NEAPOLI­TAN FEAST

First sight­ings of a HBO drama­ti­sa­tion serve to re­mind how good Ital­ian tele­vi­sion can be, writes Pe­ter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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-

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