Read Around the World: Italy
Back in September I posted about how I wanted to start a Read Around the World project, something which has become very popular amongst readers and bloggers alike. The idea is that you read novels from each country around the world, written by a native to that country.
I decided an obvious place to start was Italy and a rather ‘of the moment’ author to chose was Elena Ferrante, who has claimed great acclaim for her Neapolitan Novels, the first of which, My Brilliant Friend, is just that…brilliant! I’m afraid I didn’t read it in Italian (this time!) but instead the wonderful translation by Ann Goldstein.
“Everyone should read anything with Ferrant’es name on it.” – The Boston Globe
Set in post-war Naples it paints a vivid picture of a small very deprived but lively neighbourhood and its varied inhabitants and their everyday struggles and workings. At the start of the book, I felt a little overwhelmed by the volume of characters introduced, like the start of a Dickens novel. There are (amongst other characters) 9 families and this being a novel set in Southern Italy, they are large households! For example The Sarratore Family, have 5 children! However by the end of the novel, through Ferrante’s inimitable writing style, each character had come to life and I could see them wandering around the sun drenched Neapolitan town! They had got into my head and on occasions under my skin!
The novels are centred around the friendship between Lila Cerullo, daughter of the shoemaker and Lenù Greco, daughter of the porter. Narrated by Lenù, the novels follow them from childhood to adulthood and capture all the struggles and triumphs of these two girls. We begin with Greco as an adult finding out that Lila has gone missing and then the story takes us back to them as children. Their story is a friendship built on curious dynamics and sees their paths in life continuously diverge and converge. In a town filled with violence and uproar the girls come to depend upon one another more than anyone else.
“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence….Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.” – My Brilliant Friend
Ferrante captures and reflects through these two girls, the monumental changes that took place in post war Italy, but it still remains relate-able to a modern reader. She casts light on the struggles and darker side of female relationships, showing how women are shaped by social expectations and can also be contorted and ruined by these and their surroundings. She addresses many issues including adolescence, sexuality, education and marriage. Ferrante manages to talk about many different stages of adolescence, which perhaps could be dismissed as being insignificant and petty, but puts them at the centre stage and gives them importance.
“Instead of consolidating and making exclusive the relationship between her and me, it attracted a lot of other girls. ..I saw her talking now with this girl, now with that…and they made me suffer.” – My Brilliant Friend
What I really enjoyed about My Brilliant Friend, was the way it goes inside the narrators head and shares with the reader her inner thoughts, fears and hopes. It paints such an intricate picture of the people in her life and her struggles and triumphs. She seems a very rational character and I often felt sympathy for her, but at the same time occasionally found her irrational and frustrating. Ferrante’s style of writing is wonderfully descriptive and truly transports you to 1950’s Naples, but the often unspoken truths she reveals about friendship are applicable, I am sure, to most readers. The contradiction of Lenù and Lila’s feelings of jealousy and pride in one another. I’m sure most people can say they have experienced something of a similar nature, especially when young children.
I am now reading the second in the series The Story of a New Name and it is just as “brilliant” as My Brilliant Friend! I encourage you, if you haven’t already, to start reading some Ferrante, she is fast becoming one of my favourite authors! If you need any further encouragement, Ferrante has also just been short listed for the Man Booker International award for the final book in the series The Story of the Lost Child.
One final note, I have been saying ‘she’ in reference to Ferrante, but we can not be sure about this as the novels are written under pseudonym, many believing they must be autobiographical. I don’t think it really matters and for me adds a sort of mystery and allure to the novels, however for someone to be able to write so accurately and beautifully about female friendship I think “she” must be the correct pronoun!
What do you think? Have you read My Brilliant Friend? What is your opinion?
I would love to hear.