Fans of the writer’s Neapolitan novels are flocking to discover the south Italian city, whose personality is as important to the books as the protagonists
Sun 25 Feb 2018 07.00 GMT
Like many tourists in Naples, I have only ever been there en route to somewhere else. For years the city has had a reputation for being dirty, dangerous and traffic-choked: why on earth would anyone choose to linger? But this has changed. Naples is becoming a destination in its own right, thanks in part to the huge popularity of the enigmatic author Elena Ferrante. And with the city’s rubbish-collection problem solved and new traffic restrictions in the centre, it is looking in better shape than it has done for decades.
Ferrante, who writes under a pseudonym, is the most important literary sensation to have emerged from Italy in a generation. Her quartet of Neapolitan Novels has sold more than 5.5 million copies worldwide. The New York Times observed that enthusiasm for the novels is so intense that it is being described in “epidemiological terms, making the phenomenon sound almost like an infectious disease”. Nor is Ferrante fever likely to cool any time soon: an Italian/American television adaptation of the first book My Brilliant Friend is under way. Filming starts in Naples next spring. The ultimate aim is to adapt all four novels over 32 episodes.
I came late to the books, prompted to pick up the first volume by the outrage around Italian reporter Claudio Gatti’s controversial unmasking of Ferrante’s supposed true identity. Needless to say, I loved My Brilliant Friend and devoured the next three, gripped by Ferrante’s rich portrait of the hard lives and intense friendship of the two protagonists – Elena and Raffaella (who call each other Lenù and Lila) – who grow up in a poor, violent neighbourhood against a background of mafia vendettas and social and political unrest in the 1960s and 70s.
We stop at a traditional pastry shop like the one run by the Solara brothers for a coffee and a sfogliatella
Naples is as much a character in Ferrante’s writing as Lenù and Lila themselves. Her “dark streets full of dangers, unregulated traffic, broken pavements, giant puddles … clogged sewers” work their way deep into your imagination. So you finish the Neapolitan novels not only with a sigh of regret, but an insistent desire to get to know the city for yourself.
“People began asking hotels and tour operators in the area: ‘How can we find the locations in the novels?’” says Caterina dei Vivo of Progetto Museo, a Naples-based cultural heritage preservation group. “They wanted to see the stradone, the Vomero, the Rettifilo, the Corso Umberto.” Progetto Museo quickly launched a Ferrante tour of the city earlier this year and several others have jumped on board since then.
I decided to combine my tour with a few nights in Sorrento. A picturesque tumble of dark red villas and ochre hotels perched on the edge of the Bay of Naples, the town works as a base not only for visits to the city – about 50 minutes away by boat, or an hour by train – but for the Amalfi coastal path (the “pathway of the gods”), Campania’s hillside towns and the islands of Capri and Ischia, too. Pompeii and Heculaneum are an easy train ride away.
I was met off the boat from Sorrento by the impressively qualified Caterina, a Neapolitan with a PhD in the preservation of cultural heritage. Along with the two others in our group, I was keen to visit the working-class neighbourhood where Lenù and Lila grow up: the Rione Luzzatti in the south of the city. Frustratingly, Caterina won’t take us there. Now mainly social housing, it has a reputation for crime and is apparently “too sad and depressing” for us. Instead, we set off into the old city where our first stop was Corso Umberto, known locally as the Rettifilo. This is the main street connecting the rione [administrative district] with the city, where Lenù and Lila first start going out alone with friends – with disastrous consequences one night when the Solara brothers pick a vicious fight with some obnoxious private school boys. It is also home to the bridal shops visited by 16-year-old Lila as she prepared for her lavish wedding to Stefano Carracci. Every window is awash with frothy white lace and rainbow-coloured bridesmaids’ dresses.
Three sheets to the wind … a backstreet in Spaccanapoli. Photograph: Alamy
We turn left into the university district where Lenù found her first job in a bookshop and Nino, the love of her life, worked as a leftwing lecturer. As in the books, the lecture theatres are daubed with radical slogans – a “lotta dura” [a 60s political slogan, now more associated with football] here, a hammer and sickle there and students hand out revolutionary flyers to passersby. Next stop is Via dei Tribunale, where Lenù attended political meetings with her friends in the Red Brigades. We stop at a traditional pastry shop like the one run by the Solara brothers in the novels for a coffee and a sfogliatella, a shell-shaped pastry which originated in Naples, filled with vanilla, cinnamon and orange-flavoured ricotta.
The city centre feels wonderfully unmodernised, its dark, narrow streets dripping with faded laundry, lucky bunches of dried red chillies outside every house and shop front. Walls are buried beneath layers of posters, stickers, graffiti and grime. Scooters zoom past, horns blare and truck brakes hiss. I’m struck by the absence of chains, such as Starbucks and McDonald’s. Caterina says the multinationals know they cannot compete with the street food of Naples: fried pizza, potato croquettes, courgette flowers in batter, fried anchovies and fried mozzarella are sold on every corner in brown paper cones – cuoppo – for just a few euros apiece. Pungent Neapolitan coffee likewise.