I think they are cockroaches, streaming out of the sewer by the thousands, but they might be rats — we see them from a distance, and because it is dark and there are no people in the shot, just the empty street and the dirty white cement of the housing block, it is hard to get a sense of scale. They crawl across the building’s outer wall, and then they are inside, pouring up the stairs and under the door into the apartment.
The scene is, literally, a bad dream: just before the creatures devour Lenù’s parents in their bed, the child jerks awake. But the camera, as matter-of-fact here as it is when Lenù is being beaten, or hangs the laundry, or reads, assures us that the swarm is not a nightmare from which she will ever really awaken. Our narrator — Elena Greco, the accomplished novelist and critic Lenù will become as an adult — assures us of this as well. “As a child, I imagined tiny animals that came out of ponds, the abandoned train cars, the stones, the dust, and made their way into the water, the food, the air, making our mothers as angry as starving dogs,” she remembers in a voiceover, as the pestilence descends. “The men were always getting furious, but then they calmed down, whereas the women flew into a rage that had no limit and no end.”
It’s hardly as though one forgets, while reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, about their setting. As though of its own accord, Lenù’s Naples — and, more specifically, the threadbare district on the city’s swampy periphery that she refers to only as the neighborhood, il rione — refuses to be forgotten. Lenù grows up fearing she will never escape, then does, only to get pulled back again and again. Indeed, if we read Ferrante as engaged in a project of urban naturalism, this is probably the main plot of the beloved, elusive series. The Italian director Saverio Costanzo’s television adaptation of the novels, now wrapping up its first season on HBO — the show is called My Brilliant Friend, after the first novel in Ferrante’s quartet — frequently works in this idiom, although like Ferrante, Costanzo often turns out to be doing something more complicated: the invasion of tiny animals in the show’s pilot episode, for instance, is filmed with gritty objectivity even as we are informed it is unreal.
But Ferrante’s ardent fans, at least in the United States, have cathected more intensely to a different aspect of the novels: the relationship between Lenù and Lila, her lifelong collaborator, muse, rival, and second self. The specificity of postwar working-class Naples has been overshadowed, in the course of the books’ reception, by the almost occult relatability of their structure of myth.
There is more to this than a bourgeois readerly insistence that all really good stories must ultimately be about oneself. Books teach us how to read them, and the Neapolitan novels do not exactly model what our therapists and exes call “boundaries.” Lila describes her own recurring bouts of madness as periods when margins dissolve; Lenù cannot read or write a book without imagining how her brilliant friend would approach the task. “Elena Ferrante” is the pseudonym for a writer who has played us so successfully that — at least, again, for American readers — the mystery of her identity, let alone her relationship to the protagonist who shares her first name, has somehow only intensified in the wake of her ostensible unmasking, two years ago, by an Italian journalist. Ferrante’s refusal of the author function, as the critic Merve Emre wrote recently, has “paradoxically . . . resurrected a powerful, almost transcendent, myth of the author as removed from the realities of time and space.” Like god — which is also to say, like a nineteenth-century vision of the novelist — Ferrante is everywhere because she is nowhere. Her characters are likewise “so undefined that they seem readily inhabited by others, both inside and outside the novel,” as Emre adds. “The ‘I’ that Ferrante conjures is restless, unbounded, permeable to the monstrous desires that many women feel but few dare express. It is easy to slip on and to mistake for your own.”
I did as I was told: When I read the Neapolitan novels three years ago, I fell in, hard, in a way that brought back prelapsarian childhood reading experiences of total absorption. I just looked up a short essay I wrote about the books while in the midst of them, and discovered that I had feverishly compared them not only to In Search of Lost Time and The Golden Notebook but also to, well, The Babysitters Club. I did it; I mistook Ferrante’s “I” for my own; and now I am watching a fleet of cockroaches, or rats, swarm Lenù’s apartment with a sense of building dread. The shame of having been caught out is part of it: how quickly I let myself forget the insistence of the rione, and how much further its details have receded, in my memory of the books, over the past three years.
But beneath the shame is horror. I cannot assimilate what the scene is showing me, cannot get further into this world; but I have no distance from it either, because the books themselves have already crawled inside. I imagine Ferrante rolling her eyes at this chiasmus of identification and alienation. Do I not understand, she demands, that the vermin have come to Lenù in a dream?
Costanzo’s adaptation has received mixed reviews; it has been praised for its beauty and its striking performances, but also accused of being plodding and overly literal, which it probably is. I miss Elena’s formidably ambivalent voice, which isn’t always captured in the bits of narration the television series has converted into voiceover. But the show has also taken my breath away in its rematerialization of Lenù and Lila’s world. In an early episode, the friends leave the neighborhood for the first time, ditching school in an attempt to finally see the sea just a couple of miles off. The palude, the scrubby marshland just beyond the train tracks that separates them from their destination, is as grey as the sky, but for the girls, clutching each other in wonder as they make their way through a suddenly appearing flock of sheep, it is the first glimpse of a horizon. They never arrive at the sea: it gets late, and Lila insists they turn back. Rain pours down; trucks pass and splatter them with mud on their return to the neighborhood. Lenù’s mother will beat her that night for her truancy.
We are six episodes into the season now, with one left to go. The girls are teenagers on paths skewing wildly apart. Part of Ferrante’s genius lies in her grasp of the freakish arbitrariness of adolescence, when social worlds grow to fill the size of their containers, with no particular rhyme or reason. The show seems to understand this too, and many of its best scenes involve misshapen groups. Lenù agrees to go steady with a boring boy to get ahead of Lila, then virtually forgets about him. Girls squeeze into the back of a car unsure of how large or how many they are. At one hyperreal house party, teens with bad skin and funny noses and sharp suits dance to “Good Golly Miss Molly” on the gramophone, until the scions of a fascist camorra family kick out the son of the communist bricklayer who has been accused of murdering their father. At another party, a rooftop fireworks battle on New Year’s Eve lights up the sky like a Delacroix. This time, the show’s imagery seems to be sweeping us into the rione, instead of sending us home. But then the fireworks battle becomes a gun battle, and Elena tells us, in a voiceover, that that was the terrible night Lila’s margins began to dissolve.
Marissa Brostoff is a writer and doctoral student in New York. This article was originally published by Paper View.