A Writer’s Journey
PAPERBACK COMING SEPTEMBER 12
Elena Ferrante is the author of The Days of Abandonment (Europa, 2005), Troubling Love (Europa, 2006), and The Lost Daughter (Europa 2008) and the four volumes of the Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of The Lost Child), published by Europa Editions between 2012 and 2015. She is also the author of a children’s picture book illustrated by Mara Cerri, The Beach at Night and a work of non-fiction, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey.
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News & Reviews
• Ferrante Fever has flared up in Naples, where nearly 5,000 children are vying to audition for HBO’s adaptation of “My Brilliant Friend,” the first of the four smash-hit novels by Elena Ferrante.
The open casting call has injected hysteria and hope in parts of the southern Italian city that is poor in resources but rich in characters.
Separately, our correspondent visited the nearby Villaggio Coppola, built in the 1960s with utopian ambitions. It’s now, in her words, “a sad illustration of Southern Italy’s violated beauty and neglect.”
By JASON HOROWITZ
MAY 18, 2017
NAPLES, Italy — A legion of children raced up a dead-end street in Sanità, a tough Naples neighborhood dripping with laundry and suddenly brimming with the promise of stardom.
Marta Reale, 10, her smile broad, her bangs blanched, made her way to a recreation center’s doorway through the dense crowd of other children, sunlit cigarette smoke and mothers fanning themselves on the seats of scooters. Above her, more children were hanging out the window, and above them, more were crammed onto a balcony.
Then she approached the desk where she gave her name and age and got a numbered slip of paper and a parental release form. The sign above her head read, “Dream.”
This was not just any casting call, but one for “My Brilliant Friend,” an adaptation of the first of the four smash-hit Neapolitan Novels written by Elena Ferrante, whose hidden identity enthralled the literary world and whose books have sold more than a million copies.
HBO and the Italian state broadcaster RAI caught the Ferrante Fever and are producing an eight-episode mini-series inspired by that first book, introducing international viewers to the complicated relationship of two remarkably gifted girls, Lila (“that terrible, dazzling girl”) and Lenú (“I liked pleasing everyone”), as they grow up and apart in a violent, vivid Naples neighborhood in the lean postwar years.
From a structural point of view, tension and compression often meld into each another. In this building, two volumes are interwoven by strong connecting rods, extended columns and daring beams, with one of the two seemingly suspended from the other. With its mass and swirled dynamism, the suspended volume (that we will call Lila) seems to be slipping away from the one that is holding it up (that we will call Elena) making it extend and stretch as if it was Lila that was shaping Elena and providing her with her dynamic energy, so vital to any piece of architecture.
The name of this architectural complex is My Brilliant Friend, after Elena Ferrante’s novel in which the relationship between its two protagonists (Elena, the narrating voice, and her childhood friend Lila) is a constant, alternating flux of blurred identities and imperfect dreams.
Now that we know that this is My Brilliant Friend, let’s try to analyze and allow ourselves to be transported by the stresses that occur within its architectural elements. As with structural calculations, the reading and interpreting of a building of this kind are not at all linear and predictable, but rather fluid and certainly not univocal.
It is evident that if one of the two elements were to be missing, the other would have no reason to exist. Without Lila there would be no Elena, and vice versa.
There are points in the structure where it is not clear in which direction stress is expressed. The weight is transferred from the supporting structure onto the supported one—a problem for both the calculations and the idea we were getting of the relationship between Lila and Elena.
It is a building in which neither volume has, so to speak, clear control over the other—i.e., upon which element the functioning of the whole depends. At times it seems like Elena, while making the extraordinary effort to support her, wants to detach herself from Lila.
We, too, are suspended—suspended between tension and compression. Motionless. If we were the very fibers of the structure, if we were—as we actually are, as both visitors of the building and readers of the novel—experiencing these forces, we would also understand and feel the additional torsion, shear, and momentum.
In reading a structure such as this, it is better not to stop at its surface. “ … We delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage.” Suspension, patience and attention. The physics of narrative has its own way of arriving at structural audacities made of hidden tensions and compressions. We must always be ready.
In collaboration with Giuseppe Franco.
HBO recently announced its decision to bring Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels to the small screen, signaling even greater heights for the quartet of bestsellers. The series of books, translated from Italian and written by a pseudonymous author, includes My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child.
The groundbreaking success of these novels did not come as a surprise to Carole DeSanti, who has championed women’s original voices in literature throughout her editing career at Viking Penguin. In the following interview, she examines why and how this series of novels has turned reading and current notions of “authorship” on its head. Ferrante fans and curious readers can join DeSanti for an in-depth exploration of the Neapolitan books during the Aspen Summer Words writing conference and literary festival this June.
The Neapolitan novels seem like unlikely bestsellers. What do you think accounts for the unanticipated success of these books?
So much of what is “anticipated” or touted in the world of popular books turns out to be less than satisfying, and sometimes real originality is rewarded, reader by reader. The best bestsellers, in my view, are those created by word-of-mouth and the pleasure we take in sharing what resonates with us. These are the books that stand the test of time. What I think we respond to in the Ferrante novels is their stark truthfulness — in the sense of the author’s fidelity to the emotional lives of her characters over the arc of days and years. And with that, her ability (which is masterful) to locate and bring forth an epic drama that unfolds over a lifetime. In terms of the two women at the center of these novels this reaches a depth not before seen in fiction. Their world is an easy one to enter, but then the scope grows and grows.
From your perspective as a reader, what do you love about these books?
So many things! Bringing a place, Naples, so alive — from Vesuvius looming over the city to a brilliant young girl furiously making beautiful shoes when she’s not allowed to stay in school. From a cup of coffee in a pastry shop with a bedeviled history to the way a writer creates her voice, renounces it, and circles back again to re-making it: fiercely loving, full of struggle, tender and brutal all at once. But it’s the ever-spiraling, conflicted, ultimately extraordinary feminism in these novels that most touches me. That difficult, ultimate, affirming-of-being, but in a feminine context. I’ve just never read anything like it. I don’t think it’s ever been done. And it’s about time.
From your perspective as an editor, why are these books significant in the publishing landscape?
In publishing we’re living in a moment of great worry and concern (warranted or not) mostly because of digital technologies and the pace of change. What the popularity of these novels suggests to us — confirms, really — is that what we come back to, again and again in literature, is strong and steadfast, regardless of all of the things we worry about in the industry. One way these novels are significant is the way they transmit nuanced emotion over time and place and bring to light what we have not yet seen or examined. This is a quality peculiar to literature. It’s not going to go away, and from time to time is proved anew. So, many in publishing had to sit back and take notice. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, but in the publishing of these books, Europa reminds us that we can still befriend our deepest passions as well.
Can these novels be compared to any other books that have come across your desk over your editing career?
Absolutely not! I have worked on some wonderful books, but these novels stand apart which is why I am championing them as a reader. To survive, literature must be a joint project among writers, publishers, and readers. I would love to have worked on them, but I’m grateful that others had the wisdom and foresight to do so.
Why do you think the anonymity of the author has caused such a stir?
Well, again, it goes against the grain. We have a culture of literary celebrity that has become entrenched. What the anonymity of “Ferrante” tells us is that there is something about the unknown-ness of the author that allows for something that we value even more than what songs she has on her playlist, whether she writes in a nightgown at midnight or jeans on the weekend, or what she happens to enjoy when she’s not at her desk. All of that trivia that authors and publishers (and all have done it, sometimes with the best intentions) have tried to merchandise. Ferrante’s anonymity has reversed the received wisdom and inspired us in doing so. She has said, quietly, “this is what I need to preserve my voice and its integrity.” We appreciate its result. We see that it is valued by others. To authors, I hope Ferrante has sent a new message: You don’t have to do it that way. Find your own way. That’s what she did. It took a long time and, I’m sure, great faith.
You are known as a champion for new voices and diverse points of view in literature. Do you think these books have helped to widen the scope of what publishers might be willing to consider? Will we start to see more translations, or books centered on women and female friendship?
I can only hope that it’s the start of a kind of corrective movement in writing away from the cult of self-publicity and onto a new and interesting path to authenticity. What I really wish for is that her work will allow writers — men and women — to feel more empowered to do what is truly their own. Of course, Ferrante’s novels are about the blurring of boundaries, how we borrow and re-make continually from those we love and envy and compete with, and I would love to see us more boldly claim those influences too. She has thrown open a door to many new wings of literary endeavor, should we choose to venture in.
What might Readers’ Retreat participants expect to get out of this session that they might not otherwise glean from an independent reading?
My experience of reading these novels is that I was bursting with the need to talk about them, and I’ve heard that from others, too. I think it is because they speak to us so intimately, but are also highly social — showing us so many interrelations and co-creations, how we make and un-make one another, find and mirror each other – in all kinds of ways. What is it about these novels that feels so different, and so important? What do they crystallize about this moment in history, especially for women? I want to hear what others have to say about this. I’m eager to know it all!
Carole DeSanti is Vice President, Executive Editor at Viking Penguin, and the author of a novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R.
ROME – HBO and Italian state broadcaster Rai have teamed up on “My Brilliant Friend,” the hotly anticipated drama series based on the first of four “Neapolitan Novels” written by Italian author Elena Ferrante, whose books have legions of fervent fans around the world.
FremantleMedia-owned Wildside and Domenico Procacci’s Fandango are producing the Italian-language series. The plan is to start shooting this summer in Naples for a premiere targeted in 2018.
Italian director Saverio Costanzo (“Private,” “Hungry Hearts”) will direct. Jennifer Schuur (“Big Love,” “Hannibal”) will serve as executive producer on “My Brilliant Friend” for Wildside and Fandango. The international distributor is FremantleMedia Intl.
Costanzo told Variety that Ferrante’s sweeping saga is “very literary but also very cinematographic” and said he planned to stick as closely as possible to the storyline of the book. “The characters really leap out of the book and come alive,” he said. “That makes it easier for us to transpose this cinematographically.”
Wildside and Fandango envision the series as 32 episodes covering all four books. HBO is on board for the first eight episodes.
Though casting is still being decided, the production is expected to draw widely from the large Neapolitan talent pool.
“My Brilliant Friend” tells the story of elderly woman Elena Greco who, after her best friend Lila disappears without a trace, starts writing the story of their 60-year friendship. It begins in the 1950s in the tough streets of Naples, which undergoes transformations along with the rest of Italy as the two women’s symbiotic, though often conflicted, relationship evolves.
“Through her characters, Elena and Lila, we will witness a lifelong friendship set against the seductive social web of Naples, Italy,” said HBO Programming president Casey Bloys. “An exploration of the complicated intensity of female friendship, these ambitious stories will no doubt resonate with the HBO audience.”
The Ferrante skein marks HBO’s second high-end Italian TV series, following “The Young Pope,” directed by Paolo Sorrentino, which was also co-produced by HBO with Wildside. “Pope” aired in Italy on Sky Italia.
This time, the Italian broadcaster on “My Brilliant Friend” will be Rai. Its hefty investment in the Ferrante adaptation marks a drastic departure from the more mainstream and largely local TV dramas that have been staples for ages on its general entertainment channels.
“This is an ambitious project that satisfies many of our public service goals,” said Rai Managing Director Antonio Campo Dall’Orto. Striving for quality and cultural value at the mammoth pubcaster represents a novelty.
Costanzo said the vivid characters that Ferrante has crafted will be compelling to a wide range of viewers.
“They are characters that each one of us can inhabit no matter what country you are from,” Costanzo said. “They are so well told, in such detail, that we can all identify with them and their desire to emancipate themselves….Elena Ferrante has managed to tell in the first person things that are very intimate, risky, that we all feel but that you need plenty of courage to admit.”
The 41-year-old director broke out internationally in 2004 with “Private,” which was set in a Palestinian home in an occupied zone. More recently he lensed the New York-set “Hungry Hearts,” co-starring Adam Driver and Alba Rohrwacher, an offbeat drama based on a novel about New Age diet obsessions.
Costanzo said he was approaching the Ferrante series “as if I were making a big movie. For me the difference between TV and cinema is very subtle; today’s great TV series are cinematographic.”
He added: “From our conversations, I have a sense that HBO are the right people to help us make a great show because they have great faith in the audience.”
Costanzo is currently working on the screenplays for the eight hourlong episodes with top Italian scribes Francesco Piccolo (“Human Capital”), Laura Paolucci (“Gomorrah” the TV series) and with Ferrante herself, although “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym. He said he’s been communicating with Ferrante via email.
Last year, an investigative journalist for Italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore identified Italian literary translator Anita Raja as Ferrante. Costanzo says his focus is strictly on translating Ferrante’s work to the screen.
“I am among those who are not interested who she [really is]. I am just interested in her literary world, not her human reality,” Costanzo said.
Frantumaglia is a collection of letters, interviews, and other correspondence between the author Elena Ferrante, her editors, and fans/journalists/artists. It was at the suggestion of her editors in fact, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, that this book even came to fruition. It chronicles the time from when her first book, Troubling Love was published in Italy (1992), through the publication of the final installment in the Neapolitan Quartet, The Story of the Lost Child in America in 2015. All of the writings were originally in Italian, but have been translated into English by Ferrante’s exclusive English translator – Anne Goldstein.
For fans of Ferrante’s work, this book gives insights into the themes she has explored, as well as some recommendations of authors whom she finds inspiring and formative. For readers who are new to Ferrante, this correspondence demonstrates the thoughtful and precise way she utilizes language. Her writing style isn’t particularly poetic or fluid, but is incredibly well-crafted. She puts so much thought and care into every phrase, and that is part of why I find it so addicting to read.
Because this book includes transcripts of decades’-worth of interviews, there are some recurring questions. The most frequent one regards the author’s identity. It is widely known that Elena Ferrante is a pen name, and the user of that nom de plume has taken great pains to ensure that her true identity is concealed. She does not take part in any in-person or audio interviews, and requires all correspondence to be funneled through her editors. Because of this, the media (especially the Italian literary media) have made it their mission to “uncover” the true identity of Elena Ferrante. As recently as October, 2016 (long after Frantumaglia was published) an Italian article was published that purports to have uncovered Elena Ferrante’s true identity, going so far as to obtain (through what means..?) financial documents that show unusually large transactions between a publisher, an author, and a translator – to give weight to the claim. In what universe do people care so much about the identity of an author that they would go to such extremes? To what extent is an artist allowed privacy and the choice of a non-public life?
This cult of discovery is troubling on many levels. First, once one releases a work of art into the world, is that person then obligated to have any further involvement in the work? There seems to exist, in some perspectives, an umbilical connection between a work and its creator, that the personality branding of the person who wrote the book must carry some weight on the book itself. I also wonder how much attention there would be if the pen name of the author was masculine – Emilio Ferrante, let’s say. There runs an undercurrant of sexism here – suggesting that this writer must be revealed because it is so difficult to believe a woman capable of creating such a vivid and expansive world. In a culture where fame is seen as the pinnacle of a career, for someone to eschew such recognition may be difficult to understand.
Over and over again, interviewers make comparisons between her and famous Italian authors, and ask if she and those other authors are the same person. She never answers these questions, nor gives any particular details that might clarify any part of her identity. In fact, she, at one point, tells her editors that she may follow writer Italo Calvino’s lead and freely answer questions…but not with the truth. That is part of what is so interesting about Frantumaglia – you can try to read the personal into her answers, but ultimately what matters is the creative process and its products. Wondering whether characters, descriptions, or plots in any of her stories are autobiographical is a waste of energy. She believes wholeheartedly that the author’s job comes to an end once the writing is complete. It shouldn’t matter who the author is, as long as the story explores some greater truth.
By Dina Kleiner
Elena Ferrante, a contemporary Italian author who’s gained a large following in the United States, is most widely known for two things: her highly-acclaimed Neapolitan series and her identity, which was a mystery until last September.
“Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym. The writer is fiercely private—she doesn’t do publicity, she doesn’t do any promotion, and she doesn’t do book tours. She rarely does interviews, and when she does, they are via email. She’s blown up in the literary world, yet remains largely unknown to the average person. She’s also one of the best writers I have ever read in my entire life.
The Italian author has said in written interviews that she would stop publishing books if her real identity were revealed. Fans of Ferrante didn’t want to know her real name. They aggressively defended her anonymity with a kind of protectiveness that’s rare for fans of anything in this era, an age in which people believe they’re entitled to the private lives of artists. In September, an Italian investigative journalist named Claudio Gatti outed Elena Ferrante’s alleged real identity, igniting anger from fans and drawing a surge of new readers to her novels.
As intriguing as the writer’s anonymity is—especially in a publishing era where press tours are the main way publishers market books—the secrecy surrounding Ferrante’s identity isn’t what attracts readers to her work. Ferrante is regarded by many as one of the best contemporary writers, earning stunning reviews from critics across the board and attracting fervid fans who’ve developed a cult-like obsession with her work.
The positive reception of Ferrante’s work in the United States took form far before the controversy surrounding the exposure of her identity. It’s rare to see so many critics uniformly praise Ferrante in such an effusive manner. They don’t review her work so much as they seem to personally urge readers to read it. Her Neapolitan series has been called a tour de force and a modern masterpiece.
Ferrante isn’t marketed as a feminist writer, but her books undoubtedly are just by virtue of her unabashed honesty about sex, adolescence, violence, and the body. Her illustration of the female psyche is so spot-on that it makes other works that aim to achieve similar depictions appear shallow and half-hearted, as though they only touch the surface of what reality feels like when compared to Ferrante’s words.
The New Yorker wrote, “Ferrante’s polished language belies the rawness of her imagery.” But don’t be fooled—her prose is layered with emotion, rage, and grotesqueness. Underneath the timid nature of many of Ferrante’s protagonists lies an anger that slowly reveals itself within narration, an indignation at the world that wells up and bursts like a tsunami crashing against a lifetime of subtle oppression. Critic John Freeman wrote, “Ferrante’s fictions are fierce, unsentimental glimpses at the way a woman is constantly under threat, her identity submerged in marriage, eclipsed by motherhood, mythologized by desire. Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are.”
Those looking to immerse themselves in the “Elena Ferrante experience” should start with her Neapolitan series. The first of the four-book series is My Brilliant Friend, which illustrates the childhood of two young girls growing up in a poor town outside Naples, Italy. I have never read anything that so accurately portrays what it feels like to go through puberty as a young girl. The series grows with its characters, exploring adulthood, classism, abuse, and independence with Ferrante’s signature emotion and underlying rage.
People who want to read Ferrante but don’t want to make a four-book commitment (although I highly recommend starting the series, even if you’re not committed to finishing it) should start with one of her slimmer novels, Troubled Love or Days of Abandonment. These novels are less epic in nature than the Neapolitan books—they feel like an intense dive into the psyche of women at critical points in their lives rather than a sprawling bildungsroman. These novels are angrier. They are jam-packed with quiet fury, brimming with an outrage that makes itself known instead of moving surreptitiously beneath the surface.
The cover of Ferrante’s novels are uncool at best and tacky at worst—they look like the kind of books that grandmothers buy at airports. I think it’s because no one expected Ferrante to become such a huge hit—they didn’t think they should bother putting money toward a more modern cover design, the kind of cover meant for books targeted for best-seller lists. They didn’t know what a success Ferrante would be. They didn’t know that an anonymous, elusive Italian writer could gather a fan base so dedicated it defends her privacy, that she would write one of the best depictions of female friendship and womanhood of all time, that her words would hold so much power and truth that they cause women across the globe to look up from their novels and exclaim to themselves: “That’s exactly what it feels like.”
My Brilliant Friend, theatre review: Ambitious, satisfying attempt to realise Elena Ferrante’s world
April De Angelis condenses 1,600 pages into two plays but it’s still an epic experience, writes Henry Hitchings
Elena Ferrante’s four richly personal Neapolitan novels have won her legions of admirers. Eloquent about the power of memory, they’re an addictive portrait of friendship at its most intense. The central characters, Lenù and Lila, are often apart, but their destinies are intricately connected. Beginning in the Fifties, amid poverty and violence, their relationship is explosive, involving joy and betrayal, and outside forces — whether fascism or family rivalry — are constantly impinging on their more intimate narratives of jealousy, reversal and survival.
This adaptation by April De Angelis condenses 1,600 pages into two plays. It’s still an epic experience — a running time of five and a half hours represents a big investment for theatregoers. Yet much has had to be sacrificed. Details of gangster thuggery, political injustice and the travails of motherhood are abbreviated or omitted. Some fans may also protest that the Italian flavours and textures have been compromised, though an interpretation more infatuated with them might just have seemed hammy.
Director Melly Still has crafted a fluent production. Inevitably there’s a lot of exposition, but the storytelling is mostly nimble, with moments of visual ingenuity — Soutra Gilmour’s design makes simple and effective use of iron stairways and billowing sheets. The thoughtfully economical approach may mean that while devotees of the books notice what’s been missed out, those unfamiliar with them feel that there’s too much to take in.
Crucially, the two main performances are superb. Niamh Cusack is both luminous and gritty as the earnest Lenù, apparently wholesome but also vain and jealous. Catherine McCormack’s Lila is a streetwise shapeshifter with a wild streak. At times she seems to have a death wish, and in McCormack’s hands she’s a fascinating mix of aloofness and feral dynamism. Their bond is ardent and ambivalent — part collaboration, part competition.
The male characters fare less well. As performers juggle multiple roles, only Toby Wharton’s cerebral and caddish Nino is genuinely memorable. But while it would be easy to complain that the adaptation could dig deeper into particular strata of its source material, this is an ambitious and satisfying attempt to realise Ferrante’s world. And it’s true to her novels in presenting as a soap opera what is in fact a radical vision of aspiration, crisis and desire.
Play Talk: April de Angelis on adapting Elena Ferrante’s novels and cadging roll-ups on opening night
In our Play Talk series, playwrights discuss the joys and struggles of the writing life
Few writers have chronicled the female experience better than April de Angelis. Her plays – of which she has written over twenty – put women centre stage, often boldly spanning history. Always imminently watchable, her latest project has been the mammoth task of adapting Elena Ferrante’s hit Neapolitan novels for the the stage. You can currently catch My Brilliant Friend, performed in two parts, at the Rose Theatre in Kingston.
What was the first play to make you want to write plays?
Waiting for Godot. I didn’t get it all but I loved the dialogue!
“Vladimir: I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.
Estragon: Me too.” – Sad and hilarious and scary all at once!
What was your background to becoming a playwright?
I was an (not very good) actor. I think I must have absorbed some stage craft stuff through the pores of my skin and that helped (a bit).
What is the hardest play you’ve ever written?
A Laughing Matter. It was at the National Theatre in 2003, about David Garrick. It had characters like Samuel Johnson – in order to write him I had to read loads in order to ‘get his voice’.
Which play brought you most joy?
Probably My Brilliant Friend Part 1 and 2. I love being in Naples!
Which playwrights influenced you the most?
Hard to say. How do you account for influence? I love all the usual suspects: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Miller, Williams, Caryl Churchill.
What is your favourite line or scene from any play?
The last scene in Top Girls. It’s the most thrilling political argument ever but totally ‘in character’ and it ends with a thrilling visual/bathetic punch in the guts appearance and single line.
The biggest surprise to you since you’ve had your writing performed by actors?
First time it ever happened I cried, I was overwhelmed! Also I learnt a rule of thumb – If the writing is good – good actors always make it better.
What’s been your biggest setback as a writer?
I don’t believe in setbacks. I think you are on a journey as a writer and you can’t expect it to be all painless. You have to try and understand your own flaws and blocks and accept they are all part of the life of a writer. Sometimes things going wrong wake you up!
And the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn?
You can’t be lazy.
What do you think is the best thing about theatre? And the worst?
Best thing: when it all comes together in collaborative ecstasy. Worst: when it doesn’t.
What’s your best piece of advice for writers who are starting out?
Read lots of plays – see lots of theatre. Read everything about the craft of playwriting. Value your imagination.
Are there any themes and stories you find yourself revisiting?
Mothers and daughters.
Are you on Twitter? Do you find it a help or a hindrance as a writer?
I’m on Twitter but I always forget to tweet.
How do you spend opening night?
Watching the play and unconsciously mouthing the words in a deeply irritating manner. Cadging roll-ups in the interval.
What’s the best play you’ve seen recently?
Ella Hickson’s’ Oil. I loved its imaginative scope. A mother and daughter move through centuries but age only through one life time – their story dissects with the history of the black stuff.
What’s your favourite theatre?
Royal Court because it’s the writer’s theatre.
What other art forms do you love when you’re not in a theatre?
If the Prime Minister said they were abolishing the theatre tomorrow, what would you do?
Agitate for a revolution. Seriously would life be worth living without it?
There is a striking shared lexicon that unites fans of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet: they will routinely speak of how they “devoured” the books; how “immersive” the experience was; how – yes – they were “impossible to put down”. This is not all to denigrate them; indeed, we have previously written glowingly about the series. It is merely to note that there is something extraordinary, especially for a work of literary fiction, about the way the books are consumed. As Joanna Biggs wrote in the LRB: “Ferrante’s writing seems to say something that hasn’t been said before – it isn’t easy to specify what this is – in a way so compelling its readers forget where they are, abandon friends and disdain sleep.” This new stage adaptation of the novels – adapted by Jumpy writer April de Angelis – appeals to same kind of maximalism, splitting the material into two shows across five hours.
From the minute the lights went out, there was a kind of collective rapture. Jon Nicholls’s mesmerising sound design, aided by opera music, transports us instantly to war-torn Naples. The cycle – if two plays makes a cycle – charts a lifelong friendship from childhood to their elderly years, battling political disputes, class division, violence, marriage, love affairs and motherhood along the way.
We first meet Lila (Catherine McCormack) and Lenu (Niamh Cusack) in the childhood years of their friendship, talking about their dolls, Tina and Nu, and beginning their adventure together. From the moment they meet, Lila is an intelligent, headstrong, adventurous spirit – perhaps even, at first glance, fearless. Lenu, in contrast, is a quieter personality, somewhat needy and fearful of consequences but ultimately willing to go along with Lila’s whims. Costume designer Soutra Gilmour dresses them in cheap, cotton dresses, indicative of their poverty; in these horrific conditions, these two girls are each other’s only beacon of hope.
Then we flash forward sixty years. Lenu is being visited by Lila’s son Gennaro, looking for his missing mother; Lenu then reflects wistfully on their tempestuous friendship. Director Melly Still handles the temporal shifts with an incredibly confident hand – and so, sure enough, we are soon back in the girls’ childhood, immersing ourselves again in their early war-torn world. With violence everywhere, they’re desperate to leave – in particular Lila, who sees writing a book, The Blue Fairy, as her ticket out of her neighbourhood. She has more intelligence than any of her peers at school but her family’s poverty causes her immense problems. Between her father’s opposition to women staying in education, and her mother’s concern that Lila might embarrass the son of one of their creditors by excelling above him in school, she is trapped in the poverty of Naples. Although Lenu doesn’t have the same aptitude that Lila has, she is allowed to stay in school, learning Latin. It’s at this point you see their economic status begin to shift. Lenu is in education; Lila is working in her father’s shoe store.
As they age into their late teen years, gang crime becomes more and more endemic. Lila has given up on reading, claiming “it gives me a headache”, while Lenu is in a relationship with her neighbour Antonio (Justin Avoth), even though her heart really belongs to Nino (Toby Wharton). It’s not long before Lila is married in an abusive and loveless relationship to Stefano (Jonah Russell), a local boy with connections to the gangster family of the neighbourhood, the Solaras. The day she said “I do” and realised the sort of man she married was the same day that her initial fieriness died away. Lenu’s confidence, however, continues to grow.
The jealousy we see between McCormack and Cusack is depicted very subtly. Lila sees everything in Lenu’s life that she craved for herself and so embarks on an affair with Nino, which makes her feel alive. In the same way, Lenu envies Lila’s motherhood and seeks to emulate it herself. While Lila is deeply unhappy in her marriage, Lenu enjoys success as a novelist, eventually marrying a professor. The differences in their marriages and social status become still more pronounced when their daughters are growing up together in their childhood neighbourhood of Naples following Lenu’s mother’s death. Again, Lila’s child has more brains than anyone in the neighbourhood, while Lenu’s child doesn’t quite measure up; however, it is Lenu’s child who has the greater opportunities.
McCormack and Cusack both perform with incredible passion and humility, imbuing their characters with life. The production, too, is a visual treat: Rachael Canning’s puppetry and Rachel Bown-William’s fight choreography are nothing short of genius. The violence is handled sensitively, as one would hope, and never played for shock value or indeed melodrama.
Any theatrical adaptation of Ferrante’s novels will inevitably be fraught with all kinds of questions beforehand. What events or characters are you going to compress? How do you translate the brutal honesty of Ferrante’s voice? Is that even possible? However, within minutes of the curtains coming up, I put all these questions aside, utterly absorbed into the grand theatrical sweep.
Rose theatre, Kingston upon Thames
Catherine McCormack and Niamh Cusack ignite April De Angelis’s five-hour staging of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan saga
What a nerve. To think that Elena Ferrante’s transfixing novels could take another form. To imagine that these tales of female friendship, Neapolitan life, political strife and personal independence could be adapted. For a Ferrante addict, the story of Lenù and Lila – which one are you? – is not a fictional feat but something more internal: part of the reader’s own memory.
And yet. Against the odds, adapter April De Angelis and director Melly Still have pulled off their dramatisation in My Brilliant Friend. There are absences and some awkwardness, but the essence of the books – intensity – wins through.
Ferrante is subtle but not delicate. Her plot is boldly coloured. Her timescale is long, from 1944 to 2010. Her saga is full but fractured: changes of love, mind and behaviour are not, any more than in life, always fully accounted for. De Angelis and Still give us quick scenes on Soutra Gilmour’s uncluttered design. Naples is there in the huge bed sheets waved from iron balconies. The earthquake is conjured by a whirl of light and a ripping of paper. Crucially, a marvellous string of musical numbers winds through the action, providing a timeline that beautifully bridges inner and outer landscapes. Lazzarella gives way to Where the Boys Are and Purple Haze. The five-hour, two-part epic begins and ends with the most searching of laments: Dido’s. Her plea could serve as a motto for Ferrante’s vital enterprise: “Remember me, but forget my fate.”
Adaptation is reinvention. Some important episodes are not explicit here but translated: Lila’s recurring feeling that she is dissolving is suggested in changes of light, shifts in movement. The only substantial loss is in the treatment of political engagement. Nino, the intermittent lover of both women, is a slippery sod: opportunist and plausible, but seductive. Not as clever as he thinks, but stimulating. Toby Wharton turns him into a chump who makes all political theory sound merely academic and absurd, comic relief rather than something with the power to stir.
The two leads power the evening through. What casting! Catherine McCormackhas the essential quality for Lila. An insouciant – almost negligent – originality. She has the restless intelligence of an artist. That is a constant. Yet her guises are always changing. At one moment she is the swankiest person on stage, in big shades and a gauzy headscarf à la Sophia Loren. At the next, she is the most woebegone: gaunt and rawboned, hauling the carcass of a skinned animal across a factory floor.
Niamh Cusack brings her lit-up intensity to Lenù, the narrator. She is the achiever, the girl who uses cleverness to escape poverty, dialect, family, thuggery. Yet she is also in anxious thrall to her friend, both envious and admiring. Cusack glows, explodes like a maenad, suggests someone whose heart is in a knot. Cleverly the plays end with Lenù as author, signing books that contain her account of what we have just seen. For a moment it is as if the elusive Ferrante has materialised in front of us.
Elena Ferrante’s extraordinary quartet of novels about the passionate, treacherous friendship between two women in post-war Naples inspires masochistic behaviour among devotees. There are tales of readers skipping mealtimes, sleep, even social arrangements in order to gobble them up. So I suspect fans will shrug off the challenge of watching April de Angelis’s adaptation, which condenses the quartet into two two-and-a-half-hour shows that can be seen either on a single day or over two consecutive evenings. (This is not the sort of project in which it is not done to see only half. You are in for the long haul or not at all.)
So does it work? Namely, how do you put on stage the borderline narcissistic, relentless mono-perspective of these novels, each one an implacably interior account by a writer called Elena of her turbulent, decades-long relationship with her former school friend Lila? You don’t, is the answer.
Instead, de Angelis’s fleet, sleek adaptation breaks away from Elena’s omnipotent viewpoint to release all the cinematic drama seething beneath. This, in Melly Still’s noirish production, is The Sopranos by way of women’s lib, where slick-suited gangsters mingle at weddings, where communists fight with the fascists and where, amid the broiling violence and poverty, two intellectually precocious girls, Lila and Elena (known as Lenu) wrestle against both the gender expectations of their heavily circumscribed upbringing and the mythic ties of an impossible friendship in which both women are destined to fight forever against the shadow of the other.
There is something of an Italian Hedda Gabler about Catherine McCormack’s Lila, the uncontainable, self-sabotaging brilliant young girl who combines a “refusal to submit to reality” with a yearning for self annihilation. McCormack plays her with plenty of scorn and a streak of lethal nihilism – even as a seven-year-old, maliciously dropping Lenu’s favourite doll into a cellar, McCormack finds in her long-haired, bare-footed Lila a dead eyed fatalism, as though the character already knows how her story will turn out. The stench of clinical depression hangs over her like a cloud.
Niamh Cusack is less obvious casting as Lenu and, for Part One at least, is the bit player in Lila’s drama. Yet as the production grows, so does her performance. Unlike the more talented Lila, Lenu becomes a novelist but struggles to combine motherhood with her career. We are told throughout that Lenu is “good” but Cusack captures the softly monstrous ego behind Lenu’s seemingly placid surfaces – a writer who stealthily steals stories from both Lila’s life and imagination and who years later has to wrestle with whether an act of self promotion is the cause of an unspeakable loss.
Still’s muscular staging, in which a pop soundtrack eloquently tracks the changing years, beautifully summons the claustrophobic heat of downtown Naples, where washing hangs from iron balconies, wives fight like alleycats over husbands and business men are knifed in broad daylight.
It’s full, too, of moments of visual flair: when Lila is beaten up – by her dad; by her husband – she sheds her dress and the men pummel the empty cloth instead. For the most part, both play and production powerfully combine a shocking intimacy with a widescreen account of post-war Italian history. They manage, too, the seemingly impossible: despite the almost unquantifiable number of hours I have now spent in the company of Lila and Lenu, I left this wanting still more.
Elena Ferrante, writer
‘I Took Power in My Hand’ by Emily Dickinson (1862)
At times I’ve read these lines as a reflection on women’s writing, at times as a symbol of any female venture. The first painful fact is that Dickinson has no models of her own sex to refer to, nothing, anyway, that has the aura of David. This is the source of the inevitable comparison with the male figure from the Bible. His hand is bigger, the Power at his disposal is bigger. As a result, Dickinson, in order to make an equivalent gesture, needs twice the boldness.
But what’s the use of being bolder? The woman who takes aim and throws her stone does not confront simply the Goliath of the youth with the slingshot: her Goliath is the entire world. Thus that throw can only be ineffectual, its sole victim the thrower. And so we arrive at the wonderful last two lines. Is the Goliath of the audacious Emily ‘too large’ or is it that she is ‘too small’? That adjective, followed by the question mark, moves me. I wish all Emilys not to be small by nature, I wish they would just try, and try again, and so become large. (Translation by Ann Goldstein)
I took my Power in my Hand–
And went against the World –
’Twas not so much as David – had –
But I – was twice as bold –
I aimed my Pebble – but Myself
Was all the one that fell –
Was it Goliath – was too large –
Or was myself – too small?
Lauren Strain , March 5th, 2017 13:41
For two decades, Italian author Elena Ferrante maintained her privacy – until a recent article claimed to reveal her ‘true’ identity. Twenty-five years after the publication of her first novel, Lauren Strain considers the example that her fight for selfhood – and the struggles of the women in her novels – sets for us today.
“I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.”
Consider the motivations of a man who, on reading this statement, sets out to deprive the speaker of that freedom they have found.
This was the pursuit of journalist Claudio Gatti, who in an incendiary article published by the New York Review of Books last October, announced his belief that the pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante was, in fact, a translator named Anita Raja. He’d spent months rooting through real estate records and other financial data, including anonymously obtained details of payments to Raja from her publishers.
That a woman’s word is neither believed nor respected is hardly a surprise. But what’s been particularly nauseating about Gatti’s and other journalists’ efforts to ‘out’ Ferrante is that, if you’re even slightly familiar with her work, you’ll know that her whole output is an examination of the lives of women who are denied their right to self-determination.
Spirited, clever and aspirant, Ferrante’s women grow up in oppressive neighbourhoods polluted by fear and fascistic family ties. Under relentless pressure to behave one way, to look another – to be who others want them to be rather than what they choose for themselves – they commonly experience a sense of brokenness, of coming apart. They fragment, dissolve and sometimes even disappear completely.
In Ferrante’s debut novel, Troubling Love, artist Delia tries to trace the final movements of her mother, Amalia, who after a life suffocated by the demands of men – a husband who beat her and a lover who never stopped pursuing her – has drowned herself in the sea. In My Brilliant Friend, the first instalment in the Neapolitan series, childhood best friends Lenù and Lila both endure frightening feelings of disintegration at the hands of their violent, 1950s Naples community. Most famous are Lila’s episodes of “dissolving margins”, when things seem literally as well as inwardly to blur (“she had often had the sensation of moving for a few fractions of a second into a person or a thing or a number or a syllable, violating its edges”), but Lenù also experiences similar dysmorphic terrors: “sometimes I had the impression that, while every animated being around me was speeding up the rhythms of its life, solid surfaces turned soft under my fingers or swelled up,” she writes. “It seemed to me that my own body, if you touched it, was distended… I felt squeezed in that vise along with the mass of everyday things and people… as if everything, thus compacted, and always tighter, were grinding me up, reducing me to a repulsive cream.” This horror of a loss of solidity echoes Ferrante’s earlier novel, The Days of Abandonment, where a wife left reeling from her husband’s sudden departure must gather all her strength to overcome a profound internal shattering.
But while many of these nightmarish passages suggest the threat of breakdown, the books also offer the possibility that Ferrante’s women, by withdrawing from the language and roles expected of them, are able if not to resist then at least to evade their oppressors. Troubling Love‘s Amalia, leaving home in strangers’ clothes, indulging in forbidden behaviours and concealing her tracks, denies her pursuers’ desires and eludes capture. Lila’s final vanishing, meanwhile, fulfils a long-held intention: “She wanted not only to disappear herself… but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind”, writes Lenù in My Brilliant Friend.
There is a sense in which, by becoming unreachable, unknowable and even unintelligible, perhaps these women can claim for themselves a space outside of the viciously patriarchal culture they inhabit. It’s an idea Ferrante puts forward herself in an interview included in Frantumaglia: “The disappearance of women should be interpreted not only as giving up the fight against the violence of the world but also as clear rejection,” she tells Belgium’s De Standaard. “There is an expression in Italian whose double meaning is untranslatable: ‘Io non ci sto.’ Literally it means: I’m not here, in this place, before what you’re suggesting. In common usage, it means, instead: I don’t agree, I don’t want to. Rejection means shunning the games of those who crush the weak.”
Surely it is possible, too, to see Ferrante’s absenting of herself from the media circus as a rebuke of this kind. In remaining pseudonymous and participating only on her own terms (she answers select interviews in writing, via her publisher), the author enacts a sort of dissolution of her own. It is interesting to see this refusal to engage as a political act; of a piece with the concerns of her work, and perhaps even an extension of it.
Which is to say that, when Gatti so clinically peels back Ferrante’s skin, he also rolls back a 25-year project, a body of work that spans a quarter of a century. When he invades Ferrante’s hard-fought space, he tramples, too, on the content of her seven novels and the lives that they narrate. It is this that makes the reveal of Ferrante’s identity more than just gossip, and symbolic of the very struggles that lie at the heart of her stories.
The dogged determination on the part of critics to forcibly expose a woman who has chosen a particular way of life has been a useful reminder that, still, in 2017, those who follow their own path face expectation to conform, even from people who would consider themselves permissive. Fortunately, in Ferrante’s case the work itself is armoured against this kind of assault, since its other key theme, alongside her women’s battle for autonomy, is the futility of anyone’s attempt to define them. Over the course of 1500 pages, Lenù’s resolution at the outset of My Brilliant Friend to not let Lila “win,” to “write all the details of our story” and record the definitive version of their history, proves impossible; and in Troubling Love, Delia, giving up the search for her mother, finds that she “couldn’t impose on her the prison of a single adjective.” Ultimately, Ferrante’s canon asks the question: Who knows Lila but Lila? Who knows Lenù but Lenù? Who knows Ferrante but Ferrante? Who knows you, but you?
At a time when women’s control over their bodies in even ‘progressive’ societies is increasingly challenged, when they are dismissed and degraded by their political leaders, Ferrante’s refusal to allow others jurisdiction over her image sets an emboldening example for women everywhere. While she stresses that her work is not written with an expressly feminist or other ideological message (“I don’t like stories that are a programmatic enactment of the theory of the group one belongs to,” she says in a letter to her publisher), her comments made on a more personal level about the precarity of women’s position seem to carry a clear warning.
“Girls like my daughters appear convinced that the freedom they’ve inherited is part of the natural state of affairs and not the temporary outcome of a long battle that is still being waged, and in which everything could suddenly be lost,” she said in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2015, later expanding in The Gentlewoman: “even in those areas where many of our rights are safe, it’s still hard to be a woman who challenges the way in which even the most cultured and forward-thinking men represent us.”
We encounter these men in the pages of Ferrante’s novels, in the figures of Donato and Nino Sarratore, whose learning and cultivated airs do not prevent them from abusing the women around them. We encounter them in the workplace, in education and at the highest levels of society. And we encounter them, too, in our current year, in “the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language,” striving to undo an entire life’s work.
Last year, the playwright April De Angelis gave her book group a copy of My Brilliant Friend to read. The novel was the first in a quartet by Italian author Elena Ferrante, charting an intense 50 year female friendship, and was already a publishing sensation.
De Angelis had read it some months previously and instantly fallen in love. But not all her fellow readers were convinced.
“It split the group a little bit,” says De Angelis when we meet in the lobby of the British Library in London. “It’s quite a difficult account of female friendship and some people don’t like that.”
Her own reaction was “obviously to try and be generous and not just say to them – ‘you’re stupid!’” She catches herself, then laughs.
The Ferrante novels tend to split people into two camps: either you don’t get what all the fuss is about and stop half-way through the first instalment, or you love them with an all-consuming, protective, fire-breathing passion. De Angelis falls into the latter set and has now adapted the four books for the stage; the first time anyone has done so.
The story charts the course of their entwined life: from a shared childhood in an impoverished Naples neighbourhood, through to adulthood with its passionate love affairs, burgeoning careers and complex family struggles. De Angelis has crunched the Neapolitan novels into a little over four hours and the two parts can be seen on the same day, or separately.
Ferrante’s novels, written over three years from 2012, have sold well over a million copies worldwide and been translated into 27 languages. Along the way, they have been heaped with critical and popular acclaim. The New York Times Book Review has called Ferrante, “one of the great novelists of our time” and her devoted fans include everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Zadie Smith.
What makes her success even more dazzling is that Ferrante writes under a pseudonym and has never given an interview in person, only ever answering questions in writing.
De Angelis is no exception.
“I bloody hate him,” she says of Gatti. “He’s trying to control how a woman should be. She’s deliberately – for artistic reasons – chosen not to be known.
“It’s not hiding something or being deceptive. It’s her right not to say who she is. It’s a creative act to write under another name because it gives you freedom as a woman; to assume another identity and to step out of your own head.”
It is the same argument put forward by other women who have written under pseudonyms and been unmasked. Indeed, JK Rowling – who penned The Cuckoo’s Calling as Robert Galbraith in 2013 said that she was yearning “to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback… I certainly wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me.”
De Angelis believes that what makes Ferrante so compelling as a writer is her refusal to respect traditional boundaries. Her depiction of a lifelong female friendship does not shy away from uncomfortable truths: Lenu and Lila both love and hate each other. They are defined by their passion as much as their enmity – and often they act in brutal, unforgivable ways.
“It doesn’t fit into the sentimental idea of female friendship,” explains De Angelis. “It’s really quite transgressive because she writes about all the stuff that is meant to be kept out of the official account of what it is to be a woman.”
In her novels, Ferrante gives clear-eyed descriptions of both menstruation and pregnancy (which, at one point, is compared to having an “alien” growing inside you).
One of the big debates around the stage adaptation, says De Angelis, was whether to keep in such visceral descriptions. For the most part, she did, a decision that the director called “brave.”
“But Ferrante was brave!” says De Angelis. “She put the female body at the centre.” Besides, she continues, that is how women actually talk to each other. “There are thoughts you can share safely when you’re with other women and some of the stuff that comes out is fabulous.” De Angelis sips her coffee. “Would life be worth living without female friends? Probably not.”
I thought it was the most fabulous thing ever. A real Ferrante word! Now I just want to use it all the time in my daily conversation.
De Angelis, who lives in Walthamstow, east London, was not in regular contact with Ferrante while she was adapting the books. She had read all four in late 2015 and loved them, describing them as the literary equivalent of “a TV box-set”.
She and her husband, Evan Marshall, a television producer, had just been on holiday to Naples and were in the process of learning Italian (De Angelis is half Sicilian), so there was a special serendipity to discovering the Neapolitan novels at that particular time.
Then, in mid-December that year, De Angelis received an email out of the blue from her agent asking her if she had any interest in adapting the Ferrante novels for The Rose Theatre.
“It was my dream job,” she says. In the end, she had to write the whole thing – from the 1,600 pages of the English translations – in just three months. “It was a crazy timescale. It’s all been a bit headlong but sometimes it’s good to have that pressure.”
This is not the first time De Angelis has adapted a much-loved novel – her previous works include Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights. She originally trained as an actress, attending the East 15 theatre school after Sussex University, but recalls being “constantly nagged” by an inner voice telling her to write.
The difference with her past adaptations was, of course, that the authors were no longer around to pass comment.
Ferrante had to give her blessing for the first draft of My Brilliant Friend the play, “which was terrifying [but] she came back and said ‘Fine, I agree with it’ and she gave me one note which was amazing. She said ‘Don’t be too oneiric.’”
I stare at De Angelis blankly.
“I had to look it up,” she laughs. “It means, ‘dream-like’, from the Greek ‘to dream’. I thought it was the most fabulous thing ever. A real Ferrante word! Now I just want to use it all the time in my daily conversation.”
No doubt her legions of other fans will feel just the same way.
Laura Freeman talks to Melly Still and April De Angelis about their adaptation of the Neapolitan quartet for the Rose Theatre Kingston. Will Ferrante fangirls approve?
Reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet is a heady experience. You not only see, hear, know her characters — you can almost taste them. The villain of the first of the four books, which follow the friendship of mercurial Lila and striving Lenù from childhood into their sixties, is Don Achille, an ‘ogre’ who sweats the smells of ‘salami, provolone, mortadella, lardo and prosciutto’. Lila herself, always wriggling free of the nets of others, is ‘skinny, like a salted anchovy’. Nino, loved by both Lila and Lenù, is ‘an anomalous, sweet fruit’. Naples itself, the backdrop to the books, acting as a succubus, pulling the characters back when they try to escape, stinks of the exhaust from Fiat cars, the roasted almonds of the street sellers, fried pizza from the cafés.
How do you put all that on stage? On the page, on the nearly 1,600 pages of My Brilliant Friend (childhood), The Story of a New Name (adolescence), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (young married life), and The Story of the Lost Child (maturity, success, bereavement), you lose yourself in Lenù and Lila, in six decades of slights, quarrels and alliances, triumph and betrayal, vendetta and omertà, feuds and petty hair-pulling. Can you do all that in just four acts over two evenings?
‘When you initially set it out like that,’ says Melly Still, director of the first theatre adaptation of Ferrante’s novels, ‘it doesn’t seem as if it’s possible. There’s this strange, wonderful experience, which I think is particular to reading. It becomes personal and consummate.
‘The role of theatre is very different, because you can’t put the novels on stage. A big long mini-series — a Netflix series — could do that. You can really explore all the detail. Theatre has a different role, somehow distilling the experience of reading. Of course you end up losing some of the characters who you’ve grown to know and love, but once you do that, you exist in a distilled Ferrante world.’
Knowing and loving — that’s the other challenge of Ferrante. Her readers are fangirls — and they are almost all female — of the most fanatical stripe. There was a period a year ago when I was the only one of my girlfriends not to have read Ferrante. You must read her, they said. You cannot understand friendship, love, what it is to be a woman until you’ve read her. I thought they were being absurd, knew I wouldn’t like the books with their syrupy beach-holiday covers. Lenù, a published novelist by the third book, makes a joke about ‘ugly’ covers with ‘women in black dresses… laundry hung out to dry’. Then I read the first book, with an attitude of give-it-a-go-give-up-when-I’m-bored, and kept on in a greedy, unstoppable rush, all four books in eight days.
Now, I am protective of my characters. Is Niamh Cusack (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Northern Lights, the RSC) right for Lenù? Can Catherine McCormack (Sherlock, Life in Squares) do justice to the untameable, detestable, irresistible Lila?
Melly Still knows the syndrome. ‘I was always reluctant to see Wolf Hall on stage or television. You can’t replace the novels. It’s about an interpretation, making them plays in themselves.’ Wolf Hall is one precedent, Harry Potter another. Still went to see the two-part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as she worked on My Brilliant Friend. The difference is that while everyone in the Harry Potter audience ‘will know everything, will have read every book and seen every film’, there’s no Ferrante franchise, no Lego, no theme park, no tweeting J.K. Rowling. Her books may have been sold in 40 countries, more than 1.2 million copies in the US alone, but Elena Ferrante is an enigma, her name a pseudonym. Interviews are granted rarely and then only by email. She has explained her reasons for refusing publicity: ‘I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it.’
Last October, however, she was ignobly ‘unmasked’ as Rome-based editor and translator Anita Raja by investigative journalist Claudio Gatti who sold his story to the Italian newspaper Il Sole, the New York Review of Books, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the French website Mediapart. It was an ungentlemanly ambush. April De Angelis, who has adapted the books for stage, says: ‘He’s an arse, isn’t he? It’s an artistic act, an artistic gesture not to be known. Not being a commodity. The books may be bought and sold, but she doesn’t have to be.’
‘It is invasive,’ says Still. ‘One of the reasons Ferrante wanted to remain anonymous was that she wanted to write in that candid and uncensored and forensic way.’
Since the Gatti revelations, Raja has made no comment and no public appearance. In Frantumaglia, a collection of her non-fiction writing, Ferrante insists that characters matter more than their author: ‘Even Tolstoy is an insignificant shadow if he takes a stroll with Anna Karenina.’
Of all the characters, I found Nino, liar, egoist, philanderer that he is, the most compelling. De Angelis agrees: ‘Nino is educated — rather, he’s trying to become educated, which is even more charming. He loves books. So everyone reading the book is going to love Nino because they love books too.’
‘And he’s also played by a really gorgeous actor [he is — I saw him arrive for rehearsal], so it’s very easy to find him really charming. Which I think you’re supposed to. Otherwise your main characters, your heroines, are idiots for loving him.’
Still decided early on that there would be no Just-One-Cornetto Italian accents. A recent BBC Radio 4 adaptation had the characters as Mancunians, Manchester standing in for Naples. But De Angelis has allowed the actors to speak in their own voices. ‘There’s something really weird about masking your voice. If you’re Irish, having to speak in RP or then cockney.’ When they’re speaking neighbourhood dialect the script, says Still, is ‘more direct, more coarse, more crude, more colloquial’. When it’s classical Italian, the script is richer, more rhetorical.
In 2005, when the Italian director Roberto Faenza made a film of Ferrante’s early novel The Days of Abandonment, she gave notes on the script by email. Did De Angelis hear from Ferrante?
‘I got one thing back. Ferrante had to read the first draft. She said: “Fine.” But she had one note which was: “Be careful not to be too oneiric.” It’s such a brilliant word. I thought: “Oh my god, look, this is a word, a real Ferrante word.” And that’s the only thing I’ve ever heard.’
Ferrante’s editor, Maurizio Dell’Orso, has sat in on rehearsals, relaying news back to Rome. ‘I’ve had this sense,’ says Still, ‘of a person very, very aware of our daily activity… But maybe she’s doesn’t know? Maybe she doesn’t give a damn? I really don’t know. We really don’t know. We have no idea.’
My Brilliant Friend Parts 1 & 2 is at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 2 April. The Neapolitan quartet is published by Europa Editions.
by Mika Provata-Carlone
Elena Ferrante is traditional in the most radical, boundary-dissolving ways; conventional with subversive fervour and delicately powerful talent. In Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey she proves above all the invincible strength of her authorial translucence, the rock-solid presence of her so-called anonymity, which she invariably corrects as being a determined gesture of absence.
The word frantumaglia, we are told, belongs to her mother, a dressmaker, and comes from that maternal world of tattered fabrics, frayed hems, unravelling stitches, matted skeins and tangled bobbins. It is a passe-partout term to encapsulate female suffering, its cobweb of existential angst that is inarticulate as well as unspeakable. “The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause.” Bursting with the ineluctable impetus of dialect, frantu derives from frantumare, to shatter, shiver, smash, crush; maglia is a knitted jumper, a jersey, as well as a knitter’s stitch, secured or dropped (see Erasures). It is an image that conjures up a certain ethereality, a metaphor of evanescence and mystical transparency, of life as an elusive aurora borealis of words and stories, but also an allegory of the tactility and permanence of traumas, of the salvaging, re-patching process that is, inevitably, at the heart of all reconstruction, recollection and perhaps narrative itself.
Yet this self-proclaimed collection of ‘fragments’ is anything but fragmentary or precarious, gossamer-thin or spurious. Nor is there anything tangled or disorderly about it, even if many of the statements by Ferrante or her vicarious interlocutors may appear anarchic and defiant. To pursue the dressmaking metaphor a step further, this is more like wool-felting than unpicking, a process which will result in a dense fabric of stories, laboriously and expertly welding together yarns of memory and the strands of the past.
There is an irresistible mystique about this intensely intimate, personal collection, and Ferrante’s voice often has the timbre of a lover and not just of a correspondent, an essayist or diarist. For all her assertions that she will not burden her books (or this epistolary miscellany of thoughts and conversations) with her presence as their writer, the friction and tension between creator and creature, as well as the connective umbilical cord, is constant, tantalising, something Ferrante has also explored extensively in her fiction. Frantumaglia is, in a way, the geography of an uncharted life, the cartography of a human terra incognita, which promises dazzling light on the absolute premise of an indissoluble and cryptic darkness.
One gets a distinct sense of Ferrante as a mystic, a Pythia-like figure holding on to a holy as well as terrifying trance, which alone will engender and enable that ultimate vital process, writing.”
Ferrante not only responds to but also piercingly questions her interviewers, and this often reveals both what she has called “a somewhat neurotic desire for intangibility”, but also a latent, yet dominant, demand to be discovered and sought after, a yearning for an almost virginal admiration. She is hounding and charming, enchanting in her persistence that detail is of supreme importance, exuding a seductive grande dame aura, vivacious and eccentric, a rebel who refuses to relinquish absolute control over her work. One gets a distinct sense of Ferrante as a mystic, a Pythia-like figure holding on to a holy as well as terrifying trance, which alone will engender and enable that ultimate vital process, writing.
What seeps indirectly though the lines is a non-desire of detachment, a refusal to abandon what is in fact a very intimate, total relationship with her texts, evinced in the difficulty she admits to regarding the reading of scripts that are born out of her novels, and the meticulously exhaustive, almost exegetic engagement that ensues. In contrast to her emphasis on anonymity, it often feels as though Ferrante is anxious to guarantee the scope and conditions of a very precise ‘Ferrante philology’. And bizarrely enough, this does not seem like a contradiction, but as a natural extension and development of her authorial presence and identity. One could be tempted to say that there is nothing authentic about this very intense, de profundis, almost obsessive commitment to writing, to discoursing on the themes of literature and readership, the human self and the psyche, that it is a brilliant, magnificently erected construct to house Ferrante’s omnipresent, evasive persona. And yet it feels alive with a fundamental genuineness and truth. Were Ferrante to reveal all, perhaps this is how she would speak.
A curious but not unexpected feature of this book is that it is pre-empted by an explanatory note by Ferrante’s publishers, Sandra Ozzola and her husband Sandro Ferri, affirming that the authorial deliberation and initiative, perhaps even the authorship, should be firmly delegated back to them as editors, collectors, arbiters of these extra-authorial writings. Ferrante is confirmed as a real person with private thoughts, with scattered scribblings on the flotsam and jetsam of the mind and of consciousness, with a correspondence – i.e. a bilateral relationship with equally real others – rather than existing only in an ingenious, inimitable and groundbreaking monologue; at the same time, she is preserved behind veils that diffuse all that is private, so that the balance between the genuinely personal and the insularly individual becomes a feat but also a challenge, an aporia for the reader, and, one feels, ultimately also for the writer herself. The game of peering through these veils, through light and shadows, to a corporeal as well as spiritual life, the numerous titillating glimpses of a real centre of being, are not an unpleasant experiment, on the contrary the experience is mesmeric, absorbing, provocative and thought-provoking. Does it matter whether literary judges will ever be able to pronounce a verdict at this court of ‘authenticity’, where purported letters to the editors become purloined excuses for languorous peregrinations into the furthest recesses of interiority? Part invention of resplendent sincerity, part crystalline distillation of a singular voice, Frantumaglia emerges as yet another heteronym full of the elusive whole.
Except perhaps for Thomas Woolfe’s long-suffering, brilliant editor Maxwell Perkins, who also had to care for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, few publishers have had to nurture and at the same time shield such talent as that of Ferrante. Since the publication of her first novel, the Ferris have been embroiled in a suspense novel of their own, a novel of infinite complexity and complications, as Ferrante herself acknowledges repeatedly, indulgently, unequivocally. Sweeping aside the manifold conspiracy theories about Ferrante’s identity or non-identity, they have collected letters to her publishers and readers, any interviews given or conceived of, they have retrieved a remarkable body of unusual drafts (begging several obvious questions), and put together a constellation of responses, creating, quite literally, a fully controlled archive for future academic research.
How much editorial intervention has gone into the final presentation of this material is unknown, yet the addressees, irrespective of whether they were, in point of fact, addressed at all in the end, are certainly real, remaining staunchly undaunted by silence. What emerges is a veritable anthology of reflections, guttural reactions, urgently pressing wisdom, throbbing contributions to the question of what is literature, why we write or read, how stories shape reality and how truth is only possible in fiction; we are given a resounding apologia for a genuine female voice, or what Ferrante calls a “literary genealogy of their own”. Frantumaglia is the ultimate treat for Ferrante devotees, but also a rare delight for those who feel that literature is a vital, living gesture. Ultimately, it is a bold quest after absolutes, for the “space of absolute creative freedom.”
Ferrante shows a piercing shrewdness about politics, literature, art, life, all that provides her with a sharper lens for a more sincere and more pugnacious gaze upon reality.”
Intriguingly, it is not merely a mosaic of philosophical meditations: it is also, and unabashedly, a treasure-trove of the sort of biographical anchorage we have been denied all along, for all the caveat of Calvino’s declaration, “ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth, of that you can be sure.” By the end of Frantumaglia we have learned all this, which may be true, or a very elegant, flawless, infinitely human and magnificent fabric of true lies: Elena Ferrante grew up near Secondigliano, a suburb in the north of Naples. Her father was “jealous of the possible” and her mother was very beautiful, cantankerous, a dressmaker of great creative vitality. Ferrante had a cat, which was taken away from her, and she lived in many rented houses as a child. She fled Naples and lived in Greece for a time. Contrary to popular belief, she has never been in analysis or trained in any relative field. She has a degree in classical literature, and describes her professional world as follows: apart from writing, “I study, I translate, I teach.” She rejects any feminist label: “to assert I have a feminist mindset seems to me exaggerated.” She likes smells, especially of “creams, of lipsticks, a smell of sugared almonds.” Above all, “I have a life I consider satisfying, both on the private and on the public level.” She is a mother of daughters, to whom she has promised not to be too much of an embarrassment – a promise she knows (like most mothers) that she will be unable to keep. She has read most of the feminist pioneers, is in awe of Elsa Morante, considers Chekhov, Walter Benjamin, Hans Christian Andersen, Karen Blixen, Melanie Klein, Federico Tozzi, Alba de Cespedes and Madame de La Fayette as some of her companions. She loves Virgil, especially the Aeneid, the tragedies of Sophocles and Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, but also sentimental stories in women’s magazines.
We learn that she “still [has] this childish wish for marvels, large or small”, that she “look[s] for ideas by running after words”, and that it takes her “many sentences, real, confusing, jumbled speeches, to arrive at an answer.” That she thinks of “writing now as a long, tiring, pleasant seduction”, aiming to “seize what lies silent in my depths, that living thing which, if captured, spreads through all the pages and gives them life.” For Ferrante, the central motive force in everything is love, lost, gained, nurtured or destroyed: “someone who takes love away from us devastates the cultural structure we’ve worked on all our lives, deprives us of that sort of Eden that until that moment had made us appear innocent and loveable.”
Frantumaglia is an irrepressible torrent of such revelations, intimations and declarations, and Ferrante shows a piercing shrewdness about politics, literature, art, life, all that provides her with a sharper lens for a more sincere and more pugnacious gaze upon reality. A simple reference can launch her into a bravado, often tongue-in-cheek, display of extraordinary sensitivity and erudition, whether it is an analysis of the third book of the Aeneid by way of Apollodorus’ Library, or the remark that “Bovary and Karenina are, in some ways, descendants of Dido and Medea.” This is a compulsive tome to relish, cherish and read with the leisure of slowness and humanity, a beautifully confessional chronicle of all that should matter in the life and mind of an artist.
Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia is published by Europa Editions, along with her novels The Days of Abandonment (2005), Troubling Love (2006), The Lost Daughter (2008), the Neapolitan quartet My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child (2012–2015) and the children’s picture book The Beach at Night (2016), illustrated by Mara Cerri. All are translated by Ann Goldstein.
My Brilliant Friend, a two-part stage adaptation of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet starring Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack, premiered at the Rose Theatre, Kingston on 25 February and continues to 2 April.
Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.
By the Book – Chelsea Clinton
Which writers—novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets—working today do you admire most?
In addition to the other writers I talk about in this space, I deeply admire che work of Colson Whitehead; Hilary Mantel; Masha Gessen; Haruki Murakami; Andrei Makine; Margaret Atwood; Erik Larson; Lin-Manuel Miranda; Marilynne Robinson; Elena Ferrante; Julian Barnes; Ian McEwan; Anne Applebaum; Timothy Egan; and more. I also hope Gita Mehta writes again. (…)
By JIM MCKEOWN • FEB 9, 2017
Intense adult story of a woman suddenly and inexplicably abandoned by her husband.
I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.
I have been a fan of women’s literature for many years. One such author has eluded me until a recent article discussed the Italian writer, Elena Ferrante. My first actual encounter with Ferrante’s works occurred after a trip to the marvelous independent bookstore, Inkwood Books of Haddonfield, N.J. I asked the clerk about Ferrante, and she suggested the “Neopolitan Quartet” of novels, which was sold out, but she did have a copy of the Days of Abandonment. Across the street from the shop was a coffee bistro, so I went for a coffee and a scan of the novel. About an hour later, I was hooked, and I accepted the fact this was a powerful novel by a writer I could not let slip by me.
Days of Abandonment tells the story of a woman abandoned by her husband, Mario, who takes up with a young woman, Carla, half his wife’s age. The novel begins, “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarrelling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink” This is the tiniest of sparks which will turn into a conflagration of immense power.
Readers, I want to make you aware this is an adult novel based on a single chapter when Olga vents all her rage, jealousy, and fury, in a scene of a rather explicit and volcanic nature. A reader will know when it starts, so it is easy to skip. This novel is the most incisive and detailed account of the agony a woman undergoes when she is abandoned by her partner. The prose is mesmerizing and gripping. I could barely put it down for a moment. Here is a scene when Olga decides to seek revenge on her husband with a man from her building she despises. [Carrano] “again brought his lips to mine, but I didn’t like the odor of his saliva. I don’t even know if it really was unpleasant, only it seemed to me different from Mario’s. He tried to put his tongue in my mouth, I opened my lips a little, touched his tongue with mine. It was slightly rough, alive, it felt animal, an enormous tongue such as I had seen, disgusted, at the butcher, there was nothing seductively human about it. Did Carla have my tastes, my odors? Or had mine always been repellant to Mario, as now Carrano’s seemed, and only in her, after years, had [Mario] found the essences right for him” (80-81). You can now skip to page 88. Not for the faint of heart, this novel is a masterpiece of the inner workings of the mind of a woman. 5 stars.
The Italian Embassy in Seoul celebrated the publication of novels in Korean by renowned author Elena Ferrante at a book talk on Jan. 19.
The event at the embassy marked last year’s translated release of the first two of “The Neapolitan Novels,” a four-part series comprised of “My Brilliant Friend” (2012), “The Story of a New Name” (2013), “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” (2014) and “The Story of the Lost Child” (2015).
The books are published by Hangilsa Publishing Company Limited, which printed the bestseller “Stories of the Romans” novels by Japanese writer Shiono Nanami since the early 1990s.
As a neorealist bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, Ferrante’s novels portray two “perceptive and intelligent” girls, Elena Greco and Raffaella Cerullo, as they strive to forge their lives out of a poor, violent and stultifying neighborhood on Naples’ outskirts.
“The novels neatly fit into the Italian neorealist style, championed by writers Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante,” said Italian Ambassador to Korea Marco della Seta at the event. “The story is universal, depicting Naples, humanity and the friendship and struggle of two women from childhood through adulthood.”
Noting that Ferrante is the pen name of the real author, whose identity is cloaked in secrecy, the envoy argued that the novels were successful partly due to Ferrante’s mysterious character. Ferrante’s work also exemplifies the strengths of the Italian language, which is evident in culture, music, literature, cinema and food, he added.
“I’ve never met Ferrante and nor have you. But we like her writings so much and think as if we are talking with her,” said Kim Un-ho, publisher of Hangilsa. “At the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, I had a great time discussing and reveling in Ferrante’s novels with some 50 leading publishers from around the world. Her books are like rainbows and bridges connecting people.”
By Joel Lee (email@example.com)
By Jeff Simon
Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey By Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions, 384 pages, $24
By the end of 2016, this exceptional book had proved to be one of most controversial literary books of the year. It came out in November. What preceded its publication were news stories in which the true identity of Elena Ferrante — one of the most admired Italian writers since Calvino — supposedly was discovered by Italian journalist Claudio Gati and subsequently revealed in a blog by the New York Review of Books.
Whether Italian translator Anita Raja is the real identity of the pseudonymous Ferrante–or, for that matter, Ferrante, whoever she is, somehow created journalist Gati–the whole thing made for a gloriously enticing Hall of Mirrors which does a nice job of refracting images of a writer demanding even more American attention than she’s previously had.
The title of the book means “loose and disconnected fragments” in Neapolitan dialect, all of which — letters, interviews, whatever — reveal deeply the life and thoughts of a writer who appointed another name just in order to exist. The gist of the passionate objections to Gati’s investigative journalism is that Ferrante’s anonymity as a writer deserved to be as inviolate as, say, the private life that J.D. Salinger had and that Thomas Pynchon still has. At issue for some in the “unmasking” of Ferrante as Raja is the implication, in some eyes, that Ferrante’s much-admired works — including a quartet of Neapolitan novels — were influenced in some way by Raja’s husband, Italian novelist Domenico Starnone, a lesser figure who has also been accused of being Ferrante.
It all seems to come out of a combination of Nabokov, Henry James and Fernando Pessoa, the astonishing Portuguese writer and poet whose way of writing pseudonymously was to invent several separate but fully imagined authorial personalities along with their subsequent works. So this richly involving book of autobiographical fragments was published last fall amid a rainstorm of asterisks it didn’t deserve. What we have here are incredibly fascinating interviews and letters and such from a writer who says she has struggled to not lead a life “where the success of the self is measured by the success of the written page.”
« L’amie prodigieuse : un roman du 19e siècle à l’ère de Netflix »
La place d’éditeur de littérature italienne chez Gallimard est probablement devenue la plus enviée du milieu ! Le chanceux s’appelle Vincent Raynaud, il est entré dans la maison en 2005 et, s’il se réjouit bien sûr du phénomène Ferrante, il garde les idées claires et la tête froide, n’oubliant jamais qu’il se glisse toujours une part de chance dans ce genre d’aventure.
Connaissiez-vous les livres d’Elena Ferrante avant la parution de « L’amie prodigieuse » ?
Gallimard a publié son premier roman (« L’amour harcelant ») en 1995, le deuxième (« Les jours de mon abandon ») en 2003. Je me suis occupé du troisième, « Poupée volée » en 2009. C’était déjà un livre formidable, mais passé inaperçu. Le fait de n’avoir pas d’auteur à présenter ne facilitait pas la promotion. Ses ouvrages se vendaient à quelques centaines d’exemplaires, mais nous avons une politique de catalogue qui nous permet de continuer à publier des écrivains confidentiels. Cependant, pour avoir vécu en Italie où elle était considérée comme quelqu’un d’important, et avoir lu tous ses livres, je savais que ça marcherait un jour.
Lorsque vous avez découvert le manuscrit de « L’amie prodigieuse », avez-vous eu l’impression qu’il était différent des précédents ?
Nous savions dès le départ qu’il s’agissait de trois livres (en fait il y en aura quatre) et on se souvenait bien sûr des succès d’autres séries comme « Harry Potter » ou « Millenium ». Mais nous avions connu aussi de mauvaises expériences que je ne citerai pas. Dans ces cas, si le premier ne marche pas, c’est toute la suite qui est condamnée. J’ai donc trouvé cette histoire formidable, il y avait un souffle historique, un regard sur les femmes, sur la manière dont elles ont changé durant cette période allant des années cinquante à nos jours… Mais le cœur du livre se trouvait dans le lien entre les deux héroïnes, dans leur amitié… C’était un vrai roman du 19e siècle, à l’ère de Netflix. En le lisant, j’ai effectivement pensé qu’Elena Ferrante avait franchi un palier. Mais nous sommes restés prudents et nous avons lancé un premier tirage de 6000, 7000 exeplaires…
Il a tout de suite marché ?
Il a mieux marché que les précédents, mais cela s’est vraiment envolé avec la version en poche du premier volume dont le bandeau, « le livre que Daniel Pennac offre à ses amis », a contribué au succès. Aujourd’hui, les trois tomes sont les trois meilleures ventes de romans. Le premier s’est vendu en Folio à 600.000 exemplaires (et 30.000 en grand format), le deuxième à 100.000 en grand format et il vient de sortir en poche avec un premier tirage de 300.000 exemplaires. Le troisième enfin qui vient de paraître lui aussi débute à 80.000 exemplaires. Pour un auteur qui n’a pas d’existence publique et rien à raconter sur sa vie, c’est incroyable.
Est-ce que vous, vous savez qui se cache derrière le nom d’Elena Ferrante ?
Je n’en sais pas plus que ce qu’ont révélé les journaux. C’est une hypothèse crédible, mais finalement on s’en désintéresse un peu non ? Dès ses premiers livres, Elena Ferrante a écrit une lettre en demandant que l’on respecte son choix. L’enquête qui a été menée pour essayer de trouver quel auteur se cachait derrière ce pseudonyme est réservée en général aux criminels ! Depuis, elle a cessé de répondre aux interviews.
Il y aura donc un quatrième volume. Ce sera le dernier ?
Oui, et nous le publierons en octobre 2017. Puis en janvier 2018, un recueil réunira des lettres, des interviews et des textes courts. Elena Ferrante a remis l’Italie au centre de la littérature étrangère qui, jusqu’à présent restait plutôt à l’ombre des Anglo-Saxons et des Scandinaves. Il faut encore juste souligner la qualité de la traduction signée Elsa Damien qui a contribué elle aussi au succès.
Propos recueillis par Pascale Frey
EXCLUSIF – Si Guillaume Musso est largement en tête, l’inconnu Michel Bussi fait une très belle percée et devance Marc Levy. Chez les étrangers, Anna Todd écrase la concurrence, tandis qu’Elena Ferrante s’installe.
Pour la douzième année consécutive, Le Figaro publie le palmarès des auteurs à succès. 2017 est l’année du changement: on intègre les romanciers étrangers, afin de comparer Guillaume Musso, Michel Bussi ou Marc Levy avec Harlan Coben, Stephen King ou Mary Higgins Clark.
Ce palmarès, établi en partenariat avec l’institut d’études GfK, est une photographie de ce que les Français lisent et achètent vraiment. Notre enquête a été réalisée durant toute l’année 2016. GfK a fourni les données de son «panel distributeur», récoltées auprès de 5.000 points de vente en France. On ne tient compte que des ventes réelles (les «sorties de caisse», c’est-à-dire les livres effectivement achetés par les lecteurs). Ce classement est le seul qui tienne compte à la fois des ventes en grand format (les nouveautés) et de l’édition de poche.
Voici les dix premiers en nombre d’exemplaires:
1. Guillaume Musso: 1.833.300 exemplaires
2. Michel Bussi 1.135.300
3. Anna Todd: 1.025.100
4. Marc Levy: 1.024.200
5. Harlan Coben: 797.200
6. Françoise Bourdin: 679 300
7. Laurent Gounelle: 675.400
8. Gilles Legardinier: 604.000
9. Elena Ferrante: 560.900
10. Mary Higgins Clark: 546.200
Petite révolution: dans ce palmarès annuel des auteurs qui vendent le plus, Michel Bussi, professeur de géographie à l’université de Rouen, chercheur au CNRS spécialisé en géographie électorale, et romancier à ses heures, dépasse Marc Levy, l’un des plus célèbres auteurs de best-sellers, révélé par Et si c’était vrai… adapté sur grand écran par les studios de Steven Spielberg. Michel Bussi a vendu plus d’un million d’exemplaires; ce quasi inconnu il y a à peine trois ans prend la deuxième place sur le podium, avec ses polars sur fond régional (le plus souvent la Normandie). Même s’il est premier et loin devant, Guillaume Musso, avec plus de 1,8 million d’exemplaires vendus, devrait se méfier du sympathique universitaire qui a commencé sa carrière de romancier en étant publié par une toute petite maison d’édition normande…
Musso creuse l’écart
Cette année encore, Guillaume Musso creuse donc l’écart avec ses poursuivants. Il a rencontré un immense succès avec son dernier thriller, La Fille de Brooklyn, paru en mars 2016 et numéro un des romans en 2016 selon GfK, et il réalise une belle performance avec l’édition poche de L’Instant présent, son précédent titre, numéro deux, juste derrière Harry Potter.
Le Figaro établit ce classement des auteurs de best-sellers depuis 2005, et on a rarement observé un tel chamboulement – tout va très vite: un romancier chasse l’autre, des nouveaux éditeurs dament le pion à des maisons centenaires (qui pouvait imaginer Hugo & Cie à une telle place avec une romancière âgée de vingt-sept ans, Anna Todd ?). D’autres ont l’art de dénicher les fictions qui vont séduire le grand public en fouillant sur Internet chez les auteurs autoédités. Michel Lafon, avec Agnès Martin-Lugand (treizième du Top 20, mais huitième romancière française), est passé maître dans cette veine-là.
The Godfather Award for Best Sequel: The Story Of a New Name – Elena Ferrante
I really liked My Brilliant Friend but I loved The St0ry of a New Name. I felt as though MBF did all of the grunt work of establishing place and characters (so, so many characters), so that TSOANN could really get going with telling a focused, atmospheric story. Lena and Lila are some of the most complex and fully realised female characters I’ve ever come across, and I felt myself copying Ferrante in everything I wrote, for a good while after reading this. Whoever the real Ferrante is, she gets female psychology. And she gets that it’s not always men we’re mooning over.
Elena Ferrante is an Italian novelist in her 70s who has been producing published work for about 25 years. But it was only four years ago with My Brilliant Friend, a novel about growing up in a poor and sometimes violent neighbourhood in Naples, that Ferrante achieved international fame. At the heart of that story is a bond between two girls in which love and enmity mingle in constantly surprising ways. Three further novels have traced that relationship through adolescence and into adulthood. The last of this series, The Story of the Lost Child, was judged by The New York Times one of the 10 best books of 2015.
Ferrante is a pseudonym. What little is known about the author has been gleaned from interviews, and a volume of correspondence with editors which appeared in 2003. She insists on anonymity, explaining that she finds it necessary for her work. In an email interview with Vanity Fair in 2015 she said, ‘I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.’
In spite of this, two controversial attempts to unmask her were published during 2016. The first drew on internal textual evidence to prove that Ferrante was in fact Marcella Marmo, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Naples. The author of this paper, a Dante expert, said that he had conducted a philological analysis ‘as if I were studying the attribution of an ancient text’. Even in the face of such scholarly evidence, however, professor Marmo insists that it isn’t her.
An investigation by Claudio Gatti for the Italian newspaper Il Sole received wider circulation when it was reprinted in the New York Review of Books. Using investigative techniques that might be more usefully applied to exposing the corruption of politicians and corporate executives, Gatti followed a trail of payments from the publishers to a freelance translator of German texts, Anita Raja. Raja has also denied authorship.
Bizarrely, Raja’s husband Domenico Starnone, a screenwriter and journalist, has previously been identified as the real Ferrante, as has the male writer and critic Silvio Perrella, as if only a man could show such a confident grasp of late twentieth-century Italian social and political history. But to anyone who has actually read the 1,700 pages of the Neapolitan quartet – a slow-burning study of female friendship and rivalry and the struggle to achieve autonomy in a patriarchal society, punctuated by intense love affairs, abusive marriages and intimate explorations of the trials of pregnancy and motherhood – the idea that this is an extended act of male ventriloquism must seem implausible.
A recent convert to the Ferrante cult having just read this series, I find the author’s identity the least interesting question about it. Sprawling, loosely constructed, with too large a cast and too many tangled plot lines, it shouldn’t work but it does – magnificently. That’s a mystery worth investigating.
What distinguishes the novella from the novel is not length, but the pursuit of intensity rather than breadth. A novella is devastating or it is nothing; it must administer — as the title of one of my favorite examples of the genre, by Marguerite Yourcenar, has it — a coup de grâce. And the masters of the genre (I think first of Henry James or Thomas Mann) are always masters of form, for only the most fiercely controlled form can yield this effect of overwhelming intensity. The Lost Daughter was the third of Elena Ferrante’s published works of fiction, and the last before the celebrated “Neapolitan quartet” that’s brought her such acclaim (and which I still haven’t read — I’m taking her in chronological order). Like Ferrantes’ first two novels, The Days of Abandonment and Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter is narrated in the first person by an emotionally troubled protagonist, here named Leda, the better to enclose the reader in a claustrophobic disquiet you can see coming from the very first words: “I had been driving for less than an hour when I began to feel ill.” Naturally, the ailment in question is not entirely organic. Leda’s sense of disconnection from herself, her family, and everyone around has left her unmoored. On a seaside vacation in southern Italy, she becomes the obsessed observer of a family whose behavior brings back unwanted memories of the unrefined Neapolitan milieu in which she grew up and from which she escaped to decorous Florence. Little by little she is drawn into their lives…and that’s all I’ll say about the events depicted in the book, which are so simple, so seemingly inconsequential that only Ferrante’s great art can elicit their significance. Not sharing that art, I’ll forebear to recount the anecdote. Can a work of consequence really be constructed around an event no more momentous than a toddler’s loss of a doll? — but never mind, mum’s the word. Instead, I want to point out the incredible force of Ferrante’s prose (beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein), which harbors so much perturbing nuance beneath a surface of such apparent directness. I’ve often heard poets and writers talk of writing the body. Ferrante really does it. She excels at tracing the intimate monologue of the self, in which sensations become thoughts and thoughts become sensations, always vividly corporeal. Here’s Leda on her relations with her daughters: “I was always, in some way, the origin of their sufferings, and the outlet. They accused me silently or yelling. They resented the unfair distribution not only of obvious resemblances but of secret ones, those we become aware of later, the aura of bodies, the aura that stuns like a strong liquor. Barely perceptible tones of voice. A small gesture, a way of batting the eyelashes, a smile-sneer. The walk, the shoulder that leans slightly to the left, a graceful swing of the arms. The impalpable mixtures of tiny movements…” No one conveys those tiny movements like Ferrante. At the end, I find myself gulping for air.
If you missed this much-discussed book in 2016, now’s the time to revisit it.
This past month, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof posted his favorite reads in 2016 on his Facebook profile. The one book he criticized was Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which he views as a “disappointment” and a book that “everybody in the world seems to love except me.” Even though I am a fan of Kristof and his work, I beg to differ.
Ferrante’s series, the “Neapolitan Novels,” which in chronological order include My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and the fourth and final novel, The Story of the Lost Child, are without doubt some of the most carefully crafted and painfully poignant novels I have read. I am not alone on this opinion, as TIME magazine listed Ferrante as one of 2016’s Most Influential People, and this past summer the literary world was shaken when the previously anonymous author’s name was revealed. Now, wherever the name Ferrante is mentioned, people have a word or two to share.
Ferrante’s master storytelling reveals a series of powerful themes, one of which is the story of female friendships. Throughout the series, Ferrante exposes the raw and unapologetic truth behind friendships between women, predominantly between the two main protagonists, Elena Greco and Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo. Elena and Lila are childhood friends from the same neighborhood outside of Naples, Italy in the 1950s. Both are born into impoverished families whose parents have elementary-level educations. Despite their backgrounds, Elena and Lila stand out from their peers alongside a select few of their fellow classmates. The two girls recognize their mutual talent and from the start of their friendship, they understand that they need each other in order to survive the patriarchal society they find themselves in which involve domestic violence against women and local political corruption. Throughout the story of their friendship, Ferrante exposes the highs and lows of Elena and Lila’s relationship, the moments of true love and absolute toxicity. It’s Ferrante’s gift of depicting the virtues and vices in female friendships that makes the Neapolitan Novels stand out from the crowd.
Ferrante shares this familiar feeling among women, the urge to compare and to resent when other women seem to have it better. Throughout the novels we see how the female characters discover that the grass is not greener on the other side, and often the two female protagonists were bearing heavy burdens and trials beneath the surface. Very rarely do we get to see the interior struggles that other women share and for this reason, Ferrante depicts this familiar psychological battle with precise accuracy.
Despite Lila’s deep resentment that she never completed her education, she champions Elena. In one of the most vital scenes from the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, Elena is in the middle of preparing Lila for her wedding while discussing Elena’s schooling. Lila insists that Elena must do whatever it takes to continue her education, because in Lila’s words, Elena is her “brilliant friend.”
During Lila’s wealthy period of life, she buys Elena’s schoolbooks and lets her study in her well-furnished apartment because in her own heart, Lila knows that if Elena excels in life, this will also be a symbolic victory for all the women of the neighborhood. Even though Lila struggles with her own inner demons, her love for Elena triumphs in the end and is the catalyst for Elena’s ultimate success as a writer among the Italian intelligentsia.
In the relationship of Elena and Lila, Ferrante illustrates her striking talent for showing how flawed characters can overcome their faults to love. We are all imperfect creatures so in turn, we love imperfectly. We all struggle with our own jealousies and insecurities that are the result of other broken relationships and inner struggles, but as Elena and Lila demonstrate, love is nonetheless the key to surpassing our vices.
At the end of the day, Lena and Lila love each other and it’s this love is what helps them overcome their flaws. As Italians say when they love someone, ti voglio bene: “I want you well.” According to St. Thomas Aquinas’s definition of love, to love is to want the ultimate good for the beloved. It’s this selfless love, conveyed so beautifully in the pages, that renders Ferrante’s novels incredible exemplars of the power of female friendships.
One of the major flaws of these female characters are similar to those of many women—a proclivity to envy. The primary source of jealousy between Elena and Lila is education. Although the two girls experience verbal and physical abuse at home, Elena’s parents consent to her advancement in education after elementary school; meanwhile, Lila’s father throws her out the window when she tries to argue with him. Both girls were at the top of their class, however Lila possesses a talent, a rare inner drive that intimidates Elena. Lila is aware of Elena’s insecurity and out of spite, Lila frequently mocks Elena with the fact that if she continued her education, she would have surpassed Elena. However, Lila’s quipping remarks are the result of her own ache knowing that she will never have the chance like Elena to realize her own potential.
Although most women may never reach the degree of asinine comments that Elena and Lila exchange throughout the course of their relationship, many women can understand the temptation to compare themselves to their fellow female friends. Think about the time when your friend got hired for that job, got to go on that European backpacking trip or finally got into that dream relationship…did it ever sting for you at all? This green monster is known all too well between Elena and Lila and constantly creeps into their friendship.
I’m looking up at a coffee shop full of strangers, and I can’t help but think that we seldom welcome people as they are anymore—including me. The curation of our profile and personhood is just about the slipperiest slope out there.
The Days Of Abandonment. There are some reviews that consider the descent of main character to be clichéd. After a lifetime of familial dedication, Olga is abandoned by her husband Mario. She goes down, disrupted and scouring the depths of sanity.
While the signposts may be similar to those that have already appeared, the description and intensity of the Olga’s dive are incomparable. It’s a palpable pain that brings me closer to a grief-case I’ve grown accustomed to hiding from everyone, including myself.
Both disturbing and real—from here on out, I’m on a treasure hunt for everything that matters. A quiet quest for all that beguiling dirt beneath our shuffling feet.
Timberlake Wertenbaker has adapted the Italian author’s hit novels for radio. She reveals why she took the characters from Naples to Manchester
It comes as rather a shock — like getting toad-in-the-hole when you were expecting linguine pescatore. First, floating over the airwaves, there’s Neapolitan folk music such as you might hear in a family-run pizzeria in Old Napoli. That, and a voice-over, introduces us to Radio 4’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s second novel in her bestselling historical saga known here as The Neapolitan Quartet. Then you hear the main characters — Naples-born childhood friends Elena and Lila — speak . . . in broad, flat-vowelled Mancunian. It’s hard not to giggle.
Not everyone will appreciate the BBC’s two-part take on The Story of a New Name, to be aired on January 15 at 3pm and again the week after. Naples has been transferred to the north of England again — the radio treatment of the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, which first aired in the summer to mixed criticism, also made the ragazze sound as though they were Made in Manchester.
Yet once you tune in to the accents — Monica Dolan, last seen as the maid in the BBC’s Agatha Christie adaptation The Witness for the Prosecution, is a wonderful Lena and Anastasia Hille gets a suitably turbulent Lila just right — the story possesses you. The precise dialogue, artful reduction and accomplished performances made me, a Ferrante addict, want to listen on and read the novels all over again. Phew, va tutto bene — as they say in Stockport.
The writer responsible for the adaptation is one of our premier playwrights, Timberlake Wertenbaker, best known for Our Country’s Good. That play about an Australian penal colony, which opened at the Royal Court in 1988, is still being taught in schools and was recently revived to acclaim at the National Theatre by Nadia Fall.
We meet in the National Gallery café in London — she has tickets to the Caravaggio exhibition (more representations of earthy Italians) and we have an hour before her slot. Wertenbaker, 70, who has wonderful Crystal Tipps hair, sparkly eyes and an elegant gait, read about Ferrante online more than two years ago and had a personal connection with Naples — she visited with a journalist boyfriend as a student and witnessed political discontent at first hand — so she was interested. “I got the first book and started reading it that night and didn’t put it down, and manufactured the flu so I could stay in bed and read it. It was 4am and I had to get up at 7am.” A classic diagnosis of Ferrante fever.
After she’d eaten up the novels, she pitched the idea for a radio play to the drama producer Celia de Wolff at Radio 4. “I was under the very naive impression that I had discovered her [Ferrante]. I said to the BBC: ‘It will be great! We will introduce England to Elena Ferrante!’ Of course, that’s a joke now. Now I feel that everyone has read it so it’s a different proposition.”
And their relocation to England? “I definitely didn’t want them to be from London or the southeast — that would be like setting it in Florence or Milan. Liverpool was right, but too distinctive an accent and place. We wouldn’t have dreamt of them speaking with Italian accents.” So they settled on “around Manchester”. “The only thing that has been a pain is getting the pronunciation of the Italian names right,” she admits.
Wertenbaker has adapted many great authors from Sophocles to Racine and, more recently, War and Peace, also for Radio 4. Ferrante was one of the most challenging, she says. “Tolstoy was easier, with Tolstoy you are going from A to B at a gallop and with Ferrante what makes it so difficult is that it’s circular, actually a spiral, and events might happen three times in one novel, and that’s difficult to write in a dramatic form of time.”
I definitely didn’t want them to be from London or the southeast
In Ferrante there are a lot of auxiliary characters — from shop workers to activists — who are nevertheless crucial to the plot. How did she ram them all in? “It’s hard, but it’s important. What I have noticed is that you leave a character out at your peril because that character will reappear at some point and will explain something.”
In Wertenbaker’s version Lena and Lila take it in turns to narrate. “It was the only way to give them equal weight.” So, Elena or Lila, does she have a preference? “I can’t have a favourite!” she laughs. “Being a dramatist you have to love everyone. Otherwise you can’t make them speak if you don’t like them, they won’t talk very well.”
The Story of a New Name packs an almighty emotional punch; from Lila and Stefano’s violent marriage-night scene to Elena and Lila’s holiday on Ischia. When I spoke to Ferrante’s translator Ann Goldstein recently she said that having your head stuck in Ferrante had an emotional consequence in one’s own life. Wertenbaker agrees: “The characters really get to you. You have to get inside them to make them speak.”
Her working method for adaptations is total absorption and no cut-and-pasting. Wertenbaker read the book a few times, learnt it by heart and then “tried to know it”. Then she reread it once again taking notes (she pulls an exercise book from her bag exposing her neat, slanty writing). “Then I go to my computer and start page one, then I go back to my notes.” She uses only the dialogue that she remembers. “In fact her [Ferrante’s] dialogue is very good, but it has to be cut. In a novel you can speak in a paragraph, but I have to take a line.”
Wertenbaker admits there is great pressure when you are adapting a writer with such a passionate fan base. She takes a sip of green tea. “I am worried about the Ferrante fans because they know the books better than I do. I had that a bit with the War and Peace fans, but there weren’t that many. You are not doing the book, you are doing an adaptation. You hope that those who haven’t read it will listen and read it or that it brings something back to those that have. I think it’s great to read after listening. It’s not like TV when you have the image printed. It’s very fluid.”
So what more does a radio play ever bring to a well-known story? “I don’t think it brings anything,” she says with true modesty. “It is another way of being reminded — in the same way that you listen to an adaptation of a Jane Austen you have read 25 times.”
In 1992 Edizioni e/o published a first novel, L’amore molesto, by an Italian writer who called herself “Elena Ferrante.” Its provocative cover featured a stylish female figure in a red suit—without her head. Eleven years later, the elegant “headless woman” surfaced again on the cover of a collection of Ferrante’s letters called La frantumaglia (2003). Ferrante’s book covers all feature figures with their faces hidden, just as the novelist has hidden her identity for twenty-four years. Explaining her reasons for anonymity to a relentlessly hungry Italian press in 2003, she wrote, “The true reader, I think, searches not for the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood, who makes herself beautiful for the occasion, but for the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word.”
Reading this collection of Ferrante’s interviews over twenty years (1995–2015), one is struck by her naïveté. Her seven translated novels found a rapt market in the US (1.6 million copies sold of the Neapolitan tetralogy alone), but she has never ceased to be a target for “unmasking.” Whether the secret scribbler is Edizione e/o’s German translator Anita Raja, her husband, Domenico Starnone, or Topo Gigio, her comments on her female narrators and her writing process is revelatory. She describes Neapolitan mothers she has known, for example, as “silent victims, desperately in love with males and male children, ready to defend and serve them even though the men crush and torture them. . . . To be female children of these mothers wasn’t and isn’t easy.” Those children are the ones she writes about, and their friendships are fragile, “without rules.” The “brilliant friends” Lila and Lenù fight and make up—for sixty years—but they are devoted to each other in a way neither is with her men.
Ferrante has much to say here about her birth city, Naples; her childhood; the origin of her plots; and her need as a fiction writer to be “sincere to the point where it’s unbearable.” I was disappointed at inconsistent or odd translations, such as “difference feminism” for il pensiero della differenza, not to mention rendering frantumaglia (her mother’s word for depression) as “a jumble of fragments.” On the whole, however, Ann Goldstein’s translation does justice to the 2003 original, a volume that serves as a “companion” to Ferrante’s fiction.
University of Maryland University College
Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack are to lead the cast of My Brilliant Friend, the stage adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.
Adapted for the stage by April De Angelis, My Brilliant Friend is directed by Melly Still and premieres at the Rose Theatre Kingston in February.
Running from February 25 to April 2, it will have a press night on March 11.
The new two-part production will star Cusack and McCormack alongside a company made up of Justin Avoth, Adam Burton, Martin Hyder, Victoria Moseley, Emily Mytton, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Jonah Russell, Badria Timimi, Toby Wharton and Emily Wachter.
It has set and costume design by Soutra Gilmour, lighting by Malcolm Rippeth, sound by Jon Nicholls and music by James Fortune.
Movement is by Sarah Dowling and casting by Charlotte Sutton.
The show is produced by the Rose Theatre Kingston.
I love the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series My Brilliant Friend (you can read my review of it here), so I was very excited to read the second novel in the series – The Story Of A New Name.
Though I loved My Brilliant Friend, I was hoping to see Elena move out of her friend Lila’s suffocating sphere of emotional and psychological influence in Book 2, and I was not disappointed. Though Elena and Lila will always be connected, I thought that Elena really came into her own and established an identity separate from Lila in this second novel, which made me really interested to see how much further they develop separately in the third and fourth books as well.
The end of the book provided a pretty good cliffhanger in which one of the two protagonists is at the start of a great success and the other one has sunk into abject conditions. It really made me want to pick up Book 3 asap, even though I’m not reviewing it until early February. Meanwhile, read my review of The Story Of A New Name below.
This is the second book, following last year’s My Brilliant Friend, featuring the two friends Lila and Elena. The two protagonists are now in their twenties. Marriage appears to have imprisoned Lila. Meanwhile, Elena continues her journey of self-discovery. The two young women share a complex and evolving bond that brings them close at times, and drives them apart at others. Each vacillates between hurtful disregard and profound love for the other. With this complicated and meticulously portrayed friendship at the center of their emotional lives, the two girls mature into women, paying the cruel price that this passage exacts.
What I Liked
Seeing Elena come into her own. In the first half of the novel, Elena is still living in her childhood neighborhood with Lila, though she does see less of Lila due to Lila’s marriage. At first, Elena continues to seem to be mentally and emotionally subjected to Lila’s influence even when Lila is acting in a way with which Elena does not agree or that hurts Elena’s feelings. By the end of the novel, however, Elena has spent several years away from their childhood neighborhood, forming a new though faltering adult identity for herself as a person distinct from her parents, siblings, childhood friends and former acquaintances. Elena still has moments in which she does not believe in the solidity of her new hard-won success and independence. However, I could tell by the end of this installment in the series that in the next books she would be able to depart from the impoverished social reality she grew up and experience more opportunity in her personal and professional life.
The fluid and complex portrayal of romantic relationships. For the first time in this novel we see the protagonists, Elena and Lila, grappling with the often unsavory realities of actual grown up romantic relationships, whether in first person or through the entanglements experienced by their friends. Across engagements, marriages, affairs, casual sexual encounters and every nuance of romantic involvement in between, Ferrante explores complex themes like the ephemeral nature of love, the blight of domestic violence, contradictory jealousies, traditional and atypical gender relations and the convoluted ties that exist between love, money and happiness. There are so many different kinds of involvements between the characters as they turn from teenagers to adults, and I really appreciated that Ferrante did not produce idealized and unrealistic romances that would have felt inaccurate due to the difficult reality in which her characters grew up.
The importance given to language in the form of dialect versus ‘proper’ Italian. Italy has a plethora of dialects and accents through which you can identify someone as coming from a particular region or even city. In this second novel in the series, we see both Lila and Elena struggling to speak ‘proper’ Italian in an effort to elevate themselves above their origins and the other people of their neighborhood. In particular, Elena experiences living in another city in Italy, among mostly middle class people who naturally speak the ‘proper’ Italian she has to consciously fake. She even struggles to hide her Neapolitan accent so as not to be ridiculed for it. Ferrante doesn’t only identify the use or avoidance of dialect with social class and education, but also with morality, in a way that I found riveting. Some of the most violent and raw scenes in the novel occur with the characters yelling at each other in dialect, as if there was violence intrinsic in the local language itself. The dialect becomes part of the desperation and lack of opportunity experienced by the characters – something they can’t hide that brands them as excluded from the changed and advancements of an Italy that is modernising around them and without them.
What I Didn’t Like
The length. I love Ferrante’s style of writing and I’ve grown attached to her characters, so I thoroughly enjoyed the second book in this series and am looking forward to the next two. However, I think that the portions of Elena and Lila’s life that Ferrante covers in this installment could have been addressed with equal depth and complexity even if the book had been say 100 pages or so shorter. Certain segments dragged or seemed relatively unnecessary both to further character development or to move the plot forward.
In the series’ second book, Ferrante poignantly explores Elena and Lila’s late teens and early twenties, as their destinies diverge and they struggle to create a meaningful adult life for themselves out of their bleak origins.
My Brilliant Friend’ (in Italian ‘L’amica Geniale’), a fiction by one of Italy’s best-known contemporary writers is now available in Persian.
The original book in Italian is translated by Sara Assareh and recently released by Tehran-based Nafir Publications, Mehr News Agency reported.
First published 2011 in Italy, it is written by a mysterious Italian writer who goes by the pseudonym Elena Ferrante.
However, from her interviews and letters in the past 20 plus years, it can be presumed that she grew up in Naples and has lived for periods outside Italy. “I’ve moved often, in general unwillingly, out of necessity … I’m no longer dependent on the movements of others, only on my own.” In addition to writing, “I study, translate and teach,” Ferrante said in an interview.
“A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of the two women. The book is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship.
The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on the tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends.
“The two women are the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through their lives, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists Elena and Lila,” according to Good Reads (goodreads.com).
Ferrante is the author of several remarkable, lucid, austerely honest novels, the most celebrated of which is ‘The Days of Abandonment,’ published 2002 in Italy.
What she looks like, what her real name is, when she was born, how she currently lives, are all unknown, according to The New Yorker. In 1991, when her first novel ‘Troubling Love’ (L’Amore Molesto) was about to be published in Italy, Ferrante sent her publisher a letter in which she laid out the principles she has not deviated from since.
She will do nothing for ‘Troubling Love,’ she wrote to her publisher, because she has already done enough. She won’t take part in conferences or discussions, and won’t go to accept prizes, if any are awarded. “I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum.”
“Books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t,” she said.
The programme will be broadcast Sunday 15th on January and Sun 22nd January.
From one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, Elena Ferrante, the continuing story of Lila and Lena, two bright young girls who have grown up in the tough, rough streets of post war Naples.
Striving to make a better life for themselves, they work hard at school but Lila is stopped in her tracks when forced to give up her education and work for the family shoe making business. It’s not long before their worlds are pushed apart and Lila ends up marrying a local businessman and son of the murdered local loan shark Don Achille.
Written by Elena Ferrante
Dramatised by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Producer: Celia de Wolff
A Pier production for BBC Radio 4.
For anyone who hasn’t already delved into Ferrante’s series, I won’t spoil the plot; but the tale of friendship between two smart girls, trapped in the economics and misogyny of a poor neighborhood of Naples, is some of the best character-building I’ve ever read. I preferred this volume to the first (more sex, more violence, and the women are becoming real adults), but its definitely part of an ongoing tale and requires starting at the beginning.
The first and second Neapolitan novels inspired me to write fiction of my own. The third had the opposite effect: If Elena Ferrante can write that well, why bother?
It’s hard for me to say whether Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is better than the previous two installments, or whether the issue was that reading the first two, I’d imagined I was reading semi-autobiographical fiction. This time around, however, I was reading after the revelations about the real person behind the pseudonym. Knowing that this was all invention is awe-inspiring. When I imagined the author was a real-life mix of close friends Elena and Lila, I was impressed but not, evidently, to the why-bother level.
But maybe the book really just is that good. It contains the best description of terrible sex in probably all of literature, followed by… I will just direct you to the last sentence of Chapter 62.
Now, the spoiler-filled bit:
After a brief interlude in more recent times, Those Who Leave picks up where the previous book left off: with Elena’s sudden ascent from impoverished Neapolitan child for whom attending middle school borderline miraculous, to celebrated novelist. The reader may anticipate an upward trajectory. In a very literal, physical sense there is one – the book ends with Elena on her first-ever airplane trip. But otherwise, not so much: She goes from celebrated young author of a risqué first novel to frustrated housewife in the Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary mold. Not all at once – there’s her stint as a politically engaged labor reporter – but she has one child, then another (earlier than she would like; her her supposedly secular husband opposes contraception), and home responsibilities pile up as professional successes wane. She’s got more material comforts than she did as a child, but is – after all that education, after a successful novel – occupied with household chores.
Meanwhile, Lila – of course Lila! – is at first doing terribly, struggling to support her (possibly) out-of-wedlock son while working at a sausage factory. Elena swoops in and rescues her from a job that’s made her ill and subjected her to intense sexual harassment… but by the end of the novel, Lila’s the great success, with a high paid computer job, while Elena’s all outtakes from The Feminine Mystique.
What’s most interesting about all the novels is (again, of course) the Lila-Elena relationship. But a close second is all that Nino business. Nino is that rare thing: a childhood crush who remains alluring into adulthood. But more than that, he’s deeply entangled with Elena’s other loves: Lila (who was his lover, and who may have born his child), and professional ambition as a writer. The Lila aspect isn’t all that explored, at least in Book 3 – early on in the book, Nino tells Elena that Lila had been bad in bed, but that’s almost it.
By the time he reappears in the novel, Nino could pretty much come into Elena and her dull husband Pietro’s living room, fart loudly, and she’d run off with him. He’s Nino, the hot intellectual ladies’ man. (Everything’s exciting when he’s around and empty when he’s not and Nino Nino Nino, sigh.) But that’s not what he does! No, Nino seduces Elena (if one can call it that, given her preexisting decades-long infatuation, this despite his liaison with her best friend) by appealing to her professional ambition. He does some swooping in of his own and declares – and he’s not wrong – that Pietro has asked to much of Elena in the domestic sphere, putting his own work first and leaving her to squander her (superior, Nino notes, again accurately) intellect.
So on the one hand, Nino sees Elena’s marriage for what it is, and appeals to her resentment at years of being treated like an intellectual inferior. On the other – as the somewhat hindsight-possessing older-Elena narrator is aware – Nino’s an expert at grand passion. He knows just what to say to women to inspire them to drop everything and run off with them, and has unclaimed children all across Italy to show for it. There’s this moment when it looks as if Elena will leave Pietro in favor of independence and being single for a while and that seems like an excellent idea, but when did great fiction ever limit itself to good decision-making?
Leaving Pietro for Nino isn’t really about creative self-realization… except it kind of is, because Nino inspires her to write. But does she care what Nino thinks about her work because she’s admired his brains since they were kids and respects his opinion, or because Nino Is Sex?
But turning back a bit, wasn’t Elena’s marriage to Pietro also a savvy career move? In exchange for tolerating an unexciting husband, Elena gained access to a volunteer literary PR person in his well-connected mother Adele. It’s not just that the marriage gives Elena a path out of her class, city, and neighborhood of origin. It’s also, more specifically, that Adele builds the path for Elena to have a writing career, first as a novelist, then as a reporter.
And maybe that’s what makes the Neapolitan novels so wonderful, apart from the obvious (that is, the combination of a sweeping portrait of society and intricate portrayals of the moment-by-moment emotional lives of the characters). Desires – for artistic achievement, material comfort, sex – exist in unpredictable, intertwined ways.
Yes, one can do the political discussion and talk about how the book is – among so many other things – a powerful refutation of the idea that it’s possible to for class struggle not to take gender into account. But it would be a mistake to reduce the book to a political manifesto, or, conversely, to believe that the strongest political points come from works with obvious political intent.