Poco a poco I’m working my way through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, starting with Book 1, My Brilliant Friend. When I put it like that it seems like a chore, and that is not the case. Ferrante helps me enormously, and I guess other readers, by providing an index of characters.
The first-person narrator looking back to childhood and adolescence is Elena Greco, also called Lenuccai, but known by the more popular diminutive Lenu. Elena is the oldest of the Greco children. Her father is a porter at the city hall. Her mother a housewife. They share a tenement-type house with Cerullo, the shoemaker’s family and many others, but it is Raffella also called Lina and by Elena, Lila, that really is My Brilliant Friend a polymath that burns brightest and lights up the poverty of a district in post-war Naples where everybody knows everybody and nobody knows anything but violence and hate and jealousy, and girls and women are coveted and loved and protected by walls within walls. Lila dares to dream and think herself beyond those walls but is always dragged back to the fray of everyday life, not least by her courtship by Marcello Solaro, whom, for good reason, she hates and despises, but his relative wealth and social position makes it difficult for Lila’s father, Fernando, to discourage the suitor.
All of these things take place in the second part of the story, in Adolescence, 13 to 16 when Lila blossoms from ugly duckling to queen of the male gaze, and Elena who had initially thought herself in front once more falls behind. In everything that mattered then Lila takes the lead, but it’s not as simple as that. In life there is a mirroring action, but the very thing that Lila most wants, continuing with her education, Elena has, and is flourishing in a way that her friend can be proud of. When Elena, for example, when she hears that her friend is getting married she becomes cynical but her friends lifts her in a way that is instructive.
‘Two more years: [says Elena] then I’ll get my diploma and I’m done.’
‘No [ says Lila] don’t ever stop. I’ll give you the money, you should keep studying.
‘I gave a nervous laugh, then said: “Thanks but at a certain point school is over.’
“Not for you: you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”’
The brilliance of My Brilliant Friend is in the dissenting voices of others. When the school teacher Maestra Oliverio urges Elena to abandon her friend, with the disparaging remark ‘Do you know what the plebs are?’ I hear horsey laughter and the Conservative Party trumpeting the believe that we need to leave others behind. We need more grammar schools. There’s winners and losers and losers are always the same familiar faces. That’s a conclusion Elena also reaches.
The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, the dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious laughed his mouth gaping at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer. They were all laughing, even Lila, with the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost.
I enjoyed this book because I too am a pleb and my reading of this is fuck off with your grammar school and excluding over 80% of the population on a vision of society based on pre-First World War Britain. A vision that excludes the Lila of this world. I’ll be moving on to the next of the Neapolitan novels. The brilliant polymath Lila lights up any book and obviously her betrayal at her wedding is a good omen, because it’s bad.