Sunday, September 11, 2016


My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

"My Brilliant Friend is a large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman." James Wood, writing in The New Yorker

I must confess that I didn't share Mr. Wood's enthusiasm for My Brilliant Friend--I found the novel neither large nor captivating--and as for "amiably peopled," I wonder if Mr. Wood means that Ms. Ferrante felt amiable as she drew her characters or that he found the characters to be amiable as literary creatures--impossible to say. For my part, I found the scores of individuals who adorn what is essentially the pas de deux of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo to be neither amiable nor fully conceptualized: they act only as foils for what really interests Ms. Ferrante, which is the complex friendship (hateship, loveship) of two girls who grow up in a rough and tumble working class neighborhood of Naples. Elena tells the story. It is her version of her life with Lila; we have no information about Lila's inner life, nor do we know much about Elena's. If this is a bildungsroman, it is one with an astonishing lack of psychological depth or even authorial curiosity. It's a made-for-Masterpiece Theater sort of novel, one that could be filmed without loss of motivational depth or character analysis; what you see happening is what happens, the world of Naples in 1950 nicely fits with the liberal view that everyplace is anyplace when it comes to entertainment--really, it's all the same, Upstairs and Down. If Universal Studios picks up the Ferrante franchise there will be gondolas and knife fights, handmade shoes and widows in black dresses. The Godfather, told from the children's perspective. A Catholic neighborhood without priests; lust without sex; learning without knowledge. The novel is like a watercolor, a miniature on an enormous canvas.

My favorite bildungsromans are these, in no particular order: To Kill A Mockingbird; Look Homeward, Angel (Thomas Wolfe); Stoptime (Frank Conroy); Great Expectations and David Copperfield; Portrait of the Artist; and Of Human Bondage (Somerset Maugham). Is Huckleberry Finn a bildungsroman? Invisible Man? Harry Potter? Some would say yes, but I wonder if the key to the sub-genre isn't an epiphany of some sort--not merely "growing up," since a child narrator, over time, will inevitably do that, but a coming-into-consciousness, a seeing more clearly, a revelation of some deep truth. Most biographical novels will have elements of the bildungsroman, but my sense of the thing is that the focus will be on a romantic encounter with the soul or the self--a real insight into something universal about being human--Joyce's Portrait, I suppose, fits my sense of the bildungsroman best of all.  I'm not persuaded that just any book about growing up makes the cut--Henry Roth's sociological narrative Call It Sleep, or James Farrell journalistic Studs Lonigan trilogy feel like artful documentaries, but their insights are social, material, and impersonal. Though I dearly love picaresque novels like Tom Jones, Tristram Shady and The Adventures of Augie March, stories of growing up, and, perforce, of acquiring experience and a degree of self-knowledge, I'm not sure they intend to offer the kind of universal insight into the human predicament that figures like Scout Finch, Eugene Gant, or David Copperfield offer.

I feel churlish about My Brilliant Friend. Everyone loves it. I  have volume two on my desk and plan to read it (later). MBF was entertaining (in places), and I understand that it is the sort of novel that is a million times better than the average Times bestseller. But there are things about the book that were puzzling to me, even off-putting. Take, for example, this scene, late in the novel.  Lila, who was skinny, ugly, and slightly unhinged as a child, metamorphoses--seemingly overnight--into Gina Lolabridiga--a real looker, the kind of Italian woman who drives (as the story goes) Italian men to murder.  Here she is on the beach--the scene is narrated by Elena:

"One of those times [on the beach] I looked up for a second and saw a tall, slender, graceful girl in a stunning red bikini. It was Lila. By now she was used to having men's gaze on her, she moved as if there were no one in that crowded place, not even the young attendant who went ahead of her, leading her to the umbrella. She didn't see me and I didn't know whether to call her. she was wearing sunglasses, she carried a purse of bright colored fabric...."

Sorry, this is Danielle Steele, not "one of the great novelists of our time" (The New York Times). There is no discernible reason why Elena (or the reader) would know that "[Lila] was used to having men's gaze on her," nor is the most interesting question raised by Lila's transformation from a cranky bag of bones into a world-class beauty even addressed in the book, namely, how does Lila see herself? She is, after all, the "brilliant friend," but she has no reality for the reader beyond Elena's confusing caricatures (bright student, driven worker, dutiful yet rebellious daughter, diffident friend). And this would be fine if we could parse Elena's perceptions of the world in any sort of interesting way, if we knew where we were to stand as we moved through the streets of Naples with her as our guide, with Elena as the lone voice and judge of the world we have allowed ourselves to be plunged into. But Elena is as much a blank as Lila--smart yet unintellectual; vain but asexual; dutiful but detached; the center of the universe, but maddeningly oblique on most subjects. Elena changes her mind about Lila and about the boys who like Lila and about her parents and teachers and schooling--she's not so much a cipher as a cloud of words, where, I kept wondering, should I rest my attention? 

Why is this book so beloved? My cynical view is that books like this one satisfy our urge to read "foreign literature," books in translation--to have "multi-cultural experiences" without leaving the comfortable precincts of home. Elena Ferrante offers up a nice story about young women who might as well be from Naples, Florida as Naples, Italy. It's a "good read," not very long, not at all strenuous, not deep, completely (incredibly) apolitical--didn't the poor of Naples have any political thoughts right after World War II? Pasquale Peluso is a communist, but that appears to hold no interest for anyone. The word "Bildung" means "education." A novel of education can be many things, from The Sorrow of Young Werther to Portnoy's Complaint. But what is wanted in an education above all is great depth and perspicacity, engagement with ideas, insight and revelation. For this, I'm afraid, one will have to look elsewhere than My Brilliant Friend.

George Ovitt (9/11/16)

1 comment:

  1. Wow... I have to say that it's reassuring to have my impression of this book validated by someone I respect! I have tried and tried to figure out what people find so compelling about this novel. It simply doesn't speak to me; it feels fluffy and insubstantial. Thanks for hitting the nail on the head.