In one of the loveliest sequences in Elena Ferrante’s novel “My Brilliant Friend,” two girls read “Little Women.” But Elena and Lila don’t merely read the book together. They recite it, they memorize it. They fantasize about emulating Jo March, who escaped poverty by writing. They wreck it with their love: “We read it for months, so many times that the book became tattered and sweat-stained, it lost its spine, came unthreaded, sections fell apart.”
This sequence is a delight in the TV adaptation, too, which is currently airing on HBO. On a bench in their grungy, violent Naples neighborhood, Elena and Lila lounge, bodies entwined, wearing shabby dresses, reading in unison, in Italian. (The show has English subtitles.) Excitedly, Lila recites a passage in which Jo herself reads out loud, from her first published short story, to her sisters, without telling them who wrote it. At the passage’s climax, when Jo reveals herself as the author, the two girls read Jo’s words together, their faces shining, as Lila pounds her chest: “Vostra sorella! ” (“Your sister!”) It’s a thrilling moment, which threw me back to the wild vulnerability of childhood reading. The scene is dramatic, or maybe just specific and sensual, in a way that the version on the page can’t be, and really doesn’t try to be. There’s no dialogue in the book, no chest-pounding, no description of the girls’ clothes, and no quotes from “Little Women.” Ferrante’s book confides more than it describes—that’s both its technique and its insinuating power.
A few years ago, every discussion of television seemed to be framed as “Is TV the New Novel?” It was a rivalry poisonous to both parties, not unlike the one between Lila and Elena, the top girls in their class. Not that I don’t get it: in the past two decades, technological advances have altered television in a way similar to how the modern novel—which began as an episodic, serialized, disposable medium, derided for its addictive qualities—emerged as a respected artistic phenomenon. With whole seasons released at once, a television series is now a text to be analyzed. There’s a TV-writing class at the University of Iowa. The anxiety is palpable, on both sides. What kind of art do intelligent people talk about? What do they binge on, late at night? Which art form is capable of the most originality, the greater depth, the wider influence—and which one makes you rich? (Would Jo be a showrunner?) It’s enough to make you crave a broader conversation, with respect for the strengths of each art, an interplay that’s more than a simple hierarchy.
The fact is, as beautiful as the scene in the show is, it never captures (and, notably, doesn’t try to capture) the eerie meta quality of the source, its self-conscious textuality—Ferrante’s fluid, ticklish bookishness, that sense of a voice in our ear. In the book, we are aware at all times that we are reading a novel written by Elena—and we also know that, outside this frame, we are reading a book by the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, an author who, like Jo, conceals her identity. That wobbly frame of authorship, and the nagging anxiety about who gets to tell the story, is what drives Ferrante’s four-volume series, known as the Neapolitan novels (“My Brilliant Friend” is the first), about two working-class girls, one of whom turns the other into a book. It’s no wonder that a cult following has emerged in the U.S., driven by bookish, Jo-ish, Elena-like, author-worshipping women, giving the books a reputation that has sometimes reduced them to a universalizing primer on female friendship. This mood has been intensified by Ferrante’s own Banksy-level mystique.
In the book “My Brilliant Friend,” Elena, the teacher’s pet, sees the exceptional Lila as not merely her competition but also her role model, her mirror, and, eventually, her subject. From Elena’s perspective, her own “goodness,” the passive-aggressive repression of the grade grind, comes alive only when it is placed next to Lila’s fiery, feral, at times malevolent creative genius. In adolescence, the two part ways: Elena stays in school, Lila drops out. “My Brilliant Friend” is a story about many things—left-wing politics, male violence, fancy shoes, the warping force of patriarchy on female creativity—but it’s centrally about class-jumping, through education, the kind that makes one aware of the origins of social class, including the ways it’s embedded in art.