BE FOREWARNED: Elena Ferrante’s postwar Naples, as depicted in “My Brilliant Friend,” is not the Italy of escapist fantasies, of villas under a Tuscan sun, of Roman holidays. It is savage and claustrophobic, where children throw sharp rocks to draw blood, where the power struggles of grocers, bakers and shoemakers ensnare the women around them. And yet, “My Brilliant Friend” is not dreary. What the narrator Elena Greco notes of her friend Lila Cerullo could apply to Ms. Ferrante: “She took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy.” The author too draws you into the conflicts and joys of ordinary lives in tumultuous times—thus illuminating our own.
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“My Brilliant Friend,” published in Italy in 2011 under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante (despite speculation, the author’s identity remains unconfirmed) and translated into English a year later, centers on the friendship between feral Lila, a shoemaker’s daughter, and eager-to-please Elena, the daughter of a porter at city hall. The most precocious children in the neighborhood, they forge a fraught friendship of rivalry and loyalty, the difference at times unknowable, and one that spurs each other’s efforts to escape their circumstances. The book begins when Lila deliberately vanishes at age 66, without a word to anyone—in anger, Elena pens the details of their lives, beginning with their childhood. The first of four books—three of which have been adapted as an HBO series—“My Brilliant Friend” feels even more relevant now, eerily reflecting the feeling of being trapped in our physical spaces as the country agitates.
In Elena and Lila’s derelict corner of postwar Naples, “everything was quivering, arching upward as if to change its characteristics, not to be known by the accumulated hatreds, tensions, ugliness but, rather, to show a new face.” “My Brilliant Friend” contemplates how to rise above our situation—as individuals, as friends, as neighborhoods, as countries.
From the seedy to the sublime
The streets and buildings of Elena and Lila’s unnamed neighborhood in Naples have a “sick pallor” and “the appearance of a poorly printed photograph,” but in occasional escapes outside of its boundaries, Elena discovers Naples’ vibrancy and beauty. Backed by the “delicate pastel-colored shape” of Mount Vesuvius, the city is full of grand piazzas and cascades into a sea that “broke in a thousand glittering splinters.” Glimpses of this brilliance against the bleakness of Elena’s everyday landscape charge Elena with hope. “Full of light and sound, I pretended I was alone in the newness of the city, new myself with all life ahead, exposed to the mutable fury of things but surely triumphant.”
Sinister prosciutto and pastries
Rare and perfunctory are the food descriptions in “My Brilliant Friend”—the most memorable are those shadowed with darkness and excess. Elena associates the “coarse” body of Don Achille, rumored to have been a spy for the Nazi-Fascists, with “salami, provolone, mortadella, lard and prosciutto.” At the party of Gigliola Spagnuolo, whose father works at the Solara bar and pastry shop, a base for the local mafia, sweets are supplied in abundance: pastries with cassata filling and sfogliatelle (shown), an iconic Neapolitan dessert of flaky pastry layered around cream.
But Ms. Ferrante leaves Naples’ most iconic food—pizza—relatively untainted. While most restaurants are out of Elena’s reach, pizzerias are not: She and friends gather there for rare nights out in the city, and a joyful day spent with her father yields “pizza melting with ricotta.”
Loafers with lofty goals
Clothes immediately differentiate the rich and poor. Elena, in “shabby old clothes,” is fascinated by the wealthy women on Via Chiaia—like a girl garbed in green, from her shoes to bowler hat—who seem to “have dressed on some other planet.” Lila adopts hairstyles, clothes and makeup from fashion magazines, as if to “tear off the old skin and put on a new one, suitable for what she was inventing.” But she pours her greatest energies into designing a new shoe style for her father’s business, thinking it will lift her family out of poverty. It takes the entirety of the book to execute the designs, and once done, they are “masterpieces of sturdy lightness, of dissonant harmony.” However, their appearance in the last scene of the book reveals a devastating betrayal.
Naples’ postwar construction boom manifests in a modern Piazza Garibaldi train station, so advanced that according to Elena’s father, the Japanese were coming to study it, while new neighborhoods rise along the railroad tracks. Lila’s fiancé, Stefano Carracci, insists on an apartment in the latter, drawn to clean white walls and “floors of polished majolica tile.” But Naples seems to resist modernization, and this tension is captured in the ubiquity of old copper vessels (shown). They pop up in the most vivid scenes, conveying violence in some and durability in others. After the murder of the feared Don Achille, a hanging copper pot is sprayed with blood. Years later, as Elena washes Lila on the day of her wedding, she notes, “the copper of the tub had a consistency not different from Lila’s flesh, which was smooth, solid, calm.”
A fireworks feud
The Solara brothers prowl the neighborhood in their new Fiat 1100 (shown), harassing women and flaunting their wealth, acquired through ties with the Camorra, Naples’ mafia. Around New Year’s Eve, the Solaras use the car to stockpile fireworks for the largest display in the neighborhood. Then as now, fireworks launched from dusk to dawn besiege Naples on New Year’s Eve, and the entire city flashes and fills with smoke. One year, another group of boys decides to pool their resources to surpass the Solaras. They start off with sparklers and pinwheels, “fine rains of silver and gold” and Bengal lights, a “jet of flame sprayed with a colorful crackle.” But as the night progresses, the battle of explosions intensifies, until finally, the Solaras, ruthless in their refusal to lose, fire guns at the other boys.
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