• Merve Emre: When Elena Ferrante is Your Editor

    "Part of me wishes I had never pursued her."

    Saverio Costanzo, the 43-year-old director of the HBO limited series My Brilliant Friend, is a haunted man. For over a decade, he has corresponded with a woman whose face he cannot see, whose voice he cannot hear, whose existence is confirmed only by the many thousands of words she has written dissecting his artistic choices. When he speaks of her, his black eyes turn upward, as if seeking a trace of her in the cracks of the ceiling or in some metaphysical plane high above the penthouse suite of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where Costanzo and the cast of My Brilliant Friend have arrived for HBO’s summer press tour. “Sometimes she was so strong,” he says gruffly. “I don’t know. I’m still trying to put everything together. It’s very hard. It was like working with a ghost.”

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    Costanzo’s ghost has a name: Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous author of the four beloved Neapolitan novels, of which My Brilliant Friend is the first to be adapted for television (it aired on HBO on November 18). She initially appeared to Costanzo in 2007, when he wrote to her Italian publishers, Sandro Fieri and Sandra Ozzoli Ferri at Edizioni E/O, to purchase the rights to Ferrante’s novella The Lost Daughter. He was drawn to Ferrante’s “very small, very accurate, very dangerous” story about Leda, a middle-aged English professor seized by guilt and a sense of inadequacy over the one-time abandonment of her husband and children. While summering on the Ionian coast, Leda imposes on a young mother and her daughter, stealing the little girl’s doll at the beach and watching as her mother tries, and fails, to contain the child’s pain. Costanzo read The Lost Daughter as a tragedy: a tale of mythic, unrequited suffering designed to hurt its readers. He wanted to see if, as a filmmaker, he could create a visual idiom to match Ferrante’s emotional brutality, her unparalleled ability to “hurt her readers.”

    Fieri and Ferri told him it was unlikely Ferrante would agree. She had been disappointed by the adaptations of her two previous novellas and, according to Costanzo, she wanted nothing more to do with what she called “the world of show business, with its many moving parts and conspicuous cash flow.” He had abandoned the idea when he received, through her publishers, an admiring message from Ferrante, issuing him a challenge. She was willing to cede him the rights to The Lost Daughter for six months, enough time for him to devise an adaptation that would please them both. For six months, Costanzo labored; for six months, The Lost Daughter resisted his intrusions, until finally, he told Ferrante he would renounce the rights. “I was thirty-years-old—just a kid,” he recalls.

    For nine years, Costanzo heard nothing from Ferrante. He grew up and became one of Italian cinema’s youngest and most challenging auteurs. He directed a series of claustrophobic dramas not unlike Ferrante’s novellas, featuring characters whose lonely and inscrutable acts of destruction—a teenager’s self-mutilation in The Solitude of Prime Numbers (2010), a mother’s slow starvation of her child in Hungry Hearts (2014)—poison the people around them. His characters, especially his female leads, inspired pity, fear, and revulsion before they inspired sympathy, and then only sparingly. Then, one day in 2016, he received a surprising phone call from Edizioni E/O informing him that he was one of the two directors Ferrante had suggested for a television adaptation of My Brilliant Friend; then, some weeks later, they called again to tell him the producers had chosen him to direct.

    “She just says, ‘This dialogue is ridiculous, the way she talks here is ridiculous.’”

    Costanzo was reluctant. The last thing he wanted to do with his career was adapt a novel—and not just any novel but a novel that had surpassed ordinary best-seller status to emerge, instead, as an event, a sensation, a literary pathology: “Ferrante fever,” as readers had taken to calling the frenzy that greeted the release of each Neapolitan novel—the midnight release parties; the grave discussions about the books’ covers; the jostling reviews, with each critic claiming to know her art more intimately than the critic who came before. He did not want to deal with the expectations of Ferrante’s readers, who were inclined to project onto her punishing tale of female friendship the faces of women they had once loved and hated in equal measure. But My Brilliant Friend was the rarest of opportunities: a second chance for him to create his own story with Elena Ferrate. “She was giving me her hands and saying, ‘I did it. Why don’t you do it?’” he tells me, reaching his hands into the empty space before him, as if she might appear to fold them into hers.

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    Now when Costanzo talks about Ferrante, it is with a deference one rarely sees directors exercise toward writers whose work they adapt. She has commented by email on drafts of all eight of his scripts. She has flagged moments when his dialogue verges on the melodramatic. (“She just says, ‘This dialogue is ridiculous, the way she talks here is ridiculous.’”) She has protected him from serious missteps, like when he thought to cut the loud, quarrelsome wedding banquet that ends My Brilliant Friend from the series because he was over budget and running behind schedule. (“She said, “Listen, the first moment I thought about My Brilliant Friend, the first image I had was a banquet, a very vulgar banquet of Neapolitan life. Please put the banquet back in.”) “She is very strong,” Costanzo repeated, permitting himself a sheepish little laugh. “I like that.” When he recalls all the times he has risked disappointing her, he pouts, like a child who has failed, yet again, to live up to his mother’s expectations.


    The Neapolitan novels tell the story of a writer, also named Elena (“Lenù” for short), whose subject is the filth of the neighborhood in Naples where she grew up and her long acquaintance with Lila, the brilliant, disagreeable classmate she leaves behind and returns to intermittently over the next years. When Lila disappears without warning at the age of sixty-six, leaving behind no clothes, shoes, letters, or photographs to testify to her existence, Lenù decides to write about their long and troublesome relationship: their shared love of reading, the education they defied their parents to pursue, the writing they collaborated on, the men they both loved, the children they raised together, all set against the backdrop of the Italian Republic’s growing social and political turbulence. Spurred by anger and a desire for vengeance, Lenù sets out to counter Lila’s self-erasure by preserving her life in the form a novel, making their history irrevocably present in her reader’s imagination.

    Though the novels are billed as tales of female friendship, friendship always skates on the edge of irony—intimacy is inseparable from violation. Lenù is the one making art out of Lila’s life, but she suspects that Lila has driven her to do it, that the pleasure she derives from writing and reading is spiked by the pain of submitting to another’s will. It is a fitting model for the relationship Ferrante’s readers have with her novels, which are universally celebrated for their addictiveness. One is pulled, sometimes dragged, along by Ferrante’s prose with an intensity that seems at once utterly singular and reassuringly dispersed. To read her novels is to feel that one is drawing on a reservoir of shared emotion—rage, disgust, pity, indignation, tenderness—to which one has somehow, secretly, contributed.

    Ferrante’s women are inscrutable, their minds deep and disordered and disinclined to sentimentality, to easy morals. As a narrator, Lenù recalls her younger self tentatively, piecing together hypotheses that tend to obscure rather than clarify her motivations. Her choice phrases in examining her actions are maybe, or, and who knows. “Maybe, I thought, I’ve given too much weight to the cultivated use of reason, to good reading, to well controlled language, to political affiliation,” she reflects on her education, the reason she has escaped the neighborhood while Lila has stayed behind. “Maybe in the face of abandonment we are all the same.” There is consciousness here—the quickening of a mind eager to reflect on its past—but no interiority: no private, orderly, honest I that maps the depths and boundaries of the self.

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    Yet it is precisely because Ferrante’s characters are so undefined that they seem readily inhabited by others, both inside and outside the novel. “I realized that she wasn’t capable of thinking that she was herself and I was myself,” Lenù observes of Lila. It is a will to identification she reciprocates, though it is hard for her to admit it. “My model remained Lila, with her stubborn unreasonableness that refused to accept half measures” she writes. “Although I was now distance from her, I wanted to say and do what I imagined she would say and do if she had my tools, if she had not confined herself within the space of the neighborhood.” The I that Ferrate conjures is restless, unbounded, permeable to the monstrous desires that many women feel but few dare express. Her I is easy to mistake for your own estranged I.

    Though her characters’ minds are indefinite and abstract, their bodies are always present. The women in Ferrante’s novels bleed and break. They know the monotonous injuries inflicted on them by men seeking only their own satisfaction, as well as the frank, intense sexual pleasure that arrives when one least expects it. In an extraordinary scene toward the end of My Brilliant Friend when Lenù bathes Lila before her wedding and, many years later, remembers “the violent emotion that overwhelms you, so that it forces you to stay, to rest your gaze on the childish shoulders, on the breasts and stiffly cold nipples, on the narrow hips and the tense buttocks, on the black sex, on the long legs, on the tender knees, on the curved ankles, on the elegant feet.” Here there is no doubting I. There is only you—you, the reader—seduced into sharing the exquisite, confounding pleasure of desiring an imagined woman’s body.

    Literary anonymity, as Ferrante practices it, is not a puzzle—it is an expressive strategy. It has its styles and its goals.

    Lenù’s agitated gaze mirrors the desires of readers who have sought, behind the name Elena Ferrante, the flesh-and-blood person who has inflamed their imaginations. Since the publication of Troubling Love in 1991, Ferrante has abstained from interviews, festivals, prize ceremonies. It is not clear when her abstention turned into anonymity, or when that anonymity acquired its peculiar aura, but it might have been in the mid-1990s, when she began to correspond with journalists, answering their questions about her life, always with the caveat that her answers might be lies. By 2000, there was an impressive shortlist of people rumored to be Elena Ferrante—men, women, couples, collectives. In 2006, mathematicians and physicists at the University of Rome used stylometric analysis to compare her novels to a corpus of over 150 Italian novels, and they concluded that she was Italian novelist Domenico Starnone. Ten years later, reporter Claudio Gatti used Edizioni E/O’s leaked financial statements to name someone else, a woman, in the New York Review of Books. His disclosure was met with a public outcry that he had spoiled the fun.

    What fun, exactly? The theorist Michel Foucault once observed that literary anonymity was nothing more than a puzzle to be solved.

    But literary anonymity, as Ferrante practices it, is not a puzzle—it is an expressive strategy. It has its styles and its goals, one of which is to multiply and muddle the distinct egos of the author: Elena as the writer of the Neapolitan novels; Elena as their first-person narrator; Elena as a commentator on the novels she has written. Sometimes the tension that holds these egos in check is precisely calibrated, thrilling to behold. “Elena Ferrante is the author of several novels,” she wrote in an interview with The Guardian, weaving between the first and third person. “There is nothing mysterious about her, given how she manifests herself—perhaps even too much—in her own writing, the place where her creative life transpires in absolute fullness.” The final Neapolitan novel, The Story of the Lost Child, ends with Lenù writing a “remarkably successful story” about her and Lila called A Friendship, a double of the Neapolitan novels, which are full of urtexts written by Elena Greco. Armed with her anonymity, Ferrante has subsumed all traces of her life into an elaborate fiction and asked us, her readers, to help sustain its enchantment—to dissolve the boundaries between the Elenas until we can no longer disentangle fiction from reality or identify who among us is responsible for creating this enthralling state of affairs.

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    Ferrante often describes her novels as mysterious, inviolable creatures that have escaped her grasp and journeyed freely into the world. Their immortal life off a supplement to her mortal one—and suggests that we can revive the historical moment prior to authorship, before writers owned the words they wrote, before the spines of books came bearing names. Yet, paradoxically, Ferrante’s self-erasure has had the opposite eff from what she claims. It has resurrected a powerful, almost transcendent, myth of the author as removed from the realities of time and space, a creator whose novels spring from her head armored and fully formed, a theorist of her own conditions of existence. What other writer enjoys such power?


    It is dangerous to draw too close to that power; it convinces you that you can share in it. When I first asked Ferrante’s editor if I could interview her for this piece, she declined. Then she changed her mind for reasons unknown to me. It was impossible not to speculate about why she had capitulated. I was vain, imagining that the questions I had proposed to her editor about literary form and the politics of collaboration were smarter, more respectful, than the questions she was used to fielding about friendship or identity. I wanted to please, and I imagined that if I did, our exchange would vibrate with intellectual camararderie.

    Yet over the course of a two-month correspondence, which was mediated by her editor, my editor, and her translator, Ann Goldstein, the distance between us seemed only to expand. She answered questions I had not asked and ignored the ones I had. She got irritated, apologized, misinterpreted my phrasing—willfully, I suspected. When I asked her what living authors she enjoyed reading, she wrote, “I would have to give a very complex answer, talking about various stages of my life. I’ll answer you some other time.” When, I wondered, imagining that one day I might open my door and fill a children’s wagon full of moldy novels, with no address, no note, no glimpse of a telltale figure disappearing into the shadows.

    An interview is a collaboration too, though like all collaborations with Ferrante, an imbalanced one. Often, she answered my questions in the same oblique style as her narrator. “Maybe in more than a few cases I was overly frank,” she wrote when I ask her what instructions she gave Costanzo. “Maybe I intervened, with some presumptuousness, in irrelevant details.” She told me she thinks collaborations between women are more difficult than collaborations between a woman and a man, whose authority a woman can either submit to or pretend to recognize while pursuing her own agenda. “It’s more complicated to recognize the authority of another woman; tradition in that case is more fragile,” she wrote. “It works if, in a relationship between the person in charge and the subordinate, the first wants the other to grow and free herself from her subordinate status, and the second gains her autonomy without feeling obliged to diminish the other.”

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    As the subordinate, I could only strategize how to ask questions that would compel her to write useful answers for me. My initial strategy was to present myself as a new mother who found in Ferrante’s fiction the emotional tumult of motherhood as I am living it. In the note that preceded my questions, I tell her that I have found myself returning to the third book in the Neapolitan Series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, many times since having my two children. No other novel I have read captures the vicissitudes of motherhood with such precision: the power and vulnerability of caring for others, the intimacy and distance between mother and child. When I became a mother, it was painful to realize that my mother had a separate life, a different self, before she became my mother; painful too to think that my children might not realize this about me until it is too late.

    She did not acknowledge my note.

    I tried again with a question, only this time my tone was less sentimental, more acerbic. I observed that contemporary writing on motherhood has an irritating tendency to treat children as psychological impediments to creativity—as if a child must steal not only time and energy from his mother but also language and thought. But her novels are different: they entertain the possibility that motherhood might be an experience conducive to creativity, even when it is tiring or onerous. For a short time, Lila transforms motherhood into an act of grace, and though she finds her children burdensome, Lenù’s greatest professional success comes after she becomes a mother. What did she take to be the relationship between time spent taking care of one’s words and time spent take caring of one’s children?

    She was more receptive this time, if a little scolding. “I very much like the way you’ve formulated the question,” she wrote. “But I want to say that it’s not right to speak of motherhood in general. The troubles of the poor mother are different from those of the well-off mother, who can pay another woman to help her. But, whether the mother is rich or poor, if there is a real, powerful creative urge, the care of children, however much it absorbs and at times even consumes us, doesn’t win out over the care of words: one finds the time for both. Or at least that was my experience: I found the time when I was a terrified mother, without any support, and also when I was a well-off mother. So I will take the liberty of asserting that women should in no case give up the power of reproduction in the name of production.”

    There was something different about the style of this answer. The I she wielded seemed more present, more forceful, the defenseless voice of the writer behind the author. I ask her to say more about being a terrified mother. What, I asked, was the nature of that terror for her?

    She retreated, adopting the impersonal tone and banal generalities of the commentator once again. “I’m afraid of mothers who sacrifice their lives to their children,” she writes. “I’m afraid of mothers who surrender themselves completely and live for their children, who hide the difficulties of motherhood and pretend even to themselves to be perfect mothers.” It is tempting to rewrite these statements to reclaim the immediacy of her I: “I was afraid of sacrificing my life to my children; I was afraid of surrendering myself completely.” But nothing authorizes it. It may not even be the right interpretation; she may really be talking about her fear of other mothers. Why do I want to make it about her? To do so would be to traffic in fiction. But the traffic in fiction is pleasurable. It prompts me to study her language carefully, to appreciate anew the words she has chosen, the phrases she repeats, how easily she moves between sentences. It prompts me rewrite her words to project fears I may or may not have onto the figure of the author— the character she and I are sustaining. It lets me speak without speaking for myself.

    Last try. For the past two months, I told her, my two-year-old son has developed an obsession with her children’s book The Beach at Night. The book involves a self-pitying doll that a little girl abandons on the beach at sunset, preferring to play with her new pet cat. At night, the doll is discovered by a Mean Beach Attendant, a man who pulls a thin golden hook from his lips and forces it into the doll’s mouth, ripping from her a secret which she has guarded with great care: her name. It struck me as an unsubtle allegory for Ferrante’s anonymity, and it was hard to shake the sense that children were not its target audience. But my son has two copies of the book: one he keeps in his schoolbag, one for his bedside table, and sometimes before he goes to bed, he stares for a very long time at the strange, sad pictures of the doll.

    “I wrote The Beach at Night for a four-year-old friend of mine who, to her great disappointment, had just had a little sister,” she writes. “I was very surprised that my little book was considered unsuitable for young children—my friend had liked it. I’ve always believed that stories for children should have the same energy, the same authenticity, as good books for adults. It’s a mistake to think that childhood needs syrupy fables. The traditional fairy tales weren’t made with cotton candy.”

    Part of me wishes I had never pursued her. She eludes me, scolds me, ruins my pleasure in having written thoughtful questions.

    My son has also just had a little brother, I told her. He is also disappointed, and I use disappointment to mirror how I think she is using it: to minimize a child’s sense of abandonment, making his despair more palatable to the mother responsible for upending his world. Maybe my son is more discerning than I have realized. Maybe he has taken the book as it is, innocent of authors and allegories, and found in it a trace of his experience: a story that begins with the injury of replacement and ends with partial restitution— the reunion of the little girl, her doll, and, begrudgingly, the new cat. In his innocence, my son may be a better reader than I am.

    She did not respond.


    Part of me wishes I had never pursued her. She eludes me, scolds me, ruins my pleasure in having written thoughtful questions. She has made me self-conscious, exasperated. The entire time I have been writing this piece, I have felt a prickling sense of guilt. Ferrante wrote at the outset of our correspondence that she does not like it when a text is taken as an opportunity for talking about something else—the author, her readers. “I prefer work that concentrates on the page,” she writes. “A good critical work says to the reader: here’s where the author started from, here’s where he wanted to take me, here are the means he used, here are the goals he was aiming for, here are his debts to tradition, here’s why I liked or hated it.” I hear in this an implicit injunction, a command. I worry that I have behaved irredeemably.

    But why should I let her drag me where she wants me to go? Submitting to another’s will, staying faithful to their vision, may not do anyone any good—not the women who write essays, not the men who direct. Over the course of two years, I learn, Ferrante and Costanzo have exchanged regular emails, with screenwriter Francesco Pioccolo describing her as “a kind of supervisor” of his work. “There is nothing wrong with a man wanting to make a film from my books,” she wrote in The Guardian shortly after our interview. “But . . . even if he had a strongly defined vision of his own, I would ask him to respect my view, to adhere to my world, to enter the cage of my story without trying to drag it into his.” How had Ferrante coaxed Costanzo and his actresses, who have all read the novels, into the cage of her story? What were her instructions to them for transforming the uncertain stuff of Lenù’s consciousness into a definite series of images?

    I tell Ferrante that the actresses have read her novels, and I wonder what it is she hopes her youngest readers might glean from her books. “I don’t know how to answer you,” she writes. I take this to be an expression of irritation—I have asked her to address something off the page—and not bewilderment, because she proceeds to answer me. “I’d like the youngest readers to take from them the necessity of being properly prepared: not in order to be co-opted into male hierarchies but in order to construct a world different from the one we know, and to govern it,” she writes. “Reading good books, always studying, regardless of the work she intends to do, should be a part of every girl’s plan for her life. The only way not to let what we’ve gained be taken away from us is to be smart and capable, to learn to design the world better than men have so far done.”

    More important than love or friendship is the liberatory promise of a literary education—this is the interpretation of My Brilliant Friend that the actresses, with Costanzo and Ferrante as their teachers, have embraced more assiduously than most of the novel’s critics. Outside, the women of the neighborhood feud pointlessly over stupid men, but in the classroom, Lila and Lenù stake out a private battlefield, “challenging each other, without ever saying a word,” Ferrante writes (MBF, 27). From competition springs the promise of literary collaboration. Reading together morphs into writing together, and their prose, like Ferrante’s own, is mythic, spellbinding, a revelation of “the capacity that together—only together—we had to seize the mass of colors sounds, things, and people, and express it and give it power” (138). But when Lenù goes to middle school, and Lila does not, this simple divergence sets them on two different paths through life, though they come back together over the course of the four novels to think, to write, to care for each other’s children, to care for each other.

    When compared to HBO’s other contemporary offerings (Westworld, Game of Thrones), it seems unduly modest to adapt a story whose dramatic tension and pathos emerges from how two ordinary girls are brought together by literature only to be driven apart by their unequal access to literary culture. There is no rational explanation for this inequality: not intelligence (Lila is the more naturally gifted of the two), not diligence (Lila has a more determined and passionate mind), not family support (both girls’ parents are initially opposed to their education). There is something inexplicable, something extrinsic to the logic of the real world that touches Lenù and sets her on her upward climb out of the neighborhood. Yet this is what makes My Brilliant Friend a modern epic instead of a bildungsroman: the novel begins with an act of chance that originates outside the character and, over time, shapes her psychology, her place in the world—traces the boundaries of herself.

    Part of teaching the actresses and Costanzo how to read is teaching them how to map these invisible boundaries against the visible scenery of film. Though Ferrante pronounced the child Lila “perfect,” and the child Lenù “effective” at setting up the narrator’s “indecipherability,” their excellent performances do not stop the episodes from feeling constrained. Costanzo outsources the communication of the narrator’s emotions to a voiceover, which he worries Ferrante will find “cheesy.” Unlike the voiceover, which addresses the audience in formal Italian, the actresses speak in the 1950s Neapolitan dialect he and a team of linguists created for the series. The sets are realistic, but strenuously so, resembling the backdrops one often sees in heritage dramas, sufficiently dusty and poor but curiously underpopulated compared to the human density of Ferrante’s neighborhood. In the novels, the violence of the neighborhood is conveyed through fantasy, through Lenu’s imagination of the “tiny, almost invisible animals” that enter “the water and the food and the air, making our mothers, our grandmothers as angry as starving dogs” (MBF, 38). Costanzo treats her imagination bluntly: Lenù dreams that a sewer-grate vomits large, brown cockroaches that scutter down the streets and into the mouth of her sleeping mother.

    Where Ferrante’s guidance seems most apparent is in Costanzo’s attempt to make the depth and disorder of a character’s consciousness visible, a technique he and Ferrante both refer to as “acquiring density.” Density works by cutting against psychological realism, casting off deterministic explanations for why characters do what they do: a girl defies her father because of her nascent feminist sensibilities; a father beats his child because he believes women must be kept in their place. These interpretations may be true, but they are too abstract, too neat—they have little to do with how a reader experiences a character’s actions as real. “What decides the success of a character is often half a sentence, a noun, an adjective that jams the psychological machine like a wrench thrown into the works and produces an effect that is no longer that of a well-regulated device, but of flesh and blood, of genuine life, and therefore incoherent and unpredictable,” Ferrante writes to me. “It’s the moment when the psychological framework breaks and the character acquires density.”

    For Costanzo, density is key to a faithful adaptation, the hinge between word and image. “The thing she really told me was, ‘I care about the density,’” he explains in our interview. “We worked on that word a lot with the kids, also with the girls.” He illustrates the concept with a metaphor he has borrowed from Ferrante.

    Imagine that the lines an actress reads are a river that runs calmly along the surface of the earth. Then imagine that the actresses are the earth, and that under the earth is another river, a wilder one whose current leaps in the opposite direction, whose roar is muted. Every time the actress speaks her lines, she must off a glimpse of the river that runs beneath: the mysterious churn of her consciousness, the lawlessness of a person’s doubts or desires.

    Elsewhere Ferrante has referred to these hidden depths as frantumaglia, “an unstable landscape, an infinite aerial or aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self.” In the novels, Lila has brief spells of terror when she perceives the margins of the people around her dissolving, exposing their greed, their ferocity, their meanness; spells of chaos and destruction when—to borrow Ferrante’s metaphor—the river rises and floods the earth with “excruciating anguish . . . a vortex like-fracturing of material living and dead.” “She had the impression that something absolutely material, which had been present around her and around everyone and everything forever, but imperceptible, was breaking down the outlines of persons and things and revealing itself,” Ferrante writes in My Brilliant Friend (90). The senselessness of our inner lives, and the impossibility of representing that senselessness through language, is what density registers and conceals.

    The show does not always convey that senselessness. Sometimes the glances or grimaces intended to convey disorder simply make the actresses look confused or vacant. But when they—Ferrante, Costanzo, the actresses—get it right, it is electrifying. There is a magnificent scene in the second episode of My Brilliant Friend just after Lenù has been beaten for skipping school, when she and Lila gaze at each other from opposite ends of the courtyard where they live. It is a shot familiar from Costanzo’s recent films but intensified by Ferrante’s feminist sensibilities: the space between the girls hangs heavy with pain, injustice, loneliness, but also the dawning of a collective consciousness. One can sense the confused stirrings of opposition which, over the course of the four novels, will swell into a will to defiance, a desire for retribution, the mutual yearning to fight alongside each other—a desire we, as viewers, can share, just as we, as readers, have shared Ferrante’s I. It’s an opening of Ferrante’s cage, an invitation to join her in the shadows.


    the ferrante letters

    From The Ferrante Letters by Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards. Used with the permission of Columbia University Press.

    Merve Emre
    Merve Emre
    Merve Emre is associate professor of English at Oxford University and fellow of Worcester College. She holds a BA from Harvard and an MA, MPhil, and PhD from Yale. She is the author of two books: Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (University of Chicago Press); and The Personality Brokers (Doubleday), which investigates the strange, secret history of personality testing. Her essays and criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The New Republic, The Nation, The Walrus, Bookforum, Boston Review, The Baffler, n+1, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives in Oxford with her husband and two sons.

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