Mystery author’s novels, soon to be turned into a TV series, put Italian city in the limelight
A mysterious author who writes under a pseudonym is helping reignite interest in Italy’s “most challenging” and anarchic city, which suddenly finds itself the focus of a new wave of tourism.
From the Camorra crime syndicate to the strikes by rubbish collectors, Naples has long had a reputation for being dangerous and dirty, but ever since the Neapolitan series of four novels by Elena Ferrante was published in English last year, the port has become a major destination for American and British enthusiasts alike. And these new visitors are as keen to explore the city’s working-class streets as the more traditional attractions of historic palaces and churches.
The author’s true identity is unknown, as she writes under a pseudonym, but her novels made it on to many literary critics’ must-read lists last year, with the final one in the series winning her a place on the shortlist for Italy’s top literary honour, the Strega prize. This month it was announced that a 32-part Italian television series of Ferrante’s stories is to be made, by the producers ofGomorrah, while two other authors already established in Italy, Domenico Starnone and Maurizio de Giovanni, are being published in English in the hope of riding the wave of fascination begun by Ferrante. Her novels showcase Naples with all its flaws, and the city becomes a character in its own right.
“Ferrante fever” is gathering pace in the city itself, as bookshops and restaurants boast of their connections to the four novels – which focus on two young women growing up in a poor neighbourhood, starting in the 1950s with My Brilliant Friend and concluding with The Story of the Lost Child.
“You cannot overestimate how much of an effect on tourism Ferrante is having – there are pizzerias making Ferrante pizzas,” said Daniela Petracco, head of the UK arm of Europa, the small publishing house that discovered the author. “It goes hand in hand with a renewed interest in Naples, which has never been considered an ‘easy’ destination.” The New York Times has run travel pieces such as “What to Do in Elena Ferrante’s Naples”, the books have been published in 39 countries, and the mystery around Ferrante’s identity has only fuelled interest in her city. Petracco says British sales have rocketed over the past few months. My Brilliant Friend has sold 300,000 copies in the UK and 800,000 in the US.
“What is unique about Naples is how it’s squashed together – the old aristocracy and palaces with the bleak working-class area. It’s really appealing to authors,” said Petracco. “With the Scandinavian trend, there was this similarity between the UK and Scandinavia; people see a different society but with common points. With Naples, those points are perhaps more about class and poverty.”
She claims there is a real shortage of “new working-class narratives” in contemporary literature in much of Europe, which could be why so many readers are drawn to Ferrante.
Naples, just north of the popular Amalfi coast, glowers at visitors, like the volcano of Vesuvius that overlooks it, but Neapolitan academic Dr Fabio Petito, now professor of international relations at Sussex University, said it was a mistake to bypass a city that generates feelings of both love and hate. “The Ferrante phenomenon is speaking less to the people who know the city than it is making the city’s true character known,” he said. “There is a secret kept by those who love Naples, a fascination with this place that people pass by to get to Pompeii or Capri.”
But he added that visitors needed “a spirit of willingness” to appreciate it. “It’s not an easy place to live, with the highest rates of crime and unemployment in Europe,” said Petito. “Yet it’s very authentic. You can see this 14th-century building where poor people live and then you enter a small church next door and there is a Caravaggio or a Titian on the wall.”
Anyone enjoying Naples for the first time via Ferrante’s books could walk past the author without knowing. Even Petracco says she doesn’t know the identity of Ferrante. “We live very much in a time where authors are required to be rock stars, but it’s a solitary profession taken up by people who are very brilliant but can be a bit weird,” she said. “So it’s nice that someone like Elena instinctively made the decision that being public was just something she did not want, especially in Italy, where there can be a lot of academic rows over a work’s value.”
For fans of Ferrante, a visit to Naples remains the closest they will get to their favourite author.