The Spectator

ARTS FEATURE

How on earth do you put 1,600 pages of Elena Ferrante on stage?

Laura Freeman talks to Melly Still and April De Angelis about their adaptation of the Neapolitan quartet for the Rose Theatre Kingston. Will Ferrante fangirls approve?

Reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet is a heady experience. You not only see, hear, know her characters — you can almost taste them. The villain of the first of the four books, which follow the friendship of mercurial Lila and striving Lenù from childhood into their sixties, is Don Achille, an ‘ogre’ who sweats the smells of ‘salami, provolone, mortadella, lardo and prosciutto’. Lila herself, always wriggling free of the nets of others, is ‘skinny, like a salted anchovy’. Nino, loved by both Lila and Lenù, is ‘an anomalous, sweet fruit’. Naples itself, the backdrop to the books, acting as a succubus, pulling the characters back when they try to escape, stinks of the exhaust from Fiat cars, the roasted almonds of the street sellers, fried pizza from the cafés.

How do you put all that on stage? On the page, on the nearly 1,600 pages of My Brilliant Friend (childhood), The Story of a New Name (adolescence), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (young married life), and The Story of the Lost Child (maturity, success, bereavement), you lose yourself in Lenù and Lila, in six decades of slights, quarrels and alliances, triumph and betrayal, vendetta and omertà, feuds and petty hair-pulling. Can you do all that in just four acts over two evenings?

‘When you initially set it out like that,’ says Melly Still, director of the first theatre adaptation of Ferrante’s novels, ‘it doesn’t seem as if it’s possible. There’s this strange, wonderful experience, which I think is particular to reading. It becomes personal and consummate.

‘The role of theatre is very different, because you can’t put the novels on stage. A big long mini-series — a Netflix series — could do that. You can really explore all the detail. Theatre has a different role, somehow distilling the experience of reading. Of course you end up losing some of the characters who you’ve grown to know and love, but once you do that, you exist in a distilled Ferrante world.’

Knowing and loving — that’s the other challenge of Ferrante. Her readers are fangirls — and they are almost all female — of the most fanatical stripe. There was a period a year ago when I was the only one of my girlfriends not to have read Ferrante. You must read her, they said. You cannot understand friendship, love, what it is to be a woman until you’ve read her. I thought they were being absurd, knew I wouldn’t like the books with their syrupy beach-holiday covers. Lenù, a published novelist by the third book, makes a joke about ‘ugly’ covers with ‘women in black dresses… laundry hung out to dry’. Then I read the first book, with an attitude of give-it-a-go-give-up-when-I’m-bored, and kept on in a greedy, unstoppable rush, all four books in eight days.

Now, I am protective of my characters. Is Niamh Cusack (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Northern Lights, the RSC) right for Lenù? Can Catherine McCormack (Sherlock, Life in Squares) do justice to the untameable, detestable, irresistible Lila?

Melly Still knows the syndrome. ‘I was always reluctant to see Wolf Hall on stage or television. You can’t replace the novels. It’s about an interpretation, making them plays in themselves.’ Wolf Hall is one precedent, Harry Potter another. Still went to see the two-part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as she worked on My Brilliant Friend. The difference is that while everyone in the Harry Potter audience ‘will know everything, will have read every book and seen every film’, there’s no Ferrante franchise, no Lego, no theme park, no tweeting J.K. Rowling. Her books may have been sold in 40 countries, more than 1.2 million copies in the US alone, but Elena Ferrante is an enigma, her name a pseudonym. Interviews are granted rarely and then only by email. She has explained her reasons for refusing publicity: ‘I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it.’

Last October, however, she was ignobly ‘unmasked’ as Rome-based editor and translator Anita Raja by investigative journalist Claudio Gatti who sold his story to the Italian newspaper Il Sole, the New York Review of Books, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the French website Mediapart. It was an ungentlemanly ambush. April De Angelis, who has adapted the books for stage, says: ‘He’s an arse, isn’t he? It’s an artistic act, an artistic gesture not to be known. Not being a commodity. The books may be bought and sold, but she doesn’t have to be.’

‘It is invasive,’ says Still. ‘One of the reasons Ferrante wanted to remain anonymous was that she wanted to write in that candid and uncensored and forensic way.’

Since the Gatti revelations, Raja has made no comment and no public appearance. In Frantumaglia, a collection of her non-fiction writing, Ferrante insists that characters matter more than their author: ‘Even Tolstoy is an insignificant shadow if he takes a stroll with Anna Karenina.’

Of all the characters, I found Nino, liar, egoist, philanderer that he is, the most compelling. De Angelis agrees: ‘Nino is educated — rather, he’s trying to become educated, which is even more charming. He loves books. So everyone reading the book is going to love Nino because they love books too.’

‘And he’s also played by a really gorgeous actor [he is — I saw him arrive for rehearsal], so it’s very easy to find him really charming. Which I think you’re supposed to. Otherwise your main characters, your heroines, are idiots for loving him.’

Still decided early on that there would be no Just-One-Cornetto Italian accents. A recent BBC Radio 4 adaptation had the characters as Mancunians, Manchester standing in for Naples. But De Angelis has allowed the actors to speak in their own voices. ‘There’s something really weird about masking your voice. If you’re Irish, having to speak in RP or then cockney.’ When they’re speaking neighbourhood dialect the script, says Still, is ‘more direct, more coarse, more crude, more colloquial’. When it’s classical Italian, the script is richer, more rhetorical.

In 2005, when the Italian director Roberto Faenza made a film of Ferrante’s early novel The Days of Abandonment, she gave notes on the script by email. Did De Angelis hear from Ferrante?

‘I got one thing back. Ferrante had to read the first draft. She said: “Fine.” But she had one note which was: “Be careful not to be too oneiric.” It’s such a brilliant word. I thought: “Oh my god, look, this is a word, a real Ferrante word.” And that’s the only thing I’ve ever heard.’

Ferrante’s editor, Maurizio Dell’Orso, has sat in on rehearsals, relaying news back to Rome. ‘I’ve had this sense,’ says Still, ‘of a person very, very aware of our daily activity… But maybe she’s doesn’t know? Maybe she doesn’t give a damn? I really don’t know. We really don’t know. We have no idea.’

My Brilliant Friend Parts 1 & 2 is at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 2 April. The Neapolitan quartet is published by Europa Editions.

Bookanista

A total portrait of the artist as an absence

by Mika Provata-Carlone

Elena Ferrante is traditional in the most radical, boundary-dissolving ways; conventional with subversive fervour and delicately powerful talent. In Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey she proves above all the invincible strength of her authorial translucence, the rock-solid presence of her so-called anonymity, which she invariably corrects as being a determined gesture of absence.

The word frantumaglia, we are told, belongs to her mother, a dressmaker, and comes from that maternal world of tattered fabrics, frayed hems, unravelling stitches, matted skeins and tangled bobbins. It is a passe-partout term to encapsulate female suffering, its cobweb of existential angst that is inarticulate as well as unspeakable. “The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause.” Bursting with the ineluctable impetus of dialect, frantu derives from frantumare, to shatter, shiver, smash, crush; maglia is a knitted jumper, a jersey, as well as a knitter’s stitch, secured or dropped (see Erasures). It is an image that conjures up a certain ethereality, a metaphor of evanescence and mystical transparency, of life as an elusive aurora borealis of words and stories, but also an allegory of the tactility and permanence of traumas, of the salvaging, re-patching process that is, inevitably, at the heart of all reconstruction, recollection and perhaps narrative itself.

Yet this self-proclaimed collection of ‘fragments’ is anything but fragmentary or precarious, gossamer-thin or spurious. Nor is there anything tangled or disorderly about it, even if many of the statements by Ferrante or her vicarious interlocutors may appear anarchic and defiant. To pursue the dressmaking metaphor a step further, this is more like wool-felting than unpicking, a process which will result in a dense fabric of stories, laboriously and expertly welding together yarns of memory and the strands of the past.

There is an irresistible mystique about this intensely intimate, personal collection, and Ferrante’s voice often has the timbre of a lover and not just of a correspondent, an essayist or diarist. For all her assertions that she will not burden her books (or this epistolary miscellany of thoughts and conversations) with her presence as their writer, the friction and tension between creator and creature, as well as the connective umbilical cord, is constant, tantalising, something Ferrante has also explored extensively in her fiction. Frantumaglia is, in a way, the geography of an uncharted life, the cartography of a human terra incognita, which promises dazzling light on the absolute premise of an indissoluble and cryptic darkness.

One gets a distinct sense of Ferrante as a mystic, a Pythia-like figure holding on to a holy as well as terrifying trance, which alone will engender and enable that ultimate vital process, writing.”

Ferrante not only responds to but also piercingly questions her interviewers, and this often reveals both what she has called “a somewhat neurotic desire for intangibility”, but also a latent, yet dominant, demand to be discovered and sought after, a yearning for an almost virginal admiration. She is hounding and charming, enchanting in her persistence that detail is of supreme importance, exuding a seductive grande dame aura, vivacious and eccentric, a rebel who refuses to relinquish absolute control over her work. One gets a distinct sense of Ferrante as a mystic, a Pythia-like figure holding on to a holy as well as terrifying trance, which alone will engender and enable that ultimate vital process, writing.

Brilliant_Friend_290What seeps indirectly though the lines is a non-desire of detachment, a refusal to abandon what is in fact a very intimate, total relationship with her texts, evinced in the difficulty she admits to regarding the reading of scripts that are born out of her novels, and the meticulously exhaustive, almost exegetic engagement that ensues. In contrast to her emphasis on anonymity, it often feels as though Ferrante is anxious to guarantee the scope and conditions of a very precise ‘Ferrante philology’. And bizarrely enough, this does not seem like a contradiction, but as a natural extension and development of her authorial presence and identity. One could be tempted to say that there is nothing authentic about this very intense, de profundis, almost obsessive commitment to writing, to discoursing on the themes of literature and readership, the human self and the psyche, that it is a brilliant, magnificently erected construct to house Ferrante’s omnipresent, evasive persona. And yet it feels alive with a fundamental genuineness and truth. Were Ferrante to reveal all, perhaps this is how she would speak.

A curious but not unexpected feature of this book is that it is pre-empted by an explanatory note by Ferrante’s publishers, Sandra Ozzola and her husband Sandro Ferri, affirming that the authorial deliberation and initiative, perhaps even the authorship, should be firmly delegated back to them as editors, collectors, arbiters of these extra-authorial writings. Ferrante is confirmed as a real person with private thoughts, with scattered scribblings on the flotsam and jetsam of the mind and of consciousness, with a correspondence – i.e. a bilateral relationship with equally real others – rather than existing only in an ingenious, inimitable and groundbreaking monologue; at the same time, she is preserved behind veils that diffuse all that is private, so that the balance between the genuinely personal and the insularly individual becomes a feat but also a challenge, an aporia for the reader, and, one feels, ultimately also for the writer herself. The game of peering through these veils, through light and shadows, to a corporeal as well as spiritual life, the numerous titillating glimpses of a real centre of being, are not an unpleasant experiment, on the contrary the experience is mesmeric, absorbing, provocative and thought-provoking. Does it matter whether literary judges will ever be able to pronounce a verdict at this court of ‘authenticity’, where purported letters to the editors become purloined excuses for languorous peregrinations into the furthest recesses of interiority? Part invention of resplendent sincerity, part crystalline distillation of a singular voice, Frantumaglia emerges as yet another heteronym full of the elusive whole.

Except perhaps for Thomas Woolfe’s long-suffering, brilliant editor Maxwell Perkins, who also had to care for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, few publishers have had to nurture and at the same time shield such talent as that of Ferrante. Since the publication of her first novel, the Ferris have been embroiled in a suspense novel of their own, a novel of infinite complexity and complications, as Ferrante herself acknowledges repeatedly, indulgently, unequivocally. Sweeping aside the manifold conspiracy theories about Ferrante’s identity or non-identity, they have collected letters to her publishers and readers, any interviews given or conceived of, they have retrieved a remarkable body of unusual drafts (begging several obvious questions), and put together a constellation of responses, creating, quite literally, a fully controlled archive for future academic research.

How much editorial intervention has gone into the final presentation of this material is unknown, yet the addressees, irrespective of whether they were, in point of fact, addressed at all in the end, are certainly real, remaining staunchly undaunted by silence. What emerges is a veritable anthology of reflections, guttural reactions, urgently pressing wisdom, throbbing contributions to the question of what is literature, why we write or read, how stories shape reality and how truth is only possible in fiction; we are given a resounding apologia for a genuine female voice, or what Ferrante calls a “literary genealogy of their own”. Frantumaglia is the ultimate treat for Ferrante devotees, but also a rare delight for those who feel that literature is a vital, living gesture. Ultimately, it is a bold quest after absolutes, for the “space of absolute creative freedom.”

Ferrante shows a piercing shrewdness about politics, literature, art, life, all that provides her with a sharper lens for a more sincere and more pugnacious gaze upon reality.”

Intriguingly, it is not merely a mosaic of philosophical meditations: it is also, and unabashedly, a treasure-trove of the sort of biographical anchorage we have been denied all along, for all the caveat of Calvino’s declaration, “ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth, of that you can be sure.” By the end of Frantumaglia we have learned all this, which may be true, or a very elegant, flawless, infinitely human and magnificent fabric of true lies: Elena Ferrante grew up near Secondigliano, a suburb in the north of Naples. Her father was “jealous of the possible” and her mother was very beautiful, cantankerous, a dressmaker of great creative vitality. Ferrante had a cat, which was taken away from her, and she lived in many rented houses as a child. She fled Naples and lived in Greece for a time. Contrary to popular belief, she has never been in analysis or trained in any relative field. She has a degree in classical literature, and describes her professional world as follows: apart from writing, “I study, I translate, I teach.” She rejects any feminist label: “to assert I have a feminist mindset seems to me exaggerated.” She likes smells, especially of “creams, of lipsticks, a smell of sugared almonds.” Above all, “I have a life I consider satisfying, both on the private and on the public level.” She is a mother of daughters, to whom she has promised not to be too much of an embarrassment – a promise she knows (like most mothers) that she will be unable to keep. She has read most of the feminist pioneers, is in awe of Elsa Morante, considers Chekhov, Walter Benjamin, Hans Christian Andersen, Karen Blixen, Melanie Klein, Federico Tozzi, Alba de Cespedes and Madame de La Fayette as some of her companions. She loves Virgil, especially the Aeneid, the tragedies of Sophocles and Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, but also sentimental stories in women’s magazines.

We learn that she “still [has] this childish wish for marvels, large or small”, that she “look[s] for ideas by running after words”, and that it takes her “many sentences, real, confusing, jumbled speeches, to arrive at an answer.” That she thinks of “writing now as a long, tiring, pleasant seduction”, aiming to “seize what lies silent in my depths, that living thing which, if captured, spreads through all the pages and gives them life.” For Ferrante, the central motive force in everything is love, lost, gained, nurtured or destroyed: “someone who takes love away from us devastates the cultural structure we’ve worked on all our lives, deprives us of that sort of Eden that until that moment had made us appear innocent and loveable.”

Frantumaglia is an irrepressible torrent of such revelations, intimations and declarations, and Ferrante shows a piercing shrewdness about politics, literature, art, life, all that provides her with a sharper lens for a more sincere and more pugnacious gaze upon reality. A simple reference can launch her into a bravado, often tongue-in-cheek, display of extraordinary sensitivity and erudition, whether it is an analysis of the third book of the Aeneid by way of Apollodorus’ Library, or the remark that “Bovary and Karenina are, in some ways, descendants of Dido and Medea.” This is a compulsive tome to relish, cherish and read with the leisure of slowness and humanity, a beautifully confessional chronicle of all that should matter in the life and mind of an artist.

 

Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia is published by Europa Editions, along with her novels The Days of Abandonment (2005), Troubling Love (2006), The Lost Daughter (2008), the Neapolitan quartet My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child (2012–2015) and the children’s picture book The Beach at Night (2016), illustrated by Mara Cerri. All are translated by Ann Goldstein.
Read more.
elenaferrante.com

My Brilliant Friend, a two-part stage adaptation of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet starring Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack, premiered at the Rose Theatre, Kingston on 25 February and continues to 2 April.
More info

Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.

The New York Times Book Review

By the Book – Chelsea Clinton

Which writers—novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets—working today do you admire most?

In addition to the other writers I talk about in this space, I deeply admire che work of Colson Whitehead; Hilary Mantel; Masha Gessen; Haruki Murakami; Andrei Makine; Margaret Atwood; Erik Larson; Lin-Manuel Miranda; Marilynne Robinson; Elena Ferrante; Julian Barnes; Ian McEwan; Anne Applebaum; Timothy Egan; and more. I also hope Gita Mehta writes again. (…)

Kwbu

Likely Stories: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

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 Korea Herald

Elena Ferrante’s neorealist novels translated into Korean

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 (joel@heraldcorp.com)

The Buffalo News

Editor’s Choice: Elena Ferrante’s ‘Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey’

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.”

Onlau

Rencontre avec Vincent Raynaud,
l’éditeur français de Elena Ferrante

« 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

Le Figaro

Et les plus gros vendeurs de romans en 2016 sont…

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.

» À lire: L’intégralité du palmarès du Figaro Premium

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.