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  • Adam Tye

Writing is Telepathy: Elena Ferrante's 'My Brilliant Friend'



In 'My Brilliant Friend', Elena Ferrante avoids dialogue wherever possible. Conversations will happen, and they happen often, but they will often appear in summarised form. The specific words of the speech don't matter - that would only obscure the rhythm of the narrative; the feeling of the moment. This is a story that is written as though remembered, and how often do any of us remember exact conversations?


Ferrante (herself unknown - her motives ambiguous) chooses as her framing device a character in their sixties: one who is choosing to recall her life from childhood. But this isn't a gentle story time - there isn't even an in-world audience. This book is a fictional memoir, written not out of fondness, but out of rebellion. Our protagonist, Elena, has lost contact with her friend Lila after the latter disappears into the night in an attempt to vanish from the world. And so Elena begins to write, outraged that her friend could slip away without a trace, and committing the story to page in order to keep Lila alive - if only for herself. And so it feels like Ferrante writes My Brilliant Friend - without regard for me, or you, the rules, or any greater purpose other than to write it for her and her alone. This is Ferrante's story, and we are only along for the ride.


Taking place across childhood and adolescence, this is a novel of action, growth and change, but it is above all else a novel of psychology, and in this respect it is a masterpiece. No character is simple, and they all run the gamut from despicable to pitiable, from heartbreaking to heartwarming. You'll likely have rooted both for and against each person by the last page, as you oscillate back and forth between seeing them as an outsider - along with the pain they inflict - and seeing the reasons writhing beneath the skin. You're never on safe ground, and a friend can turn into enemy at a moment's notice - or vice versa. That you can track it all is breathtaking, and could not happen without Ferrante's cynical, broken, nostalgic point-of-view.


As other online reviewers have noted, regular writing 'rules' go out the window with Ferrante's prose. 'Telling' instead of 'showing', and endless run-on sentences march effortlessly across the page, because they are exactly what is needed for the author to unspool her thoughts directly to you. I've never read a novel achieve this so precisely, where the line between the written word and raw cognition is obliterated. In 'On Writing', Stephen King likened writing to telepathy, but I've never seen that cute platitude rendered so ferociously as I have here. To walk amongst the thoughts of someone else creates an almost perverse, voyeuristic pleasure, and I half-wonder if this is the reason for the novel's success. Our culture is littered with uncompromising works delving into the mind of the teenage boy - is it such a surprise that we would be deeply interested in a story that does the same but for women?


Cynically? Probably. Less cynically? There's no way that the final story would attract attention without also being deeply moving. After all, these kinds of specific, revealing stories only find traction because their emotions are so universal, and 'My Brilliant Friend' is as knotty and vivid as they come. Ferrante exposes the battlefield lying underneath the mundane everyday world - the war that rages over our sense of selfhood. Where she can put these feelings of self-loathing into words, she does. Where words fail, she holds up her hands and forces the ideas through suggestion and abstraction: perhaps the most famous being the portrayal of derealisation and dissolution of the self rendered through a repeated motif of people's bodies dissolving at their outlines. In a book that was sold to me as 'slice of life', this is the most surprising find: how Ferrante paints a picture of people constantly undoing themselves and others through self-loathing. It prods at a fear I think many of us feel: that our minds could unravel us a dozen times a day if they wandered far enough.


Have I made 'My Brilliant Friend' sound depressing? Yes, but I think there's joy to be found in its messy emotions; a sort of implicit reassurance that, however alone it is inside your head, others have felt the same way as you do.

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