What Happens to Intellect Without Companionship?
Elena Ferrante Knows and Shares in My Brilliant Friend (L’amica Geniale)
Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale), the first novel in the Neapolitan Quartet, is an exercise in excelling from the sidelines. Unable to make herself the main character despite being the protagonist, Elena Grecco, or “Lenù,” comes of age in 1950s postwar Naples, where her passivity in encountering gross acts of violence and sexism only serves to make their everyday normalcy more poignant. Knowing little beyond the bounds of her poor neighborhood, Lenù becomes enamored with the unexpected complexity present in a childhood classmate, Lila (pronounced, “Leela,” short for Raffaella) Cerullo, who does not follow the rules of the neighborhood. Unabashedly brilliant and flamboyantly direct, Lila embodies a violent rejection of demurity. Her fury in countering acts of sexism and violence exemplify a stark contrast between the girls’ demeanors.
“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. 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.”
It becomes apparent from the novel’s beginning that Lila can be unkind and unpredictable, juxtaposing behaviors such as dropping Lenù’s favorite doll into the sewer and coming to her defense by throwing rocks or wielding a knife. Lenù adores the conversations she has with Lila, whom she claims can make any topic absorbing and exciting. Though it is clear that the girls further one another’s brilliance with their friendship, Lenù credits the entirety of her development to Lila, citing her as from whom noteworthy ideas are ultimately sourced. She laments that, without their conversations, Lenù herself would be unremarkable.
As children, Lenù recounts being adored for her sweet appearance, while Lila stuns with her sharp tongue. Both girls come from poor families that do not encourage education, but Lila faces greater economic and social hurdles in continuing to study. Lila’s brilliance is remarked upon with awe by Lenù, who highlights Lila’s achievements and the admiring remarks from all in the neighborhood. Though Lenù remains a close second to Lila academically, she resents being unable to see herself independent of Lila. Lenù is unable to escape her internal comparisons to Lila, for whom she harbors increasingly complex emotions: Desire, Fear, Longing, Resentment, Pity. Lacking a consistent maternal presence or other true intellectual companions, Lenù becomes consumed with romanticizing and idealizing Lila’s existence. This trend is exacerbated by the soon-divergence in their paths, as Lenù continues onto high school while Lila, unable to secure economic support for further education, begins work in her father’s shoe shop.
As Lenù is consumed by the gaze of others, Lila is mostly consumed with herself, showcasing a justified anger in response to her social conditions. Lenù shows a conscientiousness that is easy to miss, for it overlaps significantly with her timidity. Her environmental hyper-awareness and careful nature allow her to excel without inviting the same disruptive rage that were invoked by Lila’s achievements. The complexity lies in the justified nature of Lila’s anger, and the internalized oppression accumulated by Lenù’s compounding little silences. Yet, it is Lenù that continues her education and is invited to further opportunity, while Lila is relegated to home, where she is subject to a higher pressure to marry.
“To cause pain was a disease. As a child I imagined tiny, almost invisible animals that arrived in the neighborhood at night, they came from the ponds, from the abandoned train cars beyond the embankment, from the stinking grasses called fetienti, from the frogs, the salamanders, the flies, the rocks, the dust, and entered the water and the food and the air, making our mothers, our grandmothers as angry as starving dogs. They were more severely infected than the men, because while men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.”
Lenù’s little silences grow larger as she grows older (i.e. her silence in the wake of being molested by a friend’s father, a sexual predator who claims to love her), and though she is able to continue her education, she becomes alienated with her own body and ever-consumed by the development of Lila’s beauty. She cannot experience pleasure without inviting memories of shame, and continually refers to her appearance with displeasure. In fact, she attempts to connect to pleasure indirectly, by imagining she will go through with sexual acts just as she imagines Lila will do on her wedding night.
The story is not so simple as it may first appear. It is not simply that one girl had funding to further her education and one did not. Lenù did not have support either, and it is only with the continued advocacy from her teacher (Maestra Oliviero) that her parents feel socially pressured into allowing her to continue. Lila secretly takes an entrance exam despite not having financial support, but ostensibly self-sabotages and flunks out of school. Despite this, Lenù never questions her own inferiority to Lila’s brilliance, and even begins to become enamored with how engaging Lila can make her new life, that of a shoemaker’s daughter and fiancé of a wealthy grocer. Lenù, driven by external praise and internalized competition with Lila, imagines Lila is entirely self-driven, absorbed by interests through the beauty of her mind alone. She laments that her own interest derives not from within, but from a desire to connect with, and be praised by, others. Though, what is intellectual pursuit if left alone? We see the result in the unfolding tragedy of Lila’s life trajectory, as her interest in books and languages fall by the wayside, and she becomes absorbed in embodying her fiance’s muse. In fact, it is curious to muse what would have become of Lila had Lenù confided her fears in her, and had their intellectual friendship continued to blossom with authenticity and vulnerability even as their apparent paths diverged.
“The beauty of mind that Cerullo had from childhood didn’t find an outlet, Greco, and it has all ended up in her face, in her breasts, in her thighs, in her ass, places where it soon fades and it will be as if she had never had it.”
We do not know if Lila’s newfound absorption with her own beauty indicates a lack of intellectual development, as this is only pontificated upon by Lenù and Maestra Oliviero. Lila’s self-possession hints at narcissism only against the backdrop of oppression. Lenù’s rising resentments towards Lila serve as a barrier to their intimacy. Lenù often projects an aloofness onto Lila that is the result of her own discomfort.
Lenù, through her internalized competition with Lila, in an effort to gain the likewise competing phenomenas of approval, distinction, distance, and intimacy, will have the greater opportunity to leave the neighborhood to pursue a new life. However, Lila, with her unabashed honesty and commitment to self-integrity, remains free, though in the external confines of the old neighborhood.
Lila’s freedom in the context of oppressive social confines exemplifies a different form of loneliness than found by Lenù, who craves intimacy through approval and is too alienated from herself to articulate, or perhaps even experience, true first-hand enjoyment in her intellectual pursuits. The girls are driven apart not only by their differing approaches to self-distinction, but by how the oppressive social conditions of “the old neighborhood,” or Rione Luzzatti, stifle the spirit.
Though about two girls coming of age over 60 years ago, My Brilliant Friend, driven by the dialectic appeal of Lenù and Lila, resonates heavily with American readers. There lies a tendency of dualistic female characters to drive oversimplification rather than curiosity, but Ferrante’s depiction of Lenù and Lila is done with such artful nuance, that neither appears the resounding heroine. The lack of caricaturing simplicity in Ferrante’s novel highlights the spaces between, and around, Lenù and Lila, to invite the reader to question what is missing.