Friday, March 22, 2019

Elena Ferrante – ‘My Brilliant Friend’

For obscure reasons [Signor Peluso] attributed his ruin to Don Achille. He charged him with having taken by stealth, as if his shadowy body were a magnet, all the tools for his carpentry work, which made the shop useless. He accused him of having taken the shop itself, and transformed it into a grocery store. For years I imagined the pliers, the saw, the tongs, the hammer, the vise, and thousands and thousands of nails sucked up like a swarm of metal into the matter that made Don Achille. For years I saw his body – a coarse body, heavy with a mixture of materials – emitting in a swarm salami, provolone, mortadella, lard, and prosciutto. (p. 36)
This, the most visually arresting moment early on in My Brilliant Friend, made me wonder if it would go in a magical realist direction, but no, it is very specifically tied to the imagination of a young girl who has been told a cautionary tale and taken it too literally. Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo live a rich imaginative life together, through their dolls, which they play with in the courtyard of the block of flats where they live, together with most of the other characters in the novel. This is ‘the neighbourhood,’ somewhere is suburban Naples in the late 1950s. Lila pushes Elena’s doll through a ground-level window, Elena follows suit, and they make their way to the basement to retrieve them, convinced that the monster Don Achille lies in wait. He doesn’t get the chance to become a real monster, making an early exit, but it’s clear that his reputation comes from his power, which comes from organised crime, so people are afraid of him. When he’s gone, the Solaras are the most powerful family in the neighbourhood: they own the local bar, and the two adult sons drive around in a Fiat 1100, picking on people younger than they are, and in at least one instance indulging in sexual abuse. There is a high degree of acceptance of this behaviour, for instance from Elena’s parents:
They hated Don Achille and were afraid of the Solaras. But they overlooked it and went to spend money both at Don Achille’s son’s, and at the Solaras’, and sent us, too. And they voted for the Fascists, for the monarchists, as the Solaras wanted them to. And they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us, too. (p. 163)
All this deference to grocers and barmen? Well, the neighbourhood is a small, tightly bound world. The Solaras and the Carraccis (Don Achille’s family) control the supply of food and drink, and the (commercial) public spaces. To begin with, it seems that Elena and Lila, both prodigies at primary school, are going to escape by intellectual means, but while Elena goes to middle and then high school, Lila is kept at home, and gradually abandons her early studiousness (more intense and alive than Elena’s), learning to live in the world instead of through books. She is pursued obsessively by Marcello Solara, who invites himself to dinner at her house several times a week, insinuating himself by his undisputed social power, his bullying entitlement: even after she has rejected him one-on-one, he persists, as he knows her parents won’t want to risk trouble, and in fact would welcome into their family someone wealthy, and able to help their business, which is a small shoe shop. Lila outflanks him by starting a relationship with someone of nearly equal power, Stefano Carracci. She accepts the logic of the neighbourhood, and learns to use it to her advantage. The cost of investing herself fully into her situation is her intellectual self, which she feels deeply, but is determined to leave behind, as Elena discovers when she approaches her for help with an anti-religious article she has written:
        [Lila] circled a sentence and moved it with a wavy line to the top of the page.
        ‘Can I recopy it for you on to another page?’
        ‘I’ll do it.’
        ‘No, let me do it.’
        It took a while to recopy. When she gave me back the notebook, she said, ‘You’re very clever, of course they always give you ten.’
        I felt that there was no irony, it was a real compliment. Then she added with sudden harshness:
        ‘I don’t want to read anything else that you write.’
        She thought about it.
        ‘Because it hurts me,’ and she struck her forehead with her hand and burst out laughing. (pp. 300-1)
Lila is the more headstrong, the more curious, the more self-possessed of the two friends, but by the end of the book she is about to settle down into domesticity, and it is Elena who is full of possibilities and uncertainties.

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