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My Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante

Shiraz Viognier The Lane 2013

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#FerranteFever shows no signs of cooling. For our July’s A Book And A Bottle Damian has finally given in to the intensity of My Brilliant Friend – the first of the Neapolitan novels. Helping him choose our #NovelPairings are James Franklin from Corney & Barrow and Simon Heafield from Foyles.

There’s word of mouth and then there’s the evangelical zeal of Ferrante fans. Or ‘their’ Ferrante as they think of her. Eyes glittering like the Bay Of Naples, they urge you to drop whatever you’re reading and enter the claustrophobic world of Lila and Elena. It’s cultish.

As with anything suddenly so fashionable a stubborn corner of me actively resisted. In the case of skinny jeans this proved wise. But, oh, how glad I am to finally be immersed in Ferrante’s intensity. “I felt the same way,” says Simon from Foyles. “The books were almost annoying popular but once you get into her world it’s easy to see why.”

Nobody knows who Ferrante is – remarkable in the age of twitter. She’s never given a public reading, not that we know of. Some say she might even be a he (‘because how could a man understand female friendship’). Others that she might not even be Italian. Undoubtedly the absence of an author means the fans claim ownership more ardently.

Ferrante has let it be known she envisages the quartet, which stretches over decades, as one big book. It tells the life stories of two friends, best friends, total frenemies: the dark-haired seemingly alpha Lila (Raffaella) and the blonde seemingly beta Lenù (Elena). Is Elena the writer also Elena the character? We focussed our drinking and thinking on Book One: My Brilliant Friend (MBF).

MBF opens in early childhood in the unnamed but oppressive and violent ‘neighbourhood’: ‘Malicious heat lay on it like a hand swollen by fever.’ We don’t know exactly where it is but Mount Vesuvius broods in the distance and Naples is the nearest city.

‘It was all beautiful and frightening then,’ says Elena, the narrator. To begin with, very little actually happens – a doll is dropped into a dark cellar, one girls outshines another at school, someone casts a dirty look. It’s not about plot. It’s about character and mood. You find yourself longing for a friendship as intense and moving as passionate as Elena and Lila’s then you find yourself feeling glad you just meet your pals for drinks and chat.

Says Elena of Lila: ‘I trained myself to accept readily Lila’s superiority in everything, even her oppressions. Terrible dazzling girl.’ Lila ‘intensifies reality’ and when she grows up ‘becomes dangerously seductive’ if not conventionally beautiful. They compete at everything.

As the girls mature they grow apart then closer again setting up the drama for the next three novels (which I’m now gripped by). Nothing is predictable: ‘Lila was like that, she threw things out of balance just to see if she could put them back in some other way.’

The Bibulous-o-graphy for this book is brief—there’s some ‘sparkling wine’, vermouth and unspecified ‘good wine’.

“The sparkling was probably Prosecco not Spumante,” speculates James from C&B. “Because it’s New Year’s Eve they’d want something special. Prosecco ‘Pianer’ is “Premier Cru” from boutique winery ‘Le Colture’ in the heart of Valdobbiadene, the hub of top Prosecco production.”

Simon is a prosecco fan: “It’s better than the usual book launch fizz”. I prefer champagne but this is the smoothest prosecco I’ve ever had. Nevertheless it feels too obvious – a literal, rather than literary, choice.

Marcello, Lila’s gangsterish suitor, woos her with ‘three bottles of good wine’. “Passopisciaro IGT Tenuta di Passopisciaro 2011 definitely fits that bill,” says James. “It’s the kind of wine you’d use to impress without being ostentatious. The vines grow right on Mount Etna so this has some of the volcanic energy of Lila.”

It definitely does. But it says nothing about Elena. Our #NovelPairing needs to reflect their intense, complex friendship.

“The last wine I’ve shortlisted is Australian,” says James. “And it’s a blend of red and white: Shiraz and Viognier. But bear with me. It’s 97% Shiraz but the 3% viognier changes it completely.” Simon agrees: “That tiny bit of white lifts the red.”

The Lane Shiraz Viognier 2013 is not straightforward. It’s full of brooding tension – one grape would be lesser without the other, as would Elena and Lila. But together they are compelling. It’s the perfect #NovelPairing for My Brilliant Friend.

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