Sunday, September 30, 2018

What I learned talking with Ferrante fans at Big Blue Marble Bookstore

Recently, at my favorite bookstore, Big Blue Marble, I spoke to a lively group of readers about my book, In Search of Elena Ferrante.

Any novel is in some sense a Rorschach test—we read fiction through the lens of our own experiences and values. This is especially the case with Ferrante whose readers respond to her work on a deeply personal level. As Joanna Biggs put it in her review in the London Review of Books:

Are Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels even books? I began to doubt it when I talked about them with other people—mostly women. We returned to life too quickly as we spoke: who was your Lila, the childhood friend who effortlessly dazzled everyone? Or—a question not happily answered—were you Lila?... The usual distance between fiction and life collapses when you read Ferrante.

The group at the bookstore was all female (which is often the case in gatherings devoted to Ferrante) and mostly older women. One reasons these books resonate with older readers like me is our identification with the narrator’s struggle to make sense of her life, the challenge of integrating her present-day self with the overall trajectory of her life. Certainly part of the reason the Neapolitan novels resonated with me was that the historical period they cover follows the trajectory of my life. Like Elena and Lila, I was born in 1944, and although there were of course differences between my life and theirs, there were also some striking similarities, among them the dramatic changes in the status of women and the heady excitement of the 1960s and 1970s, when all established institutions were challenged.

Not everyone at the bookstore was a Ferrante fan. One member of the audience, a good friend of mine whose personal and literary judgment I respect, thought Ferrante had not really probed the inner life of her characters. She’s not alone here. As I read reviews of the Neapolitan novels, I sometimes thought the reviewer had read a different series of novels from the ones I had. For me, Elena and Lila are as complicated and as fully alive as any fictional characters I have ever encountered.

Interestingly the people in the group who expressed opinions about the authorship of the novels all said it really didn’t matter if the books were written by a man or by a woman. The were in agreement with Ferrante’s comment in one of her many interviews, that “a good writer—male or female—can imitate the two sexes with equal effectiveness.”

Rather than being disappointed by the fact that Ferrante’s novels were not solely the work of a female writer, they seemed intrigued by the collaboration of a man and woman on books that so powerfully explore gender roles. Ferrante’s publishers may fear that if a male author is acknowledged as the co-author of Ferrante’s books, many of Ferrante’s readers will be disappointed, may even feel deceived, and book sales will plummet. From my conversations with Ferrante fans, I doubt that is the case.

Queer theory and intersectional feminism have emphasized the fluidity of gender and undermined the notion of a stable female identity. My guess is that many readers will (in some cases reluctantly) have moved beyond the idea that there is an authentic female voice that can be recognized as such.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The trailer of HBO's adaptation of My Brilliant Friend is available

The trailer of HBO's My Brilliant Friend is available
as are reviews of first two episodes which premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. Also Ferrante addicts can read numerous interviews with director Saverio Costanzo who confirmed Ferrante’s involvement in the film adaptation:

We have been mailing to each other,” Costanzo told journalists during HBO’s Television Critics Association press session in Beverly Hills on Wednesday. “I don’t know who she is and I don’t want to know … she is, in my opinion, a very good scriptwriter … I’ve been mailing to the publisher. The publisher would send it to her and then back to me.

The description of Ferrante as “a very good scriptwriter” is further evidence of the involvement of Domenico Starnone, an accomplished screenwriter, in the creation of the works attributed to Ferrante. In my recent book In Search of Elena Ferrante I argue that Anita Raja and her husband Domenico Starnone are the authors of the works attributed to Ferrante, with Starnone the principal author of the novels and Raja the principal author of the letters and interviews collected in Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey.

In addition to confirming Ferrante’s involvement in the screenplay, Costanzo also notes Ferrante’s insistence that the film be in Italian, including much in Neapolitan dialect:

Because Ferrante wrote her novels in Italian, Costanzo said it would have been “impossible” to do the series in English. He added that HBO was firmly committed to maintaining the books’ Neapolitan dialect with English subtitles because “the dialect is part of the dramaturgy.

The dialogue in Neapolitan dialect will also be subtitled in Italy as the dialect is not generally understood outside Naples.

Critics have generally praised the authenticity of the sets. Vogue’s Jason Horowitz notes that that Italian producers “spared no expense in painstakingly constructing this enormous, 20,000-square-meter set in Caserta” a town near Naples:

Walking around, I am transported by weathered political posters and death notices. The convincingly aged walls of apartment buildings have working windows and internal staircases to reach the balconies where extras in expertly researched costumes pass the day.”I visit the costume department, just off set, where ten tailors and designers provide 1,500 Italian period pieces to the stars and extras. Racks of vintage drivers’ jackets, bras and stockings, Borsalino hats and suspenders, loose-fitting blazers and floor-sweeping skirts crowd the rooms. Fabric is soaked, burned, and otherwise distressed to make the clothes appear lived-in and humble.

The generally positive reviews of the first two hours of HBO's My Brilliant Friend also praise the performances of the two non-professional actors who play Elena and Lila as young girls.. From Daniel Fineberg in The Hollywood Reporter:
This limited sampling points to a handsome, largely dedicated Ferrante adaptation that, at least in this early going, is marked by spectacular casting of its inexperienced leads…My Brilliant Friend is blissfully neither based in a gauzy nostalgia nor mired in an affected documentary-style misery porn. It simply and cleanly embraces the details of everyday life, occasionally dirty or impoverished or ominous, spiked with moments of memory-infused whimsy. ..The series' first two hours mark an extraordinarily promising beginning.

From Daniel D'addario’s review in Variety:

And while achieving the internality of the book is too high an order for this series, its ability to conjure up the world of children confused at the happenings around them is its own achievement. “My Brilliant Friend” is an impressive effort, a translation of novel to screen that preserves certain of its literary qualities while transmuting others into moving and effective TV.

Adaptations of beloved books usually result in mixed reviews and My Brilliant Friend is no exception. From Emily Yoshida’s review in Vulture:
To say the advance press screening was a muted affair would be generous: I witnessed more walkouts throughout the two hours than I did during Luca Guadagnino’s bloody, polarizing Suspiria.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how director Saverio Costanzo’s adaptation fails …But I could sense the strain of putting the weight of the drama on two first-time child actors, Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti, who certainly look their parts but don’t quite have the unguardedness suggested by Ferrante’s deeply relatable account of their childhood.

Yoshida also complains that Costanzo’s direction is “ponderous and slow,” with a “mechanical quality” to these early episodes. She speculates that HBO may have “a huge, expensive, foreign-language dud on their hands.”

In an article lamenting the lack of women filmmakers at the Venice festival, Yoshida returns to her reservations about My Brilliant Friend:
Saverio Costanzo’s overly mannered, tastefully sepia-toned adaptation has all the events of the first section of Ferrante’s first book, but the cloud of something else–ness is missing…everything is in place, but it feels hollow.

The “something else–ness’ may refer to Ferrante’s emotionally charged language exploring the characters’ innermost thoughts. We share the most intimate thoughts of the great fictional characters, knowing them in a way we can never know our family, friends and colleagues whose innermost thoughts we are doubtless fortunate not to know. Film may have replaced the novel as the principal story-telling medium of our age, but great novels like Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet remind us of what only literature can do.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

I’m both looking forward to the upcoming HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s, My Brilliant Friend and feeling some trepidation.

Elisa Del Genio, left, and Ludovica Nasti, photographed on set outside Naples, as LenĂ¹ and Lila, the young pair at the center of My Brilliant Friend, appearing on HBO in November. Photographed by Paolo Pellegrin for Magnum Photos, Vogue, September 2018

I’m both looking forward to the upcoming HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s, My Brilliant Friend and feeling some trepidation. Previous adaptations of the Neapolitan novels —a radio play and a stage play—have received mixed reviews. In 2016 BBC Radio 4 aired an adaptation of the Neapolitan novels by prize-winning playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker. I managed to hear some of it when it was available on demand from BBC radio. As someone who has never listened to audio books, I was not the right candidate for a radio dramatization; I want to consume books the old-fashioned way. Also, I found the English accents disconcerting and agreed with Kate Chisholm’s review in The Spectator: “To me the background music was wrong in flavour, the child actors too English and stilted, the voices of Lena and Lila as grown-ups not distinctive enough. I wanted to be taken to the baking hot streets of Naples, but found myself rooted in London.”

However, Alex O’Connell, writing for The Times, had a different assessment: “Yet once you tune in to the accents ... the story possesses you. The precise dialogue, artful reduction and accomplished performances made me, a Ferrante addict, want to listen on and read the novels all over again.” O’Connell asked Wertenbaker why she had the characters speak in Manchester accents: “I definitely didn’t want them to be from London or the southeast—that would be like setting it in Florence or Milan. Liverpool was right, but too distinctive an accent and place. We wouldn’t have dreamt of them speaking with Italian accents.” So they settled on “around Manchester.” (The HBO series will not have the problem of inappropriate English accents. The characters will speak Neapolitan dialect and both English and Italian versions will be subtitled.)

The London stage production of the Neapolitan novels appears to have generated as much controversy as the BBC radio program. The commission for the first stage adaptation of the Neapolitan novels was not awarded to a major theatre, as might have been expected, but to the Rose Theatre. According to April De Angelis, the playwright who adapted the novels for the stage, the Rose Theatre in Kingston came to the project early, approaching Ferrante’s publishers before “Ferrante Fever” became an international phenomenon: “When pitching, I just said things that I thought were true, like it had to be an ensemble, that it had so many wonderful opportunities for community scenes.... I thought that the neighbourhood is just so exciting on stage—you can bring the courtyard to life. And then there was this relationship between two women so the history of post-war Italy and the history of feminism and of class is all put through this complicated, truthful relationship between two women. That’s really unusual ... it’s still not the norm to have one woman at the centre of a play, but to have two.”

In response to an interviewer’s question as to how the nearly 1,600 pages of the Neapolitan Quartet into could be compressed into just four acts over two evenings, the director of the Rose Theatre production, Melly Still, acknowledged the impossibility of doing so: “There’s this strange, wonderful experience, which I think is particular to reading. It becomes personal and consummate.” She thinks a television series could manage to convey the scope of the novel, but “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 ... you exist in a distilled Ferrante world.” Even with the greater opportunities afforded by a television series, there will be scenes omitted and minor characters eliminated.

Audiences and reviewers are so often disappointed with adaptations of literary works. They bring their expectations based on their conception of the book, and mixed reviews are inevitable. The Daily Mail’s Patrick Marmion described the Rose Theatre production as a “wild goose chase in which the adapter, April De Angelis, demonstrates a tin ear for dialogue” and deplored the “cartoon characters and leaden dialogue.”35 Gary Naylor’s lukewarm review in Broadway World questions whether a theatrical adaptation of the Neapolitan novels is possible: “By covering the 66 years time span of the four novels in one theatrical gulp, too many complexities are lost in the need to compress the narrative.” The Guardian’s Susannah Clapp had a very different response: “Against the odds, adapter April De Angelis and director Melly Still have pulled off their dramatization in My Brilliant Friend. There are absences and some awkwardness, but the essence of the books—intensity—wins through.” The responses to the television series may be even more divided than those to the radio program and to the stage production, as the audience will no doubt be much larger and will probably include many who have not read the novels. The television series will in all likelihood increase sales of the novels; “Ferrante Fever” shows no signs of abating.