My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante


Is any friendship ever pure? Cemented in a genuine affection and admiration for one another? Or, must something impure enter in, something like jealousy or power or insecurity?

I think of my early friendships, coming into them completely trusting because of the respect I experienced in my childhood home, and feeling so betrayed at the first sign of deceit. It was inconceivable to me that someone would want to trick me, or steal from me, or lie to me. I stumbled into first grade already a bit jaded after trying to be friends with a little girl in our neighborhood who did those things relentlessly.

So it intrigues me that Elena Ferrante has written a trilogy, the Neopolitan novels, beginning with My Brilliant Friend. It’s a brilliant title, for one thing, because Lila Cerulla embodies everything that I found both alluring and daunting in my own friendships.

A brilliant friend isn’t necessarily a kind friend. She isn’t first and foremost supporting, loving, or encouraging. Instead, the word brilliant seems to imply some deviousness, some special cleverness that makes her able to succeed with the upper hand…

and yet, maybe brilliant refers to Elena Grecco. She is beautiful Lila’s friend, brilliant not in social prowess, but in Italian, Latin and Greek. In school, she is brilliant.

These two contrasting friends offer much for us to consider. We weigh the friendships we’ve harbored in the past as well as today; we review our childhood and the goals instilled in us by our parents or our own rebellious hearts.

Lila marries Stefano at sixteen years of age. She is a beautiful bride. Her friend watches the ceremony feeling plain and in many ways unequal. But, to whom can we find equality? We can only be who we were meant to be, independent even within the closest of friendships.

It was Jacqui’s review which encouraged me to revisit My Brilliant Friend when first I laid it down. Also, Nicola had a hand in my picking it up again. Now I’m eager to see where Ferrante takes us in Book Two: The Story of a New Name.

The Parrots by Filippo Bologna

“He leafed through it without interest, as if it were the phone book of a foreign city in which he did not know anybody. He looked at the pages, and they seemed to him like hieroglyphics, Sumerian tablets, Sanskrit inscriptions. However hard he tried, he really couldn’t grasp the meaning of those typographical characters lined up in neat rows. Not that this was particularly surprising, given that The Master did not have the slightest intention of actually reading the book. Heaven forbid! The only thing that intrigued him was the inscription: “with affection”, “with irritation”, “wrong direction”–he couldn’t even read what the hell was written on the inscription…With a modicum of imagination you could even read “big erection” in that rickety handwriting. Could that be the outrageous tribute The Beginner had dared pay The Master?”

How ironic to me that the Independent says of this book, “Shrewd and precise, often comic.” First of all, it isn’t often comic. It’s comic on every damn page. Secondly, what would the Independent know about the precision of a literary prize? They’re the ones who awarded The Iraqi Christ with the IFFP this May.

You know how much I loved Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost For Words, a delightful satire on the Man Booker. Filippo Bologna’s The Parrots is another parody of a literature award. Bologna’s characters, simply called The Beginner, The Master, and The Writer, are each hopeful of winning The Prize. (Could Bologna be referring to the Strega (Premio Strega) which is the most prestigious Italian literary award, awarded annually since 1947?)

The Beginner has a book so good no one needs to read it to know it’s a best seller. The Master is so old he feels he should win on the merit of his experience. The Writer will pull a ruse so over the top that he is certain The Prize will be given to him in his honor. And each of these absurd characters has others who sometimes hover, sometimes interfere, in the background. There is The Second Wife, The Girlfriend and The Publisher, each vying for his or her own agenda rather than the writer whom they allegedly support. There is also The Parrot, quite possibly the most eloquent voice of all.

While seemingly far-fetched, a parody beyond belief, one can’t help but wonder how much of this story is true at its core. With the announcement of the Man Booker this week, and my own bitter feelings about the IFFP earlier this Spring, I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed the satires written by St. Aubyn and Bologna.

They each deserve to win something.

Filippo Bologna was born in Tuscany in 1978. He lives in Rome where he works as a writer and score writer. His novel How I Lost the War is also published by Pushkin Press.