The TLS: Approach with caution

Thea Lenarduzzi on Elena Ferrante’s quartet as a television serie

On The TLS

Thea Lenarduzzi – Nov 20, 2018

It was never going to be easy, to take Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, some of the most beloved novels of the past decade, and turn them into a satisfactory television series, of thirty-two episodes, with eight per book – “satisfactory” not in the sense of “passable” but rather, “fulfilling expectations”. The difficulty lies in the vertiginous nature of those expectations. Her admirers are famously full-throated in their appreciation (so much so that, in 2016, the Observer could sketch the “Elena Ferrante fan” alongside “the foodie” and “the manspreader” as a “twenty-first-century type”). In Ferrante Fever, a documentary released last year – its title borrowed from the marketing slogan that has helped to sell millions of the books – Giacomo Durzi, driven by his own “overwhelming passion”, sought to capture the enthusiasm in interviews with readers, including Jonathan Franzen, Roberto Saviano and Hillary Clinton, who describes the series as “hypnotic . . . I could not stop reading it or thinking about it” (and this during the 2016 presidential campaign). An industry has been born, with companies offering trips around “Ferrante’s Naples”: for €250, with coffee and pastries, you could try a private tour, “Looking for Lila”, inspired by one of the Quartet’s protagonists.

We have seen this behaviour before, in the unslakeable thirst of the Janeites; think, too, of Louisa May Alcott’s devotees, apparently so numerous in their pilgrimages to Orchard House that the author would pretend to be a maid in order to escape them. (That Ferrante has admitted debts to Austen and Alcott, both in terms of their desire for anonymity and choice of subjects, only helps the comparison.) But, in the case of the Italian author, the hubbub may also account for the air of antediluvian cautiousness that characterizes the first two episodes of Saverio Costanzo’s adaptation – it is almost as though the director anticipates critics like the plague of “tiny, almost invisible animals” that the narrator-protagonist Elena Greco imagines come at night to consume the neighbourhood women with rage.

Costanzo, best known for his film Hungry Hearts (2013), begins the series – of which Ferrante is a co-writer – by following precisely events set out in the first book’s prologue: the middle-aged Elena (Elisabetta De Palo) receives a call in the middle of the night, from the son of Lila Cerullo, a childhood friend (to reduce the matter for now) she has not seen in years. Lila has disappeared without a trace, as Elena always knew she would, even cutting herself out of family photographs. Elena hangs up on the whimpering son and opens her laptop in the dark: “I promised you I’d never do it, but I’m really angry”, a voiceover (by Costanzo’s frequent collaborator Alba Rohrwacher) explains, as Elena begins to type “your whole story . . . everything you told me over the years”. This is important, because it frames the narrative that follows as the culmination of a duel that has spanned six decades and the length of Italy. “This time I’m going to go all the way, too, and we’ll see who wins.” In the shadows of Elena’s study, a large dog pricks up his ears. Mephistopheles is among us.

From here we are plunged into the 1950s and the dusty streets of the Neapolitan neighbourhood (artfully recreated in a set by Giancarlo Basili) that is the basis of everything Elena and Lila are, and have done. We see the primary school where the rivalry began, with Elena (now played by Elisa del Genio) and Lila (Ludovica Nasti) vying for the praise of Maestra Oliviero (Dora Romano). Lila – the embodiment of Ferrante’s description, “skinny, like a salted anchovy” – can already read and write, while Elena, whose handwriting is excellent, is as yet unable to put words to use. Contention spills out into the streets and down the stradone, which disappears through a tunnel in the raised scrubland that denotes the railway and the neighbourhood’s limits. Whereas the books are written in the standard tongue, with the occasional dialect word, here only the mature Elena’s narration is in Italian; all else is in the Neapolitan patois of skipped syllables and harsh vowels, making subtitles necessary even for most Italian viewers. As with Gomorrah(both the film of 2008 and the ongoing television series), also set in the harshest quarters of Naples, this helps to hold us firmly in another place.

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