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Essay
By Invitation
On a Change of Location in Season 2 of My Brilliant Friend

In the second season of HBO/RAI’s TV series My Brilliant Friend, Elena Greco meets Pietro Airota, a student at the prestigious university Elena is attending on a scholarship. Soon Pietro is besotted with her and after a lively lunch at which he introduces her to his parents and sister, he tells her to come visit him in Turin where his family lives. Pietro’s father, Professor Airota, is an esteemed and influential scholar; his mother, a sophisticated intellectual; and his sister, a professor of art history in Milan. Pietro’s elite Turinese family aids Elena’s social and professional ascent. At the end of the second season her first book gets published because of Adele’s connections.

 

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HBO

Figure 1. HBO advertisement

It makes perfect sense that the cultured Airota family should live in Turin. In the nineteenthcentury, Turin was unified Italy’s first capital, the home of the royal Savoy dynasty, and the crucible of political, scientific, cultural, and industrial power. And it is still considered a literary-cultural capital, the home of a major newspaper, important publishing houses, world-class museums, and a famous book fair. The poets and writers associated with Turin include Guido Gozzano, Cesare Pavese, Primo Levi, Lalla Romano, Italo Calvino, Natalia Ginzburg, Paolo Giordano, and Alessandro Baricco.

The TV series My Brilliant Friend, directed by Saverio Costanzo, is an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s four bestselling Neapolitan novels, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein. In the first two seasons the script follows closely the text of Ferrante’s first two novels, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of the New Name. But there is one striking discrepancy which emerges in the second season with the introduction of Pietro’s character. In the literary text, the Airota family hails from Genoa and not from Turin. This significant shift in location is bewildering, for the novels revisit Genoa several times as the home of the Airota family.

The change in setting from Genoa to Turin might be inconspicuous compared to the series’ overall faithful adaptation of Ferrante’s literary text. Costanzo, after all, is deploying his own stylistic tools to recreate the novels on screen and the series is interspersed with his intertextual nods or authorial gestures (Tabanelli 2019). But the idea that Elena’s future husband’s family is from Turin clashes with the key premise with the narrative foundation, in fact of the novels, and proposes a startling revision of Ferrante’s use of location.

 

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Figure 2. Piazza San Carlo, Turin

In the prologue which opens My Brilliant Friend Elena Greco is an established writer living in Turin (Fig. 2). One day she finds out that her childhood friend Lila has disappeared without a trace and sets out to write the story of their friendship. Costanzo’s adaptation uses voiceover to convey Elena’s first-person narration. He also adds a scene in which Lila appears as a ghost from the past to spur Elena’s writing. Although not in Ferrante’s original, this scene effectively conveys Lila’s haunting presence in Elena’s life despite her disappearance. Turin then is the location the place from where Elena is writing and narrating.

Elena, who has grown up in a poor and violent Neapolitan neighborhood, works hard all her life to assert herself as a woman writer, to prove that she is equal to, if not better than, the arrogant and misogynist male intellectual elite. Even if the Airotas’ connections jumpstart her career as a writer, her industriousness and perseverance sustain her success. When she is in her early 50s Elena moves to Turin to take a coveted job as the head of a small publishing house, therefore finally occupying the center of literary-cultural production. “I felt much more respected,” reflects Elena, “I would say in fact more powerful, than Adele had been in my eyes decades earlier” (The Story of the Lost Child, 452). Turin then stands for Elena’s professional success and for her definitive emancipation from an oppressive patriarchal culture.

The Neapolitan novels close with an epilogue set in Turin as well, bringing the reader back to their point of origin, closing the circle of Elena’s narration. We can say then that Turin serves as the narrative frame of Ferrante’s four volumes, that the story is enclosed within its spatial and symbolic coordinates. And lest readers overlook the city, Ferrante specifies the location of Elena’s Turin apartment near the Princess Isabella bridge and the Valentino park (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4).

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Princess Isabella bridge

Figure 3. Princess Isabella Bridge, Turin

How can we read Costanzo’s choice of Turin as Pietro Airota’s provenance within the larger framework of Ferrante’s texts?

To make Turin the home of Elena’s future husband’s family, the seat of their intellectual power, undoes the emancipatory energy the city has in Ferrante’s novels. For Elena to move to Turin (in the logic of the TV series) is tantamount to her being restored to a patriarchal setting, to the place of origins of her husband Pietro Airota and his influential father.

Turin as the home of the Airotas also destabilizes the frame of the Neapolitan novels, linking Elena’s narrative voice not to her vanished brilliant friend Lila, but to her father-in-law’s city and to her mother-in-law’s role in publishing her first book. Costanzo’s change of location therefore changes the premise of the novels, reconfiguring the story of their genesis.

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Apartment buildings

Figure 4. Apartment buildings near the Princess Isabella Bridge, Turin.

The significance of Turin as the symbolic-spatial setting of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels seems to have been lost in this translation from one medium to another. It is surprising that such a loss has been allowed by Costanzo’s impressive team which has produced an otherwise extraordinary series and lists Elena Ferrante herself among its screenplay writers.

I am curious how Costanzo will recreate the scenes set in Genoa in the third and fourth volume or Elena’s move to Turin and the subsequent closure of the narrative frame at the end of the fourth volume. Will the TV series revise its own revision of Ferrante’s original text?

 


Works Cited

Ferrante, Elena. The Story of the Lost Child. New York: Europa Editions, 2015.

Tabanelli, Roberta. Television Series Review: L’amica geniale / My Brillian Friend by Saverio Costanzo. Gender/sexuality/Italy, 6 (2019). http://www.gendersexualityitaly.com/33-saverio-costanzo-lamica-geniale-my-brilliant-friend/

 

 

 

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Elena Ferrante

The success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (2011-14) has sparked worldwide buzz in and out of academia, in literary journals, and in book clubs. Ferrante is the author of eight novels, a collection of papers related to her work as a writer, Frantumaglia, and a children’s book, The Beach at Night. [fn] 

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When it comes to Ferrante, we may feel, indeed, stranded on a beach, at night, left there to collect the tokens of her presence and whereabouts in this world. The tokens are words and in them we find the lucid exactness of worlds inhabited by characters who are as vivid and real as she is elusive. They deal with what the author has called frantumaglia, a term she borrows from her mother and her Neapolitan dialect (frantummàglia): "it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause" (Frantumaglia, Kindle edition). Ferrante’s compelling narrative dives into terribly muddy waters and surfaces from them with the strength of truth, where truth means not moral clarity but the unmistakable verity of naked human emotions. The origin of the word frantumaglia is very material; it refers, in fact, to a pile of fragments from broken objects that cannot be pieced together again.

This Colloquy seeks to bring together in one ongoing conversation, from a variety of intellectual perspectives, the voices of the international discourse about Ferrante’s novels and the significance of her work in the contemporary literary landscape.

As for who Ferrante might be, I propose again her response to a reader who sought to know her identity: "[. . .] what is better than reading in a room that is dark except for the light of a single reading lamp? Or what is better than the darkness of a theater or a cinema? The personality of a novelist exists utterly in the virtual realm of his or her books. Look there and you will find eyes, sex, lifestyle, social class, and the id" (Frantumaglia, Kindle edition)

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