Public Books

FERRANTE’S SECRET MIRROR

6.7.2017

by Franco Baldasso

Last fall’s noisy dispute around Elena Ferrante’s biographical identity ignited a wealth of contrasting yet instructive reactions. Whether troubled or newly admiring or indifferent to the apparent divergences between the empirical author’s life and that of her character Elena Greco, readers and critics did not venture to question the assumed existential parallel between the two. The books themselves, along with their marketing materials, quite clearly encourage it. But what if the alleged correspondence between Elena Ferrante and Elena Greco were just a diversion? What if the characteristics we identify in the latter, and implicitly attribute to the former, were only a carnival mirror shielding a deeper but less obvious commonality, the one between Ferrante and the brilliant friend herself, Lila Cerullo: namely, the unbearable loss of their presence?

The formulation and answering of this question was greatly assisted by the publication, in the same season, of Ferrante’s first work of nonfiction, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. Thanks to the scattered pieces comprising the collection—interviews, unsent letters to critics and readers, pages expunged from the author’s novels—we can further appreciate the author’s intellectual prowess and talent as a storyteller by measuring not only the affinities, but also the distance, between her and the character who shares her first name. The carnival mirror emerges from Frantumaglia quite cracked, yet it is through such minute gaps that one of the underlying themes of all of Ferrante’s work becomes visible.

From the opening pages of My Brilliant Friend, the story told by Elena Greco is haunted by the loss of Lila Cerullo. The loss finds full narrative disclosure only in the fourth installment of the cycle, Story of the Lost Child, with an uncanny doubling, as both Lila and her daughter abandon the scene with hardly a trace. In fact, Lila consciously erases any remnant of her existence; she decides to disappear, choosing an autonomous destiny that ambiguously overlaps with the fate of the entire city in which she has been living—and struggling—her whole life. At the end of the Neapolitan Quartet, the boundaries of Lila’s character lose their edges and seemingly overlap with the contours of Naples, a city that is obsessively present throughout the four books with its uncanny beauty, unrestrained violence, and blatant lack of social justice. Naples’s unresolved contradictions are before our very eyes throughout. Like Lila, the city offers no index, defies any conclusive description, blurs contours, and subtracts itself from external gaze. In the Quartet’s last pages, however, Naples’s obsessive presence fades away from our view; its countless voices, vigorous yet enervating, turn into a distant echo. In the same vein, Lila, with her disappearance, chooses absence over the courageous and stubborn presence that marked her life—at least as it was narrated by Elena Greco.

While Lila never leaves Naples, establishing the city’s contours as the ultimate extension of her vitality, her friend Elena chooses an utterly different path to establish her own presence. The Neapolitan Quartet is also the novel of Elena’s conquest of personal independence and her emancipation from the suffocating air of the rione, from the family-ism and gender inequality that the city of Naples epitomizes, like a Pandora’s box open to the bluest sky. Elena’s liberation from the restrictions of her city is hardly straightforward and never definitive. Exemplified by her tortuous relationship with her mother, Elena’s emancipation is an ongoing repudiation of her own origins, which runs parallel to and recurrently intermingles with Lila’s struggles. To be complete, however, Elena’s emancipation needs to transcend her origins and Naples’ very boundaries—and essentially free herself from Lila’s shadow. Instead of infighting and openly challenging the violent tensions of the rione, Elena will build and solidify her presence through assiduous work toward a radically different emancipation model. By becoming a public figure as a writer, she aims at the acquisition of literary authority and intellectual respectability, a status seemingly unharmed by the quarrels of her poor neighborhood. Nevertheless, Elena’s new role requires her subjugation to other dynamics, more opaque and no less pervasive: such as the commodification of intellectual labor in the literary market and media circus. Crucially, Lila might admire, envy, even misunderstand and aggrandize her friend’s intellectual authority, yet she grasps that such a path is not for her, as it would not allow her the continuous shift of direction that best characterizes her life and exuberant vitality. To the novels’ characters and readers alike, Lila’s charisma and gravitational power lie in her creative resistance, in her obstinate refusal to accept subjugation of any sort. Her strange magnetism derives from her unique noncompliance to any steady configuration, or, to borrow a key term from Italian contemporary philosophy’s biopolitical debate, to any stable “form-of-life.”1

ELENA GRECO’S STORY SEEMS TO MIRROR ELENA FERRANTE’S EXPERIENCE. YET FERRANTE IS NOT THERE. INSTEAD, SHE HAS CHOSEN LILA’S PATH.

“A story begins when, one after another, our borders collapse,” Ferrante writes in Frantumaglia. It could be a perfect motto for Lila. Like the eccentric protagonists of Luigi Pirandello’s groundbreaking play Six Characters in Search of an Author, Lila refuses to be a character fixed once and for all. By withstanding subjugation, she preserves the constitutional fluidity of her life, culminating in her choice to disappear. Remarkably, Elena Greco’s story of their friendship begins only after all the borders have collapsed. Lila’s story can start because of her attempt at self-erasure, the final sign of her unyielding commitment to otherness. “The disappearance of women,” Ferrante argues, “should be interpreted not only as giving up the fight against the violence of the world but also as clear rejection. 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.”

For Elena, instead, writing Lila’s story and their decades-long relationship is something akin to casting a spell, maybe even to conducting an exorcism. It is a form of magic she has been training for her entire life. Elena encapsulates her friend’s irresistible vitality in a character, so as to control her haunting presence—in a phase of her existence when ghosts from the past are more pressing than real people. And yet this exorcism is not the confession of a failure, but the beginning of a journey: “a writer’s journey,” as in Frantumaglia’s subtitle. Such a journey is not Lila’s anymore; it is only Elena’s.

It is precisely when Elena Greco emerges as a public figure that the assumed existential parallel between her and Elena Ferrante proves to be misleading. Through her writing talent, Elena Greco resolves to become a public persona. She sets out to fight her personal battles by following an intellectual model intimately connected to so many of the glories and delusions of the 20th century. She chooses impegno (engagement)—a form of intellectual commitment to present time—which distinguished the lives and works of numerous left-wing Western European writers in the postwar period, alongside the widely popular theories of Marxist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Antonio Gramsci. Although in different ways, the two philosophers argue for the necessary conjunction of intellectual responsibility with political action. In fact, the debate over the intellettuale impegnato (engaged intellectual) is a conspicuous component of postwar cultural, intellectual, and political history in France and Italy, and it is only partially comparable to the Anglo-American concept of “public intellectual.” In Italy, the intellettuale impegnato was clearly linked to the Communist Party and, to a minor extent, the Socialist Party. The space and impact this model had in Italian civil society had no correspondence in English-speaking countries. For the majority of postwar intellectuals in Italy, the Communist party represented the only alternative to the restoration of conservative forces after World War II.

Many of the Quartet’s characters strive to approximate this model with their public actions and personal behavior, each of them in highly idiosyncratic ways. Elena Greco’s Neapolitan teachers, her boyfriend Franco along with other students at the Scuola Normale di Pisa (Italy’s equivalent to Harvard), the entourage of academic excellence and intellectual prestige constituting Pietro’s family (which backs Elena once she marries him), and even the infamous Nino: all get personally involved in this political season. Pietro embodies the crisis of this intellectual model and Nino its progressive corruption, as they both equally steer clear of a real confrontation with the previous generation’s responsibility. As it historically appeared in Italy, the intellettuale impegnato is predominantly a male model, not without narcissistic connotations. Yet Elena initially embraces it in her personal battle to excel, to find a suitable position in a field barely accessible to women, which eventually enables her to articulate original views and gain an intellectual credibility that are fully her own.

In fact, Elena’s feminism is not ideologically predetermined; its acquisition does not have the trajectory of a destiny. She is no stock character, for she elaborates her individual ideas on gender inequality partly by emulation of other characters, female and male alike, partly by reflections on her own experience. As Ferrante is at pains to explain in Frantumaglia, “Every woman novelist, as with women in many other fields, should aim at being not only the best woman novelist but the best of the most skilled practitioners of literature, whether male or female. To do so we have to avoid every ideological conformity, every false show of thought, every adherence to a party line or canon.” Like her male counter-models and the men of her life, Elena’s struggle is not devoid of narcissistic undertones either. It is not by chance that in the Neapolitan Quartet, Elena’s anxieties to live up to the many expectations that her public persona implies often overwhelm her and recurrently take central stage.

Elena Ferrante’s own choice in this regard is precisely the opposite. Nowhere does she put it more clearly than in her 2014 New York Times interview, collected in Frantumaglia: “I didn’t choose anonymity; the books are signed. Instead, I chose absence. … This choice created a small polemic in the media, whose logic is aimed at inventing protagonists while ignoring the quality of the work, so that it seems natural that bad or mediocre books by someone who has a reputation in the media deserve more attention than books that might be of higher quality but were written by someone who is no one.” Still, this decision has a history: from this angle, the disparate pieces collected in Frantumaglia can be read as the intellectual history of Ferrante’s choice of public “absence,” to abandon the stage—or rather, to desert TV studios—and let her works speak instead of her. Through her “absence,” Ferrante questions both the commodification of intellectual engagement as a media event and its debased, male-dominated forms.

Ferrante’s self-effacement continues with the very title of her first nonfiction book. “Frantumaglia” is an untranslatable word that Ferrante claims she owes to her mother’s personal version of Neapolitan dialect. It literally means “a jumble of fragments,” which she describes as a precondition of her writing. Publishing dates, the only guiding criterion of this disparate volume, chart the emerging intellectual stature of Ferrante over the past 25 years, along with her literary achievements, the resounding noise triggered by her personal withdrawal from the media circus, and all the hype surrounding her global success. Present in all the interviews included in Frantumaglia are the obligatory questions that journalists ask Ferrante regarding her real identity. Her decision to let her books speak for themselves—with no interference from their author’s biography—is supported by literary and personal reasons, which are stated throughout the volume. Ferrante’s most articulated response, however, is to be found in the dialogue with her editors first published in The Paris Review in the spring of 2015. Her provisional conclusion on this pivotal issue, which might have appeared not too long ago as a relic of old-fashioned literary snobism, looks politically timely today: “I’m still very interested in testifying against the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media. The demand for self-promotion not only diminishes the role of the works in every possible sector of human activity; it now rules everything.”

Ferrante’s decision to desert the public sphere allowed her to pursue otherwise unviable narrative possibilities. Unlike her character Elena Greco, she avoided concentrating on the public construction of her figure as an author, exploring instead an alternative mode of communication with the reading public based on writing alone. Her absence is both a story of self-education and a form of resistance to subjugation by any model imposed from the outside—a path that echoes that of her character Lila. In a 2014 interview for the Italian daily La Repubblica, Ferrante claims: “It’s not a small thing to write knowing that you can orchestrate for readers not only a story, characters, feelings, landscapes but the very figure of the author, the most genuine figure, because it’s created from writing alone, from the pure technical exploration of a possibility.”

FERRANTE RELUCTANTLY ADMITS, “I LOVE LILA MORE, BUT ONLY BECAUSE SHE FORCED ME TO WORK VERY HARD.”

Because of the unique space of creative freedom Ferrante has carved for herself, Frantumaglia’s subtitle—A Writer’s Journey—bears only partial witness to the complexity of Ferrante’s choice of absence. Yet this subtitle openly reinforces the impression that her path overlaps with Elena Greco’s. The impression of superimposition between author and character, however, was not a feature of the original 2003 version of the collection published in Italy, in which the dialectal term forming the title stands alone, with no subtitle. A more fitting description of Frantumaglia would instead be “autobiography of a character,” of a unique literary character called Elena Ferrante presented as the author of her novels, whom readers around the world have loved as possibly her own most fascinating and controversial literary creation.

Yet Ferrante’s authorial absence not only occasioned her literary experiments, the “pure technical explorations of a possibility,” it also became a generative force, one of the fundamental questions her novels address, each from its unique standpoint. With her narrative, Ferrante investigates the absence of the beloved person, in the terms analyzed above, not only from a psychological perspective, but also as an anthropological and somehow transhistorical category, without indulging in essentialisms of sorts. As a trigger for storytelling, absence defies literary and genre restrictions; the universality of this experience extends beyond the circumstantiated account of recent Italian history and social structures that constitute the setting and ambiance of Ferrante’s stories, as her international success attests.

Ferrante’s authorial absence found a correspondence in the very fabric of her stories, in a narrative device that is both highly idiosyncratic and universal. Her novels work through the mourning for an intimate loss—almost always that of a woman. From the elusive Amalia in Troubling Love, to the many lost daughters of her fiction, to the missing Lila at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante’s stories are occasioned by a disappearance, which leaves other characters bereft not just of a person they deeply loved, but of something essential they are unable to explain. This disappearance radically shatters everyday life as they always knew it. “Disappearance” in Ferrante is never an occasion for abstract philosophical speculation, but always features narrative contours and context. It acquires a profound literary necessity through the multilayered depiction of historical contingency—as in the case of postwar Naples for her Quartet. Disappearance signals the loss of the object of desire: embodied by a full-fledged character always exceeding its simple biography, ambiguously imposing its absence over the entire story.

Ferrante portrays her characters as both supremely realistic, in the long-standing tradition of the European novel, and as allegories of loss (the mother, the daughter, the brilliant friend), whose retrieval, or lack thereof, soon becomes other characters’ dominating obsession. In a certain sense, disappearance is the true moment when all the “borders collapse,” and in which her stories’ characters are born, as they are forced to enter in a new life’s cycle, a sort of rebirth. “The loss of love,” writes the author in an early piece published in Frantumaglia, “is the common experience closest to the myth of the expulsion from the earthly paradise.” In other words, it is through this loss, which Ferrante describes explicitly as a sottrazione (subtraction) that human history originates—not unlike in her own stories.

By disappearing, by erasing their traces and thus inflicting a more piercing loss, Ferrante’s characters, such as Lila in My Brilliant Friend or Amalia in Troubling Love, actively impose on others their choice for absence. The author narrates their choices as a subtraction, literally the action of taking away a quantity from another to obtain a difference. Their absence is synonymous with their difference: profoundly affecting, if not devastating, other characters’ existences, such as Lila’s lifetime friend Elena Greco or Amalia’s daughter Delia. It does not come as a surprise, then, that in Ferrante’s novels the narrators are not characters who impose their absence by disappearing, but the ones who have been abandoned. Elena and Delia’s mourning prompts the tales of their absent friend and mother, stories which uncomfortably turn into a creeping criticism of their own lives.

Ferrante’s authorial absence engages readers in a similar way. With a piercing irony, Ferrante distances herself from the Neapolitan Quartet’s narrator, Elena Greco, in the precise moment when the accord of the two voices seems most firm and well-defined. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, when Elena Greco glimpses for the first time her newly published novel in a book store’s window, she is truly unable to contain her trepidation: “But the effort of finding a form had absorbed me. And the absorption had become that book, an object that contained me. Now I was there, exposed, and seeing myself caused a violent pounding in my chest.” In the instant when Elena Greco follows in the footsteps of her author—describing the contrasting drives within her chest after seeing her novel in a bookstore—the character-narrator goes in exactly the opposite direction of Ferrante, resolving to become an intellettuale impegnato, a public figure. The story of Elena Greco’s engagement with her own times is a major plotline of the Quartet that grows in intensity and complexity, even beyond her choice to work for public recognition and visibility. Painful difficulties and contradictions between her private behavior and public pronouncements arise, especially in the last two novels. Elena Greco proudly chooses presence despite all the difficulties and personal setbacks, as one of the hallmarks of her literary and intellectual success. In so doing she embodies a model antithetical to the ethics of writing professed in Frantumaglia.

In the New York Times interview mentioned above, Ferrante claims: “Today what counts most for me is to preserve a creative space that seems full of possibilities, including technical ones. The structural absence of the author affects the writing in a way that I’d like to continue to explore.” Ferrante’s authorial absence was born decades ago as a polemical stance against the commodification of writing and life, countering a prescriptive intellectual environment that ultimately narrowed down women’s participation in the public sphere. Today it has become an unpredictable heuristic tool, acquiring persuasive cognitive penetration and unsettling literary force in her novels.

Ferrante’s absence multiplies the sense of bereavement at the center of her stories. It brings about a fictional short circuit with the narrative disappearance of characters she is creating out of writing alone, an idiosyncratic interaction that dismantles traditional literary dynamics that we as readers are used to accepting. By implicitly suggesting—but not forcing—readers to associate Elena Greco with her real persona, Ferrante highlights the ironic distance between her own nonconformist intellectual practice and her character’s urge to become a public figure. Readers, encouraged by Ferrante to empathize with Elena Greco’s search for Lila, experience the character’s confrontational relationship with her brilliant friend. They not only endure the pain of Lila’s disappearance, but also undergo Elena’s anxieties to live up to the difficult standards set by Lila with her uncompromising difference, the radical resistance to subjugation which best describes her. Readers are supported in this feat by the impression that they are not alone in this troubling quest, as Elena Greco’s story mirrors Elena Ferrante’s experience. Yet Ferrante is not there with them. Instead, she has chosen Lila’s path, challenging power dynamics—first of all, the burden of personal biography over her own writing—and leaving readers completely alone to confront Elena Greco’s ghosts.

In the Quartet, Ferrante resolutely refrains from taking sides between Elena and Lila. Still, in a Frantumaglia interview, she reluctantly admits, “I love Lila more, but only because she forced me to work very hard.” Ferrante’s preference for absence turns into an artistic ethics, one which implicitly disavows the character that readers are led to take for an alter ego. The kind of intellectual engagement Ferrante pursues aligns her instead with Lila’s path: the intransigent resistance to the gaze of the other, to the economics and power dynamics shaping lives—female or male alike—through forced self-promotion. As it is for her character Lila, Ferrante’s “I’m not here” means at the same time, “I don’t want to.” icon

  1. For a compelling inquiry into the concept of “life” and its biopolitical consequences (seen as fundamental to the Italian philosophical tradition, though in a different manner than for other strands of continental philosophy), see Roberto Esposito, Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy (Stanford University Press, 2012).

LitHub

WHERE ARE THE GREAT ITALIAN WOMEN WRITERS?

JEANNE BONNER VISITS THE SALONE DEL LIBRO TO LOOK BEYOND FERRANTE

June 7, 2017  By Jeanne Bonner

Long before arriving this month at the Salone del Libro, an annual book fair in Turin that’s Italy’s largest, I was asking myself this question: where are the great Italian women writers?

I’ve been reading Italian fiction for two decades but this particular question has motivated much of my reading since I discovered Elena Ferrante, the author of The Days of Abandonment and the Neapolitan series of books, beginning with My Brilliant Friend. Her emergence, for me, was like a wakeup call, particularly since she’s created female characters who seethe with ambition, anger and longing. Women with wandering, industrious minds who choose their sexual partners with abandon. Yes!

I want to find more of these female characters, which are particularly well-wrought when created by a woman. So where are the great Italian female writers, doing justice to this topic and genre, and countless others?

Well, in fact, there are many fine Italian women writing fiction and nonfiction today. But other than la Ferrante, few of them appeared on Italian best-of lists at the end of last year or roundups of up-and-coming authors. I know—I scoured the year-end best-of lists, the mid-year versions and a few other lists, too. I also thumbed through suggestions on services like Audible.

Italian women writers, of course, do emerge from these searches—but they never constitute the majority of the writers suggested, or even simply half. Perhaps it sounds like a pedestrian observation or a problem well-known to everyone. But I’m reminded of political protest signs I’ve seen this year: We’re still dealing with this?

It bears mentioning that best-of lists often have currency only within a clubby world of type-A literary folks who keep score on everything.

Yet such lists are a mirror for any society (they also constitute a handy guide for readers and serve as primers for book fairs—more about this shortly). And it is telling that a few of the lists of top Italian books of the year, or recommended reading for the summer, include no women at all!

To wit, the cultural magazine Panorama, one of Italy’s largest weeklies, published a list earlier this year of the ten best Italian novels of the 21st century so far, and included a single woman: Michela Murgia’s Accabadora.

While women are mentioned prominently in places like the magazine Il Libraio and the blog Sul Romanzo, in most roundups, best on best, you’ll find three out of ten spots going to Italian women authors (and sometimes the lists are mixed with foreign authors—notably, foreign women authors at times fare better than Italian women). On its website, the giant publisher Italian Mondadori, for example, includes Simonetta Agnello Hornby and Margaret Mazzantini on a list of top contemporary Italian authors, in addition to Ferrante.

(The same math is at work in this year’s Strega competition, in which three individual women have cracked the list of twelve finalists, including author Wanda Marasco; a fourth woman, who is a co-author, has also been nominated).

This phenomenon is unsettling because the question behind these lists wasn’t how many copies of the books were sold, but which were the best? After all, even prominent male authors of literary fiction and nonfiction sell poorly, reflecting the market’s taste.

Read more

The New York Times

Elena Ferrante on ‘My Brilliant Friend’ Moving to the Screen

I contacted the author Elena Ferrante, who chooses to remain anonymous and publish under a pseudonym, for a story I wrote for The Times about a citywide casting call for children in Naples to fill the starring roles in a mini-series based on her hit novel “My Brilliant Friend.”

Ms. Ferrante missed deadline by a good few days, but nevertheless the author had worthwhile thoughts. Below are her answers about what it’s like for a writer to have their major work adapted to the screen, to have regular kids incarnating her characters, how much she contributes to the production and whether she thinks the show will take off like “Game of Thrones.”

The first thing I’d like to know is what it feels like to have all these young kids in Naples, many from really disadvantaged sections of the city, lining up in the hopes of being Lila and Lenù? Obviously the books have had great acclaim, but I wonder what thoughts and feelings it evokes in you to actually have the works entering the lives of kids not so dissimilar to the ones you described.

For me it was a radical change. The characters, the neighborhood are all created from words, and yet they move from literature to the screen. They leave the world of readers and enter into the much more vast world of spectators, they meet people who have never read about them and people who, for social circumstances or by choice, would never read about them. It’s a process that intrigues me. The substance of the books is reworked according to other rules and other priorities, and it changes nature. The kids themselves who show up at the auditions are the first sign of this. They know little or nothing about books. They are spectators who hope to become actors, either for play or a shot at deliverance.

You’ve clearly described the characters, and the casting director, director and producers all have a clear idea of what they are looking for based on your descriptions. And they think that kids who have grown up in tough environments are best to convey the spirit of those kids. What do you think? Would you also rather have non-actors playing the roles (there is some risk there!) or would you prefer more practiced child actors?

Child actors portray children as adults imagine children to be. Children who are not actors have some chance to break free of the stereotype, especially if the director is able to find the right balance between truth and fiction.

A lot of these kids, frankly, have never heard of Elena Ferrante or the Neapolitan novels. Most of them have visions of TV stardom dancing in their heads. Are you, someone who has studiously avoided the stardom track, worried that the hysteria around the auditions could fuel the celebrity obsession so many young people now have?

They are children who take their lead from the myths of cinema, of television, definitely not those of the written word. They want to be on screen, to be center stage, to become stars, and this is not their fault — it’s the air breathed in the adult world and, as a result, in theirs. To be part of television today is one of the most powerful aspirations of the masses, and anyone, poor or well off, considers it an extraordinary opportunity. Across all the social classes, poor and rich, cultured and uncultured.

On the flip side, do you feel like this is an opportunity to introduce kids, many of them disadvantaged, to the joys of reading? I don’t mean just reading your books, but getting them interested in books in general.

Naturally, I hope that happens. But the opportunity we are talking about has little, if anything, to do with reading. Children are there to be part of show business, and that’s it. That doesn’t mean that some of them won’t discover that this all started with a book; that behind the world of show business, with its many moving parts and conspicuous cash flow, there always is, albeit in a subservient position, the evocative power of writing and reading.

What is your hope for this production as far as its impact on Naples and its image in the world, especially after the unflattering depictions in the movie and popular television show “Gomorrah”?

Cities don’t have their own energy. It derives from the density of their history, from the power of their literature and arts, of the emotional richness of human events that take place against that background. I hope that the visual storytelling will stir authentic emotions — complex and even contradictory sentiments. This is what makes us fall in love with cities.

Do you want to sign off on the children before they are officially cast? Do you want to make sure that they are true to your vision?

I don’t have this skill set. Sure, I’d very much like to weigh in, but I would do it cautiously and knowing that it is useless to say, “Lila has little or nothing to do with that body, that face, that gaze, that way of moving,” etc. No real person will ever match the image that I or a reader have in our minds. This is because the written word, of course, defines but by nature leaves much to reader’s imagination. The visual image instead shrinks those margins. It is destined to always leave out something that the words inspire — something that always matters.

What has your involvement been with the production? The director and producers told me you send notes on the script, and have helped them design the set out near Caserta. What do you want the set to look like?

The neighborhood is a composite of different places in Naples that I know well. That’s always the case when I write, both with people or things. I don’t know what will happen on the screen. For now, my contribution to the set design is limited to a few notes on whether they look right. As far as the collaboration on the script, I don’t write, I don’t have the technical skills to do it, but I am reading the texts and send detailed notes. I still don’t know if they will take them into account. It is very likely that my notes will be used later on, in the writing of the final draft.

They have also told me that you imagine the show visually as a fairy tale, that they shouldn’t be scared to go beyond the book and depict villains as monsters, etc. How faithful do you want them to be to the novels?

No, no, it is a realistic tale. It is childhood that is colored by elements of the fantastic, and surely Lila is too. As far as faithfulness to the book, I expect a faithfulness compatible with the needs of visual storytelling, which uses different means than writing to obtain the same effects.

And lastly, HBO is involved in the production. Do you hope, or maybe fear, that this becomes the next global phenomenon, Italy’s “Game of Thrones”?

Unfortunately, “My Brilliant Friend” doesn’t provide the same kind of plot points.

The New York Times

Saudi Arabia, Theresa May, Elena Ferrante: Your Friday Briefing 

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.”

The New York Times

A Casting Call in Naples Lets Children Dream, if for a Day

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.

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The Paris Review

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

 

By

Matteo Pericoli is the founder of the Laboratory of Literary Architecture, an interdisciplinary project that looks at fiction through the lens of architecture, designing and building stories as architectural projects. In this series, he shares some of his designs and what they reveal about the stories they’re modeled on.

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.

The Aspen Institute

Why Readers Love Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

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.

The New York Times

Elena Ferrante Series Coming to HBO

Variety

HBO, Rai to Adapt Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ as Drama Series

Nick Vivarelli

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.

Berkeley Bacon

Mysterious novelist chronicles femininity, independence

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.”

Evening Standard

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

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.

 

Evening Standard

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

JESSIE THOMPSON

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.

my-brilliant-friend.jpg
Catherine McCormack and Niamh Cusack in My Brilliant Friend (Marc Brenner)

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?

Novels. Galleries.

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?

Litro

A Play To Devour: My Brilliant Friend At The Rose Theatre, Kingston

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.

The Observer

My Brilliant Friend review – intensity wins through

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.

The Telegraph

My Brilliant Friend: a fleet, sleek adaptation of Ferrante’s novels – review

My Brilliant Friend
Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack in ‘My Brilliant Friend’ CREDIT: MARC BRENNER

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.

My Brilliant Friend
Catherine McCormack as Lila CREDIT: MARC BRENNER

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.

My Brilliant Friend
A scene from ‘My Brilliant Friend’ CREDIT: MARC BRENNER

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.