Dr. Victor Xavier Zarour Zarzar
As of today, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend saga has sold over ten million copies around the world. A global phenomenon, Ferrante has cemented her reputation as one of this century’s most formidable storytellers. This is no small feat; they are few who succeed in securing a place both with the reading public at large and in the less permeable circles of academia. But since the publication of her first novel, L’amore molesto (Troubling Love) in 1992, Ferrante has accumulated legions of dedicated writers, working tirelessly (and pseudonymously) to create a body of work that centers the experience of women in the modern world.
I began working on Ferrante critically around 2017, just a couple of years after the release of the tetralogy’s last installment, and at a moment when collective furor around her had coalesced into the now-global Ferrante Fever. More than anything, I was drawn by her motley writerly talent—hers is the genius of writers like Diderot, at ease in the long and short form, skilled in registers that span the essayistic and the novelistic: a talent, in short, that, like her female protagonists, cannot be contained or defined. Ferrante is, among other things, an avowed classicist, known for drawing extensively on myths to conjure the foundational stories that shape her protagonists’ lives in a patriarchal society. But her work goes farther than this: in conjuring these myths, it also rewrites them in such a way as to imagine a new female world into existence. In this sense, Ferrante’s imaginary is at once the most familiar and the most estranged.
Or at least that was the case for her first three novels, relatively short texts that rely heavily on stream of consciousness and non-linear storytelling to recount the lives of women who are, at once, profoundly archetypical and excruciatingly real. When, however, L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend) appeared in 2011, things took a different turn. For one, the novel (longer than any of Ferrante’s preceding work) was presented as the first of what would become a tetralogy about the lives of Lila and Lenù, two friends who grow up in a destitute, post-war Naples. One of the most innovative aspects of the series, which no doubt helped fuel the novels’ immense popularity, was its nuanced and bold depiction of female friendship. No myths to come up against here, no codes of behavior or millenary tradition to rewrite. Friendship between women, Ferrante knew, was uncharted territory, unlike the long-documented history of male friendship. My Brilliant Friend thus became the result of a conscious decision to portray female friendship in all its complexity, refusing to set aside the ambivalence that often governs it.
This refusal to sanitize is part of what made Ferrante’s story so important and thrilling. That, of course, and her ability to weave an intricate and absorbing story. At the time I began work on her novels, I was reading Peter Brooks’s Reading for the Plot. Brooks’s attention to the dynamic aspects of narrative, his conception of plot as that which animates a text and makes us not only push forward to the end, but construct meaning along the way, invigorated my experience of Lila and Lenù’s story. It made me attend to the ways in which plot functioned in the novel—how Ferrante used it, but also how the characters themselves had recourse in plotting to navigate their world. And, more to the point of the essay presented in this issue, it drove me to reflect on the manner in which the thematics of the novel (friendship in all its unbearable truth) affected the structure of the text, particularly the last section of the fourth novel, which marked a decisive turn in pacing from the rest of the story. Something seemed to have stopped working; the well-oiled narrative machinery of the novels came in that section to a screeching halt, and yet my instinct told me that, for a novelist as dexterous as Ferrante, this was not unintentional. In writing this piece, I attempted to understand this abrupt change.
As Ferrante would have done, I launched my exploration by turning to the most incomprehensible and painful event, as well as the biggest mystery, of the four novels: Tina’s disappearance. The obscurity around it was puzzling. Something in me suspected that in order to disentangle the matter, it would be necessary to inhabit the most recondite spaces of the friendship between the book’s protagonists—those exact places where Ferrante said her interest as a writer lay. Betrayal, rancor, jealousy, but also love, were at stake. My inquiry took me to unexpected places—from narrative theory to biology and what I called a metabolic approach. All in an effort to better understand how the terrible, wonderful friendship between Lila and Lenù affected the energetics of the text—the way it was constructed, the way it advanced, the way it produced meaning. Perhaps not too conventional, but neither is Ferrante.
Dr. Victor Xavier Zarour Zarzar's essay, "Bad Blood: On Culpability and a Metabolic Approach to Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend" appears in JNT 50.2