|Image from My Brilliant Friend's cover.|
Like the inside of Vesuvius over time, life angrily bubbles, explodes and steadies itself again in the four books of the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (a pen name, the author has kept her identity hidden). This ferocious, rich life is sewn together by beautiful writing that is often striking in its description and thoughtfulness. Although much raved about already in the literary world, I have just powered through the series in several days and wish to add my small voice to the litany of praises for Ferrante's writing.
Elena Greco, the novels' educated and charming narrator, takes us through her impoverished upbringing in a small, constantly gossiping neighbourhood in Naples, her later interactions and experiences with intellectual and bourgeois Italians and her turbulent traversing between these starkly different social worlds.
Central to this story and what Greco seems to be constantly trying to decipher is the friendship and workings of her childhood friend, Lila Cerullo. Greco is entranced by her friend who never made it past middle school but who had a brilliance that surpassed everyone -- she taught herself Latin and Greek before Greco even went to university, the neighbourhood always simultaneously respected and cursed her. Every important move by Greco seems to be triggered by an interaction with Cerullo although Cerullo never leaves Naples while Greco travels and moves frequently after high school. But Greco maintains a lingering uneasiness towards Cerullo -- she appears to make conclusive remarks about Cerullo's personality, then changes them later. Cerullo is unsolvable. Greco loves her friend but, as other characters point out to her, their is also a thread of hate that runs through their relationship. The pain and love in their friendship throughout the two characters' entire lives is beautifully captured.
Described by Greco as either crucial events or for background context are constant conflicts and changes in Italian politics, family violence, the feminist movement, the past and present generations. But I felt like Ferrante had not set out to create constant twists or deceive us. Instead, her writing seemed more explorative, reflective. Greco's observations were also not totally reliable -- in an attempt to validate and reaffirm who she was and the decisions she made it sometimes felt like she was trying to convince the reader of something (as well as herself).
Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels are, in the best sense of the word, suffocating. They are the kind of novels that compel you to resist coming up for air, to submit to a narrative that makes your own life seem like a distant sub-plot -- something to pay attention to only when you need to eat, sleep.
Here's to Ferrante & the last day of 2015!