Books Essay

Our Brilliant Friend

Arshia Sattar’s latest book is Ramayana for Children
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In her Neapolitan series, Italian novelist Elena Ferrante frees herself from having to create heroic characters

HOWEVER UNKNOWN Elena Ferrante might have been in India a month ago, the recent ‘outing’ of the real person behind the nom de plume has made sure that she exploded onto the horizons of literary people in our part of the world. This article is not about that, it’s about the books that made Elena Ferrante famous, those marvelous books that ignited the curiosity of some of her readers about who she might be in real life. No doubt because she constructed believable characters with such deft confidence in her four Neapolitan novels, some people wondered if and how that real life impinged upon or inspired or was reflected in her work. Personally, I couldn’t care less.

The Neapolitan novels have a first person narrator, (E)Lena, and she recounts (in the first book, My Brilliant Friend) her own childhood in the grinding poverty, pervasive misogyny and ubiquitous violence of post-War Naples. Her best friend is Lina (but Lena calls her Lila and that’s how we know her), a charismatic, wild and fearless creature, bright and sharp-witted, who pulls the more timid Lena forward into exploring the frightening parts of the neighbourhood as well as into adventures of the mind and heart. Through the next three novels and five decades, Lena and Lila duck and weave through one another’s lives, dragging their trials and triumphs, their loves and hates along with them, challenging each other, holding each other up, rescuing each other from demons within and without. Apart from the fact that the relationship between these two women is utterly compelling in its pendulum of love and hate, Ferrante draws the reader into the novels by stacking their emotional and physical landscape with a host of complex and finely drawn characters who stay with our protagonists through their lives. For example, even though Don Achille dies in the first few chapters of the book, he will linger in readers’ memories as the neighbourhood bogeyman for children and adults alike and his long shadow will stay with us and with the girls until the end. The swaggering, thuggish Solara brothers; the intellectually vapid, emotionally dishonest but irresistible Nino; dogged, loyal Enzo; the mad widow Melina—each of these has a compelling narrative arc of their own and Ferrante is generous in her attention to them. Each of them leaves the neighbourhood in their own ways but the question that remains till the very end is if the neighbourhood ever left them. Any one of them.

Through sheer dint of hard work and a few strokes of good fortune, Lena is able to continue studying and get away to university from where her life rises steadily towards literary success and becomes filled with various bourgeois conceits. Lila is left behind in the old neighbourhood where she marches, always alone, to the beat of a distant drum. As her rebellion verges on self-destruction, her thoughts remain inscrutable and the choices she makes for marriage and love hurl her headlong into a series of confrontations with her men and with the world around her. Lena spins herself into a tight little cocoon of safety, but Lila appears to unravel as she tries to protect herself from the brutality and squalor that surrounds her. Lena makes apparently rational choices while Lila rides a cresting wave of passion, the depth of whose trough is inevitable. But what holds the reader is not only Lila’s outrageous charisma, but also Lena’s quiet, almost desperate struggle to rise above her circumstance. You are never sure which of these growing young women is stronger, which more foolish, which one more false to the person she truly is. There are times when you hate Lila for her cruelty, her utter self-centredness, her reckless spiral into penury and degradation. But over the course of her life, you begin to see that her bloody fight is essentially for truth and justice. Lila lives the politics, both leftist and feminist, that Lena learns about and discusses with her university peers.

The Neopolitan novels are not easy books to read, even the happiest moments are shadowed by anxiety, fear, revenge and greed

Ferrante provides a lush picture of the turbulent times in which these young girls grew into women. She does that through letting national events and world movements seep into the lives of the young people she writes about. The Solaras become hit-men for a Fascist political party, Pasquale and Nadia become fugitives because they are part of the extreme left-wing groups that challenge the status quo in Italy in the 1970s, the girls from Lena’s childhood barter their sweet young selves in marriage for wealth and protection as a brash materialism rises from the dying embers of the old world. Lena herself finds a new voice as a feminist writer as her personal life, in terms of balancing her children and her lover and her husband and his mother, is in tatters. In each of these crises, it is Lila who makes a critical intervention. No one from her past is able to escape her aura or the subterranean ways in which she wields her mysterious powers. But Lila’s own life is far from calm or prosperous. Her body ravaged by difficult pregnancies and violent beatings, her heart splintered by love, Lila protects the one thing she owns completely— her fine and incisive mind which lets her teach herself about computers but is also her sharpest weapon in her battle against the hypocrisies that surround her. Despite all that happens to her and the places into which she pushes herself, we are still completely unprepared for the utterly random event that closes the last book, The Story of the Lost Child, and completes the tragedy that has always been Lila’s life.

The Neapolitan Novels are not easy books to read. Even the happiest moments in the story are shadowed by anxiety, fear, jealousy, revenge and greed. Small victories do not last long, successes are poisoned in the very moments of their birth, loves are rotten at the core, children become pawns and men are destroyed as frequently as women by the emotional and physical violence that pervades this brutal world. What Ferrante shows us is how violence corrupts the innermost core of a human being. Perpetrators of violence carry the mark of Cain upon their souls, a mark which becomes a canker eating away at whatever might once have been good or noble. But those who live around violence and are spectators to it are also scarred, their own skin curling and deformed, closing around the wounds they share with its direct victims.

Why then, does Ferrante compel us so, with her cruel worlds and her dark hearts and her people mostly beyond redemption? It’s not as if her protagonists, the oddly twinned Lena and Lila, are beacons of light or hope. Perhaps this is precisely where we recognise that Ferrante tells the truth about human beings, that she is free of narrative vanities that demand the creation of heroic characters who rise above their circumstances and leave the reader with a sense of lightness of possibility, of human goodness, a final sigh of either spiritual or existential relief. As in her earlier work, Days of Abandonment , for example, here too, Ferrante is unflinching and fearless: there is no place inside her characters, neither in their bodies nor in their souls, for which she will not reach, no dead child nor dead dream that she will not exhume. And yet, in the Neapolitan sequence, you sense the immense control she exercises over herself, stopping just short of tipping her characters over into the abyss of grotesque melodrama and unreachable pain. She is a writer in full command of what she wants to do and of how she wants to do it. Her earlier works were dress rehearsals, essentially, for the virtuoso performance she unleashes in the Neapolitan novels.

Ferrante is unflinching and fearless: There is no place inside her characters, neither in their bodies nor in their souls, for which she will not reach

I am compelled by Ferrante because she speaks to me as a woman about women. But because she speaks about women so fully and richly in her many and varied characters, she is also talking about (and to) men. Men are a part of her narrative universe, but they are equally a part of the world she addresses as a writer. And so I wonder that even though there is no aggressive feminism or ‘womanism’ in her work, the many men I know who enjoy Ferrante, do not read her in the kind of manic frenzy that women do. She seems to touch something in women that I, as a woman who reads women with great pleasure, have certainly never felt before. It’s not as complicated as telling a woman’s story well, so many women (and some men) writers have done that with great elegance before her. It’s also not as simple as speaking across cultural particularities to all women in all places, calling on resonances in experience and emotion to create an empathetic reading space. Of course, Ferrante does both those things and she does them with ease. But there is something more than that, something primal almost, something hitherto unexplored with such tenacious determination. It could be that women respond to Ferrante more keenly because we, too, are caught in the glare of her clear-eyed ferocity, her unwillingness to compromise on describing how women experience the world and their place in it. We submit ourselves to her, allowing her, as her characters do, to reach within us and wrench our gut, recognising a visceral rather than a cerebral or literary truth about our being as women.

FERRANTE HAS BECOME the touchstone for what I now want from women who write about women. I have not recovered from reading her, but I have also learned to approach her work with caution—I am not always ready to have my gut wrenched, my living beating heart dissected, my soul laid bare, exposed to the bright light of day and the gaze of others.

As with other life-shaping experiences, I must recall that epiphanic moment when I first read Ferrante, for she has become a talisman against falsehood in my own writing. I encountered her a few summers ago and was warned by the friend who gave me the first book that I would not be able to put it down. She was right, I couldn’t. And even as I was half way through that first mad rush of blood to the head and the heart, I made sure that the next volume, The Story of a New Name, was close at hand. That summer, it seemed as if every woman I knew was reading Ferrante, all of us trading notes about what was happening in the story. We confessed (a little sheepish, but not at all guilty) how we surrendered to the sheer force of the novels, ignoring work and play and partners, pets and children, food and even sleep. Each of us was a Ferrante evangelist, urging her books on to others, ensuring that whoever was reading had access to the next novel. For the thousands of us who read her like addicts, it is only the books that matter. We couldn’t care less who Elena Ferrante is, for she is completely and will always be, our Brilliant Friend. She knows us as no one else can. She holds our secrets in the palm of her hand. And we trust her with them. Not because she will not tell, but because when she tells, she will elevate them from being our personal, petty concerns to being a narrative about the fundamental female (rather than the human) condition. Brava, Elena! My understanding of myself would be less without you.

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