This post is dedicated to my fellow Neapolitan sister Disha.
There are few books ever written which, put it simply, rocked your world. Such an experience is by necessity to a reader’s sanity few and far between.
And yet when I started reading My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan novels by Italian author Elena Ferrante, I already knew it was going to change me, my world, and my words forever. I read the four books in the series about a year ago – practically inhaled them once I got the complex web of characters and relationships down. And it’s one of those experiences where I wish I could erase my memory of it just so I could live it again. For a year I’ve known the impact of these books on me and my worldview but I couldn’t articulate quite properly why they were so life-changing and important, and every effort that put words to paper felt inadequate and cumbersome.
But today I’m trying. Because I’ve been thinking recently about how we can never know what’s going to happen in life. I’d like to think I know everything and can see everything lying ahead, but the truth is the universe is just playing with us as tennis balls. I’m inspired to use the Neapolitan novels as a lens to life just because while the author grasps that wild, unpredictable quality of life, she is able to contain and control it in her narrative – something I’ve never quite experienced, and something I envy.
The Neapolitan novels chronicle the lives and friendship of two girls from a poor neighbourhood in Naples: Elena/Lenu the narrator and her friend Lila. From the beginning, Lila is a force of nature that leads Elena everywhere and Elena is always a step behind, in her studies, in love, in understanding the world. Elena would gladly follow Lila where she leads, yet this also means Elena is always trying to catch up to Lila but will always remain in her shadow, despite the fact that Elena eventually escapes her poverty through education, while Lila becomes trapped in a loveless marriage and the conventions of provincial life.
The story is a traditional bildungsroman so we follow the two characters as they grow up and learn about the caprices of the world, while they try to take what they can from it. While traditional in structure, it’s not traditional in tone. There’s no pot of gold waiting for Pip at the end, or a courageous build up to killing Voldermort. The books follow the natural crest and fall of life as it is, and it’s the most realistic thing I know. There’s no satisfying emotional payoff because life just goes on and on and on.
At the start the reader hopes for these two girls – these brilliant, creative, interesting, girls with so much interiority. We hope they could journey on like other famous characters to get out, get better, especially when Lila (and Elena) show the promise of brilliance which in other novels mean they could have an extraordinary story ahead. Lila is years ahead of her class, and Elena is the most hardworking girl – both deserve exceptionalism. After all, why else are we reading about them?
Yet as the reader keeps going, you realise there is a sense of resignation that permeates the novels. Despite hope, despite education, despite upward mobility, despite class struggle, Ferrante punctures her words with a minimum brick layer of despair. I’m not sure what it is – is it because these characters are female and are therefore not meant to hope/strive for what they want, or is it because these characters are born in the violence of poverty, and much like Gatsby, will never escape that stink? Or is it both?
This sense of inevitable disappointment makes the experience of reading the books an emptying affair. I always close a chapter feeling like my guts were completely dug out. But at the same time, the level of psychological detail in the narrative is so rich that I feel like I’m bursting to the seams in my imagination, almost leading these people’s lives – that this is me. I am Lila. I am Lenu. They are every woman. I am every woman.
While Elena goes away to complete her college education and meets people from more educated and affluent backgrounds, one day she is inspired in an almost torrential rush (in fact by a book Lila herself wrote many years ago) to write a novel and there’s something very female about it that demonstrates what it means to be a woman. She pens down a sexual experience she had on a beach with a man she did not love, a man who thinks he could have his way with any woman, a man she turns to in an act that completes her lack of self-worth, following the most painful rejection by the one Elena actually loved. This act is characterised by a kind of dirty quality – the kind that almost all women can understand because so much of interaction with men still has that dirtiness – just in the way men use women, in the way men treat women as objects just for sex, in the way there is violence in some intimacy, and in the way there is almost always an element of shame to women’s sexuality.
That dirty quality is one other women in the book recognise; when Elena returns home, the other women from her childhood echo her, praise her, for her ‘dirty’ book because they know what it’s like – that Elena has articulated the previously incommunicable. However male intellectuals are embarrassed by Elena’s book or they see it as gratuitous, unimportant and sensationalised. But that’s because there is some element of being a woman that men can never understand, with men as conquerer rather than the conquered, the one acting but never the one being acted on.
As I’ve read in a review, Elena Ferrante is Jane Austen on fire. I have never read a series of books that more accurately portrayed what it means to be a woman in the world, which makes this such a quintessentially female experience that perhaps only women can possibly fully understand the text, just like the women with Elena’s book. But at the same time these books are one of the best ways men can ever hope to get into the minds of women subject to the violence, inequalities, hopes and dreams, and poverty of being female. For any dudebro who says ‘I just don’t understand women’ or ‘women are a mystery’, well, attempt to read Elena Ferrante and you’ll understand.
Another element of the female experience is Elena and Lila’s friendship. That sense of despair I mentioned is also felt in their friendship. It’s one of the best, most complex depiction of a female friendship I’ve read before, and it rings so true. There is so much in the life and death of these friendships. Lenu and Lila were inseparable; they mirrored each other; they supported each other. But at the same time there was comparison and rivalry and envy. I felt at certain points in the novel that we were all Elena; we all wished we were Lila but we could only be Elena. And despite all the ugliness that Lila’s life became, there’s still an inequality there that Elena could never fill.
The first novel is called My Brilliant Friend and I’ve always thought this title referred to Lila as she had so much natural potential which Elena so envied and wanted. But in the end because of Lila’s circumstances and fear, Elena is the one who could complete her education while Lila dropped out of school. And as Elena advanced in her studies, Lila one day tells Elena ‘you’re my brilliant friend’ in the novel, when Lila is using her newly gained husband’s money to help Elena buy her books. It’s a deliberate twist of perspective from the author, but for the characters it was just so. And that’s when I realised that perhaps we all thought we were Elena, and Elena is perhaps enough after all, perhaps even better than Lila. That this circle of envy emblematic of many female friendships is just that: a cycle that should be broken.
Throughout the series, both women rely on each other in a manner of deep love, but also holding each other as the benchmarks of their lives: Elena always comparing herself to the Lila in her mind, who she could have been, and Lila seeing in Elena the life she could have lived, the mother who could have given her children more. On some level it’s almost sick that these women would do this to each other. But at the same time, when these women come together, something electric happens – they bring out the best in each other and they create a force that – no matter how parasitic – pushes them both to move forward in life.
As Malaysian writer Sarah Ngu says, “Lenu and Lila are so primordial in their drives—one hungering for approval, the other for control and stability—and so unchanging throughout the series that, over time, they come off less like two characters and begin to sound more like two warring voices within ourselves. Lenu is the voice that we hear when we wonder, “Was that enough? Am I enough?” while Lila is the voice that hisses back, “What do I care? Fuck them all.” ”
And there seems to be nothing more female than this.
The truth is reading the Neapolitan novels makes me rather depressed about the state of class and gender in the world. While much has changed since the time these girls grew up in Naples, so much is still the same that I almost feel like giving in to that sense of despair.
But what I choose to take away from this complex series of works is that there’s something spellbinding in Ferrante’s writing that bounds us all, and it is this common point from which we must build.