October 1, 2012
Elena Ferrante is obsessed by disappearance. Her first book, the extraordinary The Days of Abandonment, published in 2002 in her native Italy, opens, “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” By the end of the paragraph, the husband has gone, “leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.”
The book is driven by the narrator’s compulsion to dismantle the husband’s decision, and to determine how she could have known nothing of its origins. Conjuring scenes and conversations, she forces him to reappear, if only in her mind, as she descends into a kind of fever state.
The narrator is preoccupied with solving a marital mystery, that mystery which is the unique agreement – the knowing – between two people; the fortunate reader becomes her captive on this mission.
My Brilliant Friend is Ferrante’s fourth novel, the first in a trilogy, and also obsessed by a most intimate relationship, a friendship. Elena Greco, the narrator, receives an urgent call from Rino, the son of an old friend. His mother, Lila, has disappeared, he says. Elena has known Lila Cerullo since they were little girls in the 1950s, both of them fierce and tortured inhabitants of a destitute Neapolitan neighborhood.
Elena, factual and unsentimental, is interested by the news but neither panicked nor confused, as the son is. She’s known for years that Lila “wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world.”
True to the nature of their fraught friendship, Elena will not allow Lila what she wants. She launches into meticulous history in a narrative that serves as an act of vengeance, a suitable form generated by their old neighborhood, which erupted with dirt and violence, old codes of behavior reinforced, helplessly.
“It was like that,” Elena explains. “We didn’t know the origin of that fear-rancor-hatred-meekness that our parents displayed … and transmitted to us, but it was there, it was a fact, like the neighborhood, its dirty-white houses, the fetid odor of the landings, the dust of the streets.”
This story, told in lengthy, precise scenes that burst with vivid neighborhood characters, is no less brutal for the evident love and compassion Elena has felt all her life for her difficult friend.
My Brilliant Friend takes us from young childhood up to Lila’s unlikely marriage at age 17. Elena, who considers herself intelligent but unattractive, has become a star intellect in spite of her culture that values instead labor, thrift and family.
Her friendship with Lila is its own world within an insular world, and like most girls’ friendships, it trades in support, competition, confidences, example and that “continuous game of exchanges and reversals that, now happily, now painfully, made us indispensable to each other.” This friendship tells her who she is and at the same time undoes what she knows of herself.
Elena, the scholar, reads one of the few letters Lila has sent her and says with grudging admiration, “The voice set in the writing overwhelmed me, enthralled me even more than when we talked face to face: it was completely cleansed of the dross of speech, of the confusion of the oral.”
Ferrante, beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein, rises above “the confusion of the oral” and writes with a ferocious, intimate urgency that is a celebration of anger. Ferrante is terribly good with anger, a very specific sort of wrath harbored by women, who are so often not allowed to give voice to it. We are angry, a lot of the time, at the position we’re in – whether it’s as wife, daughter, mother, friend – and I can think of no other woman writing who is so swift and gorgeous in this rage, so bracingly fearless in mining fury.
Elena Greco describes the frank and brutal Lila as “gripped by a frenzy of absolute disclosure”; she is also describing her frank, brutal and brilliant creator.