The Existential Angst of English Professors

... casts a large shadow of gloom over modern literary fiction, but isn't one of my more pressing concerns. That's one reason that I don't read much literary fiction, but not a very good one, I expect, since there is plenty of good literature being written on other subjects. Mostly, I suppose, is the fact that there is so much of it, and I really don't want to spend that much time on it. Still, I do try to read some such every now and then.

Anyway, my latest is My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, the first book in her Neapolitan quartet. Ferrante is sometimes described as Italy's best known and least known author, with the first adjective attesting to the popularity of her works and the second to her personal reclusiveness, carried to an extreme that one reviewer said made Salinger look like a publicity hound.

It's the story of the friendship of two bright girls growing up in a tough neighborhood in Naples in the 1950s and early 1960s, daughters, respectively, of a porter and a shoemaker. The narrator shares the author's (probably psuedonymous) Christian name, making it easy to guess that it is at least partially autobiographical. The girls and their girlhood are the central elements of the story, but the city, or rather the neighborhood gets almost equal billing. It is a dangerous place, where fathers rule their families with a bruising fist and violence is a ready resort in many a confrontation. The war lies over the memory horizon of the protagonists, but it, fascism, and the Camorra, the Mafia-like secret criminal society centered in Naples, are a dark background.

I think that it's a terrific book, both for its picture of the milieu and the characters, and recommend it highly.

Since I've been simultaneously reading The Diary of a Teenage Girl (the book upon which the movie I recently reviewed was based), I couldn't help noticing certain parallels and perpendiculars between the two narratives. One narrator grew up in an environment where many of our current bogeymen ruled: the patriarchy, sexual repression, and violence; the other in the anything goes sex and drug drenched San Francisco of a couple of decades later. It's pretty clear to me that the latter environment was the more toxic.


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