Introducing Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’

This November, Babbel Book Club is reading ‘My Brilliant Friend,’ the first book in literary sensation Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels.
Elene Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend

For November, we’re choosing a book that is a little more famous than the ones we’ve done before. We’re reading My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, the first in a four-book series called the Neapolitan Novels. The books follow the lives of two women growing up in Naples, Italy, and after being published, they quickly became a literary phenomenon around the world. Why this month for this book? Because November 18 is the premiere of My Brilliant Friend, the HBO series based on the book, and you can check out the trailer below (we think it looks pretty good).

We’ll start with an overview of the book and some discussion questions that we’ll come back to as the month progresses. But first, if you’re not already a member of our Babbel Book Club Facebook group, it’s never too late to join!

The Book

The Neapolitan Novels follows the lives of two women, Elena (Lenú) Greco and Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo, from their childhood to their 60s. My Brilliant Friend is the first of the novels, and it covers their childhood up until their late-teens. The two girls are born into poverty in a violent community, and turn to education as a way out of this situation. For much of the book, Lenú lives in the shadow of her gifted friend Lila. But when a change in fortune makes their paths diverge, one difference ripples out through the rest of their lives. The book is about friendship, growing up, facing the challenges of poverty and violence, the history of Naples, mother-daughter relationships and a lot more.

The four books were published in Italian between 2011 and 2014, and then translated into English between 2012 and 2015. As the books were published, they became famous for fantastic storytelling and ironically ugly covers. There is some speculation as to how fictional the books are, and some have classified them as a hybrid of autobiography and fiction (or autofiction, as the critics now term it), but it’s impossible to know if the books really are based on the author’s life at all. In any case, the veracity doesn’t bear on the quality of the story.

The Author

Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym for the Italian author of a number of novels and essays. While she is certainly prolific with her writing, and even has a regular column for The Guardian, most details of her life remain unknown. She has revealed that she was born in Naples, Italy, in 1943, but has made the conscious decision to not be a public figure. People have certainly attempted to unmask the author’s true identity, but we won’t dignify that with any discussion.

Ferrante has been publishing since 1992, and now has nine books out — all of which except for one is now available in English (and the last one is set to be published at some point). Despite her desire to remain mostly anonymous, Ferrante has given quite a few interviews, many of which were collected in Frantumaglia. She’s been recognized for her accomplishments a number of times, including being shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and being named to the Time 100 Most Influential People list in 2016.

The Translator

Partially thanks to the Neapolitan Novels, Ann Goldstein has achieved the rare status of celebrity literary translator. She has translated a number of Ferrante’s novels, as well as the work of Primo Levi. She also was the translator on Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, a bilingual Italian-English book (we reviewed this book a while back). Outside of translation, Goldstein is the head of the copy department at the New Yorker, where she’s worked in various capacities since 1974. While much of her work remains hidden behind the writing of others, Goldstein has fortunately been recognized as an excellent wordsmith in her own right.

The Language

Italian belongs to the family of Romance languages, along with Spanish, French, Romanian and Portuguese. It’s the 20th most-spoken language in the world, with about 66 million speakers worldwide (58 million of those live in Italy). It’s one of the most popular languages for Americans to learn, and plays an especially prominent role in art and religion (particularly Catholicism). But while My Brilliant Friend is written entirely in Italian, it’s not the only language that’s important to the novel.

My Brilliant Friend engages with this language in a number of ways. The characters in the novel speak both Italian and Neapolitan, which is sometimes called a dialect of Italian but is more accurately a language on its own. There is some mutual intelligibility between the two, but Neapolitan has its own grammatical rules. Interestingly, Ferrante doesn’t actually use Neapolitan in the Neapolitan Novels, but does specify in descriptions when a character is speaking in dialect. How someone speaks reveals as much about the characters as what they’re actually saying.

Discussion Questions

  1. One of the main themes in these books is women’s friendships with each other. With Lila and Lenú being so different from each other, what do you think of their dynamic? How believable do you find it?
  2. Turning more personally, does the friendship remind you at all of your own childhood friends?
  3. Did you find yourself relating to Lila or Lenú? Did the book being from Lenú’s perspective skew who you were rooting for?
  4. Another important relationship here is between Lenú and her mother. Who did you relate to more in the clashes between them? Did you find this relationship believable?
  5. Both of the characters use education to try to escape their circumstances. Does My Brilliant Friend as a whole seem to advocate for education? Are “educated” characters better off?
  6. Have you heard any Neapolitan spoken before? (You might be familiar with “O Sole Mio”.)
  7. What do you think of how Neapolitan is portrayed, especially compared to Italian? Do you see any analogs to the dialect that might exist in English?

Stay tuned for the rest of the month to join discussions about the book and the Italian language. Want to learn more about Babbel Book Club? Click here.

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