I read the four Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante around two years ago. I am one of the few men I know who have actually read them. The novels took the American literary world by storm and have been championed by women writers worldwide. Ferrante is a pseudonym, and the author’s real identity was fiercely protected by her publisher until an Italian journalist publicized her real name to an international uproar.
I remember listening to an NPR special in which several American women novelists, including one of my former students, railed about the betrayal. On one hand I understood their anger. An author should be able to write under a pseudonym without fear of being exposed. But the anger expressed also touched on charges of sexism and hinted that the motivation of the Italian journalist was partly a misogynistic attack.
I listened respectfully to the outcry and never formed a strong opinion one way or another. But the accusation of sexism did get me to think about the text itself, to explore my own feelings and reaction toward the novels. And now with the HBO series My Brilliant Friend whose first season I’ve watched and greatly admired, I find myself once again contemplating Ferrante’s Napolitano world.
It is a world a bit more familiar to me than most Americans because I know Italian and spend a good deal of time in Italy. I spend enough time in Italy to be aware of certain Italian stereotypes. Both when I read the Neopolitan novels and watched the television series, I noted that the women characters were much more interesting, nuanced and that the men were painted in broader strokes and in not nearly as favorable a light. The raging fathers and husbands who slap around their wives and children made a strong impression, and once again I worried, as I did when the television show, The Sopranos was popular, that the rage-spewing, womanizing stereotypes of Italian men would be reinforced by the television adaptation of Ferrante’s popular literary quartet.
In my humble opinion, the first of the Neopolitan novels, entitled My Brilliant Friend, is considerably stronger than the books that succeed it. I think my preference might have to do with the fact that I found Ferrante’s writing about childhood and growing pains incredibly effective, touching and humorous. A bit later on, when the main character, Elena, and her best friend, Lila, are seen as late adolescents, some of the magic of the earlier fiction is lost.
Elena eventually becomes an acclaimed novelist herself and much of the rest of the novels are concerned with her marriage and literary career and celebrity. The literary life in Italy is much more vibrant and interesting than the literary life here in the United States. For one thing, there are many, many more literary prizes and a noted and acclaimed writer enjoys a bit of a rock-star status.
Reading about all of this in Ferrante’s later novels surely would be interesting to most American readers. It is less so to this American reader. I am more familiar with the Italian literary life and the fierce competition for prizes and recognition. I am also familiar with how many writers are critically cut down for sport. This is precisely where my interest in Ferrante’s fiction lessened but I did keep on until I finished the last book. I think I kept reading avidly because the first-person narrator’s voice was so strong. The narration easily established an intimate relationship with the reader. The television adaptation accomplishes this splendidly, and I can’t remember the last time I so enjoyed a voice-over narration.
The HBO Trailer is below.