First sightings of a HBO dramatisation serve to remind how good Italian television can be, writes Peter Craven
It was hard to miss the furore when Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels — the fourvolume Italian page-turner — were coming out in translation. The first novel of the sequence, My Brilliant Friend, a story of two girlhood chums who touched each other so indelibly, who tussled and had moments of something like deep hatred for each other, set off the biggest kind of spark in the publishing world.
Everyone was talking about Ferrante’s saga in a way that nobody had heard an Italian book talked about since … well, at least since Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Or going back a bit further, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities or — was it possible? — Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, that improbable bestseller of my long-ago childhood that everyone knows (and knew from the start) was one of the greater novels of the 20th century.
Well, now My Brilliant Friend, the first part of Ferrante’s saga of two soul sisters, has been made into an eight-part HBO television series, directed with formidable artistry and a riveting sense of drama by Saverio Costanzo and with Ferrante herself — whoever she is, her identity remains a mystery — among the scriptwriters. There seems to be some evidence she is Anita Raja, a translator living in Rome, though there also has been the suggestion that the true author is Domenico Starnone, Raja’s husband. In any case it looks as if we’re going to get 32 hours of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet.
Ferrante’s reputation was brought home to this writer a couple of years ago when I was buying a couple of ducks — 11th-hour Christmas Eve ducks — from that dauntingly cultivated butcher, Signor Donati of Lygon Street. Despite the Christmas hustle, he found time to ask me, in intense Tuscan tones mitigated but not eliminated by more than 50 years in Carlton and Fitzroy, “Ah, Mr Craven, what do you think of Elena Ferrante? Is she the Italian Proust?” I was intrigued. Leonardo Donati, to give him his full name, a purveyor of fine meat who plays opera in his butcher shop — and whose ancestors are in Dante’s Divine Comedy (in Purgatorio, for usury, he thinks, though other sources suggest the pleasures of the table) — now tells me that Ferrante’s novels “just struck a chord. Those great blocks of time. It appealed to me and my sense of the Italian past. I was born in 1948 and arrived here in 1956.
“I was very engrossed. I waited a year to read the books because I wanted to read them in the original. So I got them the next time I was in Rome and I was a bit surprised because there was less of the Neapolitan dialect than I had ex- pected. There was the odd phrase, but most of it was fairly straightforward Italian. But it’s something that was certainly engaging. I mean it’s the best in that respect.”
He adds that he never seriously thought of Ferrante as the Italian Proust. “We know who the Italian Proust is. It is Italo Svevo, who knew James Joyce in Trieste. In Senilita and La Coscienza di Zeno!”
Donati, who once worked in his father’s bakery — the house that publisher and property developer Morry Schwartz and his art gallery owner wife Anna Schwartz were to live in — left school after third form but is manifestly “a cul-