I was seduced by scenes of Italy in sunshine and by the endless smiles of Richard E Grant on the BBC programme Write around the World. I think it should have been Read around Europe. I was seduced into giving My Brilliant Friend a second chance. Seeing the streets of Naples in the sun and the tunnel through which the girls try to escape and find the sea, seeing all that made me suspect I had missed something first time round when I read My Brilliant Friend back in 2015. My response to that first reading had not been very favourable and I had not continued with the Neapolitan Quartet.
My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend is the story of two girls growing up in the poorest district of Naples in the ‘50s. The novel is narrated by Elena, written many decades later. She is known familiarly as Lenu. She describes Lila, from the outset as mean, selfish and very spirited. She is also clever, and she and Lenú are connected from their first days in school. Everything in school seems to come easily to Lila, and Lenú looks up to her, sees her as her reference point. Their relationship is defined by their surroundings, including their families and the traditions of the neighbourhood and by their gender.
All the children in the neighbourhood are controlled through violence, and through a strong sense of hierarchy of the families. Lila’s father is a shoe repairer while Lenú’s is a porter in the city hall. Poverty is everywhere in post-war Italy. The novel is set against the background of the gradual economic improvement of the time.
The girls try to look beyond the neighbourhood, to speak in Italian as well as dialect, to learn Latin and Greek. Both hope for wealth and fame, at first through writing a novel together, and later they become more realistic: Lenu studies hard and successfully although there is little admiration for her success from her family or the neighbourhood. Lila takes her own path, giving up on school and eventually settling for the wealthy Stefano who appears to want to change the rules of the neighbourhood, to escape the domination of the Solara family.
We see the two girls growing apart. Lenú can see that Lila is imprisoned by the district, limited by it, defined by it. Lenú sees a life beyond for herself. Indeed, the novels in the quartet are framed to show that in her 60s Lila has erased herself, while Elena is living comfortably in Turin.
So, this novel and the three novels that follow make up the Neapolitan Quartet and they have been very successful since they appeared in translation in 2012. Readers recommended them to each other and got lost in the unfolding story. Novelists of the calibre of Elizabeth Strout and Zadie Smith extol their virtues.
I have wondered what the fuss is about. It was only when I came to the final scene, the wedding, that I understood what the detail of their lives had been building up to. It was hard work for not much gain. I suspect that the attraction is in part the attraction of soaps: family drama, struggle against circumstances, many characters, the development of the limited cast of characters, and several vivid and violent scenes.
It is a dense novel, and evocative of both its time and place. But even on a second reading I am not tempted to continue with the quartet. I would love to know what people have enjoyed about it to make it so successful. I am not alone in finding that My Brilliant Friend failed to live up to its reputation.
Who is Elena Ferrante?
And there is mystery surrounding the author. She has demanded anonymity and does not engage in speculation about her identity. Is this a publicity stunt? Of course, several people have taken it upon themselves to identify the writer, claiming a translator, and a professor and a male writer.
I can’t think that it matters who Elena Ferrante is. I am reminded of the old joke about who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. It is claimed that it was another writer of the same name.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, published in English in 2012 by Europa Editions. 331pp
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein