Like many tourists in Naples, I have only ever been there en route to somewhere else. For years the city has had a reputation for being dirty, dangerous and traffic-choked: why on earth would anyone choose to linger? But this has changed. Naples is becoming a destination in its own right, thanks in part to the huge popularity of the enigmatic author Elena Ferrante. And with the city’s rubbish-collection problem solved and new traffic restrictions in the centre, it is looking in better shape than it has done for decades.
Ferrante, who writes under a pseudonym, is the most important literary sensation to have emerged from Italy in a generation. Her quartet of Neapolitan Novels has sold more than 5.5 million copies worldwide. The New York Times observed that enthusiasm for the novels is so intense that it is being described in “epidemiological terms, making the phenomenon sound almost like an infectious disease”. Nor is Ferrante fever likely to cool any time soon: an Italian/American television adaptation of the first book My Brilliant Friend is under way. Filming starts in Naples next spring. The ultimate aim is to adapt all four novels over 32 episodes. I came late to the books, prompted to pick up the first volume by the outrage around Italian reporter Claudio Gatti’s controversial unmasking of Ferrante’s supposed true identity. Needless to say, I loved My Brilliant Friend and devoured the next three, gripped by Ferrante’s rich portrait of the hard lives and intense friendship of the two protagonists – Elena and Raffaella (who call each other Lenù and Lila) – who grow up in a poor, violent neighbourhood against a background of mafia vendettas and social and political unrest in the 1960s and 70s.
Naples is as much a character in Ferrante’s writing as Lenù and Lila themselves. Her “dark streets full of dangers, unregulated traffic, broken pavements, giant puddles … clogged sewers” work their way deep into your imagination. So you finish the Neapolitan novels not only with a sigh of regret, but an insistent desire to get to know the city for yourself.
“People began asking hotels and tour operators in the area: ‘How can we find the locations in the novels?’” says Caterina dei Vivo of Progetto Museo, a Naples-based cultural heritage preservation group. “They wanted to see the stradone, the Vomero, the Rettifilo, the Corso Umberto.” Progetto Museo quickly launched a Ferrante tour of the city earlier this year and several others have jumped on board since then.