Anna Silman – Nov 19, 2018
There are a lot of things I liked about HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’sMy Brilliant Friend. I appreciated the chic Eileen Fisher-esque linen gowns worn by the show’s Italian tweens, I enjoyed the detailed vistas of 1950s Naples, and I loved the precocious child actors chosen to populate the show’s world. But throughout, I couldn’t help but feel that the show was missing an essential feature of the books: the index of character names.
When I first read Elena Ferrante’s epic quartet, The Neapolitan Novels, a few years ago — at the height of my Ferrante fever — I became weirdly obsessed with the indexes. Each book opens with a list of characters, grouped by family unit. We are introduced to the shoemaker’s family and the grocer’s family and the fruit-seller’s family and the baker’s family, followed by short descriptions of each member. This intertwining network of clans serve as the basis for the books’ social world, which grows more complex over time. My time reading the series was spent in a flurry of perpetual motion — flipping to the front of the book, flipping back to where I was, then flipping back to the front again — to make sure I was right about where each character fit in (I developed carpal tunnel right around the time Elena Greco, the porter’s daughter, and Lila Cerullo, the shoemaker’s daughter, graduated primary school).
In written form, these indexes are partly designed to help readers keep track; The Neapolitan Novels are dense books with lots of complicated relationships and characters with similar-sounding Italian names (the protagonists are Rafaella, also called Lila or Lina, and Elena, also called Lenu or Lenuccia). But they also serve as markers of the reader’s journey. When you open the first book, these names mean nothing to you. Yet with each book, as you get to know the characters better, the descriptions at the beginning get more and more detailed. Little boys we once knew simply as the grocer’s son or the train conductor’s son become pivotal players in our protagonists’ lives: complicated men whose flaws and foibles we come to know intimately. By the fourth book, I felt I had grown up with these families. Sometimes I even found myself reciting the characters’ names before bed as a mindfulness technique: Enzo Scanno the fruit-sellers son, Gigliola Spagnulo the pastry-maker’s daughter, Pasquale Peluso the carpenter’s son. It seemed to me there was something uniquely poetic about this cast of characters with their simple, workmanlike qualifiers, because the overlapping lives depicted in the books aren’t simple at all.
Watching the new HBO adaptation, I found myself feeling nostalgic for these indexes, and the dense reading experiences that came along with them. By episode two, I had the wherewithal to open up the book with the index on my lap, so that whenever someone said someone’s name I could cross-reference it with the names on the page and remind myself why I was supposed to care about them. This is probably why my favorite part of the show is the title credits sequence, which is kind of like a visual stand-in for the index that scrolls through old-timey photographs of all the different families. (Still, the portraits don’t have name labels, nor do they change as the characters grow up — how am I supposed to square the hunky Timothée Chalamet-esque teen Nino with the cute kid in the credits?)