MY BRILLIANT FRIEND
Women, ambition, and friendship
“My experience as a novelist… culminated, after twenty years, in the attempt to relate, in a writing that was appropriate, my sex and its difference. But if we have to cultivate our narrative tradition, as women, that doesn’t mean we should renounce the entire stock of techniques we have behind us. We have to show that we can construct worlds that are not only as wide and powerful and rich as those constructed by men but more so. We have to be well equipped, we have to dig deep into our difference, using advanced tools. Above all, we have to insist on the greatest freedom.” – Elena Ferrante¹
Last fall I read the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series, which has exploded the literary world’s understanding of friendship between women. The world of Ferrante’s protagonist, Lenù, is not constructed by power, money, or prestige, but orbits around the triumphs and expectations of her best friend, Lila. Lenù leaves violent Naples on a scholarship to a prestigious Italian university. Meanwhile, Lila, despite her dazzling brilliance, is denied the opportunity to pursue further education and becomes entangled in an abusive marriage. Throughout the four-book series, Lenù and Lila’s lives expand and contract relative to one another, creating a narrative that is intensely relational.
Like Lila, my friend Cassandra has an ability to make any subject come alive. At seventeen, we shared a history class, and my first impression was that she alone had authored the twentieth century. Mao, Stalin, and Zhou Enlai were names so familiar in her lips I felt she must have shared private conversations with them in past lives. The intonations of her Brazilian Portuguese bled through her English, making it more forceful and somehow more convincing. Looking up from A History of Modern Russia, she would say, with profound exasperation, “Staaaa-lin, what was he dooo-ing?”
On weekends, Cassandra and I would stay up until the early hours of the morning watching the same autobiography of Salvador Dali on repeat, discussing surrealism and entropy. Over the holidays, when I visited Cassandra in her hometown in Brazil, I lugged the 800-page Search for Modern China along with me, reading it between long bus rides, family visits, and coastal adventures. Naïve and baffled by the title, I was frustrated by the fuzziness of modernity. Somehow Cassandra’s impatient intellect had unleashed mine, and when I returned to school I handed in papers that furiously questioned linear cultural development, the inevitability of war, and discarded theories of peace. As I look back now, I see a friendship that shaped the course of my life.
In all these moments, Cassandra and I never discussed grades or the places we’d go. There was nothing instrumental about our Friday nights searching the library stacks for another account of the First World War. We simply wanted to know.
For many years, I didn’t see Cassandra. Our lives were unfolding on different continents. I settled on law in Canada; she finished graduate school in Israel. Last year we crossed paths in Europe. She was working on a novel and studying the phenomenon of ISIS with the same consuming fascination. Like Ferrante’s protagonist Lenù, seeing my old friend forced a critical reflection on the values that are assumed — and those that are vacated — in my own legal education.
For those of us who move laterally through life — friends and family anchoring past and future — a relational narrative feels truthful. Which is perhaps why, though Ferrante’s violent and impoverished Naples is worlds away from Montreal, I easily slipped into the skin of the narrator.
By book four I felt the edges between my own thoughts and those of Lenù become blurry. Ferrante’s world straddles public and private spheres, academic achievement, political violence, and failed parenting. Ferrante reveals that a life held in a constellation of relationships is no less complex than one propelled by unbending individual ambition.
Ferrante’s fiction also resonates with the work of feminist scholar Carol Gilligan, whose experiments suggested that “male and female subjects held different ethical worldviews. The male ethics tended towards the clear application of rules, whereas the female ethics was more ‘relational’ and based upon an ‘ethic of care’ that is informed by the relationships between people rather than abstract principles.”² As I attempt to articulate my own ethical worldview and future ambitions as a law student, I see these voices as offering an alternative to purely liberal conceptions of self — one in which learning and exchange, self-expression and interdependence can hold centre-stage.
One way that I have been fortunate enough to come to understand these ideas is through my connection to Cassandra. It is not surprising that Ferrante’s first novel is entitled My Brilliant Friend.
(1) Sandro & Sandra Ferri, “Elena Ferrante, Art of Fiction, No. 228” the Paris Review, online: <www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6370/art-of-fiction-no-228-elena-ferrante>.
(2) Margaret Davies, “Unity and Diversity in Feminist Legal Theory” (2007) 2:4 Philosophy Compass 650 at 655.