ELENA Ferrante, who are you? Are you this, only? ‘On principle, I refuse to speak badly of another woman, even if she has offended me intolerably. It’s a position that I feel obliged to take precisely because I’m well aware of the situation of women: it’s mine, I observe it in others, and I know that there is no woman who does not make an enormous, exasperating effort to get to the end of the day. Poor or affluent, ignorant or educated, beautiful or ugly, famous or unknown, married or single, working or unemployed, with children or without, rebellious or obedient, we are all deeply marked by a way of being in the world that, even when we claim it as ours, is poisoned at the root by millennia of male domination.’
The Guardian, 17 March 2018
In terms of the ‘women’s movement’, Italy’s pseudonymous saint of modern feminism trumps most, if not all, current writers. Time magazine named her as one of the world’s hundred most influential people in 2016. Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama have been proud to boast that they are amongst her devotees.
And now, to add to Ferrante as a global phenomenon, a television mini-series of her novel, My Brilliant Friend (L’Amica Geniale) is being screened in the UK by Sky Atlantic.
There is rather more to Ferrante, though, than feminists would have us believe. How feminist, for example, is this observation by Elena Greco, known as Lenù, the narrator in the book and the film and also, surely, the voice of the author?
‘I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence . . . The women fought among themselves more than the men, they pulled each other’s hair, they hurt each other. To cause pain was a disease. . . our mothers and grandmothers . . . 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.’
Is this sexism or simple misogyny? Why, it even gives sustenance to those who have argued, unconvincingly, that Ferrante is male.
Anonymity has doubtless made it easier for Ferrante to be honest. She is less willing to play to the prejudices of her feminist devotees than to broader truths about the condition of women. The strength of her writing is that she is able to detach herself from it, to be observer as much as participant:
The TV adaptation of My Brilliant Friend – the first of a Neapolitan quartet of novels – will bring Ferrante a new generation of admirers. Directed by Saverio Costanzo, it recalls post-war new realism in Italian cinema. Most of the performers are non-professional, drawn in particular via the auditioning of many thousands of young people in and around Naples.
This is an impoverished world, commencing in the 1950s, that is seen largely through the eyes of two girls as they progress through childhood. For all the ugliness and brutality it portrays, the filming has an intoxicating and bewitching beauty. Childhood is here confronted by adulthood and it is mostly the sad and bad and mad grown-ups who bring despair. The children are no innocents, but too often they are let down by the adults.
My Brilliant Friend should not be hijacked by feminists. It is very far from being testament simply to female disadvantage. A similar story could be told about boys and men as well as the women in Ferrante’s tapestry of Neapolitan life. Much the same could be said of those suffering grinding poverty in 50s Britain.
A light that shines through the narrative, though, is the liberating impact of education and learning. Lila, the ‘brilliant friend’ of Lenù, is the daughter of a cobbler. She refuses to succumb to the illiteracy of many of those around her and astonishes her teacher and her classmates when they discover she has taught herself to read even before classroom reading lessons have started: ‘It was more than likely that she had precociously learned how the alphabet worked from the sheets of newspaper in which customers wrapped the old shoes and which her father sometimes brought home and read to the family the most interesting local news items.’
A desire to learn and to improve amidst poverty, destitution and fear, drives forward Ferrante’s narrative. Feminists may find fuel for their rage within its pages or in the stunning television dramatisation, but the truth is that My Brilliant Friend has freed itself from the feminist agenda. Ferrante was right: this poignant story no longer needs its author. It belongs to us all.