An American And An Italian Discuss Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’

We talked to one of our Italian correspondents to dig into the language and culture of Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’!
My Brilliant Friend

This month, the Babbel Book Club has been discussing My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. For a full guide to the book, you can read our introduction here! This week, I discussed the book with Giulia, one of our Babbel writers who works over in Berlin (and who happens to be Italian). You can check out the audio from our full interview, or see the highlights below.

Editor’s Note: At one point in the audio, Giulia says the actor playing Lenù as an adolescent is a very famous Italian actor, but she meant to say that it is the narrator’s voice (also Lenù), which is performed by Alba Rohrwacher. Also, the television show has premiered in the United States, but not yet in Italy.

Listen to “Babbel Book Club — Ferrante Fever” on Spreaker.


Thomas: Hello! I’m Thomas, a writer here at Babbel, and welcome to another month of Babbel Book Club. As you can tell by the fact that you can’t see my face, we’re doing a slightly different format. We’ve done Facebook Lives in the past, but this is audio. And also, if you’re reading this, then it’s written down. That’s because we wanted to talk to one of the people who is not in New York, who’s one of our Babbel correspondents, Giulia!

Giulia: Hi, hi. I’m calling you from here, from the Berlin office. I’m the Italian editor here at Babbel. I am also a writer and I love reading, so I love books. I love talking about books, so here I am.

Thomas: Perfect guest for us to have, because books. You’re originally from Italy?

Giulia: Yes, from Venice.

Thomas: Right, so we can get an actual perspective from someone who’s from the country where the book was originally published. I want to get as many people here involved as possible.

On Reading The Book For The First Time

Thomas: Well, we can dive right in! You said you originally read this book five years ago.

Giulia: Almost five years ago, yes.

Thomas: What made you first pick it up? Did you hear about it from other places?

Giulia: Actually, it was an advice from a friend — she said read, My Brilliant Friend, which in Italian is L’amica geniale, the title in Italian is this one. The funny thing is when I read the first book, I didn’t know there was three other book waiting for me, so imagine my joy at the end of My Brilliant Friend, that there were three more. I love them all of them. I think that I love the first book even more, because at the time I was living in New Zealand, and I was very very nostalgic of Italy at that point. Even though I’ve never visited Napoli — Naples — in my life. I am from Venice and I never had the chance so far, but still, while reading the book, I could perfectly understand the atmosphere and I was living in another country. That made me miss Italy even more. It was like a double love, you know.

Thomas: I started reading the books right before the fourth one came out in the United States, so there were already a lot of articles out about it.

On Ferrante Fever

Thomas: I mentioned Ferrante fever, which is a weird phrase. Basically, over here, these books became very popular, everyone was reading them. Now, it’s a mini-series [on HBO]. Earlier we were talking that it’s kind of an American phenomenon.

Giulia: Yeah, so I’m expecting a big Ferrante fever in Italy as well when the series will come out. Not as big as in the U.S., I think. Twelve years ago, I don’t know if you remember that, some journalist made this analysis on bank accounts to discover the real identity of the writer. We don’t know if the name they found out was real or not. We’ll never know, I guess. I don’t want to know to be honest. I’m happy like this. I’m expecting a lot of talk and popularity.

On The Italian And Neapolitan Languages

Thomas: Let’s talk about language for a second, because you speak Italian, the book is in Italian, and one thing that’s come up is that it takes place in Naples, so whenever the book says that someone’s speaking in dialect, that means they speak in Neapolitan. I think to a lot of people outside of Italy, they don’t really know what that means. Is Neapolitan, and other dialects of Italy, are they like different languages?

Giulia: I come from the very north of Italy, so the Neapolitan dialect, it’s like another language to me. Obviously, I can understand if they don’t speak too fast, but for real, it’s like hearing another language. For example, with the series, I am watching it with the English subtitles, because some parts are very very difficult for me. Yes, in the books it was easier because with the written language obviously, you can think about it and you can try to understand. For me, it was really difficult to understand the spoken language. Especially because the one, I don’t know if you saw already, some episodes of the series, but they speak in a very very fast and difficult way. I don’t know if you hear any difference with the standard Italian, but I do.

Thomas: I guess from the outside, I watched the first two episodes, but I don’t speak any Italian, so it just kind of sounds like all Italian. There are definitely times they kind of call attention to when someone’s speaking dialect or they’re speaking a gruffer kind of Italian, but I don’t think I can pick out anything that would make that, because I just don’t know enough about the language. In Northern Italy are you just speaking … you just call that Italian?

Giulia: No, all Italians speak the standard Italian, but every part of Italy has a regional dialect. It depends also from the influences that we had from the other countries, because for example before Italy it was a country, there used to be the Austrian domination in the north. That’s why in some parts of the north we speak German. Then, in the south, there was a Spanish and Arabic domination, so that’s why the influences on the dialects are very different. I can understand most of the dialects from the north of Italy, but the further south I go, the less I understand, because they are very different.

On Friendship In The Neapolitan Novels

Thomas: Switching to the major themes of the book. It seems to be a lot about friendship, which is a very common theme in contemporary fiction. So, Lila and Lenù are on two different ends of the spectrum. Lenù is smart, but she always has to put out a more overt effort with Lila, who kind of effortlessly does whatever she puts her mind to, which is also just a difficult person to get along with. What did you think of that dynamic between these two characters?

Giulia: My favorite is Lila to be honest, even though while reading the books, there were moments where I hated her because she was mean. She was clearly mean, but on the other side, this relationship works because Lila is clearly predominant over Lenù. In my opinion, all the events that happen in the four books are kind of revenge of Lila towards Lenù, because Lenù is luckier. She can go to school, she can know people, she can go out of the city of Naples, and on the other side, Lila is living in the shade. On the other side, she’s the brilliant one, she’s the one who gave the name to the series. I can understand the frustration of Lila. I can also understand why Lenù feels a little bit obligated to be the best, because she’s lucky and she can go to school, but I can also understand why the relationship works, because there is the predominant one and the one who is a bit passive, which is obviously Lenù. I think it’s a very delicate balance between the two of them. Sometimes the balance breaks.

Thomas: The balance between the two is interesting, because it reminds me a lot of duos in fiction, like you can go back to Sherlock Holmes and Watson, where it’s the very intelligent one and the one kind of telling the story of the other person, or for more contemporary example for Americans, Broad City even, where there’s one character who’s much more outgoing and flamboyant and the other who’s more conservative. I felt when I was reading it that you are kind of … well, it’s told from the perspective of Lenù, so you’re kind of relating to her because you can see into her thoughts, she’s much easier to relate to.

On The New HBO Miniseries

Giulia: I think it’s very well done. I was expecting … while I was reading the books, I obviously imagined the face and the clothes, and the houses, and everything that was described, and it was perfect. Watching the TV series was like, “Yes. That’s how it should look like because that’s exactly the way I imagined everything.” I read that during the casting they saw thousands and thousands of children to nail the perfect Lila and the perfect Lenù, and I’d say that they did a very good choice. Lila especially is perfect.

Thomas: I’m always impressed by any child actors because I can’t imagine having to be in these situations and express emotion like they do. It is just kind of incredible how it’s like they got the perfect characters. It’s just such a challenge, because they both have to make them look like people in the book, but they also, since this mini-series is going to take them throughout pretty their entire life, they have to find the right people.

On Loving The Neapolitan Novels

Thomas: Was there anything that you took away from the books that you just loved and that just stuck with you?

Giulia: When I first read the book, I wasn’t really thinking about the women’s conditions at the time during the ’50s and ’60s in Italy. I was attracted to the story and the events, and the stuff that happened, but now, when I saw the TV series [I also] focus on these details. You know I said that I loved the teacher character because she was encouraging the little girls to be better, to be independent. Yeah, so I would like to reread all the books now with that in mind. 

Thomas: I’d agree. When you read it first, you just kind of go with the flow of the story and don’t think about the historical nature of it, but there is just a lot of real-world influence, which is why I guess people are so convinced that it must be based on a real story, because it’s just so based in the real Naples at that time. Well, I guess with that, we’ll wrap up this month’s discussion, so that it doesn’t go on forever. Thank you for anyone who listens and we’ll be back with another book next month!

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Header Photo Credit: Eduardo Castaldo/HBO 

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