Book Club: My Brilliant Friend
Since the publication of her first book in 1992, nobody has known the true identity of Elena Ferrante. All we know is that it's the pseudonym of an already established Italian writer and that she's considered one of the most important voices in modern literature.
My Brilliant Friend, the first in a series of novels, follows two young women as they grow up in a rundown area of Naples. Against a violent and angry backdrop, Lila and Elena (possibly, although we really have no idea, based on the author) remain inseperable. Their lives take different paths and, ultimately, reach a point from which they may never turn back. Over the course of the book, their relationship is an incredibly realistic depiction of how friendship changes over the course of a life.
Ferrante is a forthwright author. There's no room for frills or needlessly lengthy descriptive passages. It's also one of those rare character-based books that never seems to slow down, keeping a pace usually found in novels filled with action. It's a perfect book for the final moments of Summer, the quiet nights just before it starts to get cold again.
Before the publication of her first book, Troubling Love, Ferrante wrote to her publisher explains her choice for anonymity:
I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. . . . I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana, which I waited for as a child. . . . True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known. . . . Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.
Given the author's approach, it feels odd to keep this introduction going much further. Her books are magnificent, they speak for themselves. After all, isn't that what this all is ultimately about? We'll let My Brilliant Friend do the rest with the extract below.
This morning Rino telephoned. I thought he wanted money again and I was ready to say no. But that was not the reason for the phone call: his mother was gone.
“Since two weeks ago.”
“And you’re calling me now?”
My tone must have seemed hostile, even though I wasn’t angry or offended; there was just a touch of sarcasm. He tried to respond but he did so in an awkward, muddled way, half in dialect, half in Italian. He said he was sure that his mother was wandering around Naples as usual.
“Even at night?”
“You know how she is.”
“I do, but does two weeks of absence seem normal?”
“Yes. You haven’t seen her for a while, Elena, she’s gotten worse: she’s never sleepy, she comes in, goes out, does what she likes.”
Anyway, in the end he had started to get worried. He had asked everyone, made the rounds of the hospitals: he had even gone to the police. Nothing, his mother wasn’t anywhere. What a good son: a large man, forty years old, who hadn’t worked in his life, just a small-time crook and spendthrift. I could imagine how carefully he had done his searching. Not at all. He had no brain, and in his heart he had only himself.
“She’s not with you?” he asked suddenly.
His mother? Here in Turin? He knew the situation perfectly well, he was speaking only to speak. Yes, he liked to travel, he had come to my house at least a dozen times, without being invited. His mother, whom I would have welcomed with pleas- ure, had never left Naples in her life. I answered:
“No, she’s not with me.”
“Rino, please, I told you she’s not here.”
“Then where has she gone?”
He began to cry and I let him act out his desperation, sobs that began fake and became real. When he stopped I said:
“Please, for once behave as she would like: don’t look for her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just what I said. It’s pointless. Learn to stand on your own two feet and don’t call me again, either.”
I hung up.
Rino’s mother is named Raffaella Cerullo, but everyone has always called her Lina. Not me, I’ve never used either her first name or her last. To me, for more than sixty years, she’s been Lila. If I were to call her Lina or Raffaella, suddenly, like that, she would think our friendship was over.
It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means. She never had in mind any sort of flight, a change of identity, the dream of making a new life somewhere else. And she never thought of suicide, repulsed by the idea that Rino would have anything to do with her body, and be forced to attend to the details. She meant something different: she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world.
Days passed. I looked at my e-mail, at my regular mail, but not with any hope. I often wrote to her, and she almost never responded: this was her habit. She preferred the telephone or long nights of talk when I went to Naples.
I opened my drawers, the metal boxes where I keep all kinds of things. Not much there. I’ve thrown away a lot of stuff, especially anything that had to do with her, and she knows it. I discovered that I have nothing of hers, not a pic- ture, not a note, not a little gift. I was surprised myself. Is it possible that in all those years she left me nothing of herself, or, worse, that I didn’t want to keep anything of her? It is.
This time I telephoned Rino; I did it unwillingly. He didn’t answer on the house phone or on his cell phone. He called me in the evening, when it was convenient. He spoke in the tone of voice he uses to arouse pity.
“I saw that you called. Do you have any news?”
“No. Do you?”
He rambled incoherently. He wanted to go on TV, on the show that looks for missing persons, make an appeal, ask his mamma’s forgiveness for everything, beg her to return.
I listened patiently, then asked him: “Did you look in her closet?”
Naturally the most obvious thing would never occur to him.
“Go and look.”
He went, and he realized that there was nothing there, not one of his mother’s dresses, summer or winter, only old hang- ers. I sent him to search the whole house. Her shoes were gone. The few books: gone. All the photographs: gone. The movies: gone. Her computer had disappeared, including the old-fash- ioned diskettes and everything, everything to do with her expe- rience as an electronics wizard who had begun to operate com- puters in the late sixties, in the days of punch cards. Rino was astonished. I said to him:
“Take as much time as you want, but then call and tell me if you’ve found even a single hairpin that belongs to her.”
He called the next day, greatly agitated.
“Nothing at all?”
“No. She cut herself out of all the photographs of the two of us, even those from when I was little.” “You looked carefully?” “Everywhere.”
“Even in the cellar?”
“I told you, everywhere. And the box with her papers is gone: I don’t know, old birth certificates, telephone bills, receipts. What does it mean? Did someone steal everything? What are they looking for? What do they want from my mother and me?”
I reassured him, I told him to calm down. It was unlikely that anyone wanted anything, especially from him.
“Can I come and stay with you for a while?”
“Please, I can’t sleep.”
“That’s your problem, Rino, I don’t know what to do about it.”
I hung up and when he called back I didn’t answer. I sat down at my desk.
Lila is overdoing it as usual, I thought.
She was expanding the concept of trace out of all propor tion. She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.
I was really angry.
We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write—all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.