Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman by Gabriella Edelstein
Savage Fury: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Room of One’s Own by Claudette Palomares
My Brilliant Friend is the first of the Neapolitan series, a novel broken up into four parts by the mysterious Italian writer, Elena Ferrante, and translated by Ann Goldstein. Ferrante’s books have amassed a cult following across the globe because of her impassioned and incisive narrative voice, as well as her uncanny ability to tap into the deepest insecurities rooted in our identities. This first part tells the story of Elena (Lenu) Greco and Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo’s childhood and adolescence in the 1950s, two best friends who live in a destitute neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. The novel opens with Lenu in her 60s, now a successful writer, trying to take possession of her fraught shared history with Lila. The girls embody two different types of intelligence: Elena is able to memorise large swaths of information which she can mould into new forms, whilst Lila’s mind is innovative and lethal in its capacities. Elena and Lila’s friendship moves from competition to collaboration as they navigate the parameters of their neighbourhood, their burgeoning sexualities, and their expanding intellects. Whilst Elena’s parents are finagled into paying for their daughter’s education, tragically Lila is withdrawn before middle school, and subsequently becomes obsessed with finding a way out of the meagre potential of the neighbourhood. The girls’ stories are told against the backdrop of Italy’s changing political landscape: from fascism and Camorra Mafioso to the flowering Communist movement, Elena and Lila’s fate is tied to the development of their country.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman
By Gabriella Edelstein
In her refusal to emerge as a figure of flesh and blood, Elena Ferrante is an anatopism in today’s publishing industry. This is part of her project of un-personifying the author, allowing her works to speak louder than her physical presence, but it also has the effect of drawing our attention to the position of “artists” within her works.
As Claudette pointed out in our discussion, My Brilliant Friend is a powerful antidote to the myth of authorship, eroding the notion of the artist as a monolithic figure. It is no coincidence that Ferrante (one who has shirked the limelight of celebrity) is deeply concerned in the Neapolitan Novels with what it means to be a writer. And more specifically, a female one. Even if Ferrante is absent in interviews, there is the sense that she is present throughout My Brilliant Friend: the novel is a meditation on the circumstances and relationships that propel girls (presumably like Ferrante herself) into self-manifesting out of obscurity.
In this first part of Lenu’s story, we see the genesis of the ethos which dictates her professional life: emancipation through education and literary creation. This process of self-actualisation, however, is not one of chrysalis, where the moth emerges untethered from a process of invisible transformation. And whilst Elena’s development and transformation has been compared to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I would argue that Ferrante is looking towards those ancient writers who are part of the myth-making diegesis of Western and Italian identity: Homer and Virgil. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Elena Greco translates to “Helen the Greek”: Lenu’s voice displaces Homer’s to Rage–Goddess, sing the rage of women. Besides the presence of ancient writers, My Brilliant Friend is infused with other elements of myth and fantasy. The Mafioso Don Achille is ‘the ogre of fairytales’, Lila is a Cinderella-figure with her shoes, and Elena’s porter father is like Charon, taking the girl across the Styx to the Elysium of school. By constantly reflecting back on these stories of origin, Ferrante places My Brilliant Friend within a canon, elevating the girls’ tale to one of identity-creating relevance.
By drawing upon ancient myth, Ferrante is able to attack the presumptions that have been inculcated in us in the handing down of these stories. This is part of the novel’s feminist project: by usurping the mythic male voice which has determined the role of woman as wife and mother, Ferrante is able to redefine the limits of female writing (as James Wood has argued, Ferrante’s narrative voice is the realisation of Cixous’ l’écriture feminine). The creation of a feminine writing is made manifest in the novel through Lenu’s self-reflexive artistic process, through which she explores questions of narrative voice and identity. In particular, her creative relationship with Lila. Similarly to the historical reality of “Homer” being multiple wandering bards, so too is Lenu’s writing dependent on the voice of another in order to create.
The passages of My Brilliant Friend that are devoted to Elena’s artistic self-discovery usually take the tone of a jeremiad that mourns a lack of creative independence. And yet, what brings Elena closest to a feeling of jouissance are her discursive intellectual conversations with Lila. Indeed, the novel’s epigraph, taken from Goethe’s Faust, points towards Elena’s need for a darker force to push her forwards:
Man’s active nature, flagging, seeks too soon the level;
Unqualified repose he learns to crave;
Whence, willingly, the comrade him I gave,
Who works, excites, and must create, as Devil.
Both girls act as the other’s creative-destroyer Mephistopheles. From Elena’s perspective, it is only with Lila sitting on her shoulder that she can be inspired. In conversation, the two girls build upon each other’s ideas: Lenu’s infatuation with Nino becomes Dido and Aeneas’ love affair becomes the destroyed Melina and the philanderer Donato Sarratore becomes a city devoid of love becomes Naples herself. It is interesting, I think, that Elena and Lila spend so much time discussing this Roman story of origin for Italy, a story about a queen whose only recourse from a love affair with a free-wheeling man is self-immolation (this story continues to haunt the women later in the series). In their youth, however, the quandry of this myth is one of artistic identity. After receiving the highest possible grade at school from handing in an essay based on this discussion, Elena undergoes a crisis:
Of course, I said to myself, the essay on Dido is mine, the capacity to formulate beautiful sentences comes from me; of course, what I wrote about Dido belongs to me; but didn’t I work it out with her, didn’t we excite each other in turn, didn’t my passion grown in the warmth of hers? And that idea of the city without love, which the teachers had liked so much, hadn’t it come to me from Lila, even if I had developed it, with my own ability? What should I deduce from this?
Lenu feels that without Lila she is unable to write, that underneath her linguistic flourishes it is really Lila’s voice she is trying to emulate. As Elena writes, after she receives a letter from Lila, ‘Would I know how to imagine those things without her? Would I know how to give life to every object, let it bend in unison with mine?’. Elena’s attempts throughout the novel to annex Lila’s voice is ironically how she strives towards intellectual and creative independence throughout the rest of her life. This is one of Elena’s greatest naiveties: whilst she realises that she needs Lila for inspiration, she is unable to collaborate without envy, to be influenced without a feeling of inferiority. Elena spends much time obsessing over Lila’s childhood story, The Blue Fairy, sempiternally ruminating over how her own work cannot compare. Ferrante makes us consider how art cannot be made in a vacuum, that it is constant push-pull, collaboration-competition that acts as the heuristic mechanism behind writing. As she (is said to have said) in a recent interview, ‘there is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence. We wrongfully diminish this collective intelligence when we insist on there being a single protagonist behind every work of art’. By integrating and usurping the dynamics of ancient myth into My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante is creating a vision for feminine writing that is multifaceted, dependent (without the negative connotations), and unfettered from masculine muthos.
This takes us back to Greek myth. The fact that one of Elena’s major creative moments in the novel is tied to Virgil’s Aeneid reveals how Ferrante is coming up against the long history of male-centric stories in her pursuit of a l’écriture feminine. In her lecture, “The Public Voice of Women”, Mary Beard details how one of the origin stories of the Western world contains the silencing and enclosure of women. Early on in Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus’ son Telemachus tells his mother Penelope to, ‘go back up to your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff… speech will be the business of men’. Telemachus’ response may seem extreme, but let’s not forget that The Odyssey is part of our artistic consciousness, a story from whence so many others have been derived. I come to similar conclusions as Claudette in my feelings about Ferrante’s literary project: by attacking the source of male voice and storytelling, My Brilliant Friend is positing a literary discourse where female writing is not macaronic within the male. Elena’s difficulty in her literary relationship with Lila, I think, stems from her inability to disconnect from notions of the independent-male-genius-artist. Ironically enough, the original one of these, Homer, was in fact multiple. The polyphonic, blooming, discursive, reliant discourse of the two young girls is represented as an ideal of female speech, one from which new stories can grow. Speech is now the business of women.
—Gabriella Edelstein, February 2016
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Savage Fury: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Room of One’s Own
by Claudette Palomares
It’s hard to adequately describe just what is so alluring about Elena Ferrante’s writing. As Gabriella and I discuss in our conversation, it is a voice—as it is translated by Ann Goldstein—that is quite different to what both Gabriella and I are usually drawn to. In our previous discussion of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I mentioned that the prose I like best is opalescent: lyrical, dense, and full of ornamental cadence. It is a type of voice decidedly different from Ferrante’s own. So what accounts for the attraction, the almost compulsive need to devour each and every page of Ferrante’s quartet of novels? I’m afraid I can’t explain it clearly enough (although I will try). I feel that only the superlatives by which Elena describes Lila’s writing—writing unseen by the reader—truly reveal the attraction of Ferrante’s own:
The voice set in the writing overwhelmed me, enthralled me even more than when we talked face to face: it was completely cleansed of the dross of speech…
Prose cleansed from dross is the perfect way to describe Ferrante’s writing. It is not a voice devoid of emotion—in fact, hers might be the most vividly felt and emotionally acute in recent literature. Yet—and I feel that this is critical to Ferrante’s allure—it is a voice that is never melodramatic or overwrought. Instead, Ferrante’s writing is unrelenting in its savagery. Her world and her characters are drawn so precisely, so viscerally, that they seem as if flayed from the skin of memory. In Ferrante’s hands, literature is a layer of epidermis scraped through with a scalpel, so that we as readers may look on with pale horror (and morbid curiosity) at the grisly sinew of human emotion.
Re-reading My Brilliant Friend again I was struck by sense of déjà vu—not just because I was again returning to the brutal landscape of Ferrante’s Naples—but because it reminded of another voice, a voice that I had not read for many years until I re-opened Orlando last December, a voice that, like Ferrante’s, seemed scored with savage fury. When I was the age that Elena and Lila are at the end of My Brilliant Friend (that is, 16), I discovered Virginia Woolf. Unlike Ferrrante, Woolf has a truly opalescent voice. Her writing seems to me the literary analogue to Expressionism: quixotic and elusive yet vivid, palpable, and as acutely real as anything that up to this moment has been created. Yet it was the anger, the fury of Woolf’s voice—particularly in A Room of One’s Own that emerges spectre-like when re-reading My Brilliant Friend. Now having returned to both works, I cannot help but see My Brilliant Friend as Ferrante’s fictional response to Woolf, a literary addendum to the unsolved problem that Woolf explores in A Room of One’s Own: the problem of women and fiction.
As Woolf explains, the key conduit between women and fiction—or really, any type of creative pursuit—is ultimately money: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. This problem of money—and the ancillary pre-occupation of class—is at the root of the separation and conflict between these two brilliant friends of Ferrante’s novel. It is money that defines the fates of these two girls, and the lack of it in the novel is a hamartia that haunts them, but most particularly, Lena. Elena’s father is a porter and Lila’s is a shoemaker—a difference that seems minute at face value as both are from the labouring class—yet it is a distinction that becomes an inescapable gulf between the two girls. For Elena’s father can afford to send her to middle school and Lila’s father cannot, a divergence in choice that leads the two girls onto very different paths. For as we are told at the book’s prologue, Elena will succeed as a novelist of note, while Lila’s later life—we assume—seems destined for infinite obscurity.
The other solution to the problem of women and fiction is “a room of one’s own”. Both Ferrante and Woolf argue that it is impossible to have a room of one’s own if the length and breadth of woman’s life is merely the circumference of the man to which she belongs. In My Brilliant Friend, the oppressive force of maschismo is primordial and deeply destructive, informing the ways in which the men of Elena and Lila’s town control every aspect of their women, so that even their interior lives—their metaphysical rooms—are no longer their own.
Most of this is found in explicit physical violence where little girls are thrown out of windows and young women are kidnapped and raped, and in an endless, exhausting parade of domestic abuse, so frequent as to be considered an essential aspect of ordinary life. The relentlessness of violence against women is so recurrent and so pervasive in My Brilliant Friend that it acquires an almost atavistic quality. Yet the destructive force of maschismo also lurks in quieter, more mendacious corners as well, as when Donato Sarratorre—rail conductor and erstwhile poet—drives the pitiful Melina to madness with his indifferent seduction, as well as paralyzing Elena herself with shame and fear when he molests her in Ischia. It is also shown in the figure of Marcello Solara, who never lays a hand on Lila but through the manipulative wooing of her family and the seizing of the very first pair of shoes that she creates (Lila’s first unequivocal creative output since The Blue Fairy at age seven) shows the brutal extent of his claim of ownership over Lila. For the Solara male, it is not enough to merely own Lila’s body by law and physical consequence, he must own her mind as well. Lila resists Solara as much as she can, against her family and even Elena’s recriminations, only to be led into the arms of Stefano Carraci, who she eventually marries. Unfortunately this act of defiance is ultimately impotent, as Stefano is revealed as yet another man controlled by the vicious hands of the Fascist Camorra duo of the Solaras. This existential portrait of marriage as a cyclical-narrative of subjugation, a narrative that subsumes generations and is inescapable—even for the cleverest, most brilliant of us—is perhaps the saddest story in this indisputably bleak book.
Ferrante’s exploration of the physical violence—so endemic in the neighbourhood—finds root in the disperazione experienced by the men of the town, a condition of abject hopelessness enlarged by the scum of poverty:
At the Bar Solara, in the heat, between gambling losses and troublesome drunkenness, people often reached the point of disperazione—a word that in dialect meant having lost all hope but also being broke—and hence of fights….. Blows were given and received. Men returned home embittered by their losses, by alcohol, by debts, by deadlines, by beatings, and at the first inopportune word they beat their families, a chain of wrongs that generated wrongs.
Disperazione and its violent ramifications are not just omnipresent; they are the skeins that connect one generation to the next. Yet as Ferrante explores with the figure of Donato Sarratorre, and as she would extract in the later Neapolitan books with rapier-like intent, the maschismo, the force of will of men upon women is not merely confined to the streets of poverty-stricken Naples, it is a miasma that infects all of Italy, if not of history itself. The ferocity of Ferrante’s vision calls nothing so much to mind as Woolf’s own savage words on the subject:
If woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance (…) as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact (…) she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.
Yet as much as Ferrante reflects the savagery of Woolf’s vision of history, she also echoes Woolf’s deep reverence for those tenacious voices that somehow penetrated through the masculine film that coats communal memory. Such voices that were simply too impossible to ignore, too glittering as to be confined to a cabinet of literary curiosities. Among the voices that Woolf invokes are Austen’s, the Bronte’s, Miss Mitford’s, Mister Eliot’s and Mistress Gaskell’s. Ferrante posits not one but two tenacious voices for our own edification: Lila’s—elusive yet seemingly touched with genius—and Elena, the narrator. Pathologically insecure, Elena is one of the most compelling yet repellent narrators I’ve ever encountered. It is her great love—and concurrent loathing—of her brilliant friend, and vice versa, that is ultimately, the strongest source of allure in My Brilliant Friend, beyond Ferrante’s voice and virtuosic eye for novelistic detail. For the greatest violence in a novel filled with violence is the violence of Elena’s love/hatred, pleasure/fear of Lila. Once you have read her words, it is a voice impossible to ignore and harder to forget, haunting you with the memory, or perhaps the continuing existence, of your own dysfunction, your own ferocious passion. Passion that you’ve been taught to suppress and modulate in the world we live in now, a world which in many ways is the antithesis of Ferrante’s Naples, but in other horrifying ways, is corrosively similar. Yet it is this combination of pleasure/pain that drives you to read the Neapolitan quartet with a sort of frenzied compulsion, it is this passion that is the root of the alchemy that is Ferrante’s writing. I feel that Woolf says it best:
…who shall measure the heat and violence of a poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?
—Claudette Palomares, February 2016
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Paperback, 336 pages, Text Publishing (AUS edition), Europa Editions (ROW), ISBN: 9781925240009