Sunday, 3 June 2018

Our Brilliant Friends - Life Under the Volcano

Lenu is serious, bookish, nerdy ... and Lila something of a femme fatale, even at the age of 18. Lila 'has eyes like a bird of prey' and embarks on a mission to bed the most eligible man in their impoverished Neapolitan neighbourhood - with ruthless success. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante has been a run away best-seller, and this is the first book in her series set in Naples.

The two girls in HBO's rendition of My Brilliant Friend
Lila is both fascinating and repellent … in her superficiality and glamour she is like a minor refugee from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita,  also set in the 1960s, and she seems to be a rare creature quite well adapted to the harsh Neapolitan post-war world, with its working class kids striving for success, wanting to ‘marry well’ … obsessed by status, by clan honour and by family loyalties.

The novel was also a reminder – to me – of how much more socially adept women are than men … how extraordinarily calibrated they are, at least in this world, to status, alliances, secrets, slights, desperate hidden loves.

In some ways My Brilliant Friend is reminiscent of Marquez’s classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its feuding families, passionate Latin grudge-bearing, and doomed romances … but Marquez focuses on the poetic grandeur rather than the status feuds of these sprawling families wrecked by machismo, so his book feels much more profound.

I have stayed in these working class areas of Naples, and this novel is a compelling glimpse of the desperation of that supremely dysfunctional city in the shadow of the volcano Vesuvius.

Those of us who like Lenu were readers and good at school, often had a friend like Lila … someone shrewd, glamorous, cunning, but unwilling to turn those native gifts into academic success.

Working class, or with parents who had no particular professional ambitions for their child, such a person helped burnish our more mundane lives – and such people are attracted to bright nerds because of our seriousness, professional aspirations, more expansive ambitions.

Perhaps this story is the tale of the working class suburbs of great European cities more generally: Kings Cross, London, where I spent ten years in my 20s and 30s was notable for its wars between clans, beatings between family members … feuds that could only be settled with shocking savagery. The Cockneys and Neapolitans have quite a bit in common – spontaneous, affectionate, quick to anger – prone to settle grudges with breath-taking violence.

Lenu on children ...

But what holds this massively best-selling book together is the narrator Lenu’s intelligence … she is prodigiously attuned to social nuance … an astute and wily observer … she is also the nerd made good and something of a Cindarella ... and that has its appeals.

In our atomised, alienated urban centres, My Brilliant Friend creates a nostalgia for cities that used once to be collections of fiercely loyal neighbourhoods – urban hamlets – where everyone knew everyone else’s business, and gossip was king.

1 comment:

  1. Great Review, have added My Brilliant Friend to the reading list.