Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, May 27, 2016

Elena Ferrante, _My Brilliant Friend_

IF YOU HAPPEN to be looking for someone to splash cold water on this recent enthusiasm, you will have to keep looking.  I was as captivated as everyone else.

I'm at a loss to say why the book is so captivating, though. We have the usual virtues of a well-realized realist novel, certainly: vivid setting (Naples in the fifties and early sixties), powerful just-offstage social forces (the church, organized crime, political differences sharpened by memories of fascism and of the war), multi-generational drama.

The unique thing about the book, though, as you have probably heard, is its portrait of friendship. As the title suggests, the narrator Lenù's friend Lila is as much the focus of the novel's attention as Lenù herself is.  Even though their paths diverge dramatically in adolescence--Lila's parents take her out of school early and she marries while in her teens; Lenù is kept in school and looks to be university-bound--the bond formed in childhood remains strong, and Lenù, far from feeling condescending towards the somewhat less-advantaged Lila, continues to see her as her bright particular star, with a life inexplicably more deep and intriguing than her own.

I've been cudgeling my brains trying to think of another novel that pays as much attention too friendship, male or female, as this one does, to no avail. Some "young reader" books come to mind: Booth Tarkington's Penrod and Sam, Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy, Tom and Huck in Tom Sawyer. Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

Turning to literature for adults, we have to go back--quite a way back. Even then, the examples are relatively underdeveloped. There are Orestes and Pylades, Hamlet and Horatio--but in those cases the friend is mainly someone to whom to make speeches. Achilles and Patroclus? How much do we actually get to see of their friendship, though? Do Don Quixote and Sancho Panza even count as friends, given the master-and-man dimension of their partnership?

Hans and Joachim in The Magic Mountain? Humboldt and Citrine in Humboldt's Gift? I'm really reaching now.

There must be some examples that are simply not occurring to me, but it seems deeply odd that so crucial a dimension of human  experience has left so light a trace in literature, which makes me wonder whether Lila and Lenù will turn out to be a distinctive contribution to world letters.

No comments: