Elena Ferrante and the Force of Female Friendships
The Neapolitan novels by the Italian writer Elena Ferrante are a series of (so far) three books about the lifelong friendship between two women, and when I read them I find that I never want to stop. I feel vexed by the obstacles—my job, or acquaintances on the subway—that threaten to keep me apart from the books. I mourn separations (a year until the next one—how?). I am propelled by a ravenous will to keep going.
This is much the same feeling I associate with all of the major friendships I developed between the ages of six and eighteen: I always wanted to keep going. Why have a playdate when you could have a sleepover? Why have a sleepover that lasts one night when you could have a sleepover that lasts three, or a week? That might sound obsessive, or borderline erotic, and it is: childhood friendships of the kind I’m describing are like the primordial soup of human relationships, messy and unformed but with the raw parts to make anything that might come after. Such friends are like family (you need, or hate, or cannot forsake them) and a beloved (you are so jealous, so sensitive to their slights!) and an alternative (better?) self, squashed into one. And Ferrante’s subject is exactly this sort of friendship.
Lila and Elena are the most remarkable daughters of a poor neighborhood in Naples (also Ferrante’s city). When we first meet Lila, she’s a feral cat of a girl: she’s continually narrowing her eyes with malice, pelting neighborhood aggressors with rocks or threatening to slit their throats with a shoemaker’s knife. She teaches herself to read before anyone else in her class, but her parents won’t send her past elementary school. She grows up to be beautiful, weds a successful grocer, endures his abuse, then leaves him; along the way, she hurls herself into books, cobbling, romance, retail management, motherhood, and computer programming, all with intense proficiency. She is scandalous and spectacular. In the present-day story that frames the books, Lila has just disappeared from Naples, where she’s spent all sixty-six years of her life. Elena, meanwhile, is a successful writer and our narrator, and so we see her through the unsparing filter of her own self-doubt. Growing up, she’s also pretty, although sometimes acne-prone or encumbered by her bosom; she makes the improbable ascent out of their neighborhood—progressing from elementary to middle and high school, and finally university—but fears that the teachers who praise and encourage her will realize that she’s just “Lila’s pale shadow.” She precociously publishes an autobiographical novel, but is plagued by the sense that she lifted her literary voice from Lila. The first volume of their story is called “My Brilliant Friend,” and who is whose brilliant friend remains ambiguous.
There’s recently been a strong crop of stories about friendship among young women, particularly young artistic women, in pop culture—I’m thinking of books like Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” and Emily Gould’s “Friendship,” TV shows like “Girls,” and movies like “Frances Ha.” But, in depicting a friendship formed in childhood rather than in adulthood, Ferrante’s books find the freedom to press friendship—as a relationship, as the organizing principle of a story—in a direction unlike these others. Adult friendship tends to adopt the vocabulary of intimacy from relationships: Gould’s characters, like hookup buddies turned earnest, have a self-conscious “define-the-relationship” conversation to establish their best-friendship; Heti’s pair circle and court one another. (Amanda Hess observed something similar in recent TV depictions of friendship among women, writing that shows like “Doll & Em” and “Playing House” seem to have shaped “their platonic pairings to be more like romantic or work relationships,” with the attendant narrative conventions.) Ferrante’s story doesn’t map friendship onto these familiar forms. Lila and Elena don’t need to pursue each other, and they can never really break with each other; the nature of their relationship changes, but its existence remains fixed. And this is what’s interesting about friendship as the basis for a story—its elasticity. Romance lends itself to declarations and defining events, but friendship eludes these things.
The story that grows from this premise concerns their mutual drive to create. Together, Lila and Elena make things: plans, stories, an enormous collage. At its most basic, their collaboration is based in talking. They have a shared feeling for language that separates them from the other children in their neighborhood. “Only she and I could write like that,” Elena says proudly, and together, when they’re young, they use words easily: “I, I and Lila, we two with that capacity that together—only together—we had to seize the mass of colors, sounds, things, and people, and express it and give it power.” It’s an ecstatic sense of possibility that persists even as their relationship grows more fraught, their interdependence more complicated. Shortly after publishing her first book, Elena recovers a hand-bound fairy tale that Lila wrote when they were ten. “Every word of Lila’s diminished me,” Elena says. “Every sentence, even sentences written when she was a child, seemed to empty out mine, not the ones of that time but the ones now. And yet every page ignited my thoughts, my ideas, my pages as if until that moment I had lived in a studious but ineffectual stupor.” Elena believes that Lila is her muse—and Lila forces Elena to succeed, through a combination of encouragement, generosity, and bedevilment. In the third book, Lila weepingly berates Elena for having obliged her to tell Elena that her second novel is no good. Elena winds up consoling Lila. It is a masterpiece of pseudo-maternal guilt work.
Sometimes they take pleasure in one another’s misfortunes; sometimes they wish each other ill. “The desire that Lila would get sick and die was re-emerging,” Elena notes at one point. But the angst isn’t a sign of pathology, nor does it ultimately threaten their bond. The immutable fact of their friendship accommodates conflict that could fracture a marriage or estrange a parent. Their rivalry magnetizes them: each is the one the other trusts, and so fears. Lila and Elena make each other vividly miserable.
As I write this, I’m reminded of a Publishers Weekly interview, published last year, in which Claire Messud chastised her interlocutor for saying that she “wouldn’t want to be friends” with Messud’s protagonist. “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble,” Messud replied. This sparked a debate about the virtues of “likability,” and a round of headshaking over the alignment of friendship with reading. Yet I can’t help but feel that the initial conversation assumed a somewhat narrow idea of friendship, and I was a little perplexed by the definition of “likability” that emerged for describing books and the characters who populate them. It seemed to involve conflating “likable” and “conventional”—a formula that conveniently makes a high-minded rebel of anyone who adopts it, and ignores the many readers who have always preferred Scarlett O’Hara to Melanie Hamilton. It doesn’t quite hold up. As it happens, “unlikable protagonist” is the same criticism offered by Elena’s intellectual mother-in-law of her bad sophomore novel—it’s her version of the blanket dismissal that Lila more viscerally conveys later. But, if the book we’re reading confirms anything, it’s that what we like isn’t necessarily “likable” at all, and that our relationships with books and friends aren’t so very different.
Both books and friendship extend the possibility of immersion in another consciousness. They’re the forms in which Elena and Lila find the power, in language, to inhabit, perceive, and recreate their shared world. When the friends talk, Elena writes, their conversations “ignited my brain … we tore the words from each other’s mouth, creating an excitement that seemed like a storm of electrical charges.” This is the sensation that I recognized in reading Ferrante: a hungry, relentless urge to keep going, the same feeling that drives you to borrow all someone’s clothes, or pinch them as hard as you can when they don’t understand you. Ferrante shows us the friction that generates human heat—she reminds us what the experience of liking is like.