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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.”