Monday, September 5, 2016

My Brilliant Friend, readalong, The Prologue

Welcome to this Read-Along of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend.  Never having attempted to host a read-along here before, I'm not sure how this project might evolve, but I'm sure we'll figure it out together. For now, I'm going to write a few words about the epigraph, ask for a brief introduction (via the Comments section) from those of you who are reading along (although you certainly don't need to speak up if you're not comfortable doing that yet), and end by giving a schedule for the next two posts.


Before doing that, I'll just point out for those of you who haven't visited before, or at least not often, that I've already posted a few times about Ferrante's Neapolitan series (i.e. My Brilliant Friend and the three volumes following it). You can find those posts, if you're interested, here, but there may be a few spoilers. What those posts show, I think, is that having read all four books in the series through in relatively quick succession (I had to wait for the fourth to be published in English),  I closed the last pages of the final volume and turned almost immediately back to the introduction of the first one. Despite the linearity -- an inexorable pull to the end, to find out what happens, to follow these two women's lives -- the "frame story" of the series, I believe you will agree should you read all four titles,  circles us right back to where we started.

For now, though, it is time to get started. We can think about endings and circling back later.

So.

Rereading My Brilliant Friend, I decide I should pay more attention to the epigraph. My copy of Goethe's Faust is packed away in storage with all our moving boxes, but a little Googling takes me to this article by Alice Brittan, published in Open Letters Monthly in September 2015. In the article, Brittan helpfully "unpacks," as we used often to say in academe, the provenance and the significance of this quotation as epigraph at the beginning not only of My Brilliant Friend but also, by extension, of the entire Neapolitan series.

Most of you are reading this novel for the first time, and you are too eager to get on with it to read Brittan's article -- which, fair warning, is replete with "spoilers," as it's a work of literary criticism (i.e. analysis) rather than a review.  But it's worth at least skimming the paragraphs that consider the epigraph. In case even that much time away from Ferrante's pages is too much for you, let me summarise very briefly: Brittan sketches the scene for those who haven't read Faust, describing the devil, Mephistopheles, interrupting a "colloquium of archangels" to scorn humanity as "a rather sorry sight." God disagrees, and bets the devil that he will not be able to seduce the professor Dr. Faust to abandon his allegiance to good.

What is arguably shocking in Goethe's play is that when the devil boasts that he will be able to bring the man to the ground, to the level of the Eve-tempting snake, Goethe's God answers, Brittan tells us, that he never "never hated those who were like you" (i.e., like Mephistopheles, the devil). And this is when, as Brittan points out, God makes the speech which Ferrante has taken for her epigraph, a speech in which he points out that humanity is prone to boredom, to "unqualified repose," and that therefore God has gifted human beings with a companion, the Devil, "who works, excites, and must create."

Brittan goes on to link the creative energies associated with Mephistopheles to the chaotic creative power that Lina/Lila unleashes throughout and from which Lenù, the story's writer-narrator, benefits. We don't need to decide whether that's a viable reading of the epigraph's relation to the novel/series, but I do think it's worth keeping in mind throughout that the epigraph draws attention to the compromises creativity might seem to demand of one's morality. That the epigraph suggests that Good and Evil might be more complicatedly intertwined than we sometimes like to believe. That "unqualified repose" is worth disturbing, perhaps even at the cost of one's soul. . . Or not, because, of course, in the end Faust will suffer. . .

Something else the Goethe quotation does, Brittan argues and I would agree, is place the novel in a category labeled World Literature. That is, as much as the novel is so specifically about two girls growing to older women in (and out of, for one of them) a neighbourhood of Naples, it also has universal or international relevance. We can find out something in these novels about the human condition that is not limited to its Neapolitan provenance, important, absolutely integral, undeniably, though that regional flavour is.

That's enough to get us started, I think. Now perhaps you could leave a Comment below and introduce yourself briefly if you haven't visited before. Feel free to use the Anonymous option, but it would be great if you used a name within that option, at the end of your comment -- fine if it's a nickname or psuedonym, just something so we can get a sense of who's saying what as we move through the book together. For now, perhaps just your name and a few words about where you are in the novel (just starting, finished, re-reading, halfway through) and what you think so far. Let's try to avoid spoilers, for now, in consideration for those who haven't read as far yet.

On Friday, I'll post a few thoughts about the Prologue, and next Monday, on Chapters 1-10 of the section Childhood. I'm really looking forward to our conversation! (oh, and a recommendation: I wouldn't bother spending much time looking at the Cast of Characters before you begin reading, but you may find it useful to refer back to as you get caught up in the Neapolitan neighbourhood's complex relationships).

So now, over to you. I'd love to know who's out there, reading along. Please introduce yourselves below.

30 comments:

  1. Oh thanks for the reminder, Frances, I added this book to my list and then promptly forgot with the busyness of summer vacations. I am heading out with a gift certificate in hand to pick it up. On this cool, dreary, post dog trial, post company day- curling up with a good book is just the ticket. I look forward to the conversations ahead- and good luck with the move. Jennifer

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    1. Happy you'll be joining us, Jennifer. . .

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  2. Perfect timing. Just finished Gillian Flynns Gone Girl and pondering what to start next. So I've just downloaded My Brilliant friend onto my Kindle App and have literally just read the first couple of pages. Glad you said not to worry about the list of characters. I had taken one look and promptly started the book! Thanks for the schedule I will get busy reading :) Barbara

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    1. Great, Barbara. I look forward to finding what you think about it -- a very different rhythm from Gone Girl, but there's an element of mystery in MBF and we will wonder about the narrator throughout as well, perhaps....

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  3. I think I will read as you direct to avoid including spoilers in my comments. So, the article in your link, prologue and chapters 1 through 10 this week. I never! (except in textbooks) write in my books. At most I will stick a flag beside a meaningful passage. I did not do this for MBF as I read it on the move. I wonder what will strike me on this second go-round.

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    1. I love post-it notes for what would otherwise be marginalia, but I don't scruple any longer about penciling in a comment to myself. I hope we can still be friends ;-)
      I'm also curious about what I'll find second time around

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  4. I just finished the new Louise Penny, so this was perfect timing for my next read! I'm a soon-to-retire university administrator who has always, always loved to read. I look forward to reading along with you and your followers. Not promising I'll stop at chapter 10, though!

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    1. Thanks for the intro, Tricia. I didn't know that about you, although might have guessed the reading love! ;-)
      And on a first time through, I don't think I'd have stopped there either...

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  5. I ordered and have the four books from the library. I am half way through the first book. I did listen to the audio book on the BBC radio 4. I wished that I hadn't though as the characters were given english north country accents, which didn't really fit two small Italian girls
    However I must have absorbed a lot as I recognise the story so far.
    I must confess I did not pay much attention to the Epigram!
    Jenny Campos

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    1. I began listening to the BBC recording, but I was disappointed/annoyed that they launched into the two small girls without including the framing device. It seems to important to me . . .
      As for the Goethe quotation, nor did I attend to it much first time 'round. Pleased to have you joining us!

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  6. I have finished all four books (and Days of Abandonment) some time ago,even commented here :-)
    Looking forward reading along because I like to re-read books. When I read for the first time I'm a greedy reader,so second or third time reading, brings in new qualities and insights
    You could see that my mother language is not english (it is croatian),so those of you who didn't read some of my previous comments,please forgive me for some butchering here (now and in the future)
    I have read the epigraph,more like passing by,not knowing what to expect in the books- but after finishing the books,re-reading it again,rethinking,thinking about brillant review from Alice Brittan (and her commenters)-what a gem!
    Coastal Ripples- have you read Girl on the Train-I like it even more than Gone Girl
    Dottoressa

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    1. I wondered if you and Georgia would be willing to join in for a second read -- so pleased you are. And please, please don't feel you need to apologise for your English -- I think we're all just impressed that you wield it so generously to share your insightful impressions with us.
      Glad you enjoyed that essay by Brittan (I found that conversation in the comments great as well -- so much to think about, isn't there?!)

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  7. Since I've read all 4 of this series, I will admit to following/lurking along. It's a great read and I learned so much historically. Have fun everyone!

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    1. Happy to have lurkers along as well -- feel free to pop in and comment anytime from your recollected impressions of the series.

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  8. I've read all four twice- having gulped them down the first time and then a bit more thoughtfully the second. I agree that they belong to the universal in spite of/maybe even because of the tight geographical centering. I am anxious to share thoughts as we progress. Barbara from Guelph

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    1. Oh wonderful! I'm really looking forward to this more careful reading my second time 'round, and I'll be keen to read your comments as we get going, Barbara.

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  9. I would love to join in, but my crazy fall work schedule might turn me into a lurker! I just finished the third book and have purchased, but haven't yet started the fourth one. I'm looking forward to re-reading.

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    1. Lurkers welcome, and you can keep Susan (above) company ;-) Join in as your schedule permits.

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  10. Hi Mater...I have not read this book yet and plan to read along with the rest of the group. Hopefully I can keep up, but life has thrown me a few curve balls recently that may slow me down. I will definitely be lurking (and avoiding spoilers if I see them comimg ;)

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    1. So sorry, Brenda, and I hope those bumps in the road can be straightened out quickly without too much trouble. Lots of corners for lurking, though; make yourself as comfy as you can...

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  11. Just finished the first book; it really does have the sense of Naples. The city historic district is dark and mystical, lively and dangerous, shadowy and bright. Now I am ready to re-read with a more patient eye ....

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    1. I haven't made it to Naples yet, Kristine, and it's good to hear from someone who has seen the city. I imagine it's different again from what it was when Lenu and Lila were growing up in the 40s and 50s...

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  12. I looked up the Goethe quotation and (in the German version) I hear a note of amusement in God's remarks about Mephistopheles. As I see it, the devil is not opposed to the divine plan but rather a part of it. Which might mean that there is no absolute (moral) Bad as opposed to Good. It is all a matter of degrees, and in the end, the "Ancient", as Mephistopheles calls him, doesn't really care very much either way.
    This might be interesting because as far as I have read, many of Lila's actions are explained simply by describing her as "bad" ("cattiva") in Italian. Which may be the perspective of the child the narrator was at the time of the events, whereas the epigraph may refer us to the perspective of the adult who is writing.
    Reading the book in Italian works surprisingly well, my Spanish is helping me more than I had expected. But I have to look up 5 to 10 words per page, and OF COURSE I scribble the meaning in German underneath!

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    1. I'd hoped you might chime in, Eleonore, with your German and your keen attention. You've said so well what I think is going on in that quotation -- God is quite clear that he doesn't hate or despise the snake, nor even less, Mephisstopheles who has been part of his crew.
      It's also wonderful to have someone here who's reading in Italian, because so many words have some connotations that even the best translator must sometimes have to reluctantly leave behind And yes! It's so important to distinguish between the child's perspective and that of the writing adult. And of course, the epigraph links as as much to Ferrante herself -- and perhaps even to the mystery many insist on probing of who EF is and how closely linked to the Elena/Lenù of the novel.
      Glad to find another who doesn't scruple about scribbling notes into a book!
      See? This is all going to be fun! ;-)

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  13. I will be reading/lurking along. Started the first book last spring, but was distracted and never finished. Looking forward to the incentive to read and follow the discussion. I will have no internet access for over a week while on vacation, but I will be in the Sierras in my lounge chair beneath a very big sugar pine with my stack of books, reading along. Thank you for taking the time to do this in the middle of your big move-in. The sneak peak at your condo is lovely!

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    1. Welcome Gail! And I hope we make it through the novel together. I love the image of you on that lounge chair in the mountains, reading. Happily reading. Enjoy!

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  14. I wish to be part of the read-along but am pretty sure life, school and professional commitments will get in the way. For me, too, it will be a re-read as my first trip through Ferrante's world was to review the last two titles for an industry journal I am not to name. So, the first three were consumed in a frenzy and I awaited the fourth with impatience (and dread over coming to the end.) I will be lurking here to see the reactions of others and will comment on the Goethe only to say that for the first time in a review, ever, I used the word "chthonic" (which was changed in print to the less punchy "chthonian") since I was at a loss to describe, succinctly, the forces at work in the novels. That may help you to I.D. this reader from NY.

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    1. Are you a punning reader from NY? I'm trying to put the city together with that diphthong-filled reference to the underworld and Miss C. is the only one I can think of. I've explained "chthonic" to students before, with some bemusement at how seldom that opportunity arises, but certainly never used it in print. Nor been overruled by an editor on its use, to the detriment, surely, of a better sentence. . . If it's truly Miss C., hello! I'm still curious about your dislike of the novels' covers...
      And if it's not Miss C, I need more clues, but welcome to you and I hope you find time to visit again.

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  15. Nope, not Miss C. I have been known as nyreader when out and about online but some review responsibilities require anonymity, so there you go. I disagree with Miss C's assessment of the covers and believe they are a brilliant send-up of the "women's novel" tropes.

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    1. I agree with you, nyreader, about the covers. They manage to evoke those tropes and skewer them in an oddly beautiful, somehow deadpan manner. . . This is not chiclit!

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