The first episode of My Brilliant Friend is likely to cause both great excitement and deep anxiety. Excitement because Ferrante is a writer with an almost evangelical following. Her quartet of “Neapolitan novels” have sold close to a million copies in the UK, and 1.8m in Italy. When readers finish one book, they tend to devour all four, mesmerised by the taut depiction of a poor suburb and its characters over the course of many decades. But that invented world of a few families living cheek-by-jowl in postwar Italy is both exotically foreign and yet - with its universal themes of poverty, violence, alliances and aspiration – astonishingly familiar. The anxiety arises because the adaptation might erase not only how we’ve imagined the characters, but also their world.
Elisabetta Salvini, a feminist historian at the University of Parma, says that Ferrante “knows how to use perfectly the history of our country, weaving it into the depth and complexity of her characters.” For Adalgisa Giorgio, herself Neapolitan and a senior lecturer in Italian studies at the University of Bath, the friendship depicted in the books “is full of conflict and confrontation, but it’s the basis of their resistance to a world which tries to erase them.”
Yet, while Ferrante has become a subject of university study in the UK, there’s more reticence, even snootiness, about her in Italian academic circles. Here, realist plots are often less valued than experimental, highbrow works and some intellectuals sense something soap opera-ish about Ferrante. One Italian literary critic, Stefano Jossa, wrote a polemic recently under the provocative headline: “Ferrante shouldn’t be studied at university”. If she’s going to be studied, he wrote, it should be to analyse and deconstruct the mythography, not to add to it.