Over the years, and as a trained literary analyst, I have been conditioned to scoff at bestsellers. At their best, I used to think, they were guilty pleasures for which occasional concessions could be made (ahem- mental health break – ahem), at their worst, frivolities cluttering the shelves of our bookstores and our minds (hello, Marie Kondo). I was taught that in order to be considered valuable, authors needed to follow series of artistic imperatives. Literature — in order to be viewed as just that — had to adhere to one or several of the following unspoken rules (1) It should be politically engaged; (2) it should make reference to classic culture; (3) it should belong to a recognizable intellectual movement — neorealism, imagism, modernism and other lofty “isms”. According to this schema, love stories, unless based on or modelled after classic templates or tropes, are derivative. Friendship, unless the friendship between men expressed in missives or the friendship between lovers expressed in poetry (think, Rainer Maria Rilke), is out of the realm of literary relevance. To say nothing of the friendship between women, too commonplace to be given any weight, being as it is the product of their innately friendly and nurturing nature and therefore entirely unremarkable. A story’s scope had to reach beyond its immediate setting, while remaining decidedly of a piece with the social circumstances that generated it. It had to be universal, but also recognizably the end result of one clear historical moment, zeitgeist. This was proper literature. And it was infrequently found in bestsellers, loved by the masses, but seldom for their espousing of the above characteristics. Literature is not what people love to read. It’s what challenges their thoughts and perspectives.
So I was prepared to hate L’amica geniale, for several years now a frequent title on bestseller lists across the globe, and to write it off as the stuff of overhyped popular preference — what to me was the only defining quality of the bestseller. I was prepared to find it trite, vapid, irrelevant, dated, pleasant if empty. But two books in, I found it to be none of those things. And two more books in, even despite its flaws (and there are a number of them to consider — the third and fourth tomes lag on longer than they could have, give improper proportion to the later years in the series’ protagonists’ lives, wrap up loose ends only approximately and rather unsatisfactorily to my taste), I recognized in it the literary quality I was prepared, from the start, to deny it.
I read three fourths of the series while teaching a class on Literary Composition, which got me thinking about the kinds of texts I might have my students read, were I to give the course again. L’amica geniale might not show up on that specific syllabus, but its literary merits, especially in comparison to the texts I had proposed on my course outline, were undeniable. Below are five (or more) reasons to teach the Amica geniale series to your literature buffs — be they students of Italian literature or of the art of writing more generally.
1 – Elena Ferrante, regardless of her true identity (no one seems to know who’s behind the pen name), is a literary author who makes masterful use of all those devices you learned about as an undergraduate, and maybe even as a high school student. Foreshadowing. Building up to a climax. Denouement. Flashbacks. Symmetry. They are all right there in her book presented in an organic, natural way, without much fuss or announcement. But there they are. If you are looking to teach these devices in sustained context, Ferrante gives you something to sink your teeth into.
2 – Her series also exudes an enviable quality of lightness — hard to achieve given the themes and social issues it addresses (organized crime, rape, death, loss, sexism, social mobility, political rebellion and revolution, etc.) Three years after his death in 1985, a series of Italo Calvino’s essays, prepared for a lecture series to be given at Harvard university, was published posthumously in the form of “lessons”. Arguably the most famous among them is his essay on “Lightness,” in which he argues for the “removal of weight” from literary texts. This “lightening” of a literary work refers not to the individual words it employs, to the syntax of its sentences, but rather to the elimination of darkness, heaviness, in places where it is likely to suffocate its readers. Use airy movement as a counterweight to death. Use a sunny beach holiday as a counterweight to a series of miscarriages (as the case may be). There is air between the spaces of Ferrante’s words that allows the reader at once both to live the moment recounted and to appreciate its depth.
3 – L’amica geniale defies literary genre. Is it a memoir? Is it a confession? Is it a documentary? A diary? A series of epistles, rethought? Is it useful to think of it in terms of genre at all? And what does its fluency, moving among these categories seemingly effortlessly, mean for the larger work as a whole? Those studying literary form might find much to discuss when considering how it gets used in the Amica geniale series.
4 – Revolving around the forever intertwined lives of two women, it’s no surprise that this series touches on themes of womanhood and gives full priority to women’s voices, women’s stories, women’s experiences and realities, populated, as they are, by mothers, sisters, fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, and daughters. It is one of few in the Italian tradition, especially, to do so, and would be worth teaching solely for this reason. But its merits go well beyond its applicability to gender studies,
5 – they extend to cultural studies, too. Though told several decades after the fact, and in retrospect — with the expected gaps in memory and glossing over of timely events — L’amica geniale is a post-war exploration of Italy through its phase of industrialization and into the present day. It is a saga spanning decades that effectively illustrates the issues by now famously associated with Italy in the 50s through the 90s: the intellectual elite; the changing role of the woman; class struggles, the Italian caste system, and social mobility (or lack thereof); popular opinion and open political rebellion during gli anni di piombo. It is a survey of Italian history in a particular formative moment of its national identity and beyond.
6 – It is a remarkable case of character study. The book’s two protagonists, and a never-ending slew of supporting characters, are followed from youth to senility, from the time they are six years old to the time they are sixty. Ferrante reveals a singular ability to depict each of them faithfully, respectfully, consistently over the course of their development. Each of them changes in accordance both with age and with their respective social situations and the hand life has dealt them. But each of them also remains fundamentally themselves at their core, the children they were illustrated to be in the book’s first volume. This is no small achievement. Ferrante succeeds at the monumental task of balancing their evolution with their stagnation, a change of fortune with the retention of past trends and values. It’s a theme that runs throughout the book and is explored in myriad ways, and comes both in the psychological and physical developments of all of Ferrante’s characters.
7 – It is a delicately nuanced, perfectly honest examination of friendship — more specifically still of female friendships. Short of tales of sisterhood, appropriately ambivalent in their reflection of the rivalry between girls linked by the same parents and upbringing, few novels truly tackle the theme of female friendship with as much grit and frankness as Ferrante’s four. The relationship between Elena and Lila is dynamic, forever changing, at times florid, at others, inert. Their fifty-year friendship alternates between periods of mutual support and admiration and years of animosity and rancour. Theirs is no happy ending, either, as not all friendships, even the longest-lasting, always get one.
8 – Finally, L’Amica geniale is a reflection on intellectual engagement more generally and on the possibilities afforded by writing. It is an examination of literature’s ability both to reflect reality and, to a certain degree, to change it. But it is also an introspection on the growing irrelevance — true or imagined — of writing, on the passage of time and the changing of literary styles and truths. It is a series that invites all writers and intellectuals to consider their contribution to the literary sphere critically, and to evaluate their own relevance in a world that deems no longer to need them. As such, it invites a reflection on the nature and usefulness of literature as a whole, and asks if it still serves to instruct or, short of that, delight as Sir Philip Sidney once famously claimed it should.
I began reading the Amica geniale series as a special favour to a student (and dear friend) and following the recommendation of other students or loved ones who had been exposed to its genius before me. I likely would not have remotely considered it otherwise (so, thanks Christina, Lila, Meghri, Maëva, Marisa and Mom!). But I’m glad to have followed the crowd on this one, to have jumped on the bandwagon however many years later. I dare not suffer you through a review of it; I could not find the right words to summarize its multitudes. But I will say that it has upended my prejudice against the bestseller. I will never again judge a book by its cover. Or its Goodreads reviews.