This summer, C gave me Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend to take with me on holiday. She also gave me a 700 page Australian epic, a lesser-known maudlin Victorian classic and Middlemarch, as usual, but it was the Ferrante that made me curious. I have been talking to C about books I should be reading for years now, but it’s when she turns up something I haven’t remotely asked for that I get really excited. “Here, try this Italian novel” she said, when I’d asked her for ‘something like Gormenghast’. Clearly she knows better than me what I want. I loved My Brilliant Friend but it wasn’t until I read the sequel, The Story of a New Name, that I realised I was reading, in real time, a really great work of literature. It will be a trilogy, but even if the third book is rubbish the first two will remain important.
What are they about, you ask? Two girls – Lila and Elena - growing up in Naples. They are, as these things often go, first friends, then not friends, then intermittently friends, as their neighbourhood grows up along with them. It’s disingenuous to say that these are books about more than just friendship; of course they’re about how bloody impossible it is to be a woman in Naples, about the chokehold the Camorra have over the city, about education and ideas, politics and motherhood, business and art but in the end, after all that, they are first and foremost and completely about female friendship. Elena (the narrative voice) is devoted to her friend, slightly afraid of her, compares herself to Lila always and both protects and abandons her at various points. It is as real a portrait of the way women co-exist as I have ever read. These books are emotionally serious, and as such they succeed completely as novels of ideas.
Something curious happens in this second book, too: something to do with physical transformation. As Lila’s husband (OH hey spoiler alert) beats her, he almost literally transforms into his father; as the women of Elena’s neighbourhood grow old, they begin to appear more and more like men. Physicality dictates the present and inhabits the past; it’s pretty Catholic, as it goes.
If, for example, you have read Jess Walter’s lovely Beautiful Ruins, I urge you to turn your attention to these novels now. Beautiful Ruins uses the frittering surface of Italy as a diving board for stories about glamour, tourism and beauty. Elena Ferrante does something at once more old-fashioned and progressive – she writes about people first. Her books are the most exciting things I have read in years; we’re lucky to have them, and we mustn’t waste them.