The Neapolitan Quartet – Book One
Translated by Ann Goldstein
2012, pp. 336, Paperback
$ 18.00 / £ 10.99
A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Elena Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. 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, the unforgettable Elena and Lila. Ferrante is the author of three previous works of critically acclaimed fiction: The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, and The Lost Daughter. With this novel, the first in a quartet, she proves herself to be one of Italy’s great storytellers. She has given her readers a masterfully plotted page-turner, abundant and generous in its narrative details and characterizations, that is also a stylish work of literary fiction destined to delight her many fans and win new readers to her fiction.
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(…. ) 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.
Anna-Sofia Lesiv, Columnist
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.
The American novelist on the books that changed his life, made him cry and the ones he wishes he’d written
The book I wish I’d written
I aborted a third novel, and it’s interesting (for about five seconds) to imagine what I would have produced had I soldiered on through to the end of it. I might have liked to do groundbreaking work such as Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but why would I want Murakami and Ferrante not to have written those books themselves?
The wonderful thing about being a reader is that even when you’re familiar with the classics of English literature, there are still bookshelves all over the world to explore. These writers, featured in Radio 4’s Reading Europe series, are some of the most famous novelists in their own countries – but the rest of the world has yet to discover them.
Here’s why you should read them.
Italy: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Ferrante fever has been sweeping Europe for the past few years, and reached a fever pitch when journalist Claudio Gatti claimed to have “unmasked” the reclusive author. However, fans remain more interested in her novels than her life stories. In My Brilliant Friend, we’re introduced to Elena and Lila, whose friendship is one of the most believable in fiction – they’re not braiding each other’s hair at sleepovers, they’re jealously competing to escape the neighbourhood of Naples and trying to avoid the attentions of local gangsters.
Look out for: Lila’s wedding – it’s so tense and troubling that it makes the wedding sequence in The Godfather look like it was guest directed by Richard Curtis.
The Neapolitan Novels Series by Elena Ferrante is a collection of 4 books, the first of which is ‘My Brilliant Friend’, Book 2 is called ‘The Story of a New Name’, Book 3 is ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’, and the final novel in the series is called ‘The Story of the Lost Child’.
The story opens with ‘My Brilliant Friend’ and the reader gets to know and love the two friends, Elena and Lila, but it is about so much more than their friendship. It’s also about their families, and their homes, and about Naples. It’s about loyalty and passionate hatred as well as love. Lila is both devil and angel, capable of great love but equally ruthless. At times I wondered if I liked her or loathed her, but I was always fascinated by her, as are all of the characters who surround her in the book. She has hidden depths which she guards fiercely.
The two women remain friends throughout all 4 novels, though sometimes don’t speak to one another for several months at a time following a quarrel. The first book is about their childhood, their education, their friendships with families in their neighbourhood and the rivalry between local families and gangs. In ‘The Story of a New Name’ the second book Elena and Lila are now in their twenties and Elena’s education still drives her on to ever more ambitious heights, but her friend Lila marries young. The young women share an unshakable bond yet are capable of hurting each other deeply. At times events literally took my breath away! There is so much pain and loss throughout the 4 novels, but such a depth of feeling, of understanding, and a closeness which at times appears to be shattered beyond repair. When I was reading the novels, I couldn’t put them down. It was like watching a film unfold, and not wanting it to end. I joined the little girls on their journey in the first book, and stayed with them in their 20’s and 30’s and 40’s and beyond. I cared about both of them, I hated them, I loved them, sometimes I was disappointed in them but I was continuously fascinated. At other times I was incredulous at their behaviour, and yet always wanted them to remain friends. Ferrante has a real handle on human emotions and on madness and passion and fear as well as depths of great love, and of powerful bonds which people form between one other.
Ferrante received numerous literary awards for the series, and I’m so excited that HBO have picked it up and are going to serialise it in a 32 part drama series, it’s currently being filmed in Italy and won’t be on our screens for a year or two, but will be well worth the wait I’m sure!
An interesting fact about Elena Ferrante is that no one really knows who she is – or maybe ‘he’ is. Elena Ferrante is just pseudonym and the identity of the author has never been known, and is a well kept literary secret worthy of its own plot for a novel!
I loved the books. I was enthralled. I adored the protagonist, Elena and her best friend Lila, as children, and then I loved them as women both so vivid in their own separate ways, I felt their pain, I felt their joy, I felt their losses and their triumphs, and I really wanted a pair of Cerrulo shoes!! I hated reaching the end of the 4th novel and wanted more, in fact for me the ending was a disappointment. I remember reading the first novel and thinking the second couldn’t possibly be as good, but it was, and then I thought the 3rd one wouldn’t be as good, but it was, and so it went on, like a long movie being played out in my imagination. I could imagine all of the vivid characters so clearly because Ferrante’s writing was so visual, and I felt every word of it.
The novelist’s characters have been called “difficult women.” She would say they are simply women with desires.
(…) The incredible success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which have been greeted by her fans with the kind of rush-to-the-bookstore avidity usually reserved for writers like J. K. Rowling, speaks to a hunger among readers who continue to crave depictions of women as real, as flawed, as people who can’t be constrained by a predetermined narrative. ‘‘We were starved for this as a literary subject, and we didn’t even know it,’’ says the novelist Elliott Holt, who studied with Messud at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in 2003. Ferrante’s novels explore the lifelong relationship between Elena and Lila, two women who grew up in a Naples slum and followed divergent trajectories, whose friendship is complex in just the way Woolf might have wanted. They’re notable not just because they portray the friendship between two women in detail, but because they do so on an epic scale, in a four-book series that amounts to more than 1,600 pages in English translation. The women are alternately supportive and competitive, particularly when their individual ambitions place them in each other’s way. Their relationship isn’t primarily nurturing or caretaking; it’s fierce and untrammeled. They’re more than capable of evoking the full range of emotions.
Ferrante’s work has reopened a conversation around a fiction of complicated women, but Messud has been quietly answering Woolf’s call for years. The relationships she focuses on are almost exclusively between women, depicted intimately and intensely: Danielle and Marina, the uncomfortably competitive best friends in ‘‘The Emperor’s Children’’; Nora and Sirena, the glamorous artist with whom she becomes obsessed, in ‘‘The Woman Upstairs.’’ Her protagonists, unusually for women in fiction, tend not to be wives or mothers. More often they’re figures who might be considered unpalatable, unattractive or — indeed — angry. Her work quietly seethes at the idea that a woman needs to be ‘‘likable’’ — or that a man should be the judge of her likability. More than that, it offers a space for women to be, as she puts it, ‘‘appetitive’’: to love inappropriately, to be ambitious, to simply want more. (…)