My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante: A Review

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

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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.

Anna

Ca’Rezzonico – A Magnificent Venetian Palace

Venice is a city full of beautiful palaces and hidden treasures to discover and on my last trip I visited Ca’Rezzonico, a splendid palace designed by Baldassare Longhena a great Baroque architect of the city, for the Bon family.  Whilst building of the palace started in 1649, it was halted in 1682 following the death of Longhena at around the same time as that of his client and the palace left uncompleted. But in 1687, Giambattista Rezzonico, a merchant and banker from Lombardy, bought the palace and appointed Giorgio Massari, a renowned and eclectic artist of the time to finish the building for him.

By 1758 the palace was completed and was a splendid celebration of Venetian art and a show of wealth and culture. A collection of works, by the most prominent artists of the time. The rooms feature beautiful ceilings and frescoes, painted by Venetian artists, including Giambattista Crosato, Pietro Visconti and Giambattista Tiepolo. In the same year the younger brother of Giambattista Rezzonico, Carlo, Bishop of Padua, was elected Pope under the name Clement XIII. However, this was to be the peak for the palace and the family, as by 1810 there were no family members left. The palace was stripped of its’ furnishings and art works were sold off.  The house then passed through many different hands during the 19th Century, before being sold to Venice Town Council in 1935 and now it holds the Museum of 18th Century Venice!

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Love this little cheeky parrot keeping a watch over one of the doorways of the palace! A rather unexpected addition!

I spent a rather dreamy afternoon wandering around its rooms, taking in all the beautiful colours and amazing chandeliers!! I dream of the day when I have a house worthy of an exquisite chandelier . I love looking around palaces and stately homes and fantasising about living in such a grand home and swirling around my ballroom and having a library and a music room (I don’t think that will ever happen – but a girl can dream!)!

The museum isn’t full of hundreds of pieces of furniture or loads of information to read, but the palace was so peaceful and has some really special pieces of art to see, definitely worth a visit if you ever find yourselves in Venice! My favourite part was the first floor, eleven rooms with frescoes and bright ceilings, as if only recently painted and of course all the chandeliers! I managed to only really take pictures of the chandeliers, but you can still get a sense of the grandeur and beauty of the palace. Even after its rather troubled period of financial loss and being passed from owner to owner, the Palace still shines bright and stands proud on Venice’s Grand Canal.

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Anna

Musings on things to come…

Good morning to you all from (finally) a rather wintry, bitter cold Milan! Still no snow though! I am excited to get writing again this weekend and over the coming weeks and building my blog, which I think needs and deserves a little more of my time this year. Less procrastination and more productivity is definitely the key! We are all victims of this from time to time and I often more than others it would seem! But alas, I am full of ideas and determination, so lots of writing to do!

Including in the next couple of weeks a further post on my last trip to Venice, a book review and a focus on posts all about Milan, places to go, what to see, what to do!

For now, I leave you with a photo of the Bridge of Sighs – Ponte dei Sospiri – in Venice and will be back soon!

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Anna

Some pre-Christmas Musings

Despite it being one of the warmest winters on record in a long time, I am finding England rather cold and extremely windy. This, I am taking as a sign, that after three and a half years living in Milan, I am starting to be “Italianised”! Yesterday on a last minute Christmas present run, I found myself on more than one occasion pointing out people to my Mum and saying, ‘That is ridiculous, why is she dressed like that? It is Winter!’, about the girl in a skirt (no tights) and boots, a man in a t-shirt and jeans and a little girl in the garage in leggings and a sleeveless summer dress! The people of England have gone mad! It is worse than when they wear shorts and t-shirts and it is only 16 degrees out! My Mum merely replied, ‘Anna it is hot! It isn’t cold at all!’

I remember the first year I lived in Milan and I wore ballerinas in November without socks and got told off by more than one person and wore just a light rain coat up until mid December – but gone are those days. Yesterday I was wearing boots, a thick jumper, a big warm coat buttoned up to the top and a scarf wrapped round me and I was still cold! However, a down fall of my supposed “Italianisation”, is that I seem to be sick more often. I don’t know if the two things are connected, but I am suffering my third cold in the last two months, despite being wrapped up warm and eating well to keep up my defences.

We finally put the Christmas tree up at home a few days ago, so things are starting to feel all cosy and festive! Many people in England put up their decorations very early, even in November, but in my family it is tradition that we put them up later and as a child, I only saw our Christmas tree on Christmas Eve! Some of my friends think this is strange and say it is a waste, but I disagree and think it makes it much more special! Especially since I have German heritage and so as a child, we celebrated as a family with Christmas dinner on the 24th, so there was always great anticipation and excitement in the house on Christmas Eve morning.

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England is the country that already has Christmas decorations and treats on sale even before Halloween is over and Easter eggs on sale as early as February. I guess this is now normal in the consumerist society we live in, but I will say in Italy it does seem to be much more subtle. Yes, the shops have Christmas products available around the end of November, but in Milan people wait to put up their trees until they celebrate Sant’Ambrogio, the Patron Saint of Milan, on the 7th of December. Of course the shops are busy in the run up to the festive season, but it seems less chaotic and panicky!

At home, everywhere you go there is that last minute rush to buy loved one gifts and Christmas songs blaring from radios and the smell of baking in the air. Lights shining from Christmas trees and blow up Santa’s and snowmen in gardens! Plus supermarkets are filled with panic buying shoppers, filling up their trolleys with supplies as if we won’t be able to buy any groceries for a month, when in actual fact, the shops are only closed for one day! It does make me smile, even though I was there too!

So, whether you are celebrating the season or not, spending it at home or away, in the sun or the cold, with family or friends, I wish you all a Merry Christmas!

Anna

 

Christmas Spirit and New Beginnings!

Oh dear! I have not done well at blogging recently…with almost a month between my two recent posts! But I am feeling really positive and excited for the future at the moment, what with all the Christmas spirit in the air and so many new opportunities and beginnings springing up, not only for me but my friends too!

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Here I am in Piazza Duomo, Christmas 2013! Photo credit: Anna S

I am sitting writing this in my new apartment! I moved last weekend and it is finally starting to feel homely as the boxes and suitcases slowly disappear (and I get an internet connection again!)  I consider myself a quite positive and chilled person, but I definitely found this move (my third in Milan) rather more stressful than I had imagined. Not the actual move (for which I am extremely thankful to my friend for all her help!) but for all the other admin and organisational stuff! However, It is the first time I have taken an unfurnished flat and I am so excited to inject my style and personality – it is a complete blank canvas! I have longed for the opportunity to do this for a long time and finally I get to and I couldn’t be happier! My bank balance definitely could though!

This move has given me a renewed sense of admiration for my Dad and all those weekends he spent putting together beds and tables and cabinets and garden furniture! You know…when you hear those dreaded words…’Anna can you come and hold something for me for five minutes? I need your help.’ Oh how I would moan and try to excuse myself only to met by those words every child hates to hear..’It is good for you’.  To which you think how can helping fix the bannister, or mend the broken chair possibly be good for me?  Just like when children think…’Why do I need to learn another language, everyone speaks English.’ or ‘Sir, why do we have to learn maths equations…I am never going to need it.’  The truth is, it really was good for me! It taught me to be precise and read the instructions…to make sure I have everything I need before I start and that if you get stuck walk away, take a break and come back to the task again…because nine times out of ten, it will seem a lot easier and you won’t end up throwing things across the room in anger!

This year Milan is looking rather beautiful and festive, with some absolutely stunning Christmas lights, pictures of which will follow in another post. Every area and main street has its own theme and design and is definitely getting me in the holiday mood! This weekend is Sant’Ambrogio, a holiday which takes place every year on the 7th of December in honour of Milans Patron Saint, followed by The Immaculate Conception on the 8th, meaning a four day weekend! Since living in Milan I have always seen this weekend as the real beginning of the count down to Christmas. On the same day the ‘Oh Bej! Oh Bej!’ Market starts, which is a lively and fun Christmas market, with stalls running from the piazza Duomo all the way down Via Dante to the streets surrounding the castle!  I remember the first year I lived in Milan, a friend and I were exploring the stalls near the castle when it started to snow and in our child-like excitement at the prospect, we ran all the way to the Cathedral as we wanted to see it with the snow falling gently around it.  Later that day the snow came heavy and we made snow angels on the terrace of my first apartment here!

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Duomo in the beginnings of a very snowy weekend, Christmas 2012

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Snow angels!

I have lots of posts planned for the upcoming months and hope to get back  to posting regularly.  I hope you are all enjoying the beginning of the festive season and keeping warm and cosy! If you aren’t, stick on some Christmas songs, heat up some mulled wine and have a mince pie or a slice of cake!

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The magnificent Swarovski Christmas tree last year in Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele, Milan

What do you have planned for the season? Are you visiting any Christmas markets or going away anywhere? Travelling home to be with your family or jetting of to a warmer climate?  I would love to hear!

Buon Sant’Ambrogio a tutti!

Anna

Il Campanile di San Marco

One of the things I highly recommend when visiting Venice, is to go up to the top of the Campanile di San Marco.  The bell tower standing opposite the Basilica in Piazza San Marco, began its’ life as a watchtower in the 9th Century and was transformed into a bell tower in the 12th century. Other the years, it has suffered various forms of damage from lightning and earthquakes, including a fire in 1489, which seriously damaged its wooden spire. The bell tower took on the form we recognise now, only in the 16th century.

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Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture from further away! So you can’t see the very top of the tower!

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The amazing Iron gates of the bell tower, with the Palazzo Ducale in the background.

It features a solid square brick tower, topped by the belfry which houses five bells, on top of which is a cube, with alternate faces showing the Lion of St Marc and La Giustizia, a female representation of Venice. On top of the cube is a pyramidal spire, with a gilded statue of the Archangel Gabriel holding a lily, completing the tower.  The tower stands at 98.6 metres (323 ft) tall and is 12 metres (39 ft) wide. There is a lift which takes you to the bells and the viewing platform. There you have 360 degree views of Venice!

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The five bells of the Campanile, each had a different purpose!

The five bells of the Campanile, were each rung to mark different occasions, although all were tuned to the Scale of A.  The largest Marangona, was rung to mark the beginning and end of the working day; the Nona, sounded at midday; the Trotteria, called members of the Maggior Consiglio to council meetings, the Mezza Terza, signalled a session of the Senate and the Renghiera or Maleficio, announced executions!

After the tower had taken on its final form (between 1511 and 1514) it stood proudly in the square and became a landmark of Venice. However, on the morning of July 14th 1902, cracks started to appear in the bell tower, which quickly spread and before long the tower had crumbled to the floor, leaving only a pile of rubble! The way the tower fell caused very little damage to any other buildings in its vicinity, and I read that the only fatality was the caretakers cat! Poor thing!  The Campile, which had become a landmark of the city and known world over, was rebuilt in less than a decade to its original design, height and width and was reopened on the 12th April 1912, supposedly exactly one thousand years after the foundations of the original tower had been laid!

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This plaque commemorates how Galileo Galilei demonstrated his telescope to the Duke of Venice Antonio Priuli on the 21st of August 1609.

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Here you can see the Duke’s Palace to the right and the top of the Basilica di San Marco on the left.

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Piazza San Marco – which was slightly flooded when we visited!

The views from the top are magnificent and truly worth the queues! Wrap up warm though…as it gets really quite windy up there!! And make sure you don’t forget your camera!

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Here we are looking very happy to be re-united in Venice – just slightly windswept and cold!!

Anna

A Weekend in Venice

I consider myself very lucky that I have been able to visit Venice on a number of occasions, a few times just for the day and a couple of times for the weekend! But I find that every time I go, I discover something new and find beauty and magic in the city. Whether it be visiting the Basilica, stumbling upon a second hand bookshop – stuffed to the brim with quirky and unusual books or going for a Venetian Rowing lesson, there is always some new adventure to be had or something to be experienced.

Last weekend was no exception! I met my friend on the Saturday at Casa Caburlotto, a Convent situated very close to the main railway station, where we would be staying. The convent is run by the Suore Figlie di San Giuseppe del Caburlotto and we had found it on the website Monastery Stays, which my father has seen written about in the Guardian and suggested we checked out.  Expecting all the properties to be completely booked up at such short notice, we were pleasantly surprised to find that Casa Caburlotto had availability!  Monastery Stays, may not be for everyone, but I found it perfect for our weekend in Venice. The rooms were very simple, but extremely clean, with excellent, friendly staff and the  breakfast was typical of Italian hotels -croissants, cereal, bread, cake, yoghurt, coffee and juices! There was a small chapel and a pretty inner courtyard.  It was only half an hour walk to Piazza San Marco, which was great as we didn’t have to take any water taxis or ferry’s the whole weekend! The only thing is there was a curfew of midnight, but for us that was fine, as we were exhausted from all the walking – after which, I slept so well! It was very peaceful at the Convent and had a lovely calm atmosphere!

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Casa Caburlotto, built in the 17th Century – the congregation was established in 1850 and founded by Monsignor Luigi Caburlotto.

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The building had really interesting heads on the exterior…all slightly weird and wonderful!

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The garden area was very tranquil and tended to by the Nuns. I wish I had taken more pictures inside the Convent, but you can check some more out on the Monastery Stays website.

Saturday we spent wandering around Venice, getting lost and discovering tiny streets and pretty bridges, as well as amazing macaroon and chocolate shops!  We ate extremely well over the weekend and found on both the Saturday and Sunday, lovely restaurants filled with Italians (which is always a good sign) away from the main tourist areas. On Sunday we went up the Campanile di San Marco for some amazing photo opportunities and visited the Ca’Rezzonico, a museum of 18th Century Venice, set in a beautiful palace with some of the most incredible chandeliers I have ever seen! I will be sharing photos from both of these later in the month, as well as my top tips for visiting the city!

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The houses in Venice have strange and intriguing door knockers! Keep an eye out for them…I have spotted all sorts, heads, lions…

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This boat yard was opposite a great place we found for a glass of prosecco and crostini, which are pieces of bread topped with delicious things, such as aubergine and smoked cheese, pesto with mozzerella and tomato or smocked mackerel! It was packed with Venetians and was super cheap, I’m talking €2.50 a glass of prosecco! Look out for Osteria Alsquero!

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Have you visited Venice? Did you discover any hidden gems?  What did you think about the city? I would love to hear!

Anna