiden to Lila’s upward swing in life.
Also first of all, the novel portrays a poor, rough, close-knit Naples neighborhood in the 1950s, just as prosperity was beginning to affect a few of the families.
“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood,” Elena admits, “it was full of violence … To cause pain was a disease. As a child I imagined tiny, almost invisible animals that arrived in the neighborhood at night.” They came from ponds, abandoned train cars, “from the stinking grasses called ‘fetienti’ … making our mothers, our grandmothers as angry as starving dogs.”
The men were less affected, Elena says, because they had rage as an outlet, but the women, “who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.”
The “Childhood” part of the novel, which takes Elena and Lila from first grade through fifth, is subtitled, “The Story of Don Achille.”
It covers about one-fourth of the book, the rest comprising the second part, “Adolescence.”
Don Achille, toward whose upper level apartment Lila and Elena fearfully climb at the start of Part One, is, apparently, a money-lender and local boss about whom the children have compounded a supernatural mythology.
When Elena and Lila, as girls, play with their dolls by the apartment basement window, they imagine that Don Achille dwells down there as well as up high, “a spider among spiders, a rat among rats, a shape that assumed all shapes,” carrying a black bag into which “he put material both living and dead.”
This is better than the juvenile fantasy novels that paste slithering evil into manufactured suspense.
Ferrante accomplishes a lot of things with her apartment episode. Climbing the stairs, Lila leads the way, grabbing Elena’s hand in a first-ever explicit bond. Elena will live her life wondering to what extent she is following and emulating Lila, and to what extent taking leadership.
Secondly, Ferrante demonstrates a storytelling technique.
The stair climbing occurs on page 27. The story then backs up to the time Lila pushed Elena’s doll through the window grate into the basement. Thoughts about Lila’s “badness” take the recollection back further to school and neighborhood events before returning to the doll incident on page 55 and finally catching up with the opening action on page 65, when the girls go to demand the return of their dolls (Elena had pushed Lila’s down, too) from the ogre.
The natural, digressive, illustrative narration works very well.
A third feature of this episode is the set-up. “My Brilliant Friend” is full of mini-stories.
Lila rings Don Achille’s doorbell, and the door opens to a mundane family scene. “The dolls,” Lila tells Don Achille when he comes forward, “You took them, we saw you.”
“‘You’ me?” he responds.
“Yes, and you put them in your black bag.”
Don Achille is pained, and bewildered, and then does something both surprising and totally in character.
In “Adolescence,” we see both girls go through puberty and contend with what it means to be a woman in their society, and we also see three dozen other characters, for whom Ferrante provides a helpful index at the beginning of the book.
Though the memorable episodes and the cast of characters abound in a thrilling way, there are passages in which too much is happening, introduced by lines such as, “Many unforeseen things struck us, one after the other.”
This kind of pace is one of the things that many people love about Ferrante’s writing. It’s fecund.
As I look forward to the succeeding novels, I hope that the secondary characters get more space to unspool their mysteries. At the same time, I am very interested in the Lila-Elena dynamic, as one is interested in other writer-phenom relationships, such as in “My Antonia,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Sophie’s Choice.”
“My Brilliant Friend” reveals insights into the culture of a specific human habitat as well as into the larger historical context, in which post-war fascists, communists and Catholics vie for influence. I want more of that.
I know I can count on Ferrante for resonant drama. “My Brilliant Friend” gives us a perfect ending.
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly book feature for the Sunday Citizen-Times. He is the author and editor of six books and publisher of the website The Read on WNC. He can be reached at RNeufeld@charter.net or 828-505-1973. Follow him @WNC_chronicler.