A Writer’s Journey
Out November 1
Elena Ferrante was born in Naples. She is the author of The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, and The Lost Daughter and the Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of The Lost Child). She is also the author of a children’s picture book illustrated by Mara Cerri, The Beach at Night.
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News & Reviews
I finally have a word to describe my fear of the fragmented world.
From a time before I can remember, I’ve refused to wear buttons. No one knows why. All I know is what my mother told me—that when I was about two years old I had a shirt I would not wear until she cut off the buttons. Did I cry or throw a tantrum? What did I say? My mother can’t tell me; she died many years ago.
I used to say that I was allergic to buttons, which is inaccurate. Buttons don’t make me break out in a rash or give me any trouble breathing. They simply disgust me. I remember how hideous I felt as a four-year-old wearing a polo I called “the clock shirt.” I hated its repeating pattern of red-and-blue alarm clocks, and I hated its small, clear, plastic buttons. To my mind, the only thing worse than small clear buttons are small, tortoise-shell brown buttons.
For a while, I hoped to find buttons I could tolerate wearing. In my mother’s view, my objection to wearing them was something I was going to have to outgrow, but by the time I was in second grade my aversion to buttons was an idiosyncrasy indulged by the adults who bought my clothing. I still don’t wear them.
Now I say I have a phobia of buttons, even though I am not afraid of them. Disgust, I have learned, plays a role in some phobias. Recently I Googled the keywords specific phobia disgust and discovered the case study of a nine-year-old boy who is the only other person I’ve ever found in the world whose feelings about buttons are (or were) something like mine. His phobia, however, was truly a disorder; his distress was so intense that he could not concentrate in school due to the buttons on his uniform. He responded to treatment with increased distress until it was understood that disgust rather than fear was the source of his anxiety. Afterward, his treatment involved handling buttons, exploring how and why he thought they were “gross,” and imagining such things as “hundreds of buttons falling all over his body.” This horrifies me as it might horrify you to imagine maggots falling all over your body, except that the image of soft, shapeless maggots doesn’t truly convey my horror of buttons, especially loose buttons: their glistening hardness, their cool, mass-produced roundness, and their ridged edges and holes. As I write these words, I feel my mind getting itchier and itchier, as though I’m breaking out in mental hives. I want to claw off my face.
The button phobia of the nine-year-old boy had a beginning and an end: it began when as a kindergartener he knocked over and spilled a jar of buttons, and it ended with his treatment. My phobia, on the other hand, seems to be without origin, a priori, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that so far it has had no end. My mother sometimes idly entertained the notion that hypnosis could uncover the reasons for it; perhaps it was the result of something that had happened to me in a previous life, she theorized. After years of studying the strange workings of my mind, I’ve arrived at a different theory, which is that my phobia arises from some atavistic part of my mind that perceives a deeper reality—that, like the whole world, the stuff I call “I” is assembled of small, alien pieces.
Though the term for a phobia like mine is specific phobia, a fear or aversion of a specific object or situation, in truth my unease can spiral out of control, into a generalized dread of drains, tile, bricks, images of the cellular structure of the body, and any repeating pattern of holes. A disturbing image can surprise me anywhere. In the weeks before my wedding, posters for a movie starring Nicolas Cage appeared in the subways of New York City in which the actor’s face was composed of bullets. It stuck in my mind; I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like to touch his cold, shiny, bumpy skin. At first, I thought that if I didn’t look at the posters as I walked the long hallway up from the subway to West 4th Street every day, I would forget it—I didn’t. Then, I thought maybe I could neutralize the power of the image by purposefully looking at the posters, but it continued to disturb me, even after I left the city for the Connecticut suburbs in the days before getting married. My mind elaborated on the image, again and again, until the day of my wedding, I imagined it was my face that was made of bullets, or that hundreds of buttons were sewn onto my face. And again and again I imagined the pieces of my face tumbling apart.
Frantumaglia is the title of a collection by Elena Ferrante of letters, interviews, and essays from 1991 through 2016, newly available in English. In a long letter to Giuliana Olivero and Camilla Valletti of the Italian monthly Indice, Ferrante explains the source of the title, saying (in what, given the recent potential unmasking of the person behind Ferrante’s pseudonym, may be an act of myth-making) that frantumaglia is a word that her mother “used to describe how she felt when she was racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart. She said that inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments.” In describing the frantumaglia, Ferrante uses such words as “disquiet,” “miscellaneous,” and “debris.” She explains that she does not know what her mother really meant by the term and that “I thought as a child that the frantumaglia made you sick, and that, on the other hand, someone who was sick was fated sooner or later to become frantumaglia.” I thrilled at this description, at Ferrante’s boldness in associating the frantumaglia with illness, reality, death: “The frantumaglia is an unstable landscape,” she writes, “an infinite aerial or aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self. The frantumaglia is the storehouse of time without the orderliness of a history, a story. The frantumaglia is an effect of the sense of loss, when we’re sure that everything that seems to us stable, lasting, an anchor for our life, will soon join that landscape of debris that we seem to see.” I was relieved.
Few people know about my phobia, because it is so peculiar that even I can hardly account for it; now I have a word I can use to tell the strangest thing about me, the way that my mind snags on certain objects of the world, allowing an inexplicably horrifying disorder to tumble in.
“Why might you have felt that you were going to pieces?” asked my therapist after my honeymoon. Her question seemed to be beside the point, because my terror seemed to have to do with something deeper than mere personality or the taking up of a new identity as a married woman. I remember looking out the window of the bed and breakfast where my husband and I stayed after the wedding. The sweet evening light illuminated the grass and trees, and I thought, Now I am married and one day I will die. The part of life that fairy tales tell about had for me come to an end.
Comparably mild though it was, I see something of the suffering I experienced in the days before my wedding in the terrifying and overwhelming episodes of dissolution that the character Lila suffers in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. During these episodes, Lila seems to perceive the world as it is: unstable and lacking clear boundaries even between the senses. “A tactile emotion would melt into a visual one, a visual one would melt into an olfactory one, ah, what is the real world, Lenù, nothing, nothing, nothing about which one can say conclusively: it’s like that,” Lila tells the narrator in the wake of one of these episodes. Her episodes of dissolving margins trouble me. I want to contradict Lila, correct her, believe that the world is not so violent and senseless as she says it is. Given my resistance to Lila’s understanding of things, I’ve often wondered why I’ve found so much pleasure in reading the Neapolitan Novels. For some time I assumed that I had simply been swept up in the narrator Lenù’s story, which spans sixteen hundred pages and six decades, taking pleasure in the narrative despite the disruptive central presence in it of Lila, who is always looking underneath the surface of things to the Fascist past, the Camorrist present, and the magma seething under the crust of the Earth. But the truth is that I take pleasure in Lila’s worldview, too, the one that it seems as though Lenù comes to share. “And this is how I see it today,” writes Lenù at the beginning of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: “it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth, it’s the universe, or universes. And shrewdness means hiding and hiding from oneself the true state of things.” I remember my excitement at reading these words, in their complete disavowal of transcendence.
Over the decades of interviews in Frantumaglia, a portrait emerges if not of the artist herself, then of Elena Ferrante’s writing process and aim: to give order to the frantumaglia, however provisional, and arrive at a literary truth through story. Although according to Ferrante this truth is “released exclusively by words used well, and it is realized entirely in the words that formulate it,” she rejects the making of beautiful language. She rejects, too, “stories in which someone is redeemed as confirmation that peace and happiness are possible, or that one can return to a private or public Eden.” To create a narrative from the frantumaglia is to embody it without taming it. “I cling to [the fictions] that are painful, those that arise from a profound crisis of all our illusions. I love unreal things when they show signs of firsthand knowledge of the terror, and hence and awareness that they areunreal, that they will not hold up for long against the collisions,” writes Ferrante.
To my surprise, I am like that too. I do not want to be cured, as was the nine-year-old boy who once shared my phobia. I do not want to accommodate myself to a world made of pieces, a world that includes buttons. In part, I resist because I wish to pretend that the world is other than what it really is. And in part, I resist because I want to continue to be troubled by the world.
by Jane Ciabattari
Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey
It’s been over a year since the release of the tremendously satisfying finale to the Neapolitan Quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, and Elena Ferrante’s name is still on everyone’s lips (and some other names are on some other lips, but I’ll let that lie). As someone who anticipated the fourth book with a rabid fanaticism I can only compare to my own teenage fervor for The Deathly Hallows, I completely understand why Ferrante Fever hasn’t fizzled out.
Simply put, the quartet was unlike any writing I’d encountered: an unsparing look at the frenzied, sometimes ugly, interior lives of two women and how complicated but how deep and giving a love/hate friendship can be. It didn’t shy away, it didn’t beautify, and it propelled you forward with such ferocity that putting down the book felt like hitting the brakes and sitting, dizzied, for however many moments you needed to gather yourself. That, my friends, is Ferrante Fever.
Who wouldn’t want more of that? Here’s where to turn when everything else pales in comparison.
1. FRANTUMAGLIA: A WRITER’S JOURNEY BY ELENA FERRANTE
If you don’t know, now you know. New work by Elena Ferrante arrives November 1, and to top it off, it’s a nonfiction glimpse into her private writing workshop. We are truly blessed and that’s all there is to say. If you haven’t already, go read everything she’s ever written. Amen.
By KATE SCHATZ
e first known author was an ancient Sumerian priestess named Enheduanna. The first novel was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Court in Japan. Women wrote plays in ancient Greece, poems in ancient Persia. Fast forward some centuries, and five of the world’s top ten bestselling authors are women. Women from all over the world have been creating, influencing, and contributing to literature since its inception. Yet google “greatest writers” and you still get this:
(If you scroll the right for a while you eventually get to Virginia Woolf, then Jane Austen. J.K. Rowling, one of those top-selling authors, eventually appears as well. Out of, like, sixty dudes.)
It’s probably not a huge shock to see a slew of white, male, American/British/Russian faces here — but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. So, to counteract that in some small way, I want to bring attention to just a few of the women writers from around the world who have produced or are producing beautiful, necessary works of literature. (And I really mean just a few. It’s a good thing I have a wordcount and a deadline, because this could be very, very long.) I’ve kept it to twentieth- and twenty-first-ccentury fiction writers (rad women poets is another article entirely), and have included writers who write in English and those whose works have been translated. These are women whose novels and stories show us worlds, cultures, lives, and truths that need to be known.
As a monolingual person, I experience a particular sadness when I think about the many stories I won’t get to know. A New York Times study found that less than four percent of the new adult fiction published in the U.S. is in translation. That’s a huge loss, especially when you consider the wise words of Susan Sontag: “To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom… Literature was freedom.” With that in mind, read on.
Elena Ferrante, Italy
“Elena Ferrante” is the pseudonym of the Italian novelist responsible for captivating much of the reading world for the past several years with her incredibly intense, complex, and heart-wrenching Neapolitan novels. The four books (My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; and The Story of the Lost Child) track the passionate and overwrought friendship of two Italian women as they grow up, come of age, and navigate adulthood in a violent, impoverished section of Naples. They give depth and legitimacy to platonic female friendship in a way that feels unprecedented. Prior to the Neapolitan novels, Ferrante published several other novels, and has most recently published a children’s book. Despite the dogged and often invasive pursuit of journalists, Ferrante maintains her anonymity, explaining that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.”
Rad Reads: all four books in the Neapolitan novel series
5 scariest lines from Elena Ferrante’s creepy children’s book The Beach at Night
Posted October 24 2016 — 11:27 AM EDT
Elena Ferrante has written her first children’s book… and it’s terrifying.
The Beach at Night is narrated by a doll named Celina forgotten by her owner on the beach. As night falls, she must endure endless horrors before she makes her way back home. Frights include a vicious beach attendant, his terrifying rake, and almost getting burned and swept out to sea.
In Ferrante’s world, dolls can talk because their owners put words in them that they store in their bodies. The evil beach attendant is determined to take Celina’s words—and her name—out of her mouth by force. The illustrations are creepy as well: even Celina, the protagonist, is wide-eyed and unsettling.
A far cry from her beloved Neapolitan Novels, The Beach At Nightcontains seriously scary moments. Here are the five most horrifying lines.
1. “The Big Rake appears to agree and sticks his teeth out even farther, as if to open up my chest.”
The Big Rake tries to murder Celina by tearing open her chest. Nope, not at all scary.
2. “The Fire finally did it. He leaned forward and grabbed me by the hem of my blue dress. He went ‘Flusss,’ and now the material is burning. It has a nasty smell. ‘Bad Fire,’ I chastise him, but he repeats ‘Fluss’ and spreads even farther, till he brushes my hand with his boiling breath.”
The doll is slowly burning to death. We’re not terrified, not one bit.
3. “He clicks his tongue and from between his lips a small hook emerges, like a raindrop. The Hook, hanging on a disgusting thread of saliva, drops down until it enters my mouth.”
The beach attendant tries to steal her words with the hook in his mouth. What nightmare world is this?
4. “And I’m about to drop onto the sand when a Dark Animal runs by. He grabs me in his teeth and keeps on running.”
5. “Your heart I’ll shred/Until it’s dead.”
Just one lyric from the many dark and terrifying songs that the beach attendant sings.
Accidentally left at the beach by a five-year-old girl named Mati, a doll endures a disturbing night by the sea in pseudonymous novelist Ferrante’s (nominal) first children’s book. Narrating in first person, the doll doesn’t mince words, whether about the cat that she fears has displaced her (“I hope he has diarrhea, and vomits, and stinks so much that Mati is grossed out and gets rid of him”) or about the Mean Beach Attendant who shows up, rakes the doll and other discarded objects into a pile, and sets them on fire, all while singing an obscene song (“Open your maw/ I’ve shit for your craw/ Drink up the pee/ Drink it for me”). Readers only learn the doll’s name, Celina, when the beach attendant pulls a hook from his mouth, “hanging on a disgusting thread of saliva,” to steal it from her. Cerri’s eerie scenes of the glassy-eyed doll are well-suited to the ominous nature of Ferrante’s story, but although Celina and Mati are eventually reunited, it’s the disconcerting combination of the doll’s intensely human emotions and complete lack of agency that leaves the strongest impression. Ages 6–10. (Nov.)
The love told of in L’amore molesto is a maddening kind of love. It can be, like the Italian word used to describe it, annoying, bothersome, irritating—nasty, even. Or, borrowing from the English translation of the novel, troubling. This love, between a mother and a daughter, is, one might say, the most primal kind of love. It is the original love. And while Ferrante’s novel does not reveal what love itself is, it certainly makes it clear that the act of loving and being loved is a viscous affair. One we cannot escape from, as it adheres to the self as skin does to flesh. We can only, this novel suggests, try to understand it, or rather, mold it and reimagine it in an effort to make it coherent—palatable. It is precisely this imaginative exercise that stands at the center of Ferrante’s first published novel, which opens with the death of a mother. Unlike Camus’s Meursault, Delia knows the exact date and place of her mother’s death: “Mia madre annegò la notte del 23 maggio, giorno del mio compleanno, nel tratto di mare di fronte alla località che chiamano Spaccavento, a pochi chilometri da Minturno” (8). This death, like the eponymous love, is primordial, inasmuch as it sets in motion Delia’s investigation of her mother’s last days. L’amore molesto, thus, opens with one of the essential tropes of the detective novel, and it borrows from the genre in that the action must move backwards in order to move forward. Yet Delia’s examination of her mother’s death is really a proxy for her investigation of the maternal figure (sagoma—figure, outline, contour, shape—is a word that repeatedly comes up in the novel) and the relationship that it bears to her past, present, and future self.
It is no coincidence that the event which inaugurates this process happens on the day of Delia’s birthday. Amalia’s death is the necessary catalyst for Delia’s rebirth, which can only be realized through the separation from the maternal womb. The occasion arrives, we might think, belatedly (forty five years, to the day). We see echoes here of Irigaray’s 1981 essay on mother-daughter relationships: “what I wanted from you Mother, was this: that in giving me life, you still remain alive” (quoted in Hirsch 137). Only through death can life come, and as the novel opens with this event, Delia must revisit the imaginary and real places of her childhood. Images of regression abound in the novel. Most prominent, perhaps, is the sea, the perennial trope of things generative. It is at once the place where Amalia’s life ends, and the place where, at the end of the book, Delia will come to have her own version of an epiphany. But it is the in-between—the journey to this epiphany—that takes up the bulk of the book. We learn that although Delia had left her native Naples years ago to live in Rome, she never succeeded in shaking off her mother’s influence. Whenever her mother visited her and took to clean the apartment, Delia confesses, she felt, curled up in bed, like a “bambina con le rughe” (16). This infantilization continues throughout the book, originating from Delia’s fear of abandonment—her constant clinging to her mother and the jealousy she feels at the thought of having to share her affection: “La sua socievolezza mi infastidiva” (17). What troubles her (what maddens, upsets her) about Amalia’s sociability is the realization that her mother is a woman of her own who is capable of giving herself over to other people besides her daughter. It must be said, however, that it is Amalia’s rapport with men that most troubles her daughter, as little to nothing is made of her affection for other women, not even her other daughters.
This fear of abandonment is present in Delia from her early childhood days, when she would impatiently wait for her mother by the window: “l’ansia diventava così incontenibile che debordava in tremiti del corpo” (29). In the face of this overflow, the child’s reaction, to lock herself in a closet, is telling. She sees this as “un antidote efficace” (32). The closet, an enclosed and dark space, is strongly suggestive of a womb in which the little girl takes refuge when overpowered by the fear of losing her mother. Such a tight space provides comfort and, of course, harks back to the prenatal stage, when mother and daughter inhabited the same body, neither separated by the act of birth nor estranged from each other by the phallocentric apparatus. It gives Delia a sense of grasp over her mother that she never truly achieves in reality. When she finally loses her, Delia’s first instinct is to hold on to her dead body “per non finire chissà dove” (56). Although it is clear that she will, in fact, end up somewhere, the fear expressed in this statement shows the extent to which daughter has molded her own self in association with, as well as against, the image (the figure) of the mother.
Once her mother has been taken by the sea, Delia is unanchored, even more so because she is abruptly confronted with her aging mother’s sexuality. The provocative underwear that Amalia was wearing when she drowned is presented as a clue that will advance the structure of the mystery, as well as tangible evidence of Delia’s suspicions (and fears) that her mother was, in fact, a sexual being. L’amore molesto is perhaps at its darkest and most poignant in the moments when we witness the ways in which the obsessive jealousy of Delia’s violent father (who, very tellingly, remains nameless) is mirrored in Delia herself. Certainly the parallels hold only to a very limited extent; Delia’s father remains steeped in, and a representative of, a patriarchal oppressive society. Nevertheless, Delia’s own policing of her mother’s life is many a time presented as a paternal inheritance. By paternal inheritance I do not only mean what her father in particular has passed on to her, but also what she has absorbed from the Neapolitan society in which she grew up. Such a society has not only set women against—and as the possession of—men, but it has also altered male relationships, making men alternate between a fiery protectiveness of what is perceived as one’s property and a complicity in the state of dominance. A simple ride on the tram, the novel suggests, suffices to witness this condition:
I passeggeri in piedi si curvavano su di noi respirandoci addosso. Le donne soffocavano tra i corpi maschili, sbuffando per quella vicinanza occasionale, fastidiosa anche se all’apparenza incolpevole. I maschi, nella ressa, si servivano delle femmine per giocare in silenzio tra sé e sé. Uno fissava una ragazza bruna con occhi ironici per vedere se abbassava lo sguardo. Uno pescava un po’ di pizzo tra un bottone e l’altro di una camicetta o arpionava con lo sguardo una bretella. (597)
Yet, in this world, Ferrante reminds us that it is not only men who police the female body, but even women themselves. Even when Delia recognizes that such a fiercely protective and territorial attitude was all but self-obliterating to her father, she internalizes his fears about Amalia’s body, especially when it is displayed in public: “Allora mi prendeva la smania di proteggere mia madre dal contatto con gli uomini, come avevo visto che faceva sempre mio padre in quella circostanza. Mi disponevo come uno scudo alle sue spalle e me ne stavo crocefissa alle gambe di lei […]” (612 emphasis mine).
Of course, this acquired anxiety damages Delia’s own relationship with her mother. Female as they are, Delia and the women around her have grown up speaking the language of the aggressor; they have been defined in terms that are fundamentally alien to their condition, and this has led to an estrangement both from themselves and from one another. Delia is aware of this fact (perhaps she is more critical of it in her mother than in herself) and alludes to it when she writes: “Forse adesso ero sotto quel cavalcavia perché […] di nuovo mia madre, prima che diventasse mia madre, fosse incalzata dall’uomo con cui avrebbe fatto l’amore, che l’avrebbe coperta col suo cognome, che l’avrebbe cancellata col suo alfabeto” (1428). In this sense, the English translation of the novel might take on a new meaning if we are willing to read troubling as a verb instead of an adjective: Troubling Love is about men troubling the love between women. The effacement instigated by the imposition of a phallocentric language obscures the relationships between women and renders communication more difficult. Having been oppressed and conditioned by the males around her, Delia must find a different way, a more feminine way perhaps, of understanding her relationship with her mother. This search can be formulated in terms of Kristeva’s chora or Cixous’s écriture feminine; thus, Delia’s main and most difficult task is to try to understand the mother-daughter relationship in intimate terms that are removed from those imposed by the men around her.
To what extent is this possible? Delia carries this inheritance like a burden. Her relationship to her mother has been so damaged that it, too, has become a burden. Ferrante literalizes this burden in the scene of the funeral: “Durante il funerale mi sorpresi a pensare che finalmente non avevo più l’obbligo di preoccuparmi per lei. Subito dopo avvertii un flusso tiepido e mi sentii bagnata tra le gambe” (67). As brilliant as this literary move is, there is many ways in which we can read Delia’s particularly violent period at her mother’s funeral. On the one hand, menstruation is a common signifier for the life that did not come to be realized; on the other hand, it is the ultimate affirmation of the possibility to create life. We are told that the discharge is particularly powerful (“Il flusso di sangue era copioso”). Its potency sets Delia, living and bleeding, in stark contrast with her mother, whose coffin she decides to carry on her shoulders along with other men, even if “le donne non portano bare in spalla.” The coffin, of course, becomes the literalized burden, a sort of object correlative. “Quando la bara era stata deposta nel carro,” Delia writes, “e questo si era avviato, erano bastati pochi passi e un sollievo colpevole perché la tensione precipitasse in quel fiotto segreto del ventre” (92). If the coffin precipitates and increases the blood flow, it is because, as mentioned above, Amalia’s death has become the rebirth of her daughter, and, in performing the ritualistic carrying of the coffin, Delia is, in a way, going through her own rite of initiation: a second first-menstruation, characterized by its force. This connection does not escape Delia, who very directly—and effectively—juxtaposes her and her mother’s situations: “Mia madre era stata sotterrata da becchini maleducati in fondo a un interrato maleodorante di ceri e di fiori marci. Io avevo mal di reni e crampi al ventre” (147).
There is certainly also the element of a bodily sense of release. On a superficial narrative level, Delia connects the realization that she does not need to worry about her mother anymore to her menstruation (“non avevo più l’obbligo di preoccuparmi per lei”), and thus presents it as a sort of breathing out and letting go. But it is more complicated than that. We learn that Delia is not able to shed a single tear for her mother. Her body, I would argue, finds a psychosomatic outlet for this bottled-up and unresolved anxiety in the stream of blood (in this book, bodily fluids—semen, urine, blood, tears, sweat—are as ubiquitous as they are almost undistinguishable from one another). In other words, Delia, at this point, is still reluctant to face many aspects of her relationship with Amalia. Although her journey has begun, she must still come to a fuller understanding of the inner mechanisms of her and her mother’s psychological rapport. And it is precisely as if her body, at that moment, were alerting her to something, for it is first and foremost through the physical experience—the sensual, and by extension, the sexual—that this understanding can come about.
Not by chance does Delia only manage to cry when, later that day, she remembers her own menstruating mother:
Vidi nella penombra mia madre a gambe larghe che sganciava una spilla di sicurezza, si staccava dal sesso, come se fossero incollati, dei panni di lino insanguinati, si girava senza sorpresa e mi diceva con calma: «Esci, che fai qui?». Scoppiai a piangere, per la prima volta dopo molti anni. Piansi battendo una mano quasi a intervalli fissi sul lavandino, come per imporre un ritmo alle lacrime. (119)
Delia’s imposition of a rhythm to her tears is reminiscent of Kristeva’s chora and the assumption that a more feminine language would be lyrical, highly attentive to rhythm, more instinctual and inextricably linked to the body. Regardless of whether one reads it in psychoanalytic terms, one can see how Ferrante’s highly curated prose in L’amore molesto is in itself a receptacle of meaning, detached from content. It is in the utterance itself, in the reimagining and wording of her past, that Delia will arrive at some sort of realization, as she acknowledges when, toward the end, she writes: “Dire è incatenare tempi e spazi perduti” (1763). The truth hides in the dark corners of her utterances (and we cannot fail to observe how comfortably this novel inhabits dark spaces). It also hides in the hidden spaces of the body. Delia remains profoundly marked by this scene because of its visceral quality, and it is the experience of inhabiting a female body in a male context that connects mother and daughter. Later in the book, the furtive quality of the moment discussed above will be replicated, though overturned, when Amalia accidentally walks into Delia’s room and catches her looking at her genitalia in a little mirror. This connection between the two women—with the burden it represents for Delia—is seemingly unbreakable. Any distance that she might try to impose between herself and her mother seems to ultimately vanish. Delia’s intense desire to dettach from her mother and finally become herself is shown in the juxtaposition between: “accadeva dopo che negli anni, per odio, per paura, avevo desiderato di perdere ogni radice in lei, fino alle più profonde […] Tutto rifatto, per diventare io e staccarmi da lei” (776), and, later in the book, “mi resi conto con tenerezza inattesa che invece avevo Amalia sotto la pelle, come un liquido caldo che mi era stato iniettato chissà quando” (1094). But part of Delia’s anxiety seems to come from the fact that the same was not true for her mother—that she did not have Amelia under her skin.
If there is constant regression in the book, brought about by compulsive remembrance, it is shown most glaringly in those moments when Delia wishes to connect with and understand her mother’s body, perhaps as a means to return to the prenatal stage. She promptly smells the brassiere that Amalia was wearing when she died. Similarly, when going through her mother’s apartment, she notices: “Di lato alla tazza c’era una busta della spazzatura semicolma. Dentro non c’erano rifiuti; c’era invece quel lezzo di corpo affaticato che conservano i panni sporchi o fatti di tessuto invecchiato, intrisi in ogni fibra degli umori di decenni” (247). She finds her mother in that stench, and later tries to inhabit her body by wearing her underwear. This act is executed as compensation for all those years she was denied the maternal body; not only would Amalia not allow her daughter to touch her, but she also remained “morbidamente ambigua come sapeva essere” (543). This maternal interdiction stands behind Delia’s desire to inhabit her mother’s body. The book is filled with such moments. Even when using her mother’s face cream, Delia remarks on the trace her mother’s finger has left. She goes on to erase it and leave her own trace on top of it. “Ciò che di lei non mi era stato concesso,” writes Delia, “volevo cancellarglielo dal corpo. Così niente più si sarebbe perso o disperso lontano da me, perché finalmente tutto era già stato perduto” (774). The desire for the annihilation of the other remains a fundamental part in the development of the self, and in this moment Delia seems to be reenacting Freud’s fort/da game. In other words, rather than submissively enduring her mother’s absence, Delia takes it on herself to anticipate the loss—take charge of it—by enabling it herself, and thus, in a way, keeping her mother all to herself.
Elizabeth Bishop told us how to be better equipped for loss. Practice losing farther, losing faster, she said. And although she remained skeptical about the results of such practice when it came to the big loss, she nonetheless kept losing compulsively. Delia, too, exemplifies the back and forth freighted with tension between losing and clinging. Language, in this context, is particularly relevant. Although I have mentioned that the women in L’amore molesto are forced to define and speak themselves with the language of the oppressor, Neapolitan dialect is, on one level, associated with Amalia. It is one of the fundamental aspects of her upbringing that Delia most staunchly attempts to leave behind: “Era la lingua di mia madre, che avevo cercato inutilmente di dimenticare insieme a tante altre cose sue” (149). But more than the language of her mother, Neapolitan becomes associated with the abuse inflicted on her mother by Naples and its men. For Delia, every iteration in Neapolitan becomes a reenactment of the violence inflicted on her and her mother. For this reason, she has tried—unsuccessfully—to detach herself completely from it by adopting a curated Italian (here, we are assuming, too, that Delia, and not Ferrante, is the author of the novel). Neapolitan becomes a narrative technique that enables both anamnesis and analepsis. Even before Delia comes back to her native Naples, she experiences a moment of regression after one of the cryptic calls she gets from her mother the night before her death. During this call, Amalia utters obscenities at her daughter over the phone: “Quelle oscenità mi causarono una scomposta regressione” (46).
In a way, then, even before the death that marks the beginning of a journey, Delia is propelled into her past life by the appearance of dialect. But this is not a joyful, nostalgic dialect, Ferrante warns us. It is a dialect that, in the book, is almost exclusively spoken in obscenities, yelled in insults, grunted and spat at passing women. It is tainted with abuse, as exemplified in one of the novel’s most disconcerting moments, when Caserta, “in un sibilo incalzante e sempre più sguaiato,” directs at Delia “un fiotto di oscenità in dialetto, un morbido rivolo di suoni che coinvolse in un frullato di seme, saliva, feci, orina, dentro orifizi d’ogni genere, me, le mie sorelle, mia madre” (131). This passage, perhaps more than any other in the text, highlights the interconnectedness of the bodily, the spoken word, and the ways in which the latter is used as a tool to suppress the former. The only other instance in the entire novel where the word fiottoappears is when Delia speaks of her menstruation—“quel fiotto segreto del ventre.” The word emphasizes the forceful discharge of both Delia’s body and Caserta’s oppressive words. Fiotto, a gush or spurt, conveys the sense of a sudden overflow, which the word “stream,” as used in the English translation, does not. More than that, the word juxtaposes the public setting of Caserta’s abuse (he is, after all, yelling at her in the street, in broad daylight) to the most intimate nature of menstruation, thus signaling just how engrained violence is and the extent to which aggression can penetrate into the darkest crevices of the self. This becomes more evident by the involvement of “me, my sisters, my mother.” Ferrante is being loud and clear: this is not an isolated event, but rather a singular occurrence of a common fact that involves the aggression perpetrated on women. In that moment, Caserta becomes everyman, in the way that Delia becomes everywoman. The frullato, a smoothie (or as Goldstein translates it, a concoction), takes this image even further, alluding to the consumption of this violence, the way in which these women—porous women—have to absorb abuse on a daily basis “dentro orifizi d’ogni genere.” This ingestion, Ferrante suggests, is as commonplace as the ingestion of food; it enters and is exchanged by bodies in the way that “semen, saliva, feces, and urine” are. Insults are the currency that Neapolitan men seem to trade in.
It is undoubtedly a conscious decision on Ferrante’s part not to incorporate any Neapolitan dialect in her novel. There is not one word of dialect in the book, and the narrative constantly distances itself from Neapolitan in different ways and on varying degrees. In the passage cited above, for instance, Delia narrates speech by saying she was reached by a “fiotto di oscenità in dialetto.” We do not know what these obscenities sound like in dialect, but their seamless incorporation into the narrative might make the lack of reported speech less conspicuous. This technique places more distance between the reader and the event that is being described, while, in a sense, suggesting that there is less distance between the narrator and the narrative, for the former has absorbed the latter. This last point might be pertinent insofar as we argue that Delia is trying to distance herself as much as she can from Neapolitan dialect, but is ultimately helpless as she was born into it, and is thus enveloped by it, at least subconsciously. At any rate, there is, on a conscious plane, a clear refusal to allow Neapolitan dialect any direct and active role in the narration. We see this even more clearly in those instances where Ferrante does report speech that is spoken in dialect; here, however, instead of transcribing the actual words, she reports them in standard Italian.
During her conversation with Caserta on the phone, we are told that he says: “«Non sono Amalia», in falsetto, e poi riprese in un dialetto strettissimo: «Lasciami all’ultimo piano la busta coi panni sporchi. Me l’avevi promessa. E guarda bene: troverai la valigia con le tue cose. Te l’ho messa lì»” (314). This is misleading; it might give off the impression that Delia is citing verbatim what Caserta has said, while, in reality, she is filtering his words through her own consciousness. What Caserta says in dialect, she translates into Italian. We must ask: why this insistence on keeping Neapolitan out of the picture? We get an answer in one of the moments when Delia herself narrates her speech in dialect: “Nei suoni che articolavo a disagio, c’era l’eco delle liti violente tra Amalia e mio padre, tra mio padre e i parenti di lei, tra lei e i parenti di mio padre” (149). Dialect, as I stated before, bears the imprint of the abuse that Delia and her mother have suffered. By trying to keep it at bay from her own life, and thus from her narrative, Delia is making an effort to distance herself from the violence, all the while showing how impossible it is. Dialect, like love, is viscous—it sticks to Delia and will not let go of her, just like her past: “Le oscenità in dialetto – le uniche oscenità che riuscivano a far combaciare nella mia testa suono e senso in modo da materializzare un sesso molesto per il suo realismo aggressivo, gaudente e vischioso” (1391).
This last passage links, once again, the linguistic and the bodily, enabling us to read in Delia’s aversion to Neapolitan not only a refusal to re-inhabit the violent spaces of her childhood, but also a fear of facing her mother’s sexuality, the “sesso molesto per il suo realismo aggressivo, gaudente e vischioso.” There are, in fact, no examples of joyful or satisfying sexuality in L’amore molesto. All sex seems to be just that, molesto. There is, of course, the image of Amalia as a liberated woman who enjoys her sexuality, but we only see this through the anxious memory of Delia, whose one sexual encounter with Antonio after the funeral is described in painfully awkward terms. There is an overflow (here, too) in Delia’s body, but contrary to what we would think, there is no gratification. We learn that her sexuality has been one of many ways in which she has tried to inhabit her mother’s skin. If she let Antonio touch her as a child, it was only because she wanted Antonio to become his father, so that she could become Delia: “Ero io ed ero lei. Io-lei ci incontravamo con Caserta” (1732). Similarly, when Antonio’s grandfather molests the five-year-old Delia, she reports to her father the incident, but as if it had happened between Caserta and Amalia. This last fact repositions the narrative and comes as a realization toward the end of the novel. On the one hand, Delia confesses to the own unreliability of her memory, while, on the other, by admitting to herself, and, by extension, to readers, that she was partly responsible for her parents’ divorce and Amalia’s punishment, her jealousy and desire to replace her father (and all men) come to the surface. It is implied, of course, that coming to the surface is the beginning of coming-to-terms.
So how exactly does this coming-to-terms happen, if indeed it does? I would suggest that it is through Delia’s recreation of her childhood in the period after her mother’s death that the process of detachment begins. The novel remains, in this aspect, unresolved, yet there is an inkling of hope that Delia might actually be able to—eventually—separate herself from her mother’s figure. This recreation, or simply the aspect of creation, is central to L’amore molesto. We must not forget that Amalia was a seamstress, and it is precisely through her profession, through creating garments, adapting fabrics to changing times and fads—by making something where nothing was, that Amalia is able to delineate the contours of her own identity, much as she would delineate the contours of dresses—the figures—on large pieces of fabric: “Mi piacque insperatamente, con sorpresa, quella donna che in qualche modo s’era inventata fino alla fine la sua storia giocando per conto suo con stoffe vuote” (1333). This is the ultimate legacy that she bequeaths to her daughter, whose uses her own kind of fabric—memories—to fabricate a story with which to make sense of her life. We soon find out that Amalia’s provocative underwear was, in fact, meant as a gift for her daughter. In light of this, we can argue that what she is giving Delia after her death is really a new skin, under which Amalia herself will live no longer.
It matters little whether Amalia actually had a sexual relationship with Caserta—or whether she did in fact cheat on her husband when Delia was young. What matters is that Delia can conjure up experiences—lived or imagined—from her past and fabricate something out of them. If childhood is a tissue of lies that endure in the imperfect, then it is the acknowledgment of this fact, perhaps, that constitutes truth. This is the shape that Delia’s ultimate realization takes: “La storia poteva essere più debole o più avvincente di quella che mi ero raccontata. Bastava tirare via un filo e seguirlo nella sua linearità semplificatoria” (1789). The story that Delia creates in her mind about her mother’s last hours might, for all that matters, have not happened at all; what counts is that it was formulated, that it took the shape of a story. The book ends on an ambiguous note. After drawing on her ID so as to make herself look like her mother, Delia writes: “Amalia c’era stata. Io ero Amalia” (1860). This complete identification with the mother figure might, on a more literal level, be taken as an assertion of the impossibility of ridding oneself of that figure. I would suggest, however, that it is only because she has finally come to terms with her own story, and because she can fully embrace the mother figure and identify with it, that Delia can finally delineate the contours of her own identity. That final act strikes me as more humorous, reflective of a more mature Delia who has left her mother and her old self not in the past, but in the imperfect. That is, in the continuous existence of things left behind.
Ferrante, Elena. L’amore Molesto. Roma: Edizioni e/o, 1999. Print.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Mother/daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. Google books.
Tanslated by Nicole Gounalis. The original Italian appeared online at Storie.
Elena Ferrante’s face in the Anglophone world today is that of her translator, Ann Goldstein. New Yorker editor, and guardian of its prestige, on March 30 of this year she returned as an ex-student to Bennington College—she left in 1971—where she met with a small group of students before taking part in an evening at a lecture hall on campus. BARBARA ALFANO, who has taught Italian literature at the Vermont college for years, gathered the testimony of Goldstein’s almost superhuman determination.
DANTE’S COMEDY AND THE NEW YORKER
What demon possessed you, at age 37, to learn Italian in order to read the Divine Comedy in the original and, furthermore, all of it, not just the Inferno, like most students in the United States? Was it the itch to discover this other world within the words of a person who recounted having been there, or were you overtaken by this mania because someone had explained to you that Dante is the father of the Italian language and, as the head copy-editor at the New Yorker, perhaps tired of embellishing others’ stories, eliminating useless adverbs and changing comma placements, you decided to learn a new language from its source?
Because you are also an editor of the magazine, a guardian of its prestige, and you know that certain things are either done well or not at all, and therefore to learn Italian you should start with Dante. Was it like that? That you were taken midway upon the difficult and industrious New Yorker journey?
This is what I wanted to ask Ann Goldstein (b. 1950), as soon as I met her, but we were seated in a classroom in Bennington, Vermont, in front of fifteen students eager to ask her questions about Elena Ferrante and Ferrante’s novels, all of which Ann has translated. She was as shy and surprised as the students to find herself at her alma mater, to which she hadn’t returned since 1971, the year she graduated with a degree in literature. She was seated between me and Ben Anastas,1 who had invited her and with whom I was teaching a course entitled “In Search of Elena Ferrante.”
When I finally had the opportunity to ask her why Dante, she responded that it was a pressing desire. After having read the Divine Comedy in English, “I wanted to read it in Italian and I convinced some colleagues that they, too, should learn Italian and read Dante.”
In that way, from 1987 onward, they studied Italian at the New Yorkerwith a private instructor once a week for many years, a habit that Ann and her colleagues have taken up again recently. In that first period of time, they started to read Dante after only a year of lessons. That same year, Goldstein, who has worked at the New Yorker since 1974, was simultaneously made head copy-editor and promoted to editor.
FROM ALDO BUZZI TO PRIMO LEVI AND FERRANTE
Before arriving at the New Yorker, Ann had studied comparative philology—Greek and Latin—for a brief period at University College, London. She also learned a little Sanskrit, but didn’t even think of translation until, in 1992, an Italian friend shared with her a short essay by Aldo Buzzi, “Chekov in Sondrio.” It was subsequently published in translation in the New Yorker; she said that she had tried her hand at translating it. In truth, she did much more than that: she won the PEN-Renato Poggioli Prize for translation for the volume of Buzzi’s collected writings, Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels (1996).
Since then, Ann Goldstein works on translation in all the free time she has left over from her job at the New Yorker—weekends, vacations, spare hours, and long nights. She has translated, in random order, Alessandro Baricco, Giacomo Leopardi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alessandro Piperno, Antonio Monda, Serena Vitale, Roberto Calasso, Giovanni Paolo II, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Primo Levi. She was the editor for the monumental work that is the translation of Levi’s three-volume complete works. She coordinated the work of nine translators and translated various pieces herself. It was a massive effort that took years, published in 2015, and it brought the translator, herself of Jewish origin, closer to the story of the Holocaust in Italy.
Fame, however, arrived thanks to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy. In September 2012, My Brilliant Friend was released in the U.S. and in January 2013, James Wood published a long article in the New Yorkerdedicated to Ferrante’s work. This marked the beginning of great international success, which quickly became ‘Ferrante fever’ with the publication of the final book in the cycle. The Story of the Lost Child is a candidate for the Man Booker International Prize, the prestigious prize that honors novels in translation.
Ann has translated all of Ferrante’s work, including the interviews. In November of this year La frantumaglia will also be released in translation, the book that complies more than twenty years’ worth of letters and various writings by Ferrante on the subject of her work. Ann’s relationship with Ferrante’s novels had already begun in 2005. As in the case of the Divine Comedy, the culprit was a book: The Days of Abandonment (2002), which enthralled her. Even though Europa Editions, sister press of the Italian E/O, had asked various translators to send only a short sample of work that they would like to do, Ann sent the publisher the entire novel. “I wanted that job!” she confessed to the students at Bennington with an intense look and a big grin, revealing the enthusiasm and professional rigor that have made her a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center (1995, 2006), the American Academy in Rome (1993-4, 2002, and the Guggenheim Foundation (2008).
A METICULOUS ARTISAN
While the students spoke with her, I glanced at the translation drafts she had brought with her to the class and that she had spread out on the desk for me with a restrained gesture, saying in a soft voice, “If these can be of use…” The answer I was looking for was there, in those drafts. There were no doodles, no confused notes in the margins, no long underlinings, no armies of question marks. There was nothing to indicate the translator’s torment, as I had imagined it. Instead, there were interruptions—words substituted for others, here and there, that lit up the sentences like a Christmas tree. A magic. A short pencil mark got rid of a word judged imperfect and the new word, written beautifully above, illuminated the entire sentence, gave it color, transformed it. In this way, I understood.
I understood that for an artisan of language, impassioned and meticulous, reading the Divine Comedy in English would have given her a great itch. Dante’s work doesn’t permit translation, only great betrayal, even when it’s done well. It would be an itch that only recourse to the original could scratch. The only cure for translation, it seems, is to become its practitioner.
Ann Goldstein is not merely the face of Elena Ferrante, as by now many overseas newspapers and magazines are calling her. Ann Goldstein, like every translator, creates what the author cannot: their work in another language. Translators don’t just lend their native language to a work. The organizers of the Man Booker International want this to be clear to everyone—the prize, starting this year, will be shared equally between the author and the translator.
Ann, congratulations on the nomination for the Man Booker International Prize. Have you and Elena Ferrante congratulated each other? Has she written to you?
Thank you. No, but we don’t have a relationship where we write each other regularly.
Has your relationship with her changed over the years?
Not much. In the beginning she was more reserved and when I had doubts I asked the editors at e/o, the Italian press. They would pass the questions on to Ferrante. I don’t know exactly why but I’ve kept up this ‘long distance’ relationship, so to speak, even though I imagine that now I could easily stay in touch with her through email.
The organizers of the Man Booker International decided, from this year on, to award translators alongside writers. Boyd Tonkin, president of the jury, spoke of first-class translations. Are they finally recognizing the translators’ role as equal to that of the author?
It’s a gratifying development, this recognition of the translator. I wouldn’t say that the translator is equal to the author, but obviously it’s important in the sense that a book wouldn’t exist in another language without the translator. Certainly all translators have had this experience of a review, where long passages from the book are quoted without reference to them, or to the fact that these passages have been translated from another language.
Elena Ferrante has said she is also a translator.2What effect does it have that the writer whose works you’ve been translating for more than ten years shares, in some sense, your profession and that she has complete trust in you (her words)? Is it common that one translator has such absolute trust in another?
I think that she recognizes and understands the difficulties of translation and therefore appreciates the work. I believe she reads English and has read the translations, at least of the first books.
Has it ever occurred to you to write a novel?
No. I leave that task to others.
The first novel of Ferrante’s that you translated was The Days of Abandonment and you did it all at once. Tell me about this experience.
It was an intense experience, as you can imagine. It’s book without any breathing room, in a certain sense, and this is communicated to the reader, who can feel suffocated. We’re in the mind of the protagonist and it is not a calm or easy place. Often I wanted to escape but it wasn’t possible, or only for a brief period. As the translator, I couldn’t escape, I had to go back to reading, to reviewing, to reflecting on the words, the sentences, and how to render them in English.
I won’t ask you if the translator is a traitor because you don’t like to betray: you stay as close as possible to the original text. Even so, with Ferrante’s Neapolitan cycle, you had to come to terms with an Italian that was purposefully rooted in the essence of Naples over time, with expressions like tamarro, scarparo, mappina, sciacquati in bocca. Did you have to betray, with a heavy heart? What was the biggest difficulty you encountered in translating the cycle?
I tried to find words or expressions that were not exactly slang, but more colloquial. I think that the most difficult thing was maintaining the intensity of the sentences, or the passages or paragraphs, and, at the same time, constructing fine English syntax. In The Story of the Lost Child,where Elena talks about the history of Naples, there are very complex descriptions, because it’s not only about places and a history unknown to Americans or Anglophones, but part of the setting.
Staying on the theme of faithfulness, I saw your name, for the very first time, as the translator of Alessandro Baricco’s City, and that work seemed perfect to me, very clean. It should be said that that book lends itself well to a fluid version in English, very close to the original. In fact, my first impression of City was that it was a novel suffused with America, even in its language. Baricco’s language, in other words, was inspired by America as a place.3 Did you notice that too? Are some styles easier to translate than others?
What you say is true, although I hadn’t thought about it in such explicit terms. City, a book I love—maybe I told you!—and which hasn’t received the attention it deserves, has a pretty American underpinning and for that reason it’s recognizable and, maybe, translatable. But every style has its own difficulties, even one that seems clear.
Before you, Italian literature in the Anglophone world bore the great signature of William Weaver, who passed away in 2013. Did you ever speak with him, even if not, ideally, in person, on your journey as a translator?
Yes, I knew him a bit—I knew some of his friends. We talked a bit, but when I had only just begun to translate. I visited him, once, in Italy—he had a house in Monte San Savino, near Arezzo, and there was a beautiful new room where he worked, which he called ‘the Eco chamber’, because it was built with the proceeds from The Name of the Rose. It’s a great story, but it indicates another difficulty translators face: the paltry compensation. Maybe the new Booker system will shed a little light on this problem.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing the translation of Something Written by Emanuele Trevi, a mix of autobiography/memoir and literary criticism of Pasolini’s Petrolio. It’s a fascinating text for me, having translated Petrolio, but it might not be for those who aren’t interested in Pasolini.
If it were up to you to propose a contemporary Italian author to translate, who would you choose and why?
I would like to translate Gli anni impossibili by Romano Bilenchi: it’s a series of three long short stories and I translated one of them, “The Chill,” but I think all three are necessary to render the power of Bilenchi’s writing. I wanted to translate Pasolini’s novels, but now I’ve done it, or at least I translated one of them4 (not including Petrolio, which I translated years ago).
Do you have a beloved book in the drawer that sooner or later you’ll translate?
Only in the sense that I’m behind on various projects.
She’s not running behind for her flight, however, which will take her to New Zealand to talk about Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi at the Auckland Writers Festival, ‘Down Under,’ as they say. She says goodbye to me from the airport in San Francisco. “That makes two of us,” I respond to her later, when she is already in the other hemisphere. “Tomorrow it’s my turn to talk about Ferrante.”
Aldo Buzzi, Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels, Random House, 1996.
Romano Bilenchi, The Chill, Europa Editions, 2009.
Ann Goldstein, “Remembering Updike,” The New Yorker, March 20, 2009.
Pia Pera, Lo’s Diary, Foxrock Books, 1999.
The Complete Works of Primo Levi, ed. Ann Goldstein, Liveright, 2015.
Pier Paolo Pasolini, Petrolio, Pantheon Books, 1997.
Elena Ferrante, “Our Fetid City,” The New Yorker, January 15, 2008.
James Wood, “Women on the Verge: The Fiction of Elena Ferrante,” The New Yorker, January 21, 2013.
Elena Ferrante’s Books Published in Translation by Europa Editions
The Days of Abandonment (2005)
Troubling Love (2006)
The Lost Daughter (2008)
My Brilliant Friend (2012)
The Story of a New Name (2013)
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014)
The Story of the Lost Child (2015)
- 1.Benjamin Anastas is the author of the novels The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance (2002, New York Times Notable Book), An Underachiever’s Diary (1998) and the memoir Too Good to Be True (2012). He teaches Literature at Bennington College. His writing has appeared in Harpers, The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications.
- 2.“Ecco perché mi nascondo” [“This is why I’m in hiding”], La Repubblica, October 26, 2003.
- 3.Translator’s note: the Italian phrase used by Alfano (“sciacquare i panni in Hudson”) is a play on Alessandro Manzoni’s (1785-1873) famous quote describing his rewriting of the novel The Betrothed (I promessi sposi). Manzoni famously re-wrote his masterpiece into Tuscan Italian, even though he was from Milan and the novel takes place in Lombardy.
- 4.Ragazzi di Vita, The Street Kids (2016).
[. . .] scrivere sapendo di non dover apparire genera uno spazio di libertà creativa assoluta. È un angolo mio che intendo difendere, ora che l’ho sperimentato. Se ne fossi privata, mi sentirei bruscamente impoverita.
(Elena Ferrante, La frantumaglia)
Non credo che di un testo si riesca a sapere di più se si hanno informazioni sulle letture e i gusti di chi l’ha scritto.
(Elena Ferrante, La frantumaglia)
When I wrote that Elena Ferrante’s identity should have been protected in the same way Italy protects the Marsican bear and the abortion law, I feared that the revelation of her biographical data would necessarily come as a diminishing act, as the scaling down of an artist whose work is already not regarded with the attention it deserves, in Italy. When the winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize was announced, I wondered if it was time for Ferrante to reveal her name in order to own her work. I never expected that somebody would do it for her and so deprive her of the right to remain anonymous. In how many ways could Claudio Gatti’s exposé of Elena Ferrante be bad? They have all been listed, shouted, explored, and reiterated within three days of its international publication on Il sole 24 ore, The New York Review of Books, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Mediapart. The vast majority of the reactions that the article has stirred internationally has been unanimous: It felt like punishment, something criminals deserve (here); It was a misogynistic attack on a woman whose only fault is to be successful, a failed attempt to diminish her (here and here); it advocates a misguided urge to necessarily know (here) without taking into account the authorial choices; it was a bad and ultimately pointless application of investigative journalism (here, and here); her million readers were definitely invested, and with good reasons, in her anonymity (here, here, and here); its logic is flawed and biased, since it accuses Ferrante of bringing this onto herself (here).
Gatti’s self-defense of his investigation seems to have worsened his case because it fails to justify with an acceptable reason his invasion of Anita Raja’s privacy—whether or not Elena Ferrante “lies” about her origins in La frantumaglia is not a good reason to pry into Raja’s real estate operations.
However, there is something undeniably positive that Gatti’s article accomplishes for readers and scholars of Ferrante: in spite of its intent, it confirms the absolute truth of Ferrante’s La frantumaglia as a programmatic work, completely coherent with the writer’s thought on authorship. La frantumaglia is a collection of essays, letters, reflections, and interviews that was published in Italy for the first time in 2003, later in 2007 in an expanded edition, and this year in a further expanded version.
“Frantumaglia” is a word that Ferrante borrows from her Neapolitan mother, “she pronounced frantummàglia” (La frantumaglia 94, my translation), and that refers to “a malaise that could not be defined otherwise and that hinted at a crowded, heterogeneous mix of things in her head, like rubbles floating on a brain’s muddy waters” (94). In November, the book will come out for the first time in English as Frantumaglia: A Writers Journey, translated by Ann Goldstein. Scholars of Ferrante have always treated La frantumaglia as a book that provides insight into the author’s poetics and style. To my knowledge, nobody has looked at it as a biography of sort, or even a collection of bits and pieces from real life. Gatti, showing little literary sensibility, opposes the reality of Anita Raja’s biographical data to Ferrante’s “lies.” He tells us Ferrante lied to her readers because she did not grow up in Naples; she didn’t have sisters, but only one brother; and her mother was not a Neapolitan seamstress, but a Jewish woman born in Worms, Germany. Given the evidence, Gatti adds with a logic that is hard to follow, by lying the author gave up her right to anonymity.
Rather than pondering if and why Anita Raja, who has never signed a novel as such, lied, one must ask the question of what it means for Ferrante to have grown up in Naples and to have had a Neapolitan seamstress as a mother. Here’s what she says to Goffredo Fofi in 1995: “With Naples, however, it’s never over, even from a distance. I have lived in other places for decent amounts of time, but this city is not any place, it is an extension of your body, a matrix of perception; it is the basis for the comparison of every experience. All that has been significant for me over time has Naples as its scenery and sounds in its dialect.” (La frantumaglia 60,) . Ferrante has embraced Naples as the place where she grew up in specific ways, it does not matter whether she lived in Naples every single day of her life as a child and a young adult, or whether she was going back every summer and at Christmas time. It does not matter whether her “sisters” were really sisters or maybe two of her best friends that she considered sisters and who lived in Naples. All this is irrelevant. The Naples Ferrante describes in her novels is undeniably true, as is the Naples she writes of in La frantumaglia, the one she calls “la mia Napoli.” Her authorial choice to disguise the details of her life must be accepted for La frantumaglia in the same way we do for her novels, when we take them as fiction that bears truth. About the relationship between her fiction and reality, Ferrante writes:
Then, there’s the issue of my creative choices [. . .] I reproduce situations in which people I know, or met in the past found themselves. I rely on real-life experiences but not in the way they actually occurred; rather, I consider as “really happened” only the impressions or the fantasies that stemmed from those experiences during the years in which they were lived. Thus, what I write is full of references to situations and events that really took place, but that I reorganize and reinvent in ways in which they never happened [. . .] I want my novel to take the longest possible distance, so that it can deliver its fictional truth and not the accidental bits and pieces of a biography, which it contains nonetheless. (La frantumaglia 55-56)
La frantumaglia must be read in this light, even if it is not a novel. In La frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante the author is telling the story of Ferrante the author, protecting the biographical details belonging to Anita Raja the translator—provided that Anita Raja is Elena Ferrante; this means that Ferrante is telling the story of what constitutes her authorship, while protecting the reality of her life. It is worthwhile to reproduce here entirely what she says to Goffredo Fofi to this regard:
Is there a way to protect an author’s right to choose to establish through her writing, once and for all, what of herself deserves to become public? The editorial market wants to know first and foremost if an author can be exploited as an intriguing public figure. In theory, if you surrender, you accept that your entire person with all her experiences and her affects, be put up for sale together with the book. But the sensitive nerves of a private life are too reactive; if you touch them, they can only put up a show of grief, or glee, or malevolence, or resentment (sometimes also generosity, but it is flaunted, whether you want it or not). For sure they cannot add anything to your work (La frantumaglia 56-57).
Hence, Ferrante prefers to tell us about a mother different from her real one but coherent with her development as an author. In La frantumaglia, she indicates her beginnings as a writer. She tells us that she came to the making of metaphors quite early in life, when she was not even fourteen and was reading Madame Bovary in its original French: “But France for me remained basically Yonville as I discovered it an afternoon of a few decades ago, when I thought I ran into the craft of making metaphors and into myself at the same time.” (187).
If we take into serious consideration the combination between making metaphors and encountering herself, we understand that in this juxtaposition “herself” is herself as a writer. In this short essay, Ferrante is in fact explaining her choices as an author in response to the Swedish editor of The Days of Abandonment, Bromberg. Bromberg decided at first not to publish The Days of Abandonment because they considered Olga’s behavior toward her children “immoral “(La frantumaglia 190). Ferrante replies by telling the experience of her encounter with a reprehensible literary mother, Emma Bovary:
I read Madame Bovary in my home town, Naples. I read it with difficulty, in its original French, by the imposition of an aloof and good professor. My mother tongue, Neapolitan, has layers of Greek, Latin, Arabic, German, Spanish, English, and French, a lot of French. “Leave me” in Neapolitan is “Làssame” and blood is” ‘o sanghe.” No wonder that Madame Bovary’s language seemed, here and there, my own language, the language by which my mum seemed to be Madame Bovary and she said “laisse-moi.” She also said “le sparadrap” (but she pronounced “ ‘o sparatràp”), the patch that I needed—while reading, I was Berthe—because I cut myself hitting against “la patère de cuivre.”
I understood then, for the first time, that geography, language, politics, and all the history of a people, for me were in the books I loved and which I could enter as if I were writing them myself. [. . .] For all my life, since then, I’ve been left with the doubt that at least once, and with Emma’s exact words–the same horrible words–my mother may have thought while looking at me, as Emma does with Berthe: “c’est une chose étrange comme cette enfant est laide!” [. . .] From France that sentence overwhelmed me and hit me right in the chest, it hits me even now, worse than the push by which Emma sent –sends—little Berthe against the dresser, against the copper corner. (188)
We find in this passage the nucleus of Ferrante’s major themes: the relationship with the mother, with Naples and its language, and with the feminine body. Three years later, in 2007, Ferrante tells Luisa Muraro and Marina Terragni:
Ferrante In my experience the predominance of the mother is absolute, without comparison [. . .]
Terragni e Muraro In you, is it the relationship with the mother that asks insistently to be narrated?
Ferrante I believe so. (La frantumaglia 210-11)
The relationship with the mother is not to be intended as the one existing between the woman who hides behind her pseudonym and her real mother, if not in terms of the experience generated also, but not only, by that relationship and which can be attributed to fictional characters, including a seamstress who might have never existed, or may have existed as somebody else’s mother. What counts is the narrability of that experience. In her response to Bromberg, Ferrante reveals to us the beginning of a relationship between mother and daughter that belongs to telling, to narration:
It was my mother who thought, but in her own language, “How ugly this child is!” [. . .] hence, over the years, I have been trying to remove that sentence from French and depose it somewhere in one of my pages, to write it myself in order to feel its weight, transfer it into my mother’s tongue, attribute it to her, hear it from her mouth, and understand whether this is a feminine sentence, if a woman can truly pronounce it, if I’ve ever thought it for my daughters, if, in conclusion, it must be rejected and erased, or accepted and re-worked, stolen from the masculine French page and transported into the female-daughter-mother language. (189-90)
Ferrante the author is the one who carries the experience that needs to be told but doesn’t necessarily need to be anchored for her readers to her real mother. Her choice of choosing a seamstress as a mother tells us that the author is also thinking of what and who has generated her as a writer. Elsa Morante is the most relevant of her literary mothers. It is not by chance that La frantumaglia’s second letter is the one Ferrante wrote to the Prize committee when she won the “Procida Prize Isola di Arturo – Elsa Morante” in 1992, for Troubling Love, the first being the letter that explains her decision not to reveal her identity.
In that letter Ferante tells of the inspiration she drew from Morante’s short story Lo scialle andaluso. She recalls that Morante’s words tell of how children see their mothers as always old, with shapeless bodies, as do their seamstresses who are incapable to see a mother’s body as such and cut a dress that shows its shape:
Instead, out of habit and without reflecting, they sew on a mother clothes that erase the woman, as if the latter were a plague for the former [. . .] I thought of these mothers’ seamstresses only now, while writing, but I’m very intrigued by them [. . .] the connection between cutting, dressing, and telling excites me [. . .] Maybe, when Elsa Morante talked about mothers and their seamstresses, she was also talking of the necessity to find again a mother’s true clothes [. . .] Or, maybe not. At any rate, I remember more of her images in which it would be nice to lose oneself in order to come back as new seamstresses to fight against the mistake of Shapelessness. (15-16).
The metaphor is established: Elena Ferrante the writer and not Anita Raja the translator (it doesn’t matter where the two overlap), has chosen sewing as the metaphor that generates her writing. Correcting the error of the old mothers’ seamstresses—giving mothers their bodies back and the truth that comes with them—is the task. Hence, to write of women means to become new seamstresses. In this context, if fighting the mistake of shapelessness is the writer’s goal, it makes perfect sense that her mother, the one who has begotten the writer, be a seamstress.
Why the author’s mother would be a Neapolitan is clear from what Ferrante says about the significance of Naples for her writing. It is there that the word frantummàglia originates and it titles a book that is anything but a collection of unrelated fragments. It is of no consequence whether in reality this Neapolitan seamstress was Ferrante’s mother, or her grandmother, a neighbor, an aunt, or somebody she had been told about. The mother she chose is no doubt the truest to her literary agenda, and to her poetics. Elena Ferrante could not have been more honest with us readers, and I thank Gatti for pushing us to confirm so much.
 The quotations in this essay are from the 2007 edition: Elena Ferrante, La frantumaglia, Roma, Edizione E/O.
 All translations in this essay are mine, as the official one, by Anne Goldstein, will appear November 1st. The original for the two quotations above reads: “[. . .] (lei pronunciava frantummàglia) [. . .] un malessere non altrimenti definibile che rimandava ad una folla di cose eterogenee nella testa, detriti su un’acqua limacciosa del cervello.”
 “Con Napoli, comunque, i conti non sono mai chiusi, anche a distanza. Sono vissuta non per breve tempo in altri luoghi, ma questa città non è un luogo qualsiasi, è un prolungamento del corpo, è una matrice della percezione, è il termine di paragone di ogni esperienza. Tutto ciò che per me è stato durevolmente significativo ha Napoli per scenario e suona nel suo dialetto.”
 “Poi c’è il problema delle mie scelte inventive [. . .] riproduco situazioni in cui si sono veramente trovate persone che conosco e ho conosciuto; mi rifaccio a esperienze “vere”, ma non per come si sono realmente compiute, piuttosto assumendo come “veramente accadute” soltanto le impressioni o le fantasticherie nate negli anni in cui quell’esperienza fu vissuta. Così ciò che scrivo è pieno di riferimenti a situazione ed eventi realmente verificatisi, ma riorganizzati e reinventati come non sono mai accaduti [. . .] Voglio, perciò, che il mio romanzo se ne vada il più lontano possibile proprio perché possa dare la sua verità romanzesca e non gli scampoli accidentali, che pur contiene, di autobiografia.”
 “C’è modo di tutelare il diritto di un autore alla scelta di fissare una volta per sempre, soltanto attraverso la propria scrittura, quanto di sé merita di diventare pubblico? Il mercato editoriale si preoccupa innanzitutto di sapere se l’autore è spendibile in modo da diventare personaggio accattivane e aiutare così il viaggio mercantile della sua opera. Se si cede, almeno in teoria, si accetta che l’intera persona, con tutte le sue esperienze e i suoi affetti, sia posta in vendita insieme al libro. Ma le nervature del privato sono troppo reattive. Se vanno allo scoperto, possono dare soltanto spettacolo di dolore o di allegria o di malevolenza o di astio (qualche volta anche di generosità, ma volenti o nolenti, esibita); sicuramente non possono aggiungere altro all’opera.”
 “Ma la Francia è rimasta sostanzialmente Yonville, come la scoprii un pomeriggio di qualche decennio fa, quando mi sembrò di imbattermi contemporaneamente nel mestiere di lavorare metafore e in me stessa”
 “Ho letto Madame Bovary nella mia città natale, Napoli. L’ho letto faticosamente, in originale, per imposizione di una professoressa algida e brava. La mia lingua madre, il napoletano, ha strati di greco, latino, arabo, tedesco, spagnolo, inglese e francese, parecchio francese. Lasciami, in napoletano, si dice làssame e il sangue si dice ‘o sanghe. Non c’è da meravigliarsi se la lingua di Madame Bovary mi sembrò, a tratti, la mia stessa lingua, la lingua con cui mia madre pareva Emma e diceva laisse-moi. Diceva pure le sparadrap (ma pronunciava ‘o sparatràp), il cerotto che bisognava mettere sul taglio che m’ero fatta –mentre leggevo ed ero Berthe – sbattendo contro la patère de cuivre.
Ho capito allora, per la prima volta, che la geografia, la lingua, la politica, tutta la storia di un popolo per me era nei libri che amavo e dentro cui potevo entrare come se li stessi scrivendo. [ . . .] Per tutta la vita, da allora, mi è rimasto il dubbio che mia madre, almeno una volta, esattamente con le parole di Emma – le stesse orribili parole – abbia pensato guardandomi, come fa Emma con Berthe: c’est une chose étrange comme cette enfant est laide! [. . .] Dalla Francia la frase mi arrivò addosso e mi colpì in mezzo al petto, mi colpisce tuttora, peggio dello spintone con cui Emma aveva mandato – manda – la piccola Berthe contro il comò, contro la pàtera di rame.”
 “Ferrante Nella mia esperienza, la preponderanza della madre è assoluta, senza termine di paragone [. . .] Terragni e Muraro È il rapporto con la madre che in lei chiede insistentemente di essere raccontato? Ferrante Credo di sì”
 “È mia madre che ha pensato, ma nella sua lingua, comm’è brutta chesta bambina [. . .] perciò cerco negli anni di levare dal francese quella frase e deporla da qualche parte in una pagina mia, scriverla io per sentirne il peso, trasportarla nella lingua di mia madre, attribuirgliela, sentirla dalla sua bocca e capire se è frase femminile, se una donna davvero può pronunciarla, se io l’ho mai pensata per le mie figlie, se insomma va respinta e cancellata o accolta e rilavorata, sottratta alla pagina in francese maschile e trasportata in lingua di femmina-figlia-madre.”
 Scolars have explored the influence of Elsa Morante on Elena Ferrante’s novels; to this regard see the works of Stefania Lucamante, A Moltitude of Women: The Challenges of the Contemporary Italian Novel, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2008; and Patrzia Sambuco, Corporeal Bonds. The Daughter-Mother Relationship in Twentieth-Century Italian Women’s Writing, Toronto, The University of Toronto Press, 2012. Ferrante herself has often mentioned Morante as her primary inspiration, for instance in an interview for Vanity Fair, published on August 27th, 2015, in which she says: “The novel that is fundamental for me is Elsa Morante’s House of Liars.”
 “Esse, anzi, per abitudine, in modo irriflessivo, tagliano addosso alla madre panni che cancellano la donna, come se la seconda fosse una lebbra per la prima [. . .] A queste sarte delle madri ho pensato solo adesso, mentre scrivo. Ma mi attraggono molto [. . .] mi appassiona il nesso tra tagliare, vestire, dire [. . .] Forse Elsa Morante quando parlava delle madri e delle loro sarte parlava anche della necessità di ritrovarne gli abiti veri [. . .]. O forse no. A ogni modo io ricordo altre sue immagini [. . .] dentro cui sarebbe bello abbandonarsi per risalire come nuove sarte a combattere l’errore dell’Informe.”
 Ferrante recounts her experience as a child with her mother the seamstress in the essay that closes the 2003 edition of La frantumaglia and bears the same title as the book.
The success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels has sparked worldwide buzz in and out of academia, in literary journals, and in book clubs. Ferrante is the author of seven novels, a collection of papers related to her work as a writer, and a children’s book, The Beach at Night.1 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), which she describes as “un malessere non altrimenti definibile che rimandava ad una folla di cose eterogenee nella testa, detriti su un’acqua limacciosa del cervello” (“a malaise that could not be defined otherwise and that hinted at a crowded, heterogeneous mix of things in her head, like rubbles floating on a brain’s muddy waters” [La frantumaglia; 94]). Ferrante’s compelling narrative dives into such muddy waters and surfaces from them with the strength of truth, where truth does not mean moral clarity, but stems from 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 Elena Ferrante’s novels and the significance of her work in the contemporary literary landscape.
As for who she might be, in light of the quite disturbing invasion of privacy that Anita Raja has undergone, and considering the fact that in both La frantumaglia and several other interviews Ferrante gives us enough detail about what of her life experience gets into her novels, I repeat here what I have previously noted in an article for Storie: who cares? But if we do, why do we? This Colloquy would welcome any contribution that convincingly argues why the author’s biographic data would cast more light on her fiction, or why knowing her name would be at all important, and for whom. In the meantime, I propose again Ferrante’s response to a reader who sought to know her identity: “La personalità di chi scrive storie è tutta nella virtualità dei suoi libri. Guardi li dentro e ci troverà gli occhi, il sesso, lo stile di vita, la classe sociale e la voce dell’es” (“The personality of those who write stories is contained entirely in the virtual worlds of their books. Look in there and you will find their eyes, sex, life style, social class, and the voice of their Id” [La frantumaglia199]).
A native of Naples, Italy, Barbara Alfano is a member of the faculty at Bennington