Reviews — From the October 2014 issue

The Secret Sharer

Elena Ferrante’s existential fictions

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Ferrante has written that the Brilliant Friend sequence (likely to extend at least to a fourth book) should be considered “a single novel,” published serially for reasons of length and duration — the full story, once completed, will span more than sixty years. The spread is both temporal and lateral. Ferrante’s earlier novels were minimal and dramatic, interior monologues with only a few other walk-on characters. But the cast of the Brilliant Friend books is huge, featuring whole families and friendship networks, with lists at the beginnings to keep readers clear on the difference between the Solaras and the Sarratores, Michele and Marcello and Manuela, the porter’s family and the shoemaker’s family and the family of the pastry chef.

These people and the relationships between them define the few blocks of inner-city Naples that Ferrante calls “the neighborhood,” a district of scruffy two-room tenements bounded by a main road in one direction and a railroad in the other, with a three-mouthed tunnel that is rumored to lead to the sea. “As far back as I could remember,” Elena says of her childhood,

I had never left the four-story white apartment buildings, the courtyard, the parish church, the public gardens. I had never felt the urge to. Trains passed continuously on the other side of the scrubland, trucks and cars passed up and down along the stradone, and yet I can’t remember a single occasion when I asked myself, my father, my teacher: where are the cars going, the trucks, the trains, to what city, to what world?

In form, the novels seem more or less straightforward, moving chronologically through childhood and adolescence to adulthood and middle age. But they are also subtly confounded, right from the beginning, in several ways. Elena, though clearly the author’s stand-in, is not at all the novels’ star: that role goes to her “brilliant friend,” Lila Cerullo, a girl with looks “more beautiful than a Botticelli Venus” and a mind so quick and unforgiving it resembles “a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.” Unlike Elena, Lila drops out of formal education at eleven. But it is she we see “lighted up like a holy warrior” while thrashing the boys at mental math and getting the point of Beckett immediately from a book that Elena uses only to swat mosquitoes. “Man’s active nature, flagging, seeks too soon the level,” reads the first novel’s epigraph, from Faust. “Whence, willingly, the comrade him I gave, / Who works, excites, and must create . . .” Lila’s energy and intelligence do not make life easy either for her or for the people around her. The first thing we learn about her — in a prologue at the beginning of the first book — is that in 2010 or so, when she’s in her mid-sixties, she will just up and disappear one day from her flat in Naples.

Whether it’s Lila’s influence (Elena sometimes seems unclear as to where she ends and her friend begins) or some other “evasive thing,” every episode of Elena’s story has an odd porosity to it, a phenomenological blending of psychic and concrete space. It starts on the first page of My Brilliant Friend, when Elena and Lila are eight and playing in the “violet light” of a warm spring evening in the courtyard outside their buildings. Lila — “terrible, dazzling” already — pushes her friend’s doll through a gap in the grate over a cellar window into what the girls believe is the lair of an ogre named Don Achille, “a spider among spiders, a rat among rats, a shape that assumed all shapes.” Lila then proposes that they plunge into the black hole of the stairwell that leads to the real-life Don Achille, a wartime racketeer and fascist who is now the local moneylender, a hated figure whom all the children are forbidden to approach. “We climbed slowly toward the greatest of our terrors of that time, we went to expose ourselves to fear and [to] interrogate it.” Don Achille is both a mythical and an everyday character: the confrontation becomes the founding moment of the girls’ friendship and of the discoveries they go on to make together.

From the start Elena and Lila sense that all is not well in the world around them but can’t quite express the feeling in words. Everyone in the neighborhood is poor and tired and angry. The men are prone to sudden bursts of violence — in My Brilliant Friend, Lila’s father, a shoemaker, throws her out a window, breaking her arm. The women, though apparently “silent, acquiescent,” are no exception: “when they were angry [they] flew into a rage that had no end.” Struggling to understand the situation, Elena, whose child-voice is entirely without cuteness, arrives at the following explanation:

I imagined tiny, almost invisible animals that arrived in the neighborhood at night, they came from the ponds, from the abandoned train cars beyond the embankment, from the stinking grasses called fetienti, from the frogs, the salamanders, the flies, the rocks, the dust, and entered the water and the food and the air, making our mothers, our grandmothers as angry as starving dogs.

In later life, both women will suffer in secret from hallucinatory moments of existential extremity that seem to have their roots in early childhood, when reality and imagination were not yet fixed categories. Elena at eight, for example, on the loss of her doll:

Sometimes I had the impression that, while every animated being around me was speeding up the rhythms of its life, solid surfaces turned soft under my fingers or swelled up, leaving empty spaces between their internal mass and the surface skin. . . . I had a bad taste in my mouth, a permanent sense of nausea that exhausted me, as if everything, thus compacted, and always tighter, were grinding me up, reducing me to a repulsive cream.

One of the patterns that develops over the course of the three novels is that of Elena anguished, Elena retreating, Elena growing herself a fresh version of the stubbornness that keeps her going.

Lila, for her part, will later confess to Elena about the episodes of “dissolving margins” that have haunted and hobbled her since adolescence, when “the outlines of people” close to her suddenly disappear. The first attack came when she was fourteen and at a party with her “adored” older brother Rino: “She seemed to see him for the first time as he really was: a squat animal form, thickset, the loudest, the fiercest, the greediest, the meanest. . . . She had perceived for the first time unknown entities that broke down the outline of the world and demonstrated its terrifying nature.”

Although the historical, geographical, and social location of the novels is absolutely specific, Ferrante has said that she isn’t much interested in what she calls “traditional sociology.” It’s all there, of course, structuring the limits of her fictional world. But in her way of writing, outward reference is softened, giving visibility to subtle, inward, intimate movements of thought and feeling instead.

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