The Neapolitan Quartet – Book One
Translated by Ann Goldstein
2012, pp. 336, Paperback
$ 18.00 / £ 10.99
A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Elena Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila. Ferrante is the author of three previous works of critically acclaimed fiction: The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, and The Lost Daughter. With this novel, the first in a quartet, she proves herself to be one of Italy’s great storytellers. She has given her readers a masterfully plotted page-turner, abundant and generous in its narrative details and characterizations, that is also a stylish work of literary fiction destined to delight her many fans and win new readers to her fiction.
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My Brilliant Friend, theatre review: Ambitious, satisfying attempt to realise Elena Ferrante’s world
April De Angelis condenses 1,600 pages into two plays but it’s still an epic experience, writes Henry Hitchings
Elena Ferrante’s four richly personal Neapolitan novels have won her legions of admirers. Eloquent about the power of memory, they’re an addictive portrait of friendship at its most intense. The central characters, Lenù and Lila, are often apart, but their destinies are intricately connected. Beginning in the Fifties, amid poverty and violence, their relationship is explosive, involving joy and betrayal, and outside forces — whether fascism or family rivalry — are constantly impinging on their more intimate narratives of jealousy, reversal and survival.
This adaptation by April De Angelis condenses 1,600 pages into two plays. It’s still an epic experience — a running time of five and a half hours represents a big investment for theatregoers. Yet much has had to be sacrificed. Details of gangster thuggery, political injustice and the travails of motherhood are abbreviated or omitted. Some fans may also protest that the Italian flavours and textures have been compromised, though an interpretation more infatuated with them might just have seemed hammy.
Director Melly Still has crafted a fluent production. Inevitably there’s a lot of exposition, but the storytelling is mostly nimble, with moments of visual ingenuity — Soutra Gilmour’s design makes simple and effective use of iron stairways and billowing sheets. The thoughtfully economical approach may mean that while devotees of the books notice what’s been missed out, those unfamiliar with them feel that there’s too much to take in.
Crucially, the two main performances are superb. Niamh Cusack is both luminous and gritty as the earnest Lenù, apparently wholesome but also vain and jealous. Catherine McCormack’s Lila is a streetwise shapeshifter with a wild streak. At times she seems to have a death wish, and in McCormack’s hands she’s a fascinating mix of aloofness and feral dynamism. Their bond is ardent and ambivalent — part collaboration, part competition.
The male characters fare less well. As performers juggle multiple roles, only Toby Wharton’s cerebral and caddish Nino is genuinely memorable. But while it would be easy to complain that the adaptation could dig deeper into particular strata of its source material, this is an ambitious and satisfying attempt to realise Ferrante’s world. And it’s true to her novels in presenting as a soap opera what is in fact a radical vision of aspiration, crisis and desire.
Play Talk: April de Angelis on adapting Elena Ferrante’s novels and cadging roll-ups on opening night
In our Play Talk series, playwrights discuss the joys and struggles of the writing life
Few writers have chronicled the female experience better than April de Angelis. Her plays – of which she has written over twenty – put women centre stage, often boldly spanning history. Always imminently watchable, her latest project has been the mammoth task of adapting Elena Ferrante’s hit Neapolitan novels for the the stage. You can currently catch My Brilliant Friend, performed in two parts, at the Rose Theatre in Kingston.
What was the first play to make you want to write plays?
Waiting for Godot. I didn’t get it all but I loved the dialogue!
“Vladimir: I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.
Estragon: Me too.” – Sad and hilarious and scary all at once!
What was your background to becoming a playwright?
I was an (not very good) actor. I think I must have absorbed some stage craft stuff through the pores of my skin and that helped (a bit).
What is the hardest play you’ve ever written?
A Laughing Matter. It was at the National Theatre in 2003, about David Garrick. It had characters like Samuel Johnson – in order to write him I had to read loads in order to ‘get his voice’.
Which play brought you most joy?
Probably My Brilliant Friend Part 1 and 2. I love being in Naples!
Which playwrights influenced you the most?
Hard to say. How do you account for influence? I love all the usual suspects: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Miller, Williams, Caryl Churchill.
What is your favourite line or scene from any play?
The last scene in Top Girls. It’s the most thrilling political argument ever but totally ‘in character’ and it ends with a thrilling visual/bathetic punch in the guts appearance and single line.
The biggest surprise to you since you’ve had your writing performed by actors?
First time it ever happened I cried, I was overwhelmed! Also I learnt a rule of thumb – If the writing is good – good actors always make it better.
What’s been your biggest setback as a writer?
I don’t believe in setbacks. I think you are on a journey as a writer and you can’t expect it to be all painless. You have to try and understand your own flaws and blocks and accept they are all part of the life of a writer. Sometimes things going wrong wake you up!
And the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn?
You can’t be lazy.
What do you think is the best thing about theatre? And the worst?
Best thing: when it all comes together in collaborative ecstasy. Worst: when it doesn’t.
What’s your best piece of advice for writers who are starting out?
Read lots of plays – see lots of theatre. Read everything about the craft of playwriting. Value your imagination.
Are there any themes and stories you find yourself revisiting?
Mothers and daughters.
Are you on Twitter? Do you find it a help or a hindrance as a writer?
I’m on Twitter but I always forget to tweet.
How do you spend opening night?
Watching the play and unconsciously mouthing the words in a deeply irritating manner. Cadging roll-ups in the interval.
What’s the best play you’ve seen recently?
Ella Hickson’s’ Oil. I loved its imaginative scope. A mother and daughter move through centuries but age only through one life time – their story dissects with the history of the black stuff.
What’s your favourite theatre?
Royal Court because it’s the writer’s theatre.
What other art forms do you love when you’re not in a theatre?
If the Prime Minister said they were abolishing the theatre tomorrow, what would you do?
Agitate for a revolution. Seriously would life be worth living without it?
There is a striking shared lexicon that unites fans of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet: they will routinely speak of how they “devoured” the books; how “immersive” the experience was; how – yes – they were “impossible to put down”. This is not all to denigrate them; indeed, we have previously written glowingly about the series. It is merely to note that there is something extraordinary, especially for a work of literary fiction, about the way the books are consumed. As Joanna Biggs wrote in the LRB: “Ferrante’s writing seems to say something that hasn’t been said before – it isn’t easy to specify what this is – in a way so compelling its readers forget where they are, abandon friends and disdain sleep.” This new stage adaptation of the novels – adapted by Jumpy writer April de Angelis – appeals to same kind of maximalism, splitting the material into two shows across five hours.
From the minute the lights went out, there was a kind of collective rapture. Jon Nicholls’s mesmerising sound design, aided by opera music, transports us instantly to war-torn Naples. The cycle – if two plays makes a cycle – charts a lifelong friendship from childhood to their elderly years, battling political disputes, class division, violence, marriage, love affairs and motherhood along the way.
We first meet Lila (Catherine McCormack) and Lenu (Niamh Cusack) in the childhood years of their friendship, talking about their dolls, Tina and Nu, and beginning their adventure together. From the moment they meet, Lila is an intelligent, headstrong, adventurous spirit – perhaps even, at first glance, fearless. Lenu, in contrast, is a quieter personality, somewhat needy and fearful of consequences but ultimately willing to go along with Lila’s whims. Costume designer Soutra Gilmour dresses them in cheap, cotton dresses, indicative of their poverty; in these horrific conditions, these two girls are each other’s only beacon of hope.
Then we flash forward sixty years. Lenu is being visited by Lila’s son Gennaro, looking for his missing mother; Lenu then reflects wistfully on their tempestuous friendship. Director Melly Still handles the temporal shifts with an incredibly confident hand – and so, sure enough, we are soon back in the girls’ childhood, immersing ourselves again in their early war-torn world. With violence everywhere, they’re desperate to leave – in particular Lila, who sees writing a book, The Blue Fairy, as her ticket out of her neighbourhood. She has more intelligence than any of her peers at school but her family’s poverty causes her immense problems. Between her father’s opposition to women staying in education, and her mother’s concern that Lila might embarrass the son of one of their creditors by excelling above him in school, she is trapped in the poverty of Naples. Although Lenu doesn’t have the same aptitude that Lila has, she is allowed to stay in school, learning Latin. It’s at this point you see their economic status begin to shift. Lenu is in education; Lila is working in her father’s shoe store.
As they age into their late teen years, gang crime becomes more and more endemic. Lila has given up on reading, claiming “it gives me a headache”, while Lenu is in a relationship with her neighbour Antonio (Justin Avoth), even though her heart really belongs to Nino (Toby Wharton). It’s not long before Lila is married in an abusive and loveless relationship to Stefano (Jonah Russell), a local boy with connections to the gangster family of the neighbourhood, the Solaras. The day she said “I do” and realised the sort of man she married was the same day that her initial fieriness died away. Lenu’s confidence, however, continues to grow.
The jealousy we see between McCormack and Cusack is depicted very subtly. Lila sees everything in Lenu’s life that she craved for herself and so embarks on an affair with Nino, which makes her feel alive. In the same way, Lenu envies Lila’s motherhood and seeks to emulate it herself. While Lila is deeply unhappy in her marriage, Lenu enjoys success as a novelist, eventually marrying a professor. The differences in their marriages and social status become still more pronounced when their daughters are growing up together in their childhood neighbourhood of Naples following Lenu’s mother’s death. Again, Lila’s child has more brains than anyone in the neighbourhood, while Lenu’s child doesn’t quite measure up; however, it is Lenu’s child who has the greater opportunities.
McCormack and Cusack both perform with incredible passion and humility, imbuing their characters with life. The production, too, is a visual treat: Rachael Canning’s puppetry and Rachel Bown-William’s fight choreography are nothing short of genius. The violence is handled sensitively, as one would hope, and never played for shock value or indeed melodrama.
Any theatrical adaptation of Ferrante’s novels will inevitably be fraught with all kinds of questions beforehand. What events or characters are you going to compress? How do you translate the brutal honesty of Ferrante’s voice? Is that even possible? However, within minutes of the curtains coming up, I put all these questions aside, utterly absorbed into the grand theatrical sweep.
Rose theatre, Kingston upon Thames
Catherine McCormack and Niamh Cusack ignite April De Angelis’s five-hour staging of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan saga
What a nerve. To think that Elena Ferrante’s transfixing novels could take another form. To imagine that these tales of female friendship, Neapolitan life, political strife and personal independence could be adapted. For a Ferrante addict, the story of Lenù and Lila – which one are you? – is not a fictional feat but something more internal: part of the reader’s own memory.
And yet. Against the odds, adapter April De Angelis and director Melly Still have pulled off their dramatisation in My Brilliant Friend. There are absences and some awkwardness, but the essence of the books – intensity – wins through.
Ferrante is subtle but not delicate. Her plot is boldly coloured. Her timescale is long, from 1944 to 2010. Her saga is full but fractured: changes of love, mind and behaviour are not, any more than in life, always fully accounted for. De Angelis and Still give us quick scenes on Soutra Gilmour’s uncluttered design. Naples is there in the huge bed sheets waved from iron balconies. The earthquake is conjured by a whirl of light and a ripping of paper. Crucially, a marvellous string of musical numbers winds through the action, providing a timeline that beautifully bridges inner and outer landscapes. Lazzarella gives way to Where the Boys Are and Purple Haze. The five-hour, two-part epic begins and ends with the most searching of laments: Dido’s. Her plea could serve as a motto for Ferrante’s vital enterprise: “Remember me, but forget my fate.”
Adaptation is reinvention. Some important episodes are not explicit here but translated: Lila’s recurring feeling that she is dissolving is suggested in changes of light, shifts in movement. The only substantial loss is in the treatment of political engagement. Nino, the intermittent lover of both women, is a slippery sod: opportunist and plausible, but seductive. Not as clever as he thinks, but stimulating. Toby Wharton turns him into a chump who makes all political theory sound merely academic and absurd, comic relief rather than something with the power to stir.
The two leads power the evening through. What casting! Catherine McCormackhas the essential quality for Lila. An insouciant – almost negligent – originality. She has the restless intelligence of an artist. That is a constant. Yet her guises are always changing. At one moment she is the swankiest person on stage, in big shades and a gauzy headscarf à la Sophia Loren. At the next, she is the most woebegone: gaunt and rawboned, hauling the carcass of a skinned animal across a factory floor.
Niamh Cusack brings her lit-up intensity to Lenù, the narrator. She is the achiever, the girl who uses cleverness to escape poverty, dialect, family, thuggery. Yet she is also in anxious thrall to her friend, both envious and admiring. Cusack glows, explodes like a maenad, suggests someone whose heart is in a knot. Cleverly the plays end with Lenù as author, signing books that contain her account of what we have just seen. For a moment it is as if the elusive Ferrante has materialised in front of us.
Elena Ferrante’s extraordinary quartet of novels about the passionate, treacherous friendship between two women in post-war Naples inspires masochistic behaviour among devotees. There are tales of readers skipping mealtimes, sleep, even social arrangements in order to gobble them up. So I suspect fans will shrug off the challenge of watching April de Angelis’s adaptation, which condenses the quartet into two two-and-a-half-hour shows that can be seen either on a single day or over two consecutive evenings. (This is not the sort of project in which it is not done to see only half. You are in for the long haul or not at all.)
So does it work? Namely, how do you put on stage the borderline narcissistic, relentless mono-perspective of these novels, each one an implacably interior account by a writer called Elena of her turbulent, decades-long relationship with her former school friend Lila? You don’t, is the answer.
Instead, de Angelis’s fleet, sleek adaptation breaks away from Elena’s omnipotent viewpoint to release all the cinematic drama seething beneath. This, in Melly Still’s noirish production, is The Sopranos by way of women’s lib, where slick-suited gangsters mingle at weddings, where communists fight with the fascists and where, amid the broiling violence and poverty, two intellectually precocious girls, Lila and Elena (known as Lenu) wrestle against both the gender expectations of their heavily circumscribed upbringing and the mythic ties of an impossible friendship in which both women are destined to fight forever against the shadow of the other.
There is something of an Italian Hedda Gabler about Catherine McCormack’s Lila, the uncontainable, self-sabotaging brilliant young girl who combines a “refusal to submit to reality” with a yearning for self annihilation. McCormack plays her with plenty of scorn and a streak of lethal nihilism – even as a seven-year-old, maliciously dropping Lenu’s favourite doll into a cellar, McCormack finds in her long-haired, bare-footed Lila a dead eyed fatalism, as though the character already knows how her story will turn out. The stench of clinical depression hangs over her like a cloud.
Niamh Cusack is less obvious casting as Lenu and, for Part One at least, is the bit player in Lila’s drama. Yet as the production grows, so does her performance. Unlike the more talented Lila, Lenu becomes a novelist but struggles to combine motherhood with her career. We are told throughout that Lenu is “good” but Cusack captures the softly monstrous ego behind Lenu’s seemingly placid surfaces – a writer who stealthily steals stories from both Lila’s life and imagination and who years later has to wrestle with whether an act of self promotion is the cause of an unspeakable loss.
Still’s muscular staging, in which a pop soundtrack eloquently tracks the changing years, beautifully summons the claustrophobic heat of downtown Naples, where washing hangs from iron balconies, wives fight like alleycats over husbands and business men are knifed in broad daylight.
It’s full, too, of moments of visual flair: when Lila is beaten up – by her dad; by her husband – she sheds her dress and the men pummel the empty cloth instead. For the most part, both play and production powerfully combine a shocking intimacy with a widescreen account of post-war Italian history. They manage, too, the seemingly impossible: despite the almost unquantifiable number of hours I have now spent in the company of Lila and Lenu, I left this wanting still more.
Lauren Strain , March 5th, 2017 13:41
For two decades, Italian author Elena Ferrante maintained her privacy – until a recent article claimed to reveal her ‘true’ identity. Twenty-five years after the publication of her first novel, Lauren Strain considers the example that her fight for selfhood – and the struggles of the women in her novels – sets for us today.
“I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.”
Consider the motivations of a man who, on reading this statement, sets out to deprive the speaker of that freedom they have found.
This was the pursuit of journalist Claudio Gatti, who in an incendiary article published by the New York Review of Books last October, announced his belief that the pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante was, in fact, a translator named Anita Raja. He’d spent months rooting through real estate records and other financial data, including anonymously obtained details of payments to Raja from her publishers.
That a woman’s word is neither believed nor respected is hardly a surprise. But what’s been particularly nauseating about Gatti’s and other journalists’ efforts to ‘out’ Ferrante is that, if you’re even slightly familiar with her work, you’ll know that her whole output is an examination of the lives of women who are denied their right to self-determination.
Spirited, clever and aspirant, Ferrante’s women grow up in oppressive neighbourhoods polluted by fear and fascistic family ties. Under relentless pressure to behave one way, to look another – to be who others want them to be rather than what they choose for themselves – they commonly experience a sense of brokenness, of coming apart. They fragment, dissolve and sometimes even disappear completely.
In Ferrante’s debut novel, Troubling Love, artist Delia tries to trace the final movements of her mother, Amalia, who after a life suffocated by the demands of men – a husband who beat her and a lover who never stopped pursuing her – has drowned herself in the sea. In My Brilliant Friend, the first instalment in the Neapolitan series, childhood best friends Lenù and Lila both endure frightening feelings of disintegration at the hands of their violent, 1950s Naples community. Most famous are Lila’s episodes of “dissolving margins”, when things seem literally as well as inwardly to blur (“she had often had the sensation of moving for a few fractions of a second into a person or a thing or a number or a syllable, violating its edges”), but Lenù also experiences similar dysmorphic terrors: “sometimes I had the impression that, while every animated being around me was speeding up the rhythms of its life, solid surfaces turned soft under my fingers or swelled up,” she writes. “It seemed to me that my own body, if you touched it, was distended… I felt squeezed in that vise along with the mass of everyday things and people… as if everything, thus compacted, and always tighter, were grinding me up, reducing me to a repulsive cream.” This horror of a loss of solidity echoes Ferrante’s earlier novel, The Days of Abandonment, where a wife left reeling from her husband’s sudden departure must gather all her strength to overcome a profound internal shattering.
But while many of these nightmarish passages suggest the threat of breakdown, the books also offer the possibility that Ferrante’s women, by withdrawing from the language and roles expected of them, are able if not to resist then at least to evade their oppressors. Troubling Love‘s Amalia, leaving home in strangers’ clothes, indulging in forbidden behaviours and concealing her tracks, denies her pursuers’ desires and eludes capture. Lila’s final vanishing, meanwhile, fulfils a long-held intention: “She wanted not only to disappear herself… but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind”, writes Lenù in My Brilliant Friend.
There is a sense in which, by becoming unreachable, unknowable and even unintelligible, perhaps these women can claim for themselves a space outside of the viciously patriarchal culture they inhabit. It’s an idea Ferrante puts forward herself in an interview included in Frantumaglia: “The disappearance of women should be interpreted not only as giving up the fight against the violence of the world but also as clear rejection,” she tells Belgium’s De Standaard. “There is an expression in Italian whose double meaning is untranslatable: ‘Io non ci sto.’ Literally it means: I’m not here, in this place, before what you’re suggesting. In common usage, it means, instead: I don’t agree, I don’t want to. Rejection means shunning the games of those who crush the weak.”
Surely it is possible, too, to see Ferrante’s absenting of herself from the media circus as a rebuke of this kind. In remaining pseudonymous and participating only on her own terms (she answers select interviews in writing, via her publisher), the author enacts a sort of dissolution of her own. It is interesting to see this refusal to engage as a political act; of a piece with the concerns of her work, and perhaps even an extension of it.
Which is to say that, when Gatti so clinically peels back Ferrante’s skin, he also rolls back a 25-year project, a body of work that spans a quarter of a century. When he invades Ferrante’s hard-fought space, he tramples, too, on the content of her seven novels and the lives that they narrate. It is this that makes the reveal of Ferrante’s identity more than just gossip, and symbolic of the very struggles that lie at the heart of her stories.
The dogged determination on the part of critics to forcibly expose a woman who has chosen a particular way of life has been a useful reminder that, still, in 2017, those who follow their own path face expectation to conform, even from people who would consider themselves permissive. Fortunately, in Ferrante’s case the work itself is armoured against this kind of assault, since its other key theme, alongside her women’s battle for autonomy, is the futility of anyone’s attempt to define them. Over the course of 1500 pages, Lenù’s resolution at the outset of My Brilliant Friend to not let Lila “win,” to “write all the details of our story” and record the definitive version of their history, proves impossible; and in Troubling Love, Delia, giving up the search for her mother, finds that she “couldn’t impose on her the prison of a single adjective.” Ultimately, Ferrante’s canon asks the question: Who knows Lila but Lila? Who knows Lenù but Lenù? Who knows Ferrante but Ferrante? Who knows you, but you?
At a time when women’s control over their bodies in even ‘progressive’ societies is increasingly challenged, when they are dismissed and degraded by their political leaders, Ferrante’s refusal to allow others jurisdiction over her image sets an emboldening example for women everywhere. While she stresses that her work is not written with an expressly feminist or other ideological message (“I don’t like stories that are a programmatic enactment of the theory of the group one belongs to,” she says in a letter to her publisher), her comments made on a more personal level about the precarity of women’s position seem to carry a clear warning.
“Girls like my daughters appear convinced that the freedom they’ve inherited is part of the natural state of affairs and not the temporary outcome of a long battle that is still being waged, and in which everything could suddenly be lost,” she said in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2015, later expanding in The Gentlewoman: “even in those areas where many of our rights are safe, it’s still hard to be a woman who challenges the way in which even the most cultured and forward-thinking men represent us.”
We encounter these men in the pages of Ferrante’s novels, in the figures of Donato and Nino Sarratore, whose learning and cultivated airs do not prevent them from abusing the women around them. We encounter them in the workplace, in education and at the highest levels of society. And we encounter them, too, in our current year, in “the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language,” striving to undo an entire life’s work.
Last year, the playwright April De Angelis gave her book group a copy of My Brilliant Friend to read. The novel was the first in a quartet by Italian author Elena Ferrante, charting an intense 50 year female friendship, and was already a publishing sensation.
De Angelis had read it some months previously and instantly fallen in love. But not all her fellow readers were convinced.
“It split the group a little bit,” says De Angelis when we meet in the lobby of the British Library in London. “It’s quite a difficult account of female friendship and some people don’t like that.”
Her own reaction was “obviously to try and be generous and not just say to them – ‘you’re stupid!’” She catches herself, then laughs.
The Ferrante novels tend to split people into two camps: either you don’t get what all the fuss is about and stop half-way through the first instalment, or you love them with an all-consuming, protective, fire-breathing passion. De Angelis falls into the latter set and has now adapted the four books for the stage; the first time anyone has done so.
The story charts the course of their entwined life: from a shared childhood in an impoverished Naples neighbourhood, through to adulthood with its passionate love affairs, burgeoning careers and complex family struggles. De Angelis has crunched the Neapolitan novels into a little over four hours and the two parts can be seen on the same day, or separately.
Ferrante’s novels, written over three years from 2012, have sold well over a million copies worldwide and been translated into 27 languages. Along the way, they have been heaped with critical and popular acclaim. The New York Times Book Review has called Ferrante, “one of the great novelists of our time” and her devoted fans include everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Zadie Smith.
What makes her success even more dazzling is that Ferrante writes under a pseudonym and has never given an interview in person, only ever answering questions in writing.
De Angelis is no exception.
“I bloody hate him,” she says of Gatti. “He’s trying to control how a woman should be. She’s deliberately – for artistic reasons – chosen not to be known.
“It’s not hiding something or being deceptive. It’s her right not to say who she is. It’s a creative act to write under another name because it gives you freedom as a woman; to assume another identity and to step out of your own head.”
It is the same argument put forward by other women who have written under pseudonyms and been unmasked. Indeed, JK Rowling – who penned The Cuckoo’s Calling as Robert Galbraith in 2013 said that she was yearning “to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback… I certainly wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me.”
De Angelis believes that what makes Ferrante so compelling as a writer is her refusal to respect traditional boundaries. Her depiction of a lifelong female friendship does not shy away from uncomfortable truths: Lenu and Lila both love and hate each other. They are defined by their passion as much as their enmity – and often they act in brutal, unforgivable ways.
“It doesn’t fit into the sentimental idea of female friendship,” explains De Angelis. “It’s really quite transgressive because she writes about all the stuff that is meant to be kept out of the official account of what it is to be a woman.”
In her novels, Ferrante gives clear-eyed descriptions of both menstruation and pregnancy (which, at one point, is compared to having an “alien” growing inside you).
One of the big debates around the stage adaptation, says De Angelis, was whether to keep in such visceral descriptions. For the most part, she did, a decision that the director called “brave.”
“But Ferrante was brave!” says De Angelis. “She put the female body at the centre.” Besides, she continues, that is how women actually talk to each other. “There are thoughts you can share safely when you’re with other women and some of the stuff that comes out is fabulous.” De Angelis sips her coffee. “Would life be worth living without female friends? Probably not.”
I thought it was the most fabulous thing ever. A real Ferrante word! Now I just want to use it all the time in my daily conversation.
De Angelis, who lives in Walthamstow, east London, was not in regular contact with Ferrante while she was adapting the books. She had read all four in late 2015 and loved them, describing them as the literary equivalent of “a TV box-set”.
She and her husband, Evan Marshall, a television producer, had just been on holiday to Naples and were in the process of learning Italian (De Angelis is half Sicilian), so there was a special serendipity to discovering the Neapolitan novels at that particular time.
Then, in mid-December that year, De Angelis received an email out of the blue from her agent asking her if she had any interest in adapting the Ferrante novels for The Rose Theatre.
“It was my dream job,” she says. In the end, she had to write the whole thing – from the 1,600 pages of the English translations – in just three months. “It was a crazy timescale. It’s all been a bit headlong but sometimes it’s good to have that pressure.”
This is not the first time De Angelis has adapted a much-loved novel – her previous works include Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights. She originally trained as an actress, attending the East 15 theatre school after Sussex University, but recalls being “constantly nagged” by an inner voice telling her to write.
The difference with her past adaptations was, of course, that the authors were no longer around to pass comment.
Ferrante had to give her blessing for the first draft of My Brilliant Friend the play, “which was terrifying [but] she came back and said ‘Fine, I agree with it’ and she gave me one note which was amazing. She said ‘Don’t be too oneiric.’”
I stare at De Angelis blankly.
“I had to look it up,” she laughs. “It means, ‘dream-like’, from the Greek ‘to dream’. I thought it was the most fabulous thing ever. A real Ferrante word! Now I just want to use it all the time in my daily conversation.”
No doubt her legions of other fans will feel just the same way.
Laura Freeman talks to Melly Still and April De Angelis about their adaptation of the Neapolitan quartet for the Rose Theatre Kingston. Will Ferrante fangirls approve?
Reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet is a heady experience. You not only see, hear, know her characters — you can almost taste them. The villain of the first of the four books, which follow the friendship of mercurial Lila and striving Lenù from childhood into their sixties, is Don Achille, an ‘ogre’ who sweats the smells of ‘salami, provolone, mortadella, lardo and prosciutto’. Lila herself, always wriggling free of the nets of others, is ‘skinny, like a salted anchovy’. Nino, loved by both Lila and Lenù, is ‘an anomalous, sweet fruit’. Naples itself, the backdrop to the books, acting as a succubus, pulling the characters back when they try to escape, stinks of the exhaust from Fiat cars, the roasted almonds of the street sellers, fried pizza from the cafés.
How do you put all that on stage? On the page, on the nearly 1,600 pages of My Brilliant Friend (childhood), The Story of a New Name (adolescence), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (young married life), and The Story of the Lost Child (maturity, success, bereavement), you lose yourself in Lenù and Lila, in six decades of slights, quarrels and alliances, triumph and betrayal, vendetta and omertà, feuds and petty hair-pulling. Can you do all that in just four acts over two evenings?
‘When you initially set it out like that,’ says Melly Still, director of the first theatre adaptation of Ferrante’s novels, ‘it doesn’t seem as if it’s possible. There’s this strange, wonderful experience, which I think is particular to reading. It becomes personal and consummate.
‘The role of theatre is very different, because you can’t put the novels on stage. A big long mini-series — a Netflix series — could do that. You can really explore all the detail. Theatre has a different role, somehow distilling the experience of reading. Of course you end up losing some of the characters who you’ve grown to know and love, but once you do that, you exist in a distilled Ferrante world.’
Knowing and loving — that’s the other challenge of Ferrante. Her readers are fangirls — and they are almost all female — of the most fanatical stripe. There was a period a year ago when I was the only one of my girlfriends not to have read Ferrante. You must read her, they said. You cannot understand friendship, love, what it is to be a woman until you’ve read her. I thought they were being absurd, knew I wouldn’t like the books with their syrupy beach-holiday covers. Lenù, a published novelist by the third book, makes a joke about ‘ugly’ covers with ‘women in black dresses… laundry hung out to dry’. Then I read the first book, with an attitude of give-it-a-go-give-up-when-I’m-bored, and kept on in a greedy, unstoppable rush, all four books in eight days.
Now, I am protective of my characters. Is Niamh Cusack (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Northern Lights, the RSC) right for Lenù? Can Catherine McCormack (Sherlock, Life in Squares) do justice to the untameable, detestable, irresistible Lila?
Melly Still knows the syndrome. ‘I was always reluctant to see Wolf Hall on stage or television. You can’t replace the novels. It’s about an interpretation, making them plays in themselves.’ Wolf Hall is one precedent, Harry Potter another. Still went to see the two-part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as she worked on My Brilliant Friend. The difference is that while everyone in the Harry Potter audience ‘will know everything, will have read every book and seen every film’, there’s no Ferrante franchise, no Lego, no theme park, no tweeting J.K. Rowling. Her books may have been sold in 40 countries, more than 1.2 million copies in the US alone, but Elena Ferrante is an enigma, her name a pseudonym. Interviews are granted rarely and then only by email. She has explained her reasons for refusing publicity: ‘I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it.’
Last October, however, she was ignobly ‘unmasked’ as Rome-based editor and translator Anita Raja by investigative journalist Claudio Gatti who sold his story to the Italian newspaper Il Sole, the New York Review of Books, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the French website Mediapart. It was an ungentlemanly ambush. April De Angelis, who has adapted the books for stage, says: ‘He’s an arse, isn’t he? It’s an artistic act, an artistic gesture not to be known. Not being a commodity. The books may be bought and sold, but she doesn’t have to be.’
‘It is invasive,’ says Still. ‘One of the reasons Ferrante wanted to remain anonymous was that she wanted to write in that candid and uncensored and forensic way.’
Since the Gatti revelations, Raja has made no comment and no public appearance. In Frantumaglia, a collection of her non-fiction writing, Ferrante insists that characters matter more than their author: ‘Even Tolstoy is an insignificant shadow if he takes a stroll with Anna Karenina.’
Of all the characters, I found Nino, liar, egoist, philanderer that he is, the most compelling. De Angelis agrees: ‘Nino is educated — rather, he’s trying to become educated, which is even more charming. He loves books. So everyone reading the book is going to love Nino because they love books too.’
‘And he’s also played by a really gorgeous actor [he is — I saw him arrive for rehearsal], so it’s very easy to find him really charming. Which I think you’re supposed to. Otherwise your main characters, your heroines, are idiots for loving him.’
Still decided early on that there would be no Just-One-Cornetto Italian accents. A recent BBC Radio 4 adaptation had the characters as Mancunians, Manchester standing in for Naples. But De Angelis has allowed the actors to speak in their own voices. ‘There’s something really weird about masking your voice. If you’re Irish, having to speak in RP or then cockney.’ When they’re speaking neighbourhood dialect the script, says Still, is ‘more direct, more coarse, more crude, more colloquial’. When it’s classical Italian, the script is richer, more rhetorical.
In 2005, when the Italian director Roberto Faenza made a film of Ferrante’s early novel The Days of Abandonment, she gave notes on the script by email. Did De Angelis hear from Ferrante?
‘I got one thing back. Ferrante had to read the first draft. She said: “Fine.” But she had one note which was: “Be careful not to be too oneiric.” It’s such a brilliant word. I thought: “Oh my god, look, this is a word, a real Ferrante word.” And that’s the only thing I’ve ever heard.’
Ferrante’s editor, Maurizio Dell’Orso, has sat in on rehearsals, relaying news back to Rome. ‘I’ve had this sense,’ says Still, ‘of a person very, very aware of our daily activity… But maybe she’s doesn’t know? Maybe she doesn’t give a damn? I really don’t know. We really don’t know. We have no idea.’
My Brilliant Friend Parts 1 & 2 is at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 2 April. The Neapolitan quartet is published by Europa Editions.
By 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. (…)
The Italian Embassy in Seoul celebrated the publication of novels in Korean by renowned author Elena Ferrante at a book talk on Jan. 19.
The event at the embassy marked last year’s translated release of the first two of “The Neapolitan Novels,” a four-part series comprised of “My Brilliant Friend” (2012), “The Story of a New Name” (2013), “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” (2014) and “The Story of the Lost Child” (2015).
The books are published by Hangilsa Publishing Company Limited, which printed the bestseller “Stories of the Romans” novels by Japanese writer Shiono Nanami since the early 1990s.
As a neorealist bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, Ferrante’s novels portray two “perceptive and intelligent” girls, Elena Greco and Raffaella Cerullo, as they strive to forge their lives out of a poor, violent and stultifying neighborhood on Naples’ outskirts.
“The novels neatly fit into the Italian neorealist style, championed by writers Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante,” said Italian Ambassador to Korea Marco della Seta at the event. “The story is universal, depicting Naples, humanity and the friendship and struggle of two women from childhood through adulthood.”
Noting that Ferrante is the pen name of the real author, whose identity is cloaked in secrecy, the envoy argued that the novels were successful partly due to Ferrante’s mysterious character. Ferrante’s work also exemplifies the strengths of the Italian language, which is evident in culture, music, literature, cinema and food, he added.
“I’ve never met Ferrante and nor have you. But we like her writings so much and think as if we are talking with her,” said Kim Un-ho, publisher of Hangilsa. “At the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, I had a great time discussing and reveling in Ferrante’s novels with some 50 leading publishers from around the world. Her books are like rainbows and bridges connecting people.”
By Joel Lee (email@example.com)