My Brilliant Friend

Elena Ferrante

A review

elena-ferrante-my-b-f.jpgThis seems to be a strongly autobiographical novel, which is especially interesting in the context of the author having expressed robust feelings regarding the necessary dichotomy between the writer and the written.[1]  All fiction is autobiographical to the extent that the writer only has their own life on which to draw.  No matter how extreme the invented world, the imagination requires the essential fuel of real experience.  This is especially true when it comes to feelings, moods and the deeper and darker sentiments. Attributed emotions can only be applied accurately if based on similar experiences, even if the inspiration is radically transposed or amplified.  My Brilliant Friend has the resonantly resounding ring of veracity to it. How biographical it is, is immaterial.  It is worthy and true.

As the title suggests, this novel is an exploration of friendship with, or rather of attachment to, a person that the protagonist holds in high esteem.  Such admiration often caries the caveat of also supplying a cocktail of jealousy, relative inferiority, inevitable competition and illogical loyalty, and it is that concoction that is so brilliantly exposed by Ferrante.

Italian market 1950sThis is the first book in what has become known as the Neapolitan Quartet. The protagonist, Elena Greco, narrates the reader through her childhood and adolescence in Naples.  The Italy of the middle of the twentieth century is subtly evoked through Elena’s descriptions, but it is her internal honesty that provides the magnetic force. Her conduct is curtailed by the conventions of the times, but her responses, thoughts and visceral triggers are timeless.

Ferrante is forensic in her interpersonal observation, but there is also a delightful layer of paradoxical accuracy to it.  Sometimes people do what they do just because they do it.  Sometimes there is no logic and no possible justification.  Gut reactions provoke actions.  It is that kind of truth that lifts this work to an extra level.  When the character quirks of the eponymous pal take the reader by surprise, there is also the thrill of recognition.  We’ve all witnessed those kinds of idiosyncrasies. They made no sense at the time, they make no sense now, but they happened and they had consequences. Elena’s brilliant friend sometimes behaves deliberately counter-intuitively and that too, is intuitively rewarding for the reader.

la-dolce-vita-italy-in-the-1950s-1-638It is a novel that reveals the truth in the lie and the falsehood in the honesty. It provides snapshots of peri-La Dolce Vita Italy that depict the style, honour and posturing that fertilised it.  Televisions were scarce, teenage-cavorting cars even more so, but both feature here, scraping against the more traditional postural devices and providing novel insights into pubescent posing, romantic experimentation and lascivious awakening.

Ann Goldstein’s translation of Ferrante’s prose is effortlessly digested and the novelist’s text is smooth and rich without being ostentatious or self-indulgent.  Alongside the predominant focus on the nature of companionship, the novel also deals with the perennial anxieties of teenage years – self-loathing, self-doubt, ambition, social standing and rejection.  The unfolding friendship at the core of the narrative makes for compelling reading. The central roles are endearingly, and yet sometimes painfully, painted.  The chorus of others supplies a tasty side-salad and the essential testament of maturation is as satisfying as a pizza on a piazza.


[1] See the inaugural posting of this site: Manifesto

Also see Guardian feature

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