Sunday 22 April 2018

Love thy Frenemy

Elena Ferrante's novels drove Sarah Caden crazy, but she wondered, was that the female condition?

Sarah Caden
Sarah Caden

Recently, someone asked me if I'd read Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. I told her I'd read all four of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, of which My Brilliant Friend is the first and The Story of the Lost Child is the Booker Prize-nominated finale. "They are evil," I told her.

Evil, addictive novels with characters that are more irksome than appealing and each with an ending that is less than satisfying. I read them all. I thought about them when I wasn't reading them. They drove me mad. And now I miss them. I hate Elena Ferrante. If that's even her name.

Elena Ferrante is a mystery. She doesn't give interviews, she doesn't do photographs. Q&A interviews by email reveal very little about her, and there is speculation that Ferrante is a man or another best-selling author writing under a pseudonym. She didn't show her face when her last Neapolitan novel got the Booker nomination. She won't be at the awards. Maddening woman, if she's a woman at all.

But unless the Neapolitan novels were written by a computer, programmed with all the good, bad and ugly of the female psyche, they have to have been written by a woman. Or a man who knows too much.

Because possibly what makes these books so infuriating is how they say too much about women and how we think and what we want. And, worst, they seem to suggest that what we really want is to feel dissatisfied. This makes for uncomfortable reading, but perhaps because it's too close to home. That's what makes you want to throw the books at the wall. But that's what makes you keep reading, too, as you wonder, "Oh God, am I like that?"

Ferrante's quartet of novels, which start in 1950s Naples, chart the intertwined lives of two friends, the narrator Lenu and her best friend Lila. Both are clever girls, but otherwise very different. Lenu is meek and a pleaser, while Lila is dominant, dramatic, daring and manipulative. Or, one is nice, the other one is a wagon.

They both drove me mad in their own way. I asked my friend how she could be bothered to stick with them. "I know their types," I said. "And I've never liked them."

"Yes, but stick with it," she said. "I'm on the fourth book." So she recognised that they were awful, but was telling me not to be so petty?

I thought she was mad. Don't we all tell ourselves, for fear of turning into Irish mammies, that there's no medal for being miserable?

Then I got to the end of the first book. Evil. It ended on a massive cliffhanger, which saw me driven, in a self-loathing temper, to buy the second instalment on my Kindle in the middle of the night.

And so the pattern emerged through the four books. Lenu was the ultimate unreliable narrator, the good girl, thwarted in her noble efforts, relentlessly used and manipulated by Lila. But then Lenu would let slip how she'd become a feted best-selling writer, while Lila was working in a meat factory and so on. But so we didn't think her vain, or, worse, satisfied, she'd describe herself as great big lump, while Lila was a slip of a thing - also known as poor and hungry.

The swings and roundabouts of good and bad fortune, goodwill and ill will was exhausting. I love you. I hate you. You are the making of everything. You spoil everything. It was like every passionate row and reconciliation you ever had, and identifying didn't make me feel good. By book four, it was like an illicit affair that had gone sour and that I wanted to disappear, because it made me feel bad about myself.

These were women determined to be miserable, but I was as bad, ploughing on with the quartet of books. There was no joy in it, unless - oh no! - I enjoyed the grumbling. And that was what made me more similar to these women than I liked.

And now it's over. My frenemies are gone. And I miss them. So I recommend them heartily to everyone else. To allow them to feel the feminine madness too.

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