On the one occasion when I visited Naples, the plane from Barcelona was packed with shouting Italians. They broke into exuberant cheers when we completed a routine landing, and clambered over the seats to pinch my cheek. My taxi driver got lost and it took hours to find my Airbnb, in an outlying block of flats with great chunks loose and crumbling from its garish orange façade. The airline, it goes without saying, had lost my bag, and the husband and wife who rented out the room wasted no time in selling me a toothbrush. I spoke no Italian save a few words of Dante, and they no English, but when my Italian-speaking friend arrived the next day he found he could understand them no better than I could. To blame, the notorious Neapolitan dialect.
HBO’s much-anticipated and lavishly funded My Brilliant Friend adapts the international sensation that is the Elena Ferrante novels, four books about two women from a Neapolitan slum who come of age in the decades following the Second World War. Visually, the dreariness in Saverio Costanzo’s production is spot-on. The poverty is palpable. The men of this Neapolitan neighborhood sit upright in church in drab suits and collarless shirts buttoned to the neck, only to rush outside when a debtor is pulled bodily out of the service and brutalized by his loan shark for failing to pay up. But the scenery isn’t nearly squalid enough. There’s not enough dirt and grime for it to feel quite like the real Naples.
Devoted readers of the novels will be largely satisfied with the show’s faithful replication of each character and major event related in the books. But without Ferrante’s neurotic narrative voice, the obsessive and often brutally self-scorning way in which the author scrutinizes each episode, the plot’s punches all feel pulled. Which brings us to the inevitable question: who is Elena Ferrante?
In decades to come, tenure in university literature departments from Pisa to Princeton shall depend upon the assembly of most outlandish and pedantically documented answer to the Ferrante question. The agitation that surrounds it has greatly augmented the mystique, not to mention the sales, of the pseudonymous figure behind the novels. In 2016, a New York Review of Books article claimed to have found receipts that pointed indisputably to Anita Raja, a Roman translator born to a German Jewish mother who fled the Holocaust. A year later, a convincing work of computerized textual analysis claimed that “Ferrante’ was really Raja’s husband, Domenico Starnone, a well-known Neapolitan author.
A year has passed, and much of the smoke from the various purported smoking guns has seemingly dissipated. Everyone seems reluctant to be the boy who cried Ferrante — yet it seems hard to deny that the scent still leads somehow to Starnone and Raja. But which of them could it be? It’s a scandal either way. The Ferrante novels are written, are presented as novels of women and novels of Naples, fundamentally personal. Starnone is Neapolitan but no woman, Raja a woman but no Neapolitan.
Five pages of Starnone’s novel Ties are enough to make this correspondent hesitant to suppose his authorship. Starnone’s hysterical presentation of female supplication in the opening to Ties seems less complex and paranoid than one would expect from the author of the Ferrante novels. The way the books treat violence also seems somehow feminine: as a kind of sinister force under its own aegis. The Ferrante novels never manage to connect violence to politics in anything other than a talismanic way, while most novels by men tend to present political violence in a Clausewitzian manner, as politics by other means.
Most likely, Starnone and Raja collaborated to some extent on the books. I’d hazard that Raja did more of the drafting, for the reasons I mentioned above, but that Starnone did much to fill in details about Naples. Given his days as a Neapolitan schoolteacher, the school scenes, many of which play out in this first episode, are well within Starnone’s wheelhouse.
Starnone and Raja knew that between them, they had the material for a visceral, personal story about women in Naples. They also knew that to give the books the authenticity that would appeal to readers, their work would have to seem the genuine work of an individual. A pen-name would have to do the work of combining the experience of two lives into one.
Without the sophisticated inadequacy of the books’ narration, which I can only imagine comes from Raja, HBO’s My Brilliant Friend depends more on Starnone’s material: the cross-armed urchins, drab classrooms and tenement dramas of Naples. That’s all right for a soap opera, but not so much for high art.
Nick Burns works at the Hoover Institution, and writes for The New Criterion.