Two girls grow up in an impoverished neighbourhood in Naples. To merely describe them as friends would be an understatement, for they share a ferocious bond. It all started while they were playing with their dolls alongside each other:
“We saw each other in the courtyard more and more frequently. We showed off our dolls to each other but without appearing to, one in the other’s vicinity, as if each of us were alone. At some point we let the dolls meet, as a test, to see if they got along. And so came the day when we sat next to the cellar window with the curled grating and exchanged our dolls, she holding mine and I hers, and Lila abruptly pushed Tina through the opening in the grating and dropped her. I felt an unbearable sorrow. I was attached to my plastic doll; it was the most precious possession I had. I knew that Lila was mean, but I had never expected her to do something so spiteful to me. For me the doll was alive, to know that she was on the floor of the cellar, amid the thousand beasts that lived there, threw me into despair. But that day I learned a skill at which I later excelled. I held back my despair, I held it back on the edge of my wet eyes, so that Lila said to me in dialect: “You don’t care about her?” I didn’t answer. I felt a violent pain, but I sensed that the pain of quarreling with her would be even stronger. I was as if strangled by two agonies, one already happening, the loss of the doll, and one possible, the loss of Lila. I said nothing, I only acted, without spite, as if it were natural, even if it wasn’t natural and I knew I was taking a great risk. I merely threw into the cellar her Nu, the doll she had just given me. Lila looked at me in disbelief. “What you do, I do,” I recited immediately, aloud, very frightened. “Now go and get it for me.” “If you go and get mine.”
The inner workings of the psyche are scrutinized by Elena Ferrante with raw honesty rarely found in literature. In one of the rare interviews, she expressed a conviction that good books do not change your life, but rather, if they are really good, they hurt and bring confusion. Or, as Kafka put it in a celebrated quote, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” The titular brilliant friend is Lila, whose story is retold by Elena when they are both in their 60s. Lila’s charisma is palpable throughout the novel; it is hard not to share the same feeling of awe which Elena always felt towards her friend:
“Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.
…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.
But there was nothing to be done: something had begun to emanate from Lila’s mobile body that the males sensed, an energy that dazed them, like the swelling sound of beauty arriving.”
This kind of raw feminine power and agency is rare in literature and has a brilliantly refreshing quality to it. All the more so that the neighbourhood where they grow up is full of violence, both direct and covert, as Ferrante pointed out in another interview.
Another striking quality of the Neapolitan novels is that their author, presumably a woman, has chosen to remain anonymous. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. The only interviews she gives are in written form. She stated in one of them: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” In this way, the books gain a mythical aura, similar to ancient volumes through which the gods spoke. In one of the most memorable passages, Elena is taken to see the sea by her father:
“Finally he said that he would show me Vesuvius from close up, and the sea. It was an unforgettable moment. We went toward Via Caracciolo, as the wind grew stronger, the sun brighter. Vesuvius was a delicate pastel-colored shape, at whose base the whitish stones of the city were piled up, with the earth-colored slice of the Castel dell’Ovo, and the sea. But what a sea. It was very rough, and loud; the wind took your breath away, pasted your clothes to your body and blew the hair off your forehead. We stayed on the other side of the street in a small crowd, watching the spectacle. The waves rolled in like blue metal tubes carrying an egg white of foam on their peaks, then broke in a thousand glittering splinters and came up to the street with an oh of wonder and fear from those watching. What a pity that Lila wasn’t there. I felt dazed by the powerful gusts, by the noise. I had the impression that, although I was absorbing much of that sight, many things, too many, were scattering around me without letting me grasp them.”
Perhaps no other passage better describes the effect Ferrante’s prose has had on me. The psyche is viciously powerful, and yet lyrical and beautiful, like the “pastel-colored” volcano.