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.’