A Writer’s Journey
Out November 1
Elena Ferrante is the author of The Days of Abandonment (Europa, 2005), Troubling Love (Europa, 2006), and The Lost Daughter (Europa 2008) and the four volumes of 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), published by Europa Editions between 2012 and 2015. She is also the author of a children’s picture book illustrated by Mara Cerri, The Beach at Night and a work of non-fiction, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey.
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News & Reviews
Le roman “Le nouveau nom” de la mystérieuse auteure italienne Elena Ferrante est “le meilleur livre de l’année” 2016, selon le classement établi par le magazine Lire et révélé jeudi soir.
“Aucune oeuvre ne nous aura plus séduit cette année que cette saga au long cours, née sous la plume d’une auteure anonyme”, a souligné la rédaction de Lire en annonçant son palmarès des 20 meilleurs livres de l’année.
Suite de “L’amie prodigieuse”, la grande série napolitaine imaginée par la romancière italienne, “Le nouveau nom” (Gallimard) poursuit l’histoire de Lila et Elena, adolescentes inséparables des faubourgs populaires de Naples qui feront le dur apprentissage de la vie, selon des routes qui vont bientôt diverger au fil de leurs passions contrariées.
Ce roman renoue “avec le souffle romanesque des romans du 19e siècle, sans esquiver les problématiques les plus modernes” comme l’émancipation féminine, a estimé Lire. “Elena Ferrante, l’écrivain, peut bien s’effacer, sa suite napolitaine restera comme un classique moderne, qu’on relira encore dans plusieurs années”.
Aux côtés d’Elena Ferrante, le palmarès 2016 de Lire réunit la fine fleur de l’année littéraire: Serge Joncour (meilleur livre français pour “Repose-toi sur moi”, Flammarion), le Britannique John le Carré (dans la catégorie Mémoires pour “Le tunnel aux pigeons”, Seuil), Négar Djavadi (meilleur 1er roman français pour “Désorientale”, Liana Levi), Jean-Baptiste del Amo (Révélation française pour “Règne animal”, Gallimard), Marie Darrieussecq (catégorie Art pour “Etre ici est une splendeur”, P.O.L.), Ivan Jablonka (catégorie Enquête pour “Laëtitia ou la fin des hommes”, Seuil), l’Américain Don Winslow (catégorie Polar pour “Cartel” Seuil)…
L’écrivain australien Richard Flanagan est, selon Lire, l’auteur du meilleur roman étranger pour “La route étroite vers le Nord lointain” (Actes Sud) et la Canadienne Emily St. John Mandel est la meilleure révélation étrangère pour “Station Eleven” (Rivages).
As a sop to the media, the reclusive author gives us Frantumaglia — a deafening Neapolitan jumble of stories, letters and stories within letters, guaranteed to keep us quiet
The complexities of love and marriage have sustained novelists from Jane Austen to Elena Ferrante. What do they tell us?
According to Anthony Trollope, “There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.” The marriage plot is considered one of the oldest narrative structures in literary history, originating with the troubadour poets and extending to contemporary novels and modern popular culture.
A line from François de La Rochefoucauld: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t ever heard love talked about,” forms the epigraph of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. Similarly, Alain de Botton quotes the same epigraph from de La Rochefoucauld in a New York Times article, using “that brilliant observer of human foibles” to strengthen his point: our style of loving is, to a significant extent, determined by what the prevailing environment dictates.
The complexities of marriage have provided ample fodder for novelists from Jane Austen to Karl Ove Knausgaard. Here are some of them. (…)
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante is one of Italy’s best-known contemporary novelists, who remains an enigma as she refuses the glare of publicity, preferring her fiction to represent her. In the first of her four Neapolitan novels, the heroine Elena Greco writes of Nino (her soon-to-be husband) that “he said things that I could never have thought, or at least said, with the same assurance, and he said them in strong, engaging Italian.”
A reader of these novels will be able to study the changing landscape of the heroine’s marriage, the cooling of her ardour with time as she develops her own confidence and career. Ferrante explores the dilemma of marital crisis. “What could I do to keep my life and my children together?” asks Elena, a quandary faced by many women in the throes of a marital breakdown.
It happened again: Your squad slept through brunch. Or worse, you couldn’t get a table for the crew but somehow squeezed yourself into a lonely bar seat to wallow in eggs Benedict alone. It’s all good, because you brought the company of some great nonfiction that’s much more entertaining than any mimosa-fueled conversation at this way too loud trendy brunch spot. Here’s what you’ll want to read while brunching solo.
‘Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey’ by Elena Ferrante
This new nonfiction account by the author known as Ferrante lets you get intimate with the person behind the pseudonym — you’ll forget you weren’t actually brunching with Ferrante herself. Decades of letters, personal writing, interviews and more are collected in this new look into Ferrante’s mysterious life and writing process.
Early in Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, Elena Ferrante acknowledges that she is going to lie. Even though Frantumaglia, a collection of letters, interviews, and other ephemera, is ostensibly non-fiction, it’s a label that seems too flexible, if not entirely meaningless. Ferrante is an unreliable narrator herself but she wouldn’t be the first woman, fictional or otherwise, who was purposefully untrustworthy.
The book’s title, Ferrante writes, is a word borrowed from her mother, a woman Ferrante describes as a talented dressmaker in Naples who spoke in dialect. “[My mother] said she that inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments. The frantumaglia depressed her,” she writes. In her mother’s hands, frantumaglia is both the haunting of history, of fragments of the self that continuously rattle, as well as the source of sadness. In some respect, it is a tabula rasa for womanhood. For Ferrante, the concept of frantumaglia is even more volatile:
The frantumaglia is an unstable landscape, 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 store house of time without the orderliness of history, a story.
The passage could be a manifesto for her novels: the search for the authentic self beneath the rubble of history and womanhood; the subsequent, catastrophic realization that the self is “fated to vanish” into the spectacle of the crowd. It’s a sophisticated passage, steeped in post-modern theories that Ferrante draws from with an elegant ease. And, because it’s Ferrante, the passage is beautifully executed, both evocative and vivid. In short, it’s a perfect Ferrante passage—everything a dedicated reader could possibly want from the writer of the Neapolitan Quartet is here.
And yet, Ferrante’s mother—the woman described in interviews and reproduced here in a loving passage about dressmaking and clothing—is fiction. We know now, after an investigation by the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti, that Elena Ferrante is likely Anita Raja, a translator whose mother fled Germany during the Holocaust. Raja’s mother was not a dressmaker, nor did she speak in Neapolitan dialect. How much of the passage is true—how much of Raja’s own biography is accurately presented throughout Frantumaglia—is unclear.
In these fragments, it’s impossible to tell where the fiction Ferrante ends and the real Raja begins. I’m not certain that the delineation matters. It doesn’t seem to matter who Ferrante actually is; it’s enough to know that she’s beautiful fiction. “The word is always flesh,” Ferrante writes to an interviewer, a winking notation that collapses the space between the women who populate her novels and the author herself.
Ferrante was always present in her novels, as she is here, in narrative fragments, in small pieces. It’s a point she returns to again and again in the interview transcripts included in Frantumaglia. In nearly every interview Ferrante is asked about her identity and subsequently asked how much of her books are autobiographical. In nearly every interview, Ferrante responds by saying that her novels are fiction and she draws from only her personal knowledge of human emotions, particularly their gendered expression. It was an answer that didn’t seem to assuage critics who either simply couldn’t believe that Lenu and Lila were pure creations or who simply wanted more and more of Ferrante’s story.
And yet Ferrante resisted those questions, dismissed them as part of an increasing spectacle that treats authorship as an end goal, rather than the novel itself. “The biographical path does not lead to the genius of a work; it’s only a micro-story on the side,” Ferrante writes. It’s perhaps why the hunt for her identity felt wrong. What would knowing about Anita Raja tell us about Elena Ferrante? Perhaps it could be a confirmation that Ferrante, long rumored to be a man or multiple people, wasn’t all that creative. Ferrante balks at both suggestions, she doesn’t believe that the author is “inessential” just inconsequential to good writing.
Perhaps also, as Ferrante suggests, the clamor for the celebrity author would finally be met, newspapers would be sold, traffic goals would be met, and culture writers could have more than just a good book, they could have a star. But when Ferrante was identified as Raja, readers resisted the identification. Such mundane knowledge seemed designed to ruin the magic of Ferrante, reduce her authoritative representation of gender to its dull realities. The person created by Ferrante—that new autobiography that quite clearly engaged in the magic of her novels—satisfies the reader’s craving of her otherworldliness. In Frantumaglia, you won’t find Ferrante as a real person who, like everyone, is a succession of boring details, of chores and schedules and financial obligations. Ferrante may grapple with the significance of relationships between mothers and daughters, or female friends, she isn’t interested in their minutiae, she is interested in piecing together the fragments.
So here is Ferrante in written fragments: she cranky and difficult, in her own words, she’s “neurotic.” She’s anxious and protective; warm and kind; a woman is who simultaneously politically engaged and an aesthete. She is also an intellectual, she freely cites Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, and the classics. She weaves them into letters personally and effortlessly and is grounded in the literature of university humanities departments. But her intellect isn’t cold, her application of theory isn’t done objectively—the women that populate her novels are not merely flat, fictional objects to Ferrante, rather they’re real and visceral (“the word is always flesh”).
In various letters, Ferrante writes about her characters as if they are flesh and blood women; she has real concerns about how the choices that she makes affect them (there are a number of deleted passages in the book, particularly from Days of Abandonment). The letters, taken together, make plain that Ferrante also knows the contours of these women, the shape of the feelings and their limitations. Olga, Lenu, and Lila seem as real in Frantumaglia as they do in their novels, largely because they are real to Ferrante.
Rendering real women, with their fraught relationships and anger, joy, anxieties, disappointment and sadness, has always been where Ferrante is at her most authentic; where she is her most truthful. But in Frantmuaglia, her first work of non-fiction, the reader finds one of Ferrante’s most convincing works of fiction: Elena Ferrante.
SERIOUSLY, GUYS, YOU LEFT OFF A NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER
November 29, 2016 By Emily Temple
Just before Thanksgiving, The New York Times Book Review published its list of the 100 Notable Books of 2016. This happens every year, of course, and usually, the choices aren’t particularly surprising. After all, 100 is a lot, and so the list is basically a series of nods. Nod nod nod. No real fanfare until the list of 10 comes out. But I have to say that this year’s list is a little perplexing—which is not to say it’s all bad. It’s lovely, for instance, to see great books from smaller presses—like Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathersand Melanie Finn’s The Gloaming—on there. But there are quite a few surprising exclusions—a few great books that somehow didn’t make the cut, and a few that were hyped so much that it just feels a little weird to see a list without them.
This all leads me to ask the obvious question: what does “notable” mean? The Book Review gives no hint. The scant information on the Notable Books page suggests that all books reviewed since December 6, 2015—which probably means that only books actually covered in the Book Review as opposed to the books section of the Times (but I’ll just roll my complaints about that into this other complaint)—are eligible, but past that it seems to be a matter of opinion and wizardry. Of course, I’ve nothing against opinion and wizardry; it’s how I live. But still—I have questions. A few notable exclusions from the list follow.
Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia
Turns out Ferrante can do wrong—but even if this book is no good, surely the avid and far-reaching conversation it inadvertently sparked in the literary world renders it notable?
Judith Thurman has written on Yves Saint Laurent and Proust; on Colette, the French authoress who broke away from every mold of her time; on Vera, wife of Vladimir Nabokov; on designer Isabel Toledo; on Marina Abramovich; on “Lost Women”, forgotten by history and by media. She has read the work of hundreds of women who wrote in other languages, in other centuries and have submerged in the voices of women and their trades.
“I started my career in journalism at Ms. Magazine, in the 1970s. It was the first feminist magazine. I wrote about “Lost Women”–mostly foreign language European writers who were not well known to American audiences. I found a niche, in other words. I think that is something young writers still have to do”
Since she started writing in her own column in The New Yorker and in each and every one of her books, she has explored fashion, the underlying codes of clothing, and beauty. For this admirer of the work of Walter Benjamin, Emily Dickinson, and Elena Ferrante, us women have a unique to see the world.
“Women have a distinctive perspective and voice. In this respect, I would refer you to the writings of Ferrante, on the subject. She has a lot to say in her newly published collection of essays and interviews, Frantumaglia. That is what most of the text is concerned with. But the minute a woman’s voice is raised, the minute she becomes combative, she is likely to be put down. See all the commentary on Hillary Clinton’s “shrillness.”
Judith was at the Gabo Festival in Medellin, and after sharing for four hours with journalists of all Ibero-America, I asked for her email to send her some question about Elena Ferrante, authoress she talked about for a couple of minutes, about being a women in this field, and about the media coverage of this past election in the United States.
¿How did you land in journalism?
I started my career in journalism at Ms. Magazine, in the 1970s. It was the first feminist magazine. I wrote about “Lost Women”–mostly foreign language European writers who were not well known to American audiences. I found a niche, in other words. I think that is something young writers still have to do.
¿How hard was it for a woman to be a journalist back in those days?
Women a little older than I am, Nora Ephron, for example, have written about the way they were ghettoized at national magazines in the 1950s and 1960s,–consigned to “women’s” stories, rather than hard news, or even expected to make coffee. Newsrooms are still rather macho, and while things have vastly improved, there is still inequality. The New Yorker has also been criticized for not featuring enough women writers. That is beginning to change as the millenial generation overtakes the baby boomers. Women war reporters existed, but they were a rarity. There are more of them today. The women of my generation gravitated to cultural reporting, or to the reporting of women’s issues. This is changing, too.
¿Do you break with the traditions and roles undertaken by the women in your household and family?
My mother was a Latin teacher, but she was forced to quit when she got married! In those days (the 1930s and 1940s), at least in Boston, teaching jobs were reserved for male breadwinners, or for single women who were helping to support their parents. But even though she became a stay-at-home mother, she always encouraged my writing. I didn’t have or feel any pressure from my family to get married and fade into the obscurity of domestic life.
¿Do you think us women have a distinctive perspective, our own voice?
Yes, I think women have a distinctive perspective and voice. In this respect, I would refer you to the writings of Ferrante, on the subject. She has a lot to say in her newly published collection of essays and interviews, Frantumaglia. That is what most of the text is concerned with. But the minute a woman’s voice is raised, the minute she becomes combative, she is likely to be put down. See all the commentary on Hillary Clinton’s “shrillness.”
¿Since when have you been immersed into discussions surrounding women and their trades?
I have spent most of my career thinking and writing about the female experience, and the forces that shape it.
¿Why is it important to reconcile with the legacy or the life path chosen by our mothers andgrandmothers?
The feminists of my generation were reluctant to engage with their ambivalence towards their mothers. They focused their rage on the “patriarchy.” Ferrante, again, is very interesting, even radical, on the subject of the mother/daughter bond, and the “hostile love” it engenders, which for her is a source of vitality. This is a very fertile field. I think women have been held back, in part, by the fear of outstripping their mothers; and also by the difficulties of separation, which can be experienced as a betrayal.
¿How did the idea of writing the essay “Swann Song” come up? How would you relate the work of Yves Saint Laurent with that of Proust?
The reportage on Saint Laurent was assigned, but I welcomed the opportunity. It took about six weeks. Saint Laurent was deeply inspired by Proust, and the world of gay estheticism of the fin de siecle, but it’s difficult to compare the work of a couturier to the work of a great novelist. That said, they were both supremely talented, supremely neurasthenic French artists steeped in the world of the haute bourgeoisie, and fascinated by its codes.
During the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Festival, you talked about author Elena Ferrante and how, regardless of her pseudonym, you knew those stories had been written by a woman. ¿What is the strength of a writer such as Ferrante?
Ferrante has a radical new woman’s voice–we haven’t heard it before. It’s fierce, it’s fearless, it’s visceral, yet it’s also deeply intellectual. It’s steeped in mythology, yet also in daily life. It seems to come from a place like the womb itself: bloody, viscous, nurturing, terrifying.
¿What is your opinión on the research conducted by journalist Claudio Gatti to discover Ferrante’s identity?
I think Gatti committed a violation that is rather like rape. He penetrated the private and vulnerable space of a woman against her express will, and stole something precious: her anonymity. He set out to break something and perhaps he did. I fervently hope she will not stop writing.
Why did it raised so much controversy and why was it described as sexist? ¿What does the current race for the White House have to say about the media?
I can’t answer question 13 simply. The media have, to some degree, created, or colluded in the creation, of the Trump monster. On the other hand, how could they not cover his rise? The Trump camp constantly rails at media bias, and yet the media also have the obligation to ferret out the truth behind his lies (or Hillary’s, for that matter), and they have done that, although the reporting of Trump’s atrocious views and actions has not managed, as it should have, as it would have in the case of any other candidate, disqualified him in the eyes of millions of voters.
¿What are the stories that, according to you, are missing from the literature made by women?
A new generation will have new stories to tell. Stories that touch on the evolution of our fixed ideas about gender and sexuality, motherhood, solitude, and autonomy.
Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia has been marketed as non-fiction. Does it matter if it isn’t?
ON October 2, the New York Review of Books published an article by the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti titled “Elena Ferrante: An Answer?” Gatti’s revelations were co-published by the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore (which commissioned Gatti’s investigation), the German newspaper Frankurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and the French website Mediapart. The question to which Gatti was offering a possible answer was that of Ferrante’s “real-world” identity.
The fantastic success of the Neapolitan Quartet–Ferrante sold 2.6 million books in the English-language market–transformed the author’s decision to publish pseudonymously from a journalistic irritant (Ferrante’s refusal to be interviewed in person made it impossible for critics to write a traditional profile) to a demurral that international notoriety made necessary. By writing under a pseudonym “I have gained,” Ferrante told Vanity Fair after the final installment of the quartet was published, “a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.”
Gatti appears to have understood Ferrante’s decision as a deliberate provocation. The timing of his “unveiling” seemed particularly directed at the publication of Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, a collection of Ferrante’s non-fiction, which now appears in English for the first time. His description of Frantumaglia is pointedly ungenerous–“a volume purporting in part to outline her family background”–and his prelude to the big reveal is a snide flourish: the woman behind Ferrante isn’t “the daughter of Neopolitan seamstress described in Frantumaglia,” he crows, she is “a Rome-based translator whose German-born mother fled the Holocaust and later married a Neopolitan magistrate.”
Writing for The Week, the critic Lili Loofbourow explainsFerrante’s claim that her mother was a dressmaker as a parable. “It is Ferrante-the-writer’s genesis story… It may not have been literally true, but it arguably explains quite a bit more about Ferrante’s intellectual formation than whatever her mother’s real job was.” Loofbourow’s analysis argues for the pleasure of reading Ferrante’s words through a broad thematic, rather than a specifically personal lens. Frantumaglia has been marketed as non-fiction, but perhaps it isn’t. It might be better described as criticism by an author who just happens to go by the same name as the writer whose works she is exploring.
IF Elena Ferrante’s novels–seven since 1992–can be said to be governed by a central metaphor, it is that of a woman falling apart. The phenomenon is best named in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. “From her unstuck head,” the novel’s narrator, Elena, writes of her friend Lila, “figures and voices of the day were emerging, floating through the room… Her heartbeats were now so powerful that they seemed capable of exploding the interlocking solidity of objects.” I would call this a panic attack. Lila calls it “dissolving boundaries.”
For Ferrante’s women, the lines between the body and the city, between personal and familial identity, between a friend’s mind and one’s own, are forever on the verge of collapse. Ferrante is particularly interested in tracking the moment of dissolution: how, where, and what is felt when a woman temporarily crosses from sanity into madness. In her first novel, Troubling Love, the narrator hallucinates her mother, whom she has just buried, in a funicular station. In The Days of Abandonment, Ferrante’s second novel, written a decade after her first, Olga, whose husband has just left her, finds she is suddenly unable to open her own front door. In The Lost Daughter, her third, a middle-aged professor vacationing at the beach steals a child’s doll and cannot bring herself to return it.
“Every interior state,” Ferrante told the Turkish journalist Yasemin Çongar in 2015, “is, ultimately, a magma that clashes with self-control, and it’s that magma we have to try to describe if we want the pages to have energy.” Ferrante’s female protagonists resist the magma. They prefer to hold the world at bay and their emotions in check; their memories of childhood are populated by neighborhood wives who, abandoned by their husbands, went crazy. Menaced by the specter of these feral women, Ferrante’s heroines labor to construct chilly, respectable personas. This makes their eventual loss of self-control all the more painful, for it is a loss not only of control but of self. And it is always a question of when, not if, the world will rush in and emotions will pour out. A breach is, in Ferrante’s novels, always inevitable.
So perhaps it was also inevitable, though not remotely fair, that the private barrier Ferrante resolutely constructed between herself and the world by publishing under a pseudonym would crumble. Perhaps, too, it was predictable that what would emerge was a personal history more complicated than the one Ferrante had been disclosing.
FRANTUMAGLIA is appropriately a disjointed text. (Ferrante defines “frantumaglia” as “a jumble of fragments”). It is a gathering of interviews, essays, and letters (some unsent) written to her publishers, to journalists, and to the directors who adapted her first two novels for the screen. (An earlier version of the volume was published in Italy in 2003; the Vanity Fair interview and the dialogue with Çongar quoted above are both reprinted within.) What does not vary is Ferrante’s tone, which will be familiar to readers of her fiction; she speaks, or rather writes (the interviews were, with one exception, conducted in writing), coolly. (Part of the appeal of Ferrante’s novels is that while the themes may be emotional, her prose never is. It is thanks to–and not in spite of–the calm precision of her descriptions that the reader feels plunged into the turbulent states on the page, states which suddenly seem comprehensible, even logical.)
This is true especially of Ferrante’s answers about what has been, unfairly but not unexpectedly, the most heated topic of all: her decision to use a penname. Almost every interview collected in Frantumaglia includes a question about Ferrante’s choice to remain anonymous. One side effect of this fact is that throughout Frantumaglia, Ferrante frequently seems to be arguing against the collection’s very existence. “I consider the text a self-sufficient body, which has in itself, in its makeup, all the questions and all the answers,” she told a Danish newspaper in 2003. “For those who love reading,” she told the Italian journalist Francesco Erbani three years later, “the author is purely a name.” “I think authors should be sought in the books they put their names to,” she explained to the Financial Times last year, “not in the physical person who is writing or in his or her private life.”
Although neither the question nor the essential answer has changed, Frantumaglia shows how Ferrante’s reasons for anonymity have evolved over the years. As she explains in an interview first published in the Spring 2015 issue of the Paris Review, she was originally “frightened by the possibility of having to come out of my shell… Later, it was hostility toward the media… It’s not the book that counts, but the aura of the author.” What Ferrante does not say but must be aware of is that the author known as “Elena Ferrante” has of course accrued such an aura over the course of her career. Frantumaglia itself could not have been published otherwise.
Consider this: In the mid 1900s, the Italian journalist Francesco Erbani wrote to Ferrante to ask if she would be interested in an interview that would have been pegged to the release of a film based on her first, and at the time only novel, Troubling Love. In an unsent reply included in the collection (the letter is undated, but an editorial note speculates that it was written in 1995), Ferrante wonders why Erbani, who in his original missive writes of his admiration for her novel, did not approach her for an interview until a film based on Troubling Love was underway. “Question,” she writes, “if my book had said nothing to you and my name had said something, would it have taken you less time to ask for an interview?” Erbani replied to the author after seeing the letter in the 2003 edition of Frantumaglia. In a note that follows Ferrante’s, he explains that he did not contact her when Troubling Love was first published because he was, at the time, working at the foreign news department of a press agency and so not in a position to interview her. The name “Ferrante” became known without the assistance of authorial self-promotion because her books indeed said something; but it is in part because the name “Ferrante” now says something that she has been, for years, so eagerly interviewed.
In keeping with her decision to remain pseudonymous, Ferrante does not, in Frantumaglia or elsewhere, provide readers with quotidian details–a description of her writing space, anecdotes about her children. She does, however, offer up bits of personal narrative, most frequently about her childhood. These are at odds with the biography of the woman behind Ferrante that Gatti presents. That woman grew up in Rome, the city to which her family moved when she was three; Ferrante writes of growing up in Naples. That woman has one younger brother; Ferrante writes of two younger sisters.
The other personal details Ferrante has revealed in the past fifteen or so years (her first published interview dates from 2002) have not been many, but they have rhymed with the biographies she’s constructed for her characters: Delia’s mother in Troubling Love is a seamstress; almost all of her novels are set in Naples, and when they are not–The Days of Abandonment takes place in Turin–her protagonists are often, like Olga, from the southern city. It is precisely because I agree that authors do not owe us information about their quote-unquote real lives that I find this disappointing. And it does not seem wholly accidental; the invitation is to read biographically. Provided Gatti has indeed identified the correct woman, these discrepancies imply that as firmly as Ferrante believed her books themselves were enough, she didn’t quite trust her readers would believe the same.
“Literary truth,” Ferrante says in the version of her Paris Review interview reprinted in Frantumaglia, “is the truth released exclusively by words used well, and it is realized entirely in the words that formulate it.” Ferrante’s novels, in their incisive descriptions of violent inner tumult, pulse with precisely this kind of truth. They never needed the support of matching biographical facts.
THE convenience of the autobiographical information Ferrante offers–the ease with which it allows readers to assume her novels are “authentic” because something in them is literally “true”–must be acknowledged. But the autobiographical information itself is a distraction, for Frantumaglia is, as Loofbourow suggests, far more interesting as a critical text than it is as a personally revelatory one.
In 1992, Troubling Love won a debut novel prize named after the Italian writer Elsa Morante. Ferrante did not attend the ceremony in person, but she penned an acceptance speech for her publishers to read. Riffing off a passage from Morante’s short story collection The Andalusian Shawl, Ferrante spoke of the figure of the “mother’s dressmaker” and the invisibility of maternal bodies. The mother’s dressmaker, Ferrante wrote, “cuts out clothes for the mother that eliminate the woman.” The ideal, in her view, would be for “the mother’s dressmaker” to construct clothes that would reveal rather than hide, that would “recover the woman’s body that the mother has… undress her [so that] her body, her age, would no longer be a mystery with no importance.” Recovering the mother’s body, her age, undressing her and therefore imbuing her with importance–this is as succinct an encapsulation of Ferrante’s novelistic project as any I’ve read. But it is also worth noting that the undressing Ferrante proposes is figurative. She wants the mother’s body clad in clothes that will reveal her; she does not want the mother to be entirely naked, undefended by artifice.
With the pseudonym destroyed, I worry that the author of the novels I love will retreat. For decades, Ferrante has written the magma. She has embraced messiness on the page. This embrace seems to have necessitated a counterbalancing neatness elsewhere, in the stories from Ferrante’s childhood that appear in Frantumaglia. While Ferrante’s novels speak complicated truths, the allegedly autobiographical narratives she provides from her childhood serve largely to confirm some readers’ simplistic hopes that those complicated truths are the fruit of fact rather than imagination. In an unsent letter written to Goffredo Fofi in 1995, Ferrante explained that “writing with the knowledge that I don’t have to appear produces a space of absolute creative freedom. It’s a corner of my own that I intend to defend, now that I’ve tried it. If I were deprived of it, I would feel absolutely impoverished.” Gatti’s investigations have given us a fuller, messier picture of the writer, but I fear this mess will be counterbalanced with a neatness elsewhere–that if Ferrante’s non-fiction has been made messy, her fiction will now, as a result, be made neat. And what could be neater than a blank page?
The Story of a New Name is a whirlwind of a novel, which may seem unusual, in that nothing particularly revolutionary happens in its pages. Two poor girls grow up in a crime-ridden, violent neighborhood of Naples in the 1905s, using their intelligence, street skills and friendship with each other to fight their way through a rough childhood and adolescence. And yet, the writing is so fierce, the plot lines weave in and out so tightly, the characters are so life-like yet mysterious that you cannot help but return often to this bleak and often unforgiving working class world that Ferrante describes so well.
The two main characters of the novels, Elena and Lila (Lina), forge a friendship that is unlikely and at times unlucky.
-Lina is a capricious figure, endowed with artistic intelligence and psychological insight that is too much for her to handle at her young age, especially when coupled with her fiery temper and seemingly contradictory emotions. Crippled in her hostile environment by skills that in another context would be gifts, she careens through her life seemingly blithely oblivious to her destructive, compelling force, intent on accomplishing goals that only she knows about. This force is what brings her environment -and indeed her friend Elena, the narrator – to oscillate between heedless devotion and uncomprehending animosity towards her. The reader too is pulled into this seesaw of emotions, as frustrated as her environment yet compelled to try to understand her, unable to leave her and return to peace.
Elena, the porter’s daughter, her best friend since childhood, seems to have her stars better aligned, with more support to her studies and ambition to better herself, to educate herself, to pull herself up and out of their neighborhood and its poverty. And yet, one feels as Elena self-deprecatingly puts it herself, that she is but a mere shadow of Lina’s personality, an incomplete reflection of the rollercoaster of her passionate friend.
The world the books describe is ugly, mostly chaotic, often violent. It is a world where nobody is surprised if a woman is beaten by her husband; he is only continuing the corrective work her brother and father have started. A mistress cast-away by an aspiring poet and father of many goes mad and is only fit to wash stairs. Children are not protected from violence or deprivation, teenage girls marry for the status it will convey, and the local mafia, sure of their impermeable status, walks the streets harassing young women. And yet the world of those Neapolitan streets is also vivacious, alive, smelly, ugly, and real. The naturalistic bent of Ferrante’s writing does not come across as preachy or vindictive – the language, at times vulgar, does not aim to shock. It simply seems to be an absorbing, fascinating account of two intertwined female lives. It will exhaust you and annoy you, but you will sail through until the last page and then heave a sigh of relief. And get yourself back to the library to check out volume three.
I came upon Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels quite late, when the translations of all four novels in the quartet had been published. I binge-read them. I drank them in like iced water on a hot day and, drinking too quickly, soon got a headache. Innumerable things big and small within the pages – incidents, images, single phrases – evoked that aching rush of feelings, a mix of “shaking my head” recognition, love and rage, which is how the best fiction works. Hadn’t one lived so much of this? The scruffy beloved dolls of childhood; the first experience of reading Little Women; the first time Lila writes a story. The fierce friendship of bold little girls in a world defined and controlled by men. As they grow up, their instinctive awareness of the need to strategise constantly, to camouflage their intelligence and reveal only flashes of it: “How difficult it was to find one’s way, how difficult it was not to violate any of the incredibly detailed male regulations.” On being a woman Ferrante’s epic saga contains everything about being a thinking, feeling, independent woman in the twentieth century: relationships, motherhood, the writing life, the life of work, sexual harassment, politics, sexism in the academy, the search for identity, choices. Disappointment, sometimes despair, but also compassion, solidarity and survival. Here, for instance, is the silent rage of the neighbourhood women: “As a child I imagined tiny, almost invisible animals that arrived in the neighbourhood at night, they came from the ponds, from the abandoned train cars beyond the embankment, from the stinking grasses called fetienti, from the frogs, the salamanders, the flies, the rocks, the dust, and entered the water and the food and the air, making our mothers, our grandmothers as angry as starving dogs.” And here is Lenu’s unforgettable description of Lila’s marriage: “The condition of wife had enclosed her in a sort of glass container, like a sailboat sailing with sails unfurled in an inaccessible place, without the sea.” Here is Lila’s resilience, her struggle to make and remake her identity even in the midst of brutal circumstances: designing shoes that other men will sell; designing a shop from which other men will profit; using black tape and paste to cut up her own photographic image in a brilliant act of disfigurement that symbolises not only her rage at being turned into an object, but also her unknowability, and the impossibility of reducing her to any one thing. And here is Lenu’s discipline, her intellectual growth, her struggle to escape the environment into which she had been born (“We had seen our fathers beat our mothers from childhood.”), to find her way through higher education, marriage, motherhood and writing, discovering her own narrative and herself as she retells the story of her friend’s wilful act of disappearance. In the novels, Lila and Lenu were both born in August 1944. I felt a small pang of emotion when I saw, in the index of The Story of a New Name, the mention of this detail. My mind took these fragments – a month, a year – and transported me to the Bombay neighbourhood of Matunga. My mother had been born in 1944. It was a time when India had not yet gained freedom from colonial rule. Growing up in that great commercial city, among immigrant families from the South, my mother was the first woman to graduate in her family. On the face of it, there is little to connect the lives of two fictional girls in a novel set in an impoverished, crime-ridden, deeply patriarchal neighbourhood in Naples with the life of my mother as I imagined her, a well-behaved little girl growing up in fifties’ India, in a comfortable middle-class family in Matunga, with braided hair, wearing a long pavadai, walking to the nearby South Indian Education Society school with her friends. Making connections But fiction makes unfathomable connections, and never in straight lines. I remember vividly an incident involving my mother and our neighbour’s child. We lived in Calcutta then, in a modern apartment building facing the lake. Our neighbours on the same floor were a family with two small children, a boy and a girl. Both fathers travelled constantly, leaving the mothers to raise the children. The women became close friends and the doors between the apartments remained open all day. One evening, our neighbours’ toddler cut her fingers while playing in their kitchen. As she screamed in pain, her mother was paralysed with fear. My mother ran in, with us behind her, saw what had happened, grabbed the child, called to my sister and me to come along, pushed all of us into the car – me, my sister, our neighbour, their little boy – and rushed us to the doctor. I asked my mother about that incident many years later. I had always known that she was capable and efficient, that she knew what to do in emergencies. People came to her for advice. But for a split second, before she whisked us into the car, my fear had been: what if she forgets to take us with her? My mother laughed: “How could I forget my children? I would sooner forget my eyes or my hands!” I thought of these words when I read about Lenu taking her little girls with her, one child holding her hand, a baby sleeping in a pram, as she attends demonstrations, lectures and events. Long descriptions of men arguing about politics, and suddenly the voices fade away as Lenu, urged by Lila (“Think what it means to have a small child”) goes to help a young woman manage a crying baby. A long family lunch in Naples with a local strongman shouting wildly, and in the midst of it all, Lenu shooting a reassuring glance at her little daughter, knowing Dede is frightened by the shouting. Has anyone written about motherhood in the way that Ferrante has? About how, even in the world of ideas and politics, one must always keep an eye on the children, for they must be dressed, fed, sent to school, and looked after. “Sooner forget my eyes or my hands.” Perhaps I am a bad reader. I knew Ferrante wrote under a pseudonym, but I never really obsessed over who she could be in ‘real’ life. The novels, which contain the “bare and throbbing heart” that Lenu describes, are more ‘real’ than any investigative report about royalty payments and real estate.
Notable November Indie Press Releases
By Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions)
This book invites readers into Elena Ferrante’s workshop. It offers a glimpse into the drawers of her writing desk, those drawers from which emerged her three early standalone novels and the four installments of My Brilliant Friend, known in English as the Neapolitan Quartet. Consisting of over 20 years of letters, essays, reflections, and interviews, it is a unique depiction of an author who embodies a consummate passion for writing.
In these pages Ferrante answers many of her readers’ questions. She addresses her choice to stand aside and let her books live autonomous lives. She discusses her thoughts and concerns as her novels are being adapted into films. She talks about the challenge of finding concise answers to interview questions. She explains the joys and the struggles of writing, the anguish of composing a story only to discover that that story isn’t good enough. She contemplates her relationship with psychoanalysis, with the cities she has lived in, with motherhood, with feminism, and with her childhood as a storehouse for memories, impressions, and fantasies. The result is a vibrant and intimate self-portrait of a writer at work.
The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante; translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein; illustrations by Mara Cerri; Europa editions; 40 pages, $13.
Anyone familiar with the legendary Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (beginning with “My Brilliant Friend”) will not be surprised to discover her illustrated fable, “The Beach at Night,” to be an intense, surprising, gritty, mysterious and frequently terrifying business and not exactly a story many would consider “suitable” for children.
The haunting, evocative illustrations begin with the cover image of a lifelike doll, apparently staring in horror on a littered, darkening beach. The tale is narrated by the doll, Celina, who has been left behind at the beach, forgotten by her owner and apparently replaced in the girl’s affection by her new pet cat. Celina is seething with jealousy (“I hope he has diarrhea and vomits and stinks so much that Mati is grossed out and gets rid of him”) and is suffering acutely from feelings of abandonment and loss.
Then the Mean Beach Attendant arrives with his Big Rake to comb the sand for debris – and possibly treasure – and Celina finds herself in dire physical peril. (For a sense of Ferrante’s gritty style, here is the attendant’s song, complete with expletive: “Open your maw, I’ve sh—for your craw, Drink up the pee, Drink it for me.” In another scene, boys are trying to see girls’ underwear and pee on their feet.) Celina is threatened by fire, by the sea, and most terribly, by the theft of her words including her own name, when rescue comes from a very surprising source.
This is a strangely compelling tale that will be of great interest to Ferrante fans, and marks a return, the author notes on her website, to a story that animated “The Lost Daughter,” the novel she considers to be a “turning point” in her development as a writer. – Jean Westmoore
Reviewed by Rebecca Kilberg on November 18, 2016
I devoured the first three installments of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series in early 2015, soon after the publication of the third book’s English translation, and awaited the last with baited breath. Like many, I was swept up in the passion described in and elicited by the series — a story in four parts that follows the lives of two friends from girlhood to late middle age. The enthusiasm surrounding the books stemmed from disparate sources: some admired Ferrante’s intensely affecting and insightful account of women’s interior lives and friendships, others were drawn to the vivacious energy spilling off each page, while others were more captivated by the mystery surrounding the author’s identity.
Although she still has not disclosed her real name, the author reveals as much of herself as we are likely to ever know in FRANTUMAGLIA, a collection of letters and interviews done over nearly 15 years. With her signature verve, Ferrante discusses the cotton wool of an author’s life: her writing habits, habitual struggles as a writer, mother and woman, how stories develop over time. The letters also include guidance to directors undertaking her books’ transformations into movies, conversations with publishers and editors about current and future work, and relevant unpublished snippets.
“Even without having read the entirety of Ferrante’s oeuvre, a reader will thrill to learn in more depth of certain themes that haunt her.”
Even without having read the entirety of Ferrante’s oeuvre, a reader will thrill to learn in more depth of certain themes that haunt her. The close observation of the way material comes together to form clothing, its transformation from a piece of lifeless cloth to something that speaks volumes. The relationship between dear friends who vacillate between crushing and supporting one another. The deep ambivalence of a woman losing her individual identity to motherhood and the realization to which a daughter comes as she crosses the same bridge.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many variations of the same questions come up again and again regarding Ferrante as a female and feminist author and her stance on maintaining personal distance from her work. Both subjects are intensely personal for Ferrante the writer, and one must assume for whoever she is off the page as well. She decries the difficulty female authors have breaking from the modifier, eloquently describing how the media and literary world compare women only to each other, denying them their rightful places within the greater canon. Her thoughts on the decision to maintain a separate identity as a writer indicate an unusual and easy-to-admire perspective: that of a person who believes that what the reader needs to know about an author is already present in her work. If anything, her staunchness in this belief suggests that she has taken care to imbue her books with the power to stand on their own. From personal experience, I believe this to be true.
FRANTUMAGLIA comes at a particularly interesting time for English-speaking audiences. Elena Ferrante has served as the author’s pen name for decades in Italy, and her refusal to be unveiled continued even after she achieved international renown. Recently, a sleuthing journalist pinpointed the Italian woman who is most likely Ferrante. An uproar around the author’s privacy and frequently expressed intentions ensued, with most readers reacting with disgust and anger to her outing and refusing to acknowledge or change their relationship with the incognito author. FRANTUMAGLIA indicates that the author would surely gracefully accept the display of fierce loyalty on the part of her readers, but that she is someone who can defend herself. The pen, as they say…
Frantumaglia; Love Like Salt; My Name Is Lucy Barton
Frantumaglia (Europa Editions) is an absorbing, tantalising journey into the private world of Elena Ferrante. I was halfway through it when the unconscionable, unforgivable exposure of her identity occurred (and may that man, Claudio Gatti, never know peace again).
The Good Immigrant; Another Day in the Death of America; Today Will Be Different
For Christmas, I would like two things: Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey (Europa Editions) and for the worm who publicised her real identity in newspapers around the world to find his turkey as dry, flavourless and pointless as his “exposé”.
The Return; Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey; Solar Bones
The letters and interviews in Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey (trans Ann Goldstein, Europa), reveal all you ever need to know about the author of the Neapolitan Quartet, apart from the trifling matter of her identity.
Everyone Is Watching; Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe
My cooking, cleaning and driving hours have been filled with Hillary Huber reading Elena Ferrante’s Naples quartet (trans Ann Goldstein, Europa/Blackstone). Not all writers adapt well to unabridged audiobookery; Ferrante, translated, does.
Following the success of the Neapolitan Quartet, Ann Goldstein has now translated two further books by Elena Ferrante, both published by Europa Editions. The first, Frantumaglia: A writer’s journey, is a greatly expanded version of a book of letters, interviews and reflections on writing that first appeared in Italian in 2003. Cumulatively these fragments offer fascinating insights into Ferrante’s working methods and artistic purpose. The second, The Beach at Night, is a surreal and brilliant children’s book, beautifully illustrated by Mara Cerri, first published in Italy in 2007. Appearing in the anglophone world together in 2016, these books have overtaken the widely resented attempt to “unmask” Ferrante, and redirected attention back to her words.
Two books stand out this year, about the grubby world of writing and the ambivalence of authorship. Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia: A writer’s journey (Europa) describes, through a selection of letters and interviews, what her editor calls “the now twenty-five-year history of an attempt to show that the function of the author is all in the writing”. Norma Clarke’s Brothers of the Quill (Harvard) follows Oliver Goldsmith’s rise from Irish hack to English national treasure. Goldsmith both cherished and reviled literary celebrity; Ferrante simply reviles it, and her insistence that her novels can speak for themselves is particularly moving in the light of her recent unmasking. For Goldsmith and his circle, “writing for bread” was “an unpardonable offence”, while authorship in eighteenth-century England was considered as lowly as Irishness itself. Both Ferrante and Norma Clarke say a great deal about the powerlessness of writers, and the growing authority of readers.
A scholar of the Italian language explores the ‘dissolving margins’ between Ferrante’s novels and Lahiri’s Italian work.
In the six years that he spent in Mumbai as a teacher of the Italian language at Mumbai University, Roberto Bertilaccio acquainted himself with Hindi as well as bookstores around the city. But when he moved to Delhi in 2015, to concurrently teach Italian at Delhi University and Jamia Milia Islamia, Bertilaccio was surprised to find Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s books in the bestseller sections of bookstores in the capital. His linguistic worlds were melding into each other as he watched the global appreciation for Ferrante, the Neapolitan quartet and the “exotic” appeal of Naples for the Anglophone world, as well as the buzz around Pulitzer-winning American novelist Jhumpa Lahiri writing in Italian.
That’s what got Bertilaccio to look into the works of both these acclaimed authors – who have a huge following in the Anglophone world – with a view to exploring common elements. To begin with, there is Ann Goldstein, the editor at the American magazine New Yorker, who has translated Ferrante’s books from Italian to English, as well as Lahiri’s Italian book In Altre Parole into the English In Other Words. Having immersed herself in the Italian language for much of the last decade, Lahiri moved to Rome, and has, at several literary fora, explained her reasons for not translating her own work in Italian into her prima lingua English.
However, Bertilaccio says he felt no uneasiness while reading In Altre Parole. “I was aware that the writer is not Italian and it isn’t her language. It is also not a novel and so the expectations were different. I did not feel any gap or distortion between whatever she is talking about and the style. I did not find her choice of word strange or unnatural or naive.”
Drawing on the critique of Ferrante by Tiziana De Rogatis, a professor at Università per Stranieri di Siena, Bertilaccio notes the common elements between Ferrante’s characters and Lahiri’s evolution with the Italian language as nothing short of “smarginatura”.
Ferrante has created new literary models of female identity, explains Bertilaccio. But while her characters are secure in themselves, even in their struggles, sometimes they are on the verge of crises, constantly struggling between choices.
“Smarginatura” – a word that Ferrante employs in her novels – cannot be easily translated into English. Goldstein has worded it as “dissolving margins” across Ferrante’s now-famous Neapolitan quartet. Said Bertilaccio, “Smarginatura is the experience of Lila, Ferrante’s character, right from the first book of the quartet My Brilliant Friend. Across all four books, Lila is in and out of margins. Compared to her friend Elena, she is the one who is constantly exposing herself (to situations) and is thus seen as less defensive.”
This exposing of oneself is extremely painful and yet vital for metamorphosis, and Lahiri, says Dr Bertilaccio, has expressed this kind of metamorphosis as important to her too, especially as she grasped the Italian language.
But Lahiri’s admiration of Ferrante, and of her own “smarginatura”, goes beyond mere fandom. Lahiri has previously spoken about how, having read Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment in English, she felt the desperate need to read it in Italian, and she did so as she developed her own skill as a reader of the language. She said:
“It was one of those reading experiences that changed my life, pushed me over the edge as a reader of the Italian language. I decided to write two letters to Ferrante, because I felt this was the only way I could express what effect she had had on me as a reader. I wrote to her about her choice as an author to be present solely in terms of her writing, at least for our consumption and accessibility, and my admiration for this radical step to not participate in the publication of her books…”
Giving her a vision beyond the surface, “smarginatura” happens unwillingly to Lila. For Lahiri to put herself in the uncomfortable situation of not just learning but also writing in a new language is also about seeing beyond the surface, even it that might cost her her self image.
Bertilaccio feels that Ferrante has influenced Lahiri’s writing style in the Italian. In Altre Parole was born out of a collection of essays that Lahiri wrote during the one-and-a-half years she lived in Rome, and was invited to write for the politics and literary magazine Internazionale about her experiences in Italy and with the language. “The complete book as it is today is much more complex and is a mix of genre.” Said Bertilaccio. “On the one hand, it is like a journal as she follows her experience in a chronological way, while on the other hand, it is a coming-of-age book: a child (in language) becomes an adult, through different experiences, becomes more aware. The book is also a theory on literature and writing.”
He elaborated on this inspiration: “Apart from ‘smarginatura’, the idea of ‘sorveglianza’ or ‘watchfulness’ is typical of Lila, whereby the woman is acutely aware of whatever is happening to her and her children. The word can denote the act of policing, but in this context it is the psychological state typical of women. Lahiri’s writing has that kind of ‘sorveglianza’, about her own literary steps into Italian, with a continuous questioning of her own explorations, to reach some clarity, in each chapter.”
Lahiri’s journey also mirrors the “innesto” as experienced by another Ferrante character Leda. In The Lost Daughter (not part of the quartet) Leda abandons her two daughters for three years to escape from her unhappiness over the failure of “innesto” or “graft” – bonding – with her children. “Lahiri says her approach to the Italian language was also ‘innesto’, a graft, because inserting grafts are risky,” said Bertilaccio. “For Lahiri, the possibly ‘wrong graft’ with its imperfections is the premise of her book. For her, the frustration and the imperfection of a new linguistic process puts her closer to a new way of creativity.”
In Altre Parole is divided into different chapters, each with a title that is a metaphor, which is about Lahiri’s process of learning the different linguistic and cultural nuances of the language during her journey. Lahiri, Bertilaccio asserts, chooses to write from such a context of displacement.
Ferrante is absconding from her real identity by creating a new one, but is also speaking openly about her childhood experiences, her vision of global politics, through her publisher. In her new collection of essays and interviews, titled Frantumaglia – another word that is difficult to translate and could be best understood as debris – she recounts her childhood, adolescence, and her life as a teacher. “Ferrante is thus described as a character: not just as an author whose story isn’t known, but one with an identity and a story of the past,” said Bertilaccio.
But Lahiri has been erasing her English literary background and starting from scratch as a writer in Italian, throwing herself into the mouth of a new language, by ignoring her own existence as an award-winning writer in English.
“Here in Italy where I am very comfortable, I feel more imperfect than ever…every day when i speak and write in Italian, I meet with imperfection…this reveals that I am not rooted in this language…Why, as an adult, as a writer, am I interested in this new imperfection? What does this offer to me? I would say, a stunning clarity, a more profound imperfection…Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity…It stimulates…the more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive. I have been writing since a child to forget my imperfections, in order to hide in the background of life. In a certain sense, writing is an extended homage to imperfection…I consider a book alive only during the writing. Afterwards, at least for me, it dies.”
I enjoyed this novel much more than its predecessor, My Brilliant Friend. After finishing MBF, I was unsure if I wanted to continue to read the series (there are four). After finishing SNN, however, I cannot wait to continue reading.
The Story of a New Name picks up right where My Brilliant Friend leaves off: at Elena’s best friend, Lila’s wedding. Lila, at sixteen, has decided that the only way for her to escape the poverty of her neighborhood and family is to marry the local grocer, who has pulled himself out of poverty via hard work and determination. Elena and Lila have grown up together, constantly competing to be the brightest in their class.
With her marriage to Stefano, Lila quits school and completely devotes herself to Stefano’s business enterprises, as well as Lila’s brother, Rino’s, shoe factory. Elena is thus left alone to navigate high school and eventually college.
While grounded in everyday concerns such as clingy boyfriends, nagging mothers, and homework, the real action in The Story of a New Name takes place in Elena’s mind. The most poignant passages describe Elena’s feelings about growing up, the importance of education, and her relationship with Lila.
The Story of a New Name’s author, Elena Ferrante, made headlines recently when a scholar claimed that he had discovered her true identity (Elena Ferrante is a pen name). The author has always expressed her wish to remain anonymous, and Claudio Gatti’s apparent disregard for her wishes caused quite an uproar.
In this episode Autumn and Kendra discuss The Elegance of the Hedgehog and My Brilliant Friend. Do protagonists have to be likable? What role does education play in the lives of Elena and Lina in My Brilliant Friend? Listen and join the conversation on Goodreads or other social media!
Books Mentioned in This Podcast
Reviewed by Lisa Mullenneaux
November 22, 2016
In 1991 publishers Sandra Ozzola and Sandro Ferri faced a dilemma: their author, who chose to call herself Elena Ferrante, declined their invitation to promote her first book. My job is done, she explained: I wrote it. “Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the publishing house’s least expensive author. I’ll spare you even my presence.” Luckily, the owners of Rome’s independent Edizioni E/O accepted Ferrante’s terms: she has made them a fortune (1.6 million sales of the Neapolitan Quartet in the U.S. alone)—all without revealing her identity.
This volume of the Italian novelist’s letters, essays, reflections, and interviews over 24 years (1991-2015) begins with her refusal letter, her acceptance of the prize that her debut novel Troubling Love received, and her reactions to Mario Martone’s film script. Ten years pass before commercial buzz from her second novel, The Days of Abandonment, creates a demand for interviews. Another 10 years pass before Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, the tale of a 60-year friendship that was written as a single book and divided into four parts, ignites “Ferrante fever” in America.
Elena Ferrante may be “faceless,” but she has much to say about why she chooses her themes—mothers and daughters for her first three novels, sisterhood for the quartet—and how she uses writing to clarify and repossess her experiences, much like Elena Greco, who narrates the Neapolitan novels. Many incidents are rooted in childhood, some, like “The Beast in the Storeroom,” terrifying; others explain her ambivalence towards her birth city, Naples. Neapolitan mothers she has known, for example, are “silent victims, desperately in love with males and male children, ready to defend and serve them even though the men crush and torture them . . . . To be female children of these mothers wasn’t and isn’t easy.” Those children are the characters we meet in her pages, and their friendships are fragile, “without rules.” The “brilliant friends” Lila and Lenù fight and make up for decades, but they are devoted to each other in a way neither are with their men. Ferrante’s comments are revelatory, especially her need as a fiction writer to be “sincere to the point where it’s unbearable.”
The Ferrantean novel starts with an emergency that immediately hooks us—the hero’s mother has died suddenly, her husband wants a divorce, her best friend has vanished—then we get the backstory. About this technique, the novelist says, “I tend toward an expansive sentence that has a cold tone but at the same time exposes a magma of unbearable heat. I want readers to know from the first lines what they are dealing with.” A Vesuvian eruption creates the tension and suspense that keep us turning pages and gives us female narrators who battle for their sanity. “I very much enjoy,” writes their creator, “breaking through my character’s armor of good education and good manners, upsetting the image she has of herself, undermining her determination, and revealing another, rougher soul; I make her raucous, perhaps crude.” Ferrante’s women speak proper Italian, but they always curse in dialect.
Olga, who falls into domestic hell only to rise more sovereign in The Days of Abandonment, was intended as the antithesis of de Beauvoir’s “broken woman” Monique. Ferrante says she began this story with the image of a woman locked inside her home, but only when she herself experienced “the humiliation of abandonment” did the plot begin to gel. Similarly, a childhood friend of the novelist gave birth to My Brilliant Friend and its sisters. Female friendship being rife with envy and distrust, it’s a bumpy ride, but this is the psychic landscape of women blossoming post-World War II, juggling the demands of family and career, and sometimes wanting to disappear.
Women disappear at alarming rates in these novels, sometimes with a sudden death, sometimes as a way to resist sexism. The first to disappear in the Neapolitan Quartet are Lila’s and Lenù’s dolls; at the end they reappear in a “happy” ending that is oddly discomforting. Why? Because Ferrante is more comfortable with questions than answers. Mystery as a narrative strategy has served her well since Troubling Love (1992). Frantumaglia is the record of the novelist’s fight to preserve another mystery—her identity—and, more vital to us as readers, her right to remain anonymous.
Initially coy, Ferrante has in recent interviews clarified her debt to the theorists of sexual difference, which turned her thinking “upside down” and allowed her to focus on relationships between women. She names Carla Lonzi, Luce Irigaray, Luisa Muraro, Adriana Cavarero, Judith Butler, and Rosi Braidotti as feminists who “fired her imagination,” and points out how rarely a critic studies a female writer’s influence on a male. As if in answer to those Italian journalists who insisted for years she was male, Ferrante writes: “What if, instead, we’re dealing with a new tradition of women writers who are becoming more competent, more effective, are growing tired of the literary gynaeceum and are on furlough from gender stereotypes. We know how to think, we know how to tell stories, we know how to write them as well as, if not better than, men.”
The word (and title) frantumaglia is borrowed from the author’s mother, and it’s a female condition best demonstrated by Olga as she falls apart and—with brandy in one hand, pills in the other—isn’t sure she really wants to live. But Ferrante also describes it as an affliction she herself has suffered and witnessed in other women. What Ann Goldstein translates as “a jumble of fragments” might more accurately be called a “breakdown,” from the Italian frantumare to break or shatter. Lila’s episodes of smarginatura (dissolving margins) in the Neapolitan novels will become full-blown frantumaglia, the need to disappear without leaving a trace.
Europa’s claim on the book’s dust jacket that Ferrante’s interviews give us “a self-portrait of a writer at work” is disingenuous, especially in light of the pseudonymous author’s recent “unmasking” by Claudio Gatti. Frantumaglia is a portrait of a persona the author has created for public consumption, the better to keep attention on her work. And for many of us that subterfuge is acceptable, even admirable. Remove the mask and you remove my powers, the author warns repeatedly. Her decision 24 years ago “to liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety” has, of course, made her notorious, her attempt to renounce the media circus raising important questions about privacy but also about our assumptions as readers. Do we have a right to her history?
Aware that for many years “women’s writing” was dismissed as too autobiographical, this woman writer chose to disappear behind her words. Elena Ferrante = Elena Greco. Italo Calvino once asked, “How much of the I who shapes the characters is in fact an I who has been shaped by the characters?” In the case of Elena Ferrante, the answer is “all of it.”
Lisa Mullenneaux teaches Advanced Writing for the University of Maryland UC and has written about Elena Ferrante since 2007. She studied Italian Literature at the University of Florence and earned an MA from the Pennsylvania State University. Her critical study of Ferrante’s seven novels, Naples’ Little Women, is available as an e-book.
– See more at: http://www.nwreview.com/reviews/frantumaglia.html#sthash.tvqLjrnS.dpuf
Rewriting the Aeneid in the Neapolitan Novels
The acclaimed series of novels known as the Neapolitan Quartet traces the long, complex friendship between two women, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, as they come of age against the backdrop of Naples, Italy. Elena Ferrante, their pseudonymous — though controversially unmasked — creator, studied Classics and admits to the presence of its “traces” in her work.
One ancient text that has left a deep imprint in these novels is the Aeneid, especially Dido, the Carthaginian queen who has an affair with the titular hero, Aeneas. Elena, the narrator, recalls how the teenage Lila quickly devoured the epic:
She talked in great detail about Dido, a figure I knew nothing about, I heard that name for the first time not at school but from her. And one afternoon she made an observation that impressed me deeply. She said, “When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities.”
When Elena then states that “people will fall in love” with Lila and “suffer like that Dido,” Lila counters, “No, they’ll go and find someone else, just like Aeneas, who eventually settled down with the daughter of a king.”
This conversation so affects Elena that she later writes a high school paper and university thesis on the Dido episode. But it also speaks volumes about how Ferrante has written Vergil’s epic into her feminist tale and suggests valuable ways of reading the Aeneid.
Ferrante upends the long tradition of male-focused epic by populating the center of her magnum opus with women and courting them as readers. Even the book covers of the U.S. editions present unapologetic images of femininity that recall books marketed to women. Some have regarded these covers as incompatible with Ferrante’s literary (i.e. “masculine”) aspirations, but her fiction defiantly refuses to dress itself up for the reading male eye. Lila’s reading of the Aeneid illuminates and affirms Ferrante’s marked orientation toward women, and in this Lila differs strikingly from Elena, who readily transforms herself to appeal to men.
A repeated proposition in the Aeneid is that amor (“love”), both feminine and feminizing, impairs the male sphere of labor (“work”). As Dido succumbs to erotic desire her urban project halts: “the towers, begun, cease to rise (non coeptae adsurgunt turres, 4.86).” Lila inverts this idea, making amor the enlivening force without which the masculine space of the city is sterile.
It is unsurprising that an impoverished girl would read the Aeneid differently from Vergil’s original elite male audience. Lila, like Dido, inhabits a world designed to exclude her, but to her it is women’s domain where men occupy the periphery. For her, Dido is not an obstacle blocking the male hero but the epic’s vibrant center, and Aeneas matters only insofar as he affects her. Assessing one of many love triangles between a man and two women (which Aeneas, Dido, and Lavinia foreshadow), Elena rightly observes, “The boy had had scant importance in that story.”
Despite the masculine violence of its streets, the Neapolitan neighborhood Lila and Elena inhabit, seen through their eyes, is a markedly feminine, apolitical space focused on the domestic upheavals of private life. Its women, from the heartbroken widow Melina to the trans woman Alfonso, teem with dynamic energy. Lila in particular becomes the neighborhood’s vital, female center and blooms within its borders.
Elena, who becomes a successful author, finds the neighborhood and her gender confining. She instead studies subjects that unlock male spaces, mimics the masculine language of politics, and imitates the dress of women who marry elite men. She thus manufactures herself using “tools perfected by men” to elicit their admiring gaze: “No one knew better than I did what it meant to make your own head masculine so that it would be accepted by the culture of men.” The result is a contrived identity devoid of the innate creativity that Lila locates in women.
Elena only gradually repudiates her privileging of the masculine. The character that initially elicits Elena’s strongest disgust is her mother, whose marked limp suggests fixity within her private, female domain. Pregnancy-induced sciatica leaves Elena herself with a telling limp, which she first loathes but later describes as a “pleasingly distinctive gait.” In the end, social distinction comes only through reincorporating the feminine into herself, and it will be granted to her not by men, but by the women who constitute the majority of her readers.
Like Elena, Vergil’s Aeneas rejects the feminine as he remakes himself as a hero of pietas (“duty”) toward the public interests of Rome. As he proceeds from Troy to Italy, he divests himself of his personal desires, especially when they elicit in him the “feminine” qualities of love and rage. These are forces instead to be kept in check through masculine imperium, “command” or “power.”
Elena too conceives of rage, which is fundamentally a response to powerlessness, as feminine. Angrily confronting a lover’s infidelity, she ponders, “Am I always this furious other … I, who if I could would kill this man, plunge a knife into his heart with all my strength? Should I restrain this shadow — my mother, all our female ancestors?”
Neither Elena nor Aeneas ultimately restrains the shadow of the feminine. Aeneas submits to fury as war embroils him in the epic’s second half, and he perpetrates death with gruesome impiety. Lila’s reading in fact prioritizes this furious Aeneas, whose moral ambiguity disquiets readers and undermines the easy simplicity of a pious hero. “Dutiful Aeneas,” barren of feminine energy, is to Lila something of a sterile figure, easily overlooked in favor of the enraged Dido, the victim of Aeneas’s pietas.
Class is another theme of the novels articulated in Lila and Elena’s exchange about the Aeneid. Here Aeneas replaces Dido with the more marriageable Lavinia, a king’s daughter. Elena undertakes a project of self-fashioning to become an elite Lavinia-figure suitable for the ambitious Nino, for whose love Lila is her chief rival. But Elena is also Aeneas, who forges new social identity through marriage. The Aeneid is thus recast as a journey up the social ladder.
An education centered on Classical languages, historically the province of the elite, provides the first step up. Though initially Lila also studies Latin and goes on to teach herself some Greek, her formal education is abruptly halted at the end of the fifth grade. Elena, however, achieves a university education, graduating with a degree in Classics and marrying a Classics professor, Pietro, whom she likens to a “boundary stone” into elite society.
Elena’s ascent out of the social underworld of the neighborhood parallels Aeneas’s trip back from the land of the dead, which likewise occurred in the Neapolitan outskirts. The neighborhood is accessed through a tunnel on the stradone that runs through it, which evokes the tunnels around the Bay of Naples thought to be entrances to hell.
It is not until fifth grade — after which their paths fork most decisively — that Lila and Elena first sneak through the tunnel. Whereas Elena longs to walk all the way to the sea, fear strikes Lila, turning them back. She later confesses to Elena, “The better and truer you feel, the farther away you go. If I merely pass through the tunnel of the stradone, I’m scared.” Lila, unlike Elena, is at home among the shades of the neighborhood, within the confines of her class.
For Elena the neighborhood is increasingly inhabited by the phantoms of her youth, “the ghosts of [her] girlhood,” with the tunnel opening a door into a past world. To proceed, Elena must reckon with this past. In the final novel, she returns to live in the neighborhood in order to draw on it for inspiration, making it subject matter for her writing: “What before was dragging me down was now the material for climbing higher.” Elena imagines that by claiming authorial control over her past she can surpass it and use it as a springboard into greater success.
For Aeneas too the underworld presents an opportunity to transcend his history: Troy, his father, and Dido. The Aeneas that emerges is in some ways a man reborn, shed in particular of the Greek epic past, his Odyssean wanderings and Achillean wrath. To quote R.D. Williams, “Here in Book 6 …he takes his final leave of the Trojan and Homeric past and turns towards the Roman future.” This Aeneas is ready to found an empire.
The epic’s second half, however, reveals a more complex story. The final image is of Aeneas in full Achillean rage, reclaiming the fury he reluctantly gave up as Troy fell. His story ends with him embodying the Greek literary past, which itself may be lurking behind Elena’s surname of “Greco.” The past will never stop exerting itself on the stories of Elena and Aeneas. It haunts them, especially the ghosts of Lila and Dido, whom they can never fully abandon.
The strongest thematic contact between the Aeneid and the Neapolitan Novels is abandonment. Aeneas’s most significant act to Lila and Elena is his desertion of Dido for another. Mutual romantic devotion is likewise excluded from Ferrante’s novels: Elena leaves Antonio; Lila leaves Stefano; Nino leaves Lila; Elena leaves Pietro; Elena leaves Nino.
These are not ultimately the desertions that give Ferrante’s story emotional weight. The more poignant moments come when women — mothers, daughters, friends — abandon each other, and these grow ever more grueling as we proceed. The permanent estrangement between Lila and Elena unfolds slowly as a long series of fissures places increasingly greater distance between them. As the years pass, Elena simply knows less and less about Lila.
Lila’s reading of the Aeneid explicitly invites comparison of herself and Dido. She, like Dido, holds enormous promise, and Elena assigns her an almost mythical presence. Like Dido’s Carthage, the neighborhood prospers under Lila’s care — every enterprise in which she involves herself flourishes, from Stefano’s grocery to her computer business with Enzo. But Lila’s promise, also like Dido’s, is stifled until she becomes a figure of tragic loss. Whereas Dido’s tragedy springs from erotic abandonment, Lila’s comes when Tina, her beloved four-year-old daughter, simply disappears.
This loss produces indescribable grief in Lila. Her mind becomes an “inferno,” and she transforms into a wraith haunting the streets of the neighborhood. Lila’s grief turns the neighborhood into Fields of Mourning, the realm of the underworld Dido inhabits in Aeneid 6. When Elena unforgivably uses Tina’s disappearance as literary subject matter, Lila herself vanishes.
Elena’s only recourse after Lila’s disappearance is to write the story of her friend in an attempt to un-silence her. When one reaches the final page, it is clear that Elena will never stop narrating Lila, fleshing out someone she likens to a disembodied voice or an empty sleeve. Lila’s silence, which parallels Ferrante’s own desire to be unknown, constitutes a refusal to be living material subject to another’s authorial control. It is her way of taking over her own narration.
Dido similarly refuses to be subjected to the narrative control of others. After being used so terribly by fate, the gods, even Vergil, Dido chooses suicide in order to regain agency over herself — her death is nec fato (“unfated,” 4.696) and ante diem (“premature,” 4.697). The silent disregard she directs towards Aeneas in the underworld makes her inscrutable, not subject to clear narration. Her silence puts her beyond even Vergil’s reckoning.
Whose imitation of the Aeneid is this? Most obviously it is Ferrante’s, who has disclosed her prodigious reworking of earlier literature. But within the novels Lila first makes this contact with the Aeneid, whereupon Elena as narrator expands it and maps it onto their lives. After being praised for her high school paper on Dido, Elena asks herself, “That idea of the city without love … hadn’t it come to me from Lila, even if I had developed it, with my own ability?”
Elena similarly takes up Lila’s narrative cue when she reworks as her first novel Lila’s own childhood story, The Blue Fairy. Its plot is not described, but the title alludes to the magical fairy of Pinocchio, a classic Pygmalion-themed story about art’s power to invent identity. This is a formative story for Elena, who incorporates this theme into her writing and makes self-fashioning a central feature of her life. Elena in fact finds it so impossible to create without Lila’s influence that she sees herself as Lila’s invention. Elena’s panic over Lila’s disappearance is that of an artist deprived of inspiration.
What would this story look like as told by Lila? Certainly nothing like the Aeneid with its forward momentum toward a defined goal. To Lila life is incompatible with narratives that move along a linear path. For her, the boundaries of people, time, and place are subject to unpredictable dissolution, a phenomenon she calls “dissolving boundaries.” “Everything moves,” she says. Whereas Elena constructs a narrative of progress for herself, Lila’s recreations are Protean: “Lila the shoemaker, Lila who imitated Kennedy’s wife, Lila the artist and designer, Lila the worker, Lila the programmer, Lila always in the same place and always out of place.”
After Tina’s disappearance Lila becomes obsessed with the origins of Naples:
In the Neapolitan facts as she recounted them there was always something terrible, disorderly, at the origin, which later took the form of a beautiful building, a street, a monument, only to be forgotten, to lose meaning, to decline, improve, decline, according to an ebb and flow that was by its nature unpredictable.
In her focus on origins, change, and dissolution, Lila is Ovidian. Lila’s narrative tendencies are so different from Elena’s that, when she rereads her long narrative to see if Lila has tampered with it, she confesses that “these pages are mine alone” and “Lila is not in these words.”
Elena’s stated purpose in writing is to give Lila “a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve,” i.e. to impose authorial control on her friend. But Lila keeps a final narrative trick up her sleeve that affixes an unresolved, open ending to Elena’s grand text. She sends her a package containing their childhood dolls, the story of whose loss opened the first book. The end of Elena’s story thus merges with the beginning, and the tale of their friendship now plays on a repeating loop that undermines its linear structure. Lila effectively dissolves the boundaries of Elena’s text.
Dido too upends the forward momentum of the Aeneid by reverberating across its second half. Allecto infuriates Turnus and Amata, replaying Cupid’s shooting of Dido; Camilla is dressed as a new Dido; Turnus is like a wounded Carthaginian lion, recalling Dido’s erotic wound; Pallas’s corpse is wrapped in a tunic woven by Dido. Vergil cannot desert her, and the narrative loops us constantly back to her. Turnus’s death reiterates, like Camilla’s before him, Dido’s demise, and we follow him in the last line sub umbras, “to the shades below,” where Dido resides. This famously ambiguous ending refuses the closure Vergil’s linear narrative invites us to expect.
The Aeneid and the Neapolitan novels question whether anyone can forge a new identity that transcends one’s birth, origins, or past. Art instead captures the process of becoming, how we fold our past selves into our present moment, and how this repeats across a lifetime. Both works have an open ending because life affords no moments of illuminating closure, no promise of authorial control. Having come so far, Elena and Aeneas end up largely where they began, though no less transformed because of this.
Stephanie McCarter is an Associate Professor of Classics at Sewanee: The University of the South. She is the author of Horace between Freedom and Slavery: The First Book of Epistles (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015) and has an article forthcoming in Classical Philology on humor in Vergil’s Georgics.
Bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud recommended the Neapolitan Quartet as post-election reading for Hillary Clinton on the BB4 radio show The World Tonight (starts at 40:45).
“I felt betrayed. Not because she was no longer anonymous; I had never cared about that. But because she is not Elena.”
The day before an earthquake I spent five delirious hours in the Naples airport. I spent ten minutes outside smoking a cigarette. I thought: This place is pale yellow and has unusual palm trees. It had tropicality with European gravity. There was a blue-lavender volcano that I could not see.
TheNew York Times
Harlan County, U.S.A.
TheNew York Review of Books,
Saturday Night Fever
The Story of a New Name.
My Brilliant Friend
The Blue Fairy
The Story of the Lost Child,
News From Home
Those Who Leave and Those Who StayTheNew York Times
Katherine Faw is from North Carolina. Her debut novel, Young God, was long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and named a best book of the year by The Times Literary Supplement, The Houston Chronicle, BuzzFeed, and more. Ultraluminous, a novel, is forthcoming in 2017. She lives in Brooklyn.
Reviewed by Carla Baricz
Originally published by Edizioni E/O in Italian in 2003 and then progressively augmented with new material in subsequent editions, Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia features short notes and meditations by Ferrante, carefully selected correspondence between Ferrante and her publishers, as well as a variety of interviews with both Italian journalists and members of the international press. As Sandra Ozzola––one of the publishers of the edition––informs readers, this carefully culled selection of documents was made available in order to illuminate “the internal history” of Ferrante’s “motivations, of the struggle to give them shape, and how they changed over time.” The book is aptly titled. Together, the brief meditations, interviews, and letters make up a jumble of frantumaglia: scattered “bits and pieces whose origin is difficult to pinpoint,” a “vortex of debris, a whirlwind of thoughts-words,” “splinters” of the mind that offer tantalizing insights into Ferrante’s imagination, interests, and views.
This fragmentary collection was originally envisioned as a companion book that would give readers some sense of Ferrante’s thoughts about the nature of her work, drawing together documents that could “without too many veils, and by making use of various fragments, notes, explanations, even contradictions, accompany the works of fiction” in some useful way. What is now Part I of the collection––letters, notes, and interviews relating to Ferrante’s work up to and including The Days of Abandonment (Edizioni E/O, 2002)––was later supplemented by a second edition, which included the material which “update[d] the book through The Lost Daughter” [Edizioni E/O, 2006]. Subsequently, Ozzolla and her partner Sandro Ferri released a third edition occasioned by the “reprint [of] Frantumaglia in Italy [. . .] enhanced with a collection of the interviews that Elena has done since the publication of the four installments [2011-2014] of My Brilliant Friend or the Neapolitan Quartet, as it’s called in English.” Ann Goldstein’s English translation is based on this third edition.
Presumably in Italy, collections of interviews, and/or letters and meditations like Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, are not only commonplace but the norm, as they are in France, Spain, Germany, and indeed in most of Europe. The published cahier, the book of conversazioni, the collection of pubblicistica—these are well known forms in which writers collect their meditations and the documents that they have allowed to gather dust in desk drawers. Writers often also use such encompassing genres in order to gather together interviews that otherwise would be lost or inaccessible, to meditate on their craft with its other practitioners, or to engage in polemics. However, Ferrante is not most writers, and this family of related genres that seem to enhance––or at least to enlarge––most writers’ lists of publications does her a disservice and seems to diminish her own. This is not because Ferrante does not understand the formal characteristics of this related group of genres, but because such genres, in their most basic form, depend on the concept of the author as a figure of auctoritas, as a figure who as auctor, as “producer / progenitor” of the work, has authority over it. Such collections are intended for readers already familiar with the writer’s oeuvre, who at the same time wish to know more about the writer herself. They turn to such collections with the implicit belief that the writer’s comments or pronouncements on her works are relevant to one’s understanding of them. These genres are the stuff of which biographies and literary criticism often are made because they are so thoroughly grounded in the idea that knowledge of the author’s life and his or her views matter: that the author can illuminate the work.
Ferrante and her publishers are keenly aware of this fact. After all, the work is titled Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. The volume advertises itself as detailing Ferrante’s inner journey from Troubling Love to the Neapolitan Quartet. It, too, seems grounded in the idea of the author as auctoritas. The title and table of contents imply that this author’s life and thoughts are important to an understanding of the works she has produced. And yet, despite having agreed to the proposed form of the collection, Ferrante gives readers very little concrete information about that journey. She maintains, as she has all along, that “I don’t think one can know more about a work by having information about the reading habits and the tastes of the one who wrote it.” She insists that “I don’t think that the author ever has anything decisive to add to his work” and affirms that the author is “present” in her work, and that is all the presence one can and should expect. She denounces the “media attention” that has “accustomed readers to the idea that the producer of the work counts more than the work [,] as if to say: I will read you because I like you, I have faith in you, you are my small god.”
Unfortunately, this denunciation clashes with the very premise of the book in which it is found. One publishes the cahier, the conversazioni, the pubblicistica precisely because one has faith in the writer who has also published the book of poems that one loves, the novel one admires, or the play one saw performed. One buys such works for the same reason. Indeed, one is interested in the frantumaglia, “the jumble of fragments inside” or “the aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self,” because one is curious about the author of the novels, the plays, the poems. The implication here is that the author can and should be known outside of her works. Ferrante does not agree, but her belief that the author is superfluous to the text and can only be known in and through that text is at odds with the form of the book.
This is not to say that the volume is completely lacking in biographical detail, and as much as Ferrante seems to disagree with the generic form, she acts as though she agrees with its premises. It is these fractured fragments of life, as few and far between as they are, that make up the best material in the collection. Ferrante dazzles when she narrates the world in which she grew up and in which she now lives. She is brilliant on her experience of the tensions between social classes in contemporary Italy, on Elisa Morante’s novels, which she loves, on Caravaggio, on books as miraculous entities that we receive unexpectedly, like the gifts of the Befana, the crone of Italian folklore who delivers presents to children on the eve of the Epiphany. She is brilliant in her discussion of the relationship between the city and the writer, her city and her writing, which she uses to breathe new life into the old metaphor of writing as weaving. She meditates on Walter Benjamin’s “city-labyrinth” and his mysterious Ariadne, who “preserves the art of getting lost” by controlling the thread that unwinds through the vast and threatening urban landscape, on her mother’s sewing machine and the swirls of colored thread with which her mother “weaves her spell,” transforming cloth into garments that will “become one with the body” of a Neapolitan woman, and on Dido, Virgil’s doomed Carthaginian queen, who in losing Aeneas’s love loses the “thread”––or the “art”––that would allow her to find her way through the “urban labyrinth” that her polis of “love” has become. She is brilliant on the question of why she is a feminist, on cultural stereotypes, on how important it is for her to write alone in a little corner. In other words, Ferrante is brilliant when she writes as if for a cahier. We learn about who she is as a writer, as an intellectual, and as a woman living in Italy at the beginning of the twenty-first century, by watching her mind at work, by reading her thoughts on culture, on literature, on Italy and its political and social ills. We learn about who she is by hearing about the winter afternoons she spent with the Aeneid as a young girl, or by thinking about Stanislaw Lem’s Solarisalongside her, or by reliving with her the memory of a first reading of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
Unfortunately, one must search for these snippets as though diving for pearls, both because Ferrante seems constantly at odds with her publisher’s expectations for the volume and because a substantial portion of the book is made up of interviews. When the interviewer is an engaging interlocutor, like Nicola Lagioia—who is himself a writer and who was Ferrante’s co-competitor for Italy’s highest literary honor, the Strega Prize—the questions are both engaging and broad enough to allow Ferrante the space to meditate on the topics that fascinate her. When Ferrante is engaged, she engages us. However, the acuity and perspicacity of the interviewers varies. A number of the interviews are disappointing not because Ferrante is not a thoughtful interlocutor or because the translator Ann Goldstein does not manage to convey Ferrante’s answers into supple English prose, but because the questions are repetitive and tired. More often than not, they center on Ferrante’s identity, even though Ferrante has made it clear that she has nothing more to say on the subject.
Frantumaglia is a difficult book to judge because its form and its publishers’ intentions seem at odds with Ferrante’s own intentions. The volume raises more questions than it answers: How is one meant to judge the publisher’s decision to print this work if in it Ferrante adamantly condemns “the editorial marketplace [that] is [. . .] preoccupied with finding out if the author can be used as an engaging character and thus assist the journey of his work through the marketplace?” Is this not what this “journey” collection does? Has the irony escaped Ferrante? Has it not? Does Ferrante provide such limited (and possibly false) biographical information, which simply reinforces the cultural and literary heritage in which her novels are steeped, in order to underscore the point that all one needs to know about an author can be found in her works? Might it be the case that every single one of those compelling autobiographical moments has its origins in––even derives from––a moment she describes in one of her novels? Is she constructing an auctor simply to teach her readers a lesson? Is this what Ferrante means by calling the book an “afterword?” We may never know, and the recent controversy caused by Claudio Gatti’s supposed revelation of the author’s identity only makes such questions more difficult to answer. Perhaps we should simply take pleasure in reading Goldstein’s elegant English prose and acknowledge the one idea that seems both indisputably true and central to everything that Ferrante writes: deep down we are all made up of “heterogeneous fragments that, thanks to impressions of unity––elegant figures, beautiful form––stay together despite their arbitrary and contradictory nature.”
The Mean Beach Attendant stares at me with his cruel eyes. He strokes the lizard tails of his mustache. Then he extends his gnarled, dirty hands, picks me up, tries to open my mouth, shakes me.
“She still has words in her,” he says to the Big Rake.
Then he asks me: “How many did your mamma put inside you, eh?”
This sadistic scene is from Elena Ferrante’s children’s book, The Beach at Night (La spiaggia di notte, 2007). The mamma is a child who has abandoned her doll on the beach. At nightfall a man and a rake come to clear the sands, looking for saleable treasure amid the detritus. Words are especially valuable: “At the doll market they pay a lot for words that come from games”. The most precious of all the words hidden inside the child’s doll is “mamma”. This is the word that saves the doll, consoles the child and secures the story’s happy ending.
Frantumaglia: A writer’s journey (La frantumaglia, 2003) – an expanded version of the Italian original – takes its title from a word Ferrante says her mother gave her:
My mother left me a word in her dialect that she 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 . . . . It was a word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain.
Ferrante has taken this word and given it new meaning: “The frantumaglia is an unstable landscape, 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”. To understand fully the extraordinary text Ferrante has constructed, emphasis must fall on her subtitle. The interviews, letters, discarded passages of prose assembled here are companion pieces, cumulative appendices, to the novels she has published. “I have written four novels, the last in four volumes”, she explains. Frantumagliaelucidates and comments on the creative process through which Ferrante has drawn all these novels from her disorderly imaginative storehouse. It is an intimate history of her progress between one book and the next; an invitation to sit at her desk and to see as she sees the work she does with words.
The child or adult reader of The Beach at Night might well ask how the words are put into the doll. How are they pulled back out by the mean man and sold in the marketplace? The same could be asked of the author’s books. In Frantumaglia Ferrante reflects on her decades of struggle with words: “For a lifetime I’ve been trying to learn to tell a story with written words”. Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Journal is a partial precedent. In 1953, Leonard Woolf published extracts from his deceased wife’s diaries to show her in the act of writing, when “she reveals, more nakedly perhaps than any other writer has done, the exquisite pleasure and pains . . . of artistic creation”. Ferrante has more control than Woolf did in exposing her creativity. But her choice is to renounce that control: to offer not a retrospective account – “the story of my success so far” – but instead an assemblage of contingent reflections in real time that fit alongside the books as they were written. In doing so she provides an elaborate answer to the puzzle of the connection between her slim and somewhat surreal first three novels – Troubling Love(L’amore molesto, 1992); The Days of Abandonment (I giorni dell’abbandono, 2002); The Lost Daughter (La figlia oscura, 2006) – and the expansive, seemingly realist, Neapolitan Quartet (2011–14), embedded in the post-war history of Naples.
The first two novels, published ten years apart, emerged from the author sifting through her frantumaglia, moving fragments of disquieting memory around until they eventually cohered into stories she deemed worth publishing. “How I moved from the frantumaglia that I’d had in my mind for years to a sudden selection of fragments, combining to make a story that seemed convincing – that escapes me, I can’t give an honest account. I’m afraid that it’s the same as with dreams. Even as you’re recounting them, you know that you’re betraying them.” The third novel began in the same way as its predecessors. The Lost Daughter is a story about a woman who steals a doll from the child of another woman on the beach: a story about the complicated relationships between women. But as she was writing, Ferrante found “the writing dragged in unspeakable things, so that I erased them myself, the next day, because they seemed important and yet had ended up in a verbal net that couldn’t sustain them”.
All of those important and unspeakable things that had been pushed back were still there when she began the first novel in the Neapolitan series, My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale, 2011): “It’s no coincidence that when I came to the Neapolitan Quartet I started off again with two dolls and an intense female friendship captured at its beginning”. The experience of writing the quartet was completely different from the painstaking reworking of the earlier books. Ferrante reveals that she wrote as many as a hundred pages at a time without re-reading or revising them. “From the start I had the sensation, completely new for me, that everything was already in place.” She positions the quartet against the backdrop of her small private gallery of “fortunately unpublished” stories of uncontrollable girls and women who are in vain repressed by their men and environment, yet always wary of disappearing or dissolving into their mental frantumaglia.
In 2006, the year before Ferrante published The Beach at Night, she agreed to take part in an Italian radio programme called Fahrenheit, in which listeners sent in their questions and Ferrante’s answers were read out by an actress. One woman wrote in to describe a series of photographs she had taken of little girls and Barbie dolls on the beach. She compared her dolls, buried in the sand, to Ferrante’s female protagonists. This was the response:
I understand this and I feel close to you. I’m curious about your manipulation of dolls and sand. If you want, you can send me a few photos. I know little about the symbolism of dolls, but I’m convinced that they are not merely a miniaturization of the daughter. Dolls can be stand-ins for women, in all the roles that patriarchy has assigned us.
Of all the challenges to patriarchy that Ferrante has issued, the most dramatic is her decision to sever the connection between her private life and her work. She is not anonymous – her books have a named author who is vividly present in the text and who engages indirectly with interviewers, reviewers, critics and readers – but she is absent, physically separated from her writing. She does not appear in photographs, at prize-givings or literary festivals alongside her books; she refuses to answer questions about her personal appearance, love or family life. Her reasons may have shifted subtly over time as her fame and sales have grown, but they remain essentially the same: “knowing that nothing of the concrete, definite individual I am will ever appear beside the volume, printed as if it were a little dog whose master I am, showed me sides of the writing that were obvious, of course, but which I had never thought of. I had the impression of having released the words from myself”. Ferrante’s absence liberates her, her words and her readers from patriarchal patterns of possession and ownership. “I would like to think that, while my book enters the marketplace, nothing can oblige me to make the same journey.”
Almost everyone wins – Ferrante is free to sit at her desk and get on with writing, her book is free to make its way in the world, and readers are free to take or leave the text on its own terms and theirs. The only people who lose are the hapless employees of publicity and newspaper editorial departments who, it sometimes seems, gave up reading actual books long ago. For them some tittle-tattle about where a successful and good-looking author eats, shops, or sleeps is always welcome, but everyone knows those column inches and photo shoots have nothing whatever to do with literature. Ferrante connects her stance to a long literary tradition dating back to Homer and Virgil, through Tolstoy, Keats and Shakespeare:
I think that in art, the life that counts is the life that remains miraculously alive in the works. So I am very much in agreement with Proust’s stand against positivist biography and against anecdotalism in the style of Sainte-Beuve. Neither the color of Leopardi’s socks nor even his conflict with the father figure helps us understand the power of his poems.
This is not a blanket rejection of biographical writing or journalism, but an insistence that the truths they pursue are different from the truth with which literature is concerned. Ferrante hopes that her readers search not for “the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood, who makes herself beautiful for the occasion, but for the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word”. Literary truth, she insists, is not founded on any autobiographical, journalistic or legal agreement, “it is not the truth of a police report or a sentence handed down by a court; it’s not even the plausibility of a narrative constructed with professional skill. Literary truth is the truth released exclusively by words used well, and it is realized entirely in the words that formulate it”. The lover of literature knows there is nothing for him or her at “the bureau of vital statistics” where the keepers of the positivist flame, like bean counters, fastidiously divide fact from falsehood. The whole of world literature is technically a lie.
“I don’t at all hate lies”, Ferrante declares in Frantumaglia, “in life I find them useful and I resort to them when necessary to shield my person, feelings, pressures. But lying about books makes me suffer, literary fiction seems to me made purposely to always tell the truth”. A few weeks ago the Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti claimed to have unmasked Ferrante by dislodging her pseudonym and connecting her work to the tax and payment records of the Rome-based translator Anita Raja. “I don’t like lies”, Gatti declared, winning some hollow applause, perhaps, in the empty halls of the bureau of vital statistics, but none in the vital literary world. Of all the shabby things he could think of to justify his journalism, the worst was his suggestion that the quasi-“biographical” Frantumaglia is a cat-and-mouse game through which Ferrante aims to mislead her readers. Evidence for this rests on two main points of contention: Ferrante’s relationship to Naples and her mother’s occupation.
If Ferrante is Raja – and let us assume she is – she probably left Naples earlier than Frantumaglia suggests. Does the length of time Ferrante has lived in Naples, continuously or intermittently, affect the veracity of her claim that “Naples is my city”? If what is at stake here is her local tax liability, of course it does. But that is not what is at stake. In Frantumaglia Ferrante aligns Naples with Dido’s Carthage, the ruined female polis – dux femina facti – that was destroyed by erotic love. “Often when Naples comes to my mind, it’s a cold city in a storm.” She quotes Dido’s devastating last curse, nullus amor populis nec foedera sunto – “let there be no love or accords between our peoples”. She describes her childhood love of the classics, her dislike of Dido, until she re-read the Aeneid to help her write The Days of Abandonment, and was struck by Virgil’s use of the city:
Carthage isn’t a background, isn’t an urban landscape for people and events. Carthage is what it has not yet become but is about to be, material that is being worked, stone exploded at times by the internal movements of the two characters. Not coincidentally, even before Aeneas admires the beautiful Dido, he admires the bustling activity of the work of building.
In the Neapolitan Quartet, Naples is material exploded between the movements of the lifelong friends Elena and Lila in exactly this way. More than background, the city is almost molten, like the lava that flows from Vesuvius, preserving ancient stories and inserting them into the present. We don’t need to track down the exact building in which Ferrante was born and put a plaque on the wall to appreciate her relationship with the city.
In Frantumaglia Ferrante claims that her mother was a dressmaker from Naples. Raja’s mother was German and probably not a professional dressmaker. It is hard to imagine circumstances in which this discrepancy would be significant. Ferrante knows exactly what she is doing. The figure of the dressmaker isn’t just a superficial joke, or a way of putting literalists such as Gatti off the scent. For a start, it is another link to Dido, who was mockingly granted by the King of the Gaetuli only as much land to found her city as the hide of a bull would go round. She cut the hide into near-invisible strips and stayed up all night stitching them together into what became Carthage’s perimeter. The dressmaker is also a link to Elsa Morante, the Italian writer of the previous generation who has most influenced Ferrante. In Frantumaglia Ferrante quotes Morante: “No one, starting with the mother’s dressmaker, thinks that a mother has a woman’s body”. She goes on to position her own creative purpose alongside this claim: “I’ve tried to describe the painful, more or less unhappy journey of the fabric – let’s say – with which even we ourselves, the daughter-dressmakers, make the mother’s body shapeless”. Finally, she includes a dream-like childhood memory of going into her mother’s bedroom, where finished dresses waiting to be worn were laid out on the bed. As she entered the room, a draught brought one of the dresses fleetingly alive, but when she lifted the fabric, she saw a disfigured female torso beneath: “I’ve always felt that dresses aren’t empty, that they are human beings who at times stand empty in a corner, desolately lost. When I was a child I tried on my mother’s dresses”.
An “intense game of clothes” runs throughout Ferrante’s fiction. Sometimes the roles of wife and mother are self-annihilating, sack-like dresses; sometimes they are flamboyant, tightly fitting carapaces. In Frantumaglia the author includes an adolescent nightmare cut from Troubling Love in which a young girl is expected to undress in front of a man. She cannot do so, because her clothes seem to be drawn on her skin. He starts to laugh and in an effort to please him she grabs her chest with both hands and opens it: “I opened up my own body as if it were a bathrobe. I didn’t feel any pain, I saw only that inside me there was a live woman, and I suddenly understood that I was only someone else’s dress, a stranger’s”. If women’s bodies are dresses, in this anguished metaphorical sense, all of our mothers are dressmakers.
Ferrante, like Alice Munro – another writer whose influence she explicitly acknowledges – draws on the achievements of Sigmund Freud without allowing psychoanalysis to reduce literary fiction to a series of case studies or archetypes: “I love Freud and I’ve read a fair amount of him: it seems to me that he knew better than his followers that psychoanalysis is the lexicon of the precipice”. By the precipice she means what stands between all characters, real or imagined, and their “dissolving margins” – a state that recurs in the Neapolitan Quartet – beyond which there is only incoherence. In Frantumaglia Ferrante refers to Freud’s Totem and Taboo, which tells of a woman who gave up writing her own name:
She was afraid that someone would use it to take possession of her personality. The woman began by refusing to write her own name and then, by extension, she stopped writing completely. I am not at that point: I write and intend to continue to write. But I have to confess that when I read that story of [neurotic] illness it right away seemed wholly meaningful. What I choose to put outside myself can’t and shouldn’t become a magnet that sucks me up entirely.
The doll in The Beach at Night does not choose to put her words outside herself. She tries to hide them at the back of her throat, then deeper in her chest, but the beach attendant drops a hook on a line of saliva down into her mouth and wrenches out her name:
I see Celina – my Name, the Name that my Mati [mamma] gave me – fly through the air attached to the Mean Beach Attendant’s saliva and then disappear beneath the lizard tails, into his big mouth.
Whatever it was that motivated Claudio Gatti to try to steal Ferrante’s name from her – money, perhaps, or fame, or professional allegiance to the bureau of vital statistics where literature is not understood – he has ended up indistinguishable from a mean man in a children’s book with a thread of drool hanging from his big mouth. His words are already nothing. “How much will they give us for a doll’s name? Two bucks? Three?”, the beach attendant asks. Elena Ferrante’s words, however, will last as long as there are readers who love them. It has been her lifetime’s work to separate her words from herself so that they will endure without her. As an ardent classicist she surely knows Ausonius’s epigram: mors etiam saxis nominibusque venit – death comes even to stones and to names. In great literature alone death is almost infinitely postponed. Carthage lives long after the stones have crumbled, and the names of Dido and Aeneas have not disappeared among the ruins.
Guests: Ann Goldstein
AMT: Hello. I’m Anna Maria Tremonti and you’re listening to The Current.
AMT: Still to come, the fight for safe private toilets is underway in South Africa where a woman was murdered on her way to use a public bathroom. We’ll talk about the link between sanitation and sexual assault in South Africa. But first, this is perhaps the closest you will come to hearing from Italy’s great mysterious storyteller, Elena Ferrante.
I did it because I believed that she was very much a public figure. And when millions of books are bought by readers, in a way I think readers acquire the right to know something about the person who created the work. I personally think that. But most importantly, I believe that Ferrante and her publishers agreed with this point of view. Her self-declared autobiographical Writer’s Journey, Frantumaglia, which is being published right now next month in the US, was presented to the public as her answer to the legitimate request of detailed information about her.
AMT: Italian journalist Claudio Gatti drew the wrath of literary fans when he sought to unmask the true identity of the best-selling Italian author who goes by the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. His findings pointed to Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator. Her editors deny it. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet of novels is wildly popular worldwide with what borders on a cult following. But Elena Ferrante has wanted no part of the limelight. She insists on remaining anonymous. Her true identity has mattered little to her readers, who say they’ve become addicted to her tales of the rich decades-long friendship of Lenu and Lila that begins in Naples of the 1950s. If you have read any of Ms. Ferrante’s work in translation, then you will be acquainted with the words of my next guest. Ann Goldstein is the English translator of all of Ms. Ferrante’s books. She is an editor at the New Yorker magazine. She is often the public face of the Neapolitan series. Elena Ferrante’s most recent work is Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, a collection of letters by and interviews with the reclusive writer to give us a window into her thoughts on her characters and her writing process. And Ann Goldstein joins me in our Toronto studio. Welcome.
ANN GOLDSTEIN: Thank you.
AMT: Are you as—you must be as in love with these books as the rest of us are.
ANN GOLDSTEIN: I am. Yes, I love these books. All of her books, in fact.
AMT: I have to tell you by the time I came to the fourth of the Neapolitan quartet, I started to read it very slowly and even put it down for a while because I didn’t want to let those girls go. They were just—you become entwined in their story.
ANN GOLDSTEIN: Well, I was very worried when I was reading the fourth novel because I couldn’t—well, working on the fourth novel because I was—I couldn’t, I didn’t, couldn’t figure out how she was going to end it. I knew it was the last of the novels of the—originally actually she had planned it to be three and then she realized she couldn’t do what she wanted to do and so it became four. But I just kept thinking how is she going to end this in a satisfying way? And I can’t say that I slowed down because I was under pressure of time to get the translation done. But I thought it was beautifully and satisfyingly ended.
AMT: When did you first get introduced to the works of Elena Ferrante?
ANN GOLDSTEIN: In 2004, I think the Italian publisher, Sandro and Sandra Ferri who had this publishing company, E/O, Edizioni E/O in Rome, they were her Italian publishers and they had decided that they wanted to publish books in English and to open up essentially an American branch of their publishing company called Europa Additions. And The Days of Abandonment, which was actually Ferrante’s second novel, was the first book that they decided to publish and they looked for a translator and somehow they found me.
AMT: And how did they find you? You have a day job. [chuckles]
ANN GOLDSTEIN: [chuckles] Well, I had been translating for about 10 years and I think they got my name off the PEN website. They had asked about three or four translators to do samples and they chose me for which I was very grateful because as soon as I started reading The Days of Abandonment, I thought I have to translate this book.
AMT: And so when you got to the quartet—so you were translating it as she went along. You didn’t like—
ANN GOLDSTEIN: The quartet. Yeah. More or less, yes, Well, she had—yes, that’s true because she hadn’t finished even when she—I think she says in probably in Frantumaglia, that she had this idea for the quartet. She originally thought it was just going to be a very short novel. Then she realized it was going to be a somewhat longer novel and she still thought it would be a single book, but her publishers dissuaded her. They said you can’t. It was clearly going to be big. I mean long, that is to say. She said I think that she had ideas about certain points, certain plot points or certain things that she wanted to develop but she didn’t really know the details. And so as she was writing, the details came to her or she made them up, whatever. But anyway, I forget where I was going with this.
AMT: When it comes to translating the novels, what kind of pressure do you feel?
ANN GOLDSTEIN: Well, there’s time pressure of course. I mean there was with the Neapolitan novels because she wanted to—the publisher wanted to bring them out one a year and they weren’t really finished until they practically they were published in Italian. So there was time pressure. But yeah, I mean as readers became more in love with the books, there was pressure to do it well, to do it—I mean there’s always pressure to do it well, to do the translation well. I’m not sure what else you mean by pressure.
AMT: Well, yeah, and you know there’s so much talk of the masterful prose, of just the way the words just exist in our minds. I don’t even want to say on the page because when I read things like that, they come into my mind. I mean maybe just help us understand your process because you see that in Italian and you must then move that into another language.
ANN GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. I mean it’s a interesting process. I mean it’s—I usually—well, usually I’ve read the book first. In the case of the second, the last three of those novels, I actually was translating as I was reading. And so I felt that I was experiencing them sort of in real time. But usually I read things pretty quickly. I mean I translate the first draft very quickly and then I go back and I revise and I revise. And often I try to stay close to the text basically and sometimes I move away from it and then I—with these novels, I very often went back to the original translation because somehow I had captured something there, I thought, that was closer to the Italian. I mean the Italian, it’s very dense. It’s kind of a run-on language and actually English readers, many English readers have commented on that, on the sort of run-on sentences. I mean Italian sort of, it accommodates the run-on sentence more easily than English does. The prose is a little bit more—the syntax is a little bit more flexible. So capturing that, the intensity and the density of her sentences in English was sometimes a challenge.
AMT: So and you said you sometimes went back to the original, your original translation, almost like your visceral feeling as you translated first time around.
ANN GOLDSTEIN: Yes. And actually, Ferrante in the Frantumaglia, in some of these interviews, she talks about how she doesn’t like beautiful writing. She likes ugly writing because the ugly writing is what conveys the intensity of what she wants to convey. And I think that sometimes that was the case with the translation too, that you know it didn’t want it to be too smooth.
AMT: Well, I have more questions about the translation. But do you know her? Have you met her?
ANN GOLDSTEIN: No, no. As far as I know, the only people who know who she is are her publishers. And I would say that, just to go back to the Gatti that you played before, I mean she did not present Frantumaglia as an autobiography. I mean it wasn’t meant to be an autobiography. It was meant to be sort of a collection of well, her letters, of sort of a window on to the writer’s process, not into anything personal.
AMT: It’s interesting because he’s again trying to put motive and personality into the book and that’s exactly what she’s trying to keep away.
ANN GOLDSTEIN: Yes, exactly.
AMT: Like herself out of it.
ANN GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.
‘“THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS OF BUTTERFLIES WITH SONOROUS WINGS”: A REVIEW OF ELENA FERRANTE’S “FRANTUMAGLIA”’, BY ELLENA SAVAGE
In Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo, he writes of the potential for names to invoke a taboo, particularly for ‘compulsion neurotics’. One patient suffering from this ‘taboo disease’, he writes:
adopted the avoidance of writing down her name for fear that it might get into somebody’s hands who would thus come into possession of a piece of her personality. In her frenzied faithfulness, which she needed to protect herself against the temptations of her phantasy, she had created for herself the commandment, ‘not to give away anything of her personality’. To this belonged first of all her name, then by further application her hand-writing, so that she finally gave up writing.
Referring to this passage of Freud’s in Frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante says:
when I read that story of illness it right away seemed wholly meaningful. What I choose to put outside myself can’t and shouldn’t become a magnet that sucks me up entirely.
Implicit in this neurotic condition, and Ferrante’s relation to it, is an untenable faith in a boundary distinguishing the self and the other. To avoid being possessed by another, conscious and deliberate acts of stratification are required: What I choose to put outside myself; she finally gave up writing.
But of course the outside and the inside are faces of the same coin. And this coin, to push a metaphor further than it needs to go, is made material in culture. A coin gains value only in its relation to currency; its function precedes the individual but is imposed on the human; the cold object’s provenance bears traces of countless others’ fingers. To attempt to secure a clear line of self-determination from this frantumaglia is a tall order. Yet there it is. The sincere wish for a boundary.
Frantumaglia is the name of Elena Ferrante’s latest book, which has been translated into English by Anne Goldstein. It is not a work of fiction, though it contains a great deal of fiction. Nor is it—considering the recent revelations about Ferrante’s creator’s ‘true identity’—nonfiction precisely, though letters, being documents that exist in the historical sense, are usually understood under the aegis of nonfiction. It is a 374-page collection of the author Elena Ferrante’s letters, interviews, speeches, and reflections; it is a ‘companion text’ for Ferrante readers.
The term frantumaglia, she explains, is a Neapolitan word meaning “a jumble of fragments”. It is more than this, though. To explain the term, and with it the dimensions of this book, I will quote from the text:
The frantumaglia is to perceive with excruciating anguish the heterogeneous crowd from which we, living, raise our voice, and the heterogeneous crowd into which it is fated to vanish. I … represent it to myself mainly as a hum growing louder and a vortex-like fracturing of material living and dead: a swarm of bees approaching above the motionless treetops; the sudden eddy in a slow body of water. But it’s also the right word for what I’m convinced I saw as a child—or, anyway, during that time invented by adults that we call childhood—shortly before language entered me and instilled speech: a bright-colored explosion of sounds, thousands and thousands of butterflies with sonorous wings.
Reading this, I let out a painful sigh. It is clear to me that this passage expresses the core of female consciousness. I say consciousness which is ‘female’ only because it retaliates against the reductions of patriarchal thinking. It may well be human consciousness, but I am not in a position to describe what is human or not. Other terms that might capture it are queer consciousness, intersubjectivity, intertextuality, the primordial, the prenatal. The gooey. The frightening. I say female consciousness and I mean: the sense I hold in my body that every atom of my being is governed by the chaos of matter, a sense which, once acquired, makes it impossible to accept an ordered, reasonable view of things. And still, the wish for a boundary is sincere. Thousands and thousands of butterflies with sonorous wings quickly becomes a nightmare without language.
As this compendium makes very clear, however, Ferrante is not without language, nor is she interested in breaking with it. While she has a priestess-like connection to the other side of reason, Ferrante does not write from a prenatal morass. To the contrary, she is ferociously meticulous, exacting, and direct. Her letters to the director Mario Martone, who in 1994 began adapting the 1992 novel Troubling Love, exhibit an incredible level of care and connection to the subtleties of her text. This care becomes clear, too, in several of the more caustic interviews republished in the volume, where Ferrante makes no secret of her distaste for lazy journalism and a shallow media culture. When one Italian journalist, whose questions are all focussed on the author’s identity asks her whether she finds this phenomenon disturbing, Ferrante responds:
Yes, it disturbs me. But it also seems to me the proof that the media care little or nothing about literature in itself. Let’s take these questions of yours: I’ve published a book, but, despite knowing that I would answer in very general terms, you have focused the whole interview on the theme of my identity.
Readers of her novels will recognise this edge; indeed, it is precisely her capacity for cruelty, for helping us locate the violence inert in everyday life (particularly within the bourgeois social strata) that qualifies Ferrante for her readers’ devotion. Through her violence we, her readers, become vital and vigilant creatures.
In a seventy-page response to questions asked by the editors of a journal called Indice, Ferrante tells the story of how she came to understand her capacity for violence in language. Little Elena is seven, and she wants to kill her irritating younger sister. When the girl interrupts her older sisters’ game for the umpteenth time, Elena says: “We need a rope, there’s one in the storeroom.” The little sister makes a dash for the storeroom. “I was the child,” writes Ferrante, “who had been able to find the sentence that would send the little girl to her death without taking her there in person.”
The identification I feel with Ferrante’s texts, and which I share with many hundreds of thousands of women globally, is the cultural phenomenon that enables a book such as Frantumaglia to be published. Without the keynotes, the live-to-air radio interviews, the photographs of the author in her youth, the marital status updates, the path-to-fame narrative, the reader is left with only, and significantly, the pages she has written. But a volume like Frantumaglia insists that there is much, much more to books than their flesh and blood.
Freud’s patient, who cannot write her name for fear her identity will be taken up and consumed by another, forces us to confront that a self exists beyond our fleshy boundaries, over which we have no control. The facts of our material biographies are largely irrelevant when it comes to how others understand and consume us. When we exist in public, we are shadows on the walls of other people’s caves. Similarly, the author’s absence, the absence of the body writing, from the publishing industrial complex allows us to recognise the life that books have beyond being written and read. Ferrante names this life the “third book”: “I didn’t actually write it, my readers haven’t actually read it, but it’s there. It’s the book that is created in the relationship between life, writing, and reading.” This third book’s form, I suspect, is something akin to frantumaglia.
Ellena Savage is a writer from Melbourne. Her essays, stories and poems have been published widely.
It is with some trepidation that I approach this review of Elena Ferrante’s unabridged and updated collection of papers, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. Many readers will alight on it, not just because of Ferrante’s ferocious brilliance as a novelist, but also because they long to glean some rare insights into the personal world, motivations and craft of the elusive writer herself. Elena Ferrante is, of course, a ‘nom de plume’: the Italian author has always insisted on her anonymity, and has even said it is essential to her continuing writing. The Italian publishers of Edizioni E/O and Europa Editions, however, have encouraged her to ‘dissolve’ this boundary between herself and the reader to some extent. As they explain in their introduction, they have published this collection – some letters from the author to themselves, some interviews she’s given and some correspondence with particular readers – in order to satisfy the curiosity of [her] exacting yet generous audience and to clarify we hope conclusively, the writer’s motives for remaining outside the media circus and its demands.
I am a devoted, but not uncritical reader of Ferrante. Along with legions of others, I have hungrily devoured each of Ferrante’s novels to date (in English), but I have also, very often, found myself perturbed by her ‘voice’, whether it be expressed through the persona of Elena Greco in Ferrante’s hugely acclaimed Neapolitan Quartet, or that of Delia in her first published novel Troubling Love, the novel I admit I had most trouble with. I have found myself trying to pinpoint why I have never warmed to her female characters, and why – although their raw and visceral emotions intrigue and involve me – I have never been able, as a woman, to identify with them (although I know many women who do). At the same time, the uncompromising nature of the writing and its exquisite craftsmanship excites me. Ferrante is an absolute mistress (or master) of the great beginning and ending, of charting our descent into the abyss. In the novel Days of Abandonment, I was enthralled by her ability to nose-dive from the heights of a fictional norm to within an inch of the unbearable and unreadable, and then pull out – and upwards – just in time, just before the bond between reader and author was severed.
But, even in the delineation of her most torrid scenes and imaginings, there is a dispassionate coolness that disturbs: I am not sure whether this is because of Ferrante’s fastidiousness or whether it stems from the literal rather stilted precision of Ann Goldstein’s English translation (Goldstein is Ferrante’s trusted translator). I am advised by many who have read Ferrante in the original Italian, that this is more a characteristic of the translation, and that Ferrante writes, in fact, with fluidity and intimacy.
To add to all these complex reactions comes the recent ‘unveiling’ of ‘Ferrante’ by the Italian investigative journalist Carlo Gatti, first in the Italian media then in the ‘New York Times’. This has caused such outrage in the UK and US media, and provoked such vitriol against Gatti, that it is hard not to be swept up in the outpouring of sympathy for Ferrante. However, after reading Frantamuglia – published shortly after the ‘unveiling’ – I was surprised by my own reaction. The book has left me angry. Not at Gatti for exposing a writer who – in many of these pages – so eloquently and insistently articulates her reasons for wanting to remain anonymous. Not with the evident telling of untruths that Gatti has exposed, including Ferrante’s Neapolitan background and seamstress mother. I am angry, instead, with the intellectual cat-and-mouse game that ‘Ferrante’ herself has decided to play with her interviewers and readers, which – for all the author’s feigned reticence – smacks of arrogance. Reading a couple of these interviews previously in isolation – I had enjoyed Ferrante’s interviews in the ‘Paris Review’ and ‘Frieze’ Magazine – did not have this same effect. But now I feel that, despite their best intentions, her publishers have done Ferrante a disservice: by gathering these interviews and responses together into a collection, they have exposed several of Ferrante’s self-consciously rhetorical devices and conceits. Because, of course, Ferrante does not meet her interviewees and correspondents in person or speak to them over the phone, her responses here have the deliberate and considered artifice of her writing.
The Elena Ferrante of these interviews and letters emerges, then, as a precisely crafted fiction – not just a simple pseudonym. But then why should we expect an author who writes such compelling fiction, who finds truths in lies and lies in truth, not to continue to play with her chosen form? Her voice (which again is filtered through Goldstein’s translation) is as articulate and unflinching as ever. But there is also something disingenuous in the way Ferrante repeatedly seeks to explain her decisions, frame her conditions of engagement, and dissect her reasons for being drawn into this exercise. As a result, her generosity in ‘giving so much more of herself’ to these various correspondents somehow becomes ungenerous, because it is always only on her terms.
But then, as ever with Ferrante’s writings, there are passages that are so frank and electrifying in their insights that you want to read and read them again. The interviews in which she has chosen to focus on her writing, instead of her own responses to her situation – particularly those, in which she explains why she has chosen specific words – are sometimes miraculous in their ability to capture an indescribable or unspeakable sensation. Take her explanation of the word ‘frantumuglia’ – which gives this book its title:
My mother left me a word in her dialect that she 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 frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments. The frantumaglia … depressed her. Sometimes it made her dizzy, sometimes it made her mouth taste like iron. It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain… When she was no longer young, the frantumaglia woke her in the middle of the night, led her to talk to herself and then feel ashamed, suggested some indecipherable tune to sing under her breath that soon faded into a sigh, drove her suddenly out of the house, leaving the stove on, the sauce burning in the pot. Often it made her weep, and since childhood the word has stayed in my mind to describe, in particular, a sudden fit of weeping for no evident reason: frantumaglia tears.
Other fascinating segments include quotations, sometimes at great length, from discarded passages from her books – which, like many of her novels, are a wonderfully disquieting read.
So what to make of Frantumaglia? Personally, I would rather return to the time when I used to stumble across the occasional odd gem of an interview with ‘Elena Ferrante’, while eagerly waiting for her next fiction to appear.
“A Strangeness in My Mind”: The 2016 Man Booker International Prize Finalists
(…) Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, is the only one of the finalists for the Man Booker International Prize that has been widely reviewed in the United States and broadly marketed. The fourth book in her Neapolitan tetralogy, it concludes the story of the friendship between two women who grew up together in a poor neighborhood in Naples, Elena and Lila, whose lives take very different courses as adults. Unlike the other novels in this review, Ferrante’s tetralogy is a grand realistic project, which reviewers have compared to Balzac, to Tolstoy, to Mann’s Buddenbrooks. It follows the lives of a closely connected set of Neapolitan families from a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood in Naples over a span of about six decades, from the post-World War II period to the present day. (Each novel contains an index of characters in front, with all their relationships described.) The center of the novels is the relationship between Elena and Lila, who meet in first grade and quickly become best friends. The first volume in the tetralogy is called My Brilliant Friend; since Elena is the narrator and fictional author of the books, the title seems to refer to Lila but indeed describes them both in their relationship to each other. Both women of extraordinary intelligence and imagination with a drive to escape the confines of their traditional world and the ways in which it defines women’s lives take different paths. Elena, always a dutiful student, goes to university, escapes Naples, becomes a writer and feminist; Lila, more brilliant and temperamental, leaves school, marries an abusive husband, creates a number of local businesses by using the entrée her male friends and relatives afford, but never realizes her creative gifts. The title of the third volume of the tetralogy, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, identifies this dynamic; the novels ask us to contemplate what leaving and staying mean for the two heroines, whether Elena can ever really leave, and how crippling Lila’s staying becomes. The two women seem almost halves of a single self, alternate lives in a complexly gender-stratified world. The friends love each other, and they are intensely jealous of one another, Elena creating her fiction out of the life she has abandoned but cannot leave.
All four of the volumes of the tetralogy are deeply satisfying, but the last is perhaps the best in bringing together all the strands of the complex world Ferrante creates. My Brilliant Friend begins with a prologue that motivates the telling of the story; Lila disappears, and Elena seeks to bring her back by telling their story. The Story of the Lost Child brings us to that disappearance and the rupture in the friendship it represents. There is indeed a terrible loss of a child at the heart of the novel, but the lost child refers to much else—the lost dolls that Elena and Lila believe the local Mafia chief has stolen from them as children, the biological children from whom they feel estranged, and, most intensely, the childhood selves from which they’ve both departed. The tetralogy vividly depicts the texture of women’s lives: the dailiness of taking care—of children, houses, men—the physicality of menstrua- tion, sex, and pregnancy, the drive of aspiration and inspiration, the weight and web of social constraints. Earlier I quoted Eliot’s Middlemarch; in some sense, Ferrante is redoing Eliot’s project. Eliot begins her novel by comparing her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, to Saint Theresa: “Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion.” Lila, in some sense, is a modern day Theresa who fails to find an epic life, just as Elena, in some sense, is Mary Ann Evans; not the least brilliant of these novels’ many achievement is Ferrante’s exploration of the writer’s implication in her fictional project.
This is the first year that the Man Booker International Prize has been given not to a writer in recognition of his or her entire career but to an individual novel. The benefit of such a change is the attention it brings to extraordinary novels not familiar to many English-speaking readers.
Speaking with the author of the Neapolitan Quartet novels and Frantumaglia about why readers have trouble with challenging portrayals of women, the supposed sin of narcissism, and smoking cigarettes.
I interviewed Elena Ferrante by email over the summer of 2016. This was about a month before the New York Review of Books published a long article by an Italian journalist alleging her “true” identity. She read my questions (which were written in English) and wrote her responses in Italian. Her replies were translated by Ann Goldstein, the English translator of Ferrante’s many books. I had been hesitant about conducting this interview when I was offered the opportunity, for I admire Ferrante’s reticence. Yet, debating it with myself, it seemed it would be a mistake not to ask this great writer questions, if I had the chance.
For those who are unaware, Ferrante is one of the most celebrated contemporary writers in the world, and rightly so. In 2011, she released the first of a series of four books (each around 350 pages in length) called The Neapolitan Quartet, which follow two female friends from the time of their childhood in Naples in the 1950s to the present day. The books thrillingly unmask the consciousness and social situation of these women, tracing the complex bonds and political struggles of several generations of families in twentieth-century Naples. Reading these books, I felt a keen loss over the many great books that had not been written by women down through time; Ferrante made me long for even more first-rate writers to map (and to have mapped) the many underwritten aspects of the female experience. To me, the books have a distinctly female point of view: the point of view not of the natural victor but of one who has to fight for the right to observe.
Her three earlier and shorter novels (Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment, and The Lost Daughter, published in Italian between 1992 and 2006) are like tinctures of the quartet: exquisitely precise and intensely felt, they magnify moments in a life and are written in a style and language that calls to mind few others—perhaps Clarice Lispector, for being just as brutal, penetrating, and heartbreaking. Ferrante’s books are profoundly contemporary while giving the same satisfaction as many nineteenth-century novels, as if Ferrante were not living in a landscape of busily competing media, but rather writing in a world where the quiet of readers can be taken for granted. She is formally risk-taking yet is a masterful storyteller. Her books rush you along in a swell of complicity, curiosity, feeling, and suspense. I cannot think of a single person I know who has not read Ferrante only to fall helplessly into her world. She has collapsed the gap between the sort of books that writers feel awe for and that the reading public can’t get enough of—the rarest thing.
Speaking personally, as a writer who has engaged in the various publicity and marketing strategies that many of us allow, I was interested to talk to Ferrante about how she knew from the beginning that she wanted to avoid the performance of self. I wanted to ask about how she—as a great illustrator of the human condition—has navigated such experiences as motherhood, discipleship, and rebellion. Naturally, I was curious to know how she wrote her books, but I didn’t ask too many craft questions because I know that for any writer, composition is ultimately a mystery.
Ferrante has managed, for decades, that difficult and enviable thing: the maintenance of total privacy as a human being, along with total openness as a creator through her art. I, and many of her devoted readers, hope there is even more of that art still to come. We are so grateful she took the time to do this interview, although as you will see, she doesn’t consider this an interview at all.
Sheila Heti: You’ve remarked that you forget the books you read. Do you think there’s some connection between being a reader who forgets (I am too), and being able to create and write? Maybe forgetting is a subconscious kind of remembering that allows writers to recombine what they’ve taken from literature, in ways that are particular to them.
Elena Ferrante: Yes, that’s probably the case. I do forget, I forget especially the books I’ve loved very much. I have an impression of them, I have a feeling for them, but to discuss them I would have to reread them. If I had a clear memory that allowed me to cite passages, point out crucial moments, any attempt at writing of my own would seem to me lost at the start. Imagination is said to be a function of memory. I prefer to think that it’s a function of nostalgia. We compose stories knowing very well that we are the last to arrive. And yet every time it seems to us that we are returning to the moment when the first human being, with nothing but the truth of his experience and the urge to reinvent it at every step, began to tell a story.
You once said, “I tend to edit and then inevitably revert to the original draft, when I see what I’ve lost by editing.” I agree: there is always some power in the way a person first catches the words on the page. Can you talk about your instinct to keep the rawness with your instinct to clean up? If you often prefer the first draft to the edited draft, what does your editing process consist of?
I detest vapid, sugary, sentimental tones and I try to get rid of them. I detest refinement when it cancels out naturalness, and so I look for precision without going too far. I could continue like that, with a fine list of intentions, but it’s just talk. In fact I move by instinct, a spontaneous movement that, if I put it in order, becomes merely a banal guidebook. So let’s say that, pulled this way and that by countless readings, by varied layers of taste, by inclinations and idiosyncrasies, I generally aim at what seems to me perfection. Then, however, perfection suddenly seems an insane excess of refinement and I return to versions that seem effective precisely because they are imperfect.
Picasso said the new work of art always looks ugly at first, especially to its creator. Did you find your books ugly in the way Picasso meant?
Yes, certainly yes, but not because I feel the book as new; rather, because I feel it as mine, tarnished by contact with my experience.
So much contemporary female writing is accused of narcissism. Have you escaped the charge of narcissism, or have you received it? I’d like to bind this question to your comments about women who “practice a conscious surveillance on themselves” who before were “watched over by parents, by brothers, by husbands, by the community.” You have written that women who practise surveillance on themselves are the “heroines of our time,” but it’s precisely these women—real and fictional—who are accused of the sin of narcissism, as if a woman looking at herself (rather than being looked at by a man) was insulting to everyone. How do you understand this charge?
I’ve never felt narcissism to be a sin. It seems, rather, a cognitive tool that, like all cognitive tools, can be used in a distorted way. No, I think it’s necessary to be absolutely in love with ourselves. It’s only by reflecting on myself with attention and care that I can reflect on the world. It’s only by turning my gaze on myself that I can understand others, feel them as my kin. On the other hand it’s only by assiduously watching myself that I can take control and train myself to give the best of myself. The woman who practises surveillance on herself without letting herself be the object of surveillance is the great innovation of our times.
Your books resist the pressure to be “correct” in a feminist sense. For me, I have noticed that often it’s women who react most negatively to portrayals of women that are “un-feminist.” Why do you think such readers have a hard time with portrayals of women that conflict with their ideals? Do they feel the female author is somehow betraying them?
“Correctness” has never been a concern of mine when I write. Nor have I ever felt, in telling a story, that I had to adapt the story or the character to the demands of a cultural alignment, to the urgent needs of political battles even if I share them a hundred percent. Literature is not the sounding board of ideologies. I write always and only about what it seems to me I know thoroughly, and I would not bend the truth of a story to any higher necessity, not even to some ethical imperative or some prudent consistency with myself.
You’ve said, “Even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard—out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness—we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved.” This is very striking to me. What does it mean to you to lower your guard? Women are taught to give ourselves fully, with great trust, in love… but you think we shouldn’t?
It seems to me risky to forget that no one gave us the freedoms we have today—we took them. For that very reason they can at any moment be taken away again. So just that, we mustn’t ever lower our guard. It’s wonderful to give oneself fully to another, we women know how to do it. And we should continue. It’s a serious mistake to retreat, giving up the marvelous feelings we’re capable of. Yet it’s indispensable to keep alive the sense of self. In Naples, certain girls who showed the marks of beatings would say, even with pleased half smiles, He hits me because he loves me. No one can dare to hurt us because he loves us, not a lover, not a friend, not even children.
You’ve said, “I feel such a sense of unease and distrust these days that I can no longer write even half a word without fearing that, once published, it might be distorted or purposely taken out of context and used in a malicious way.” I think this is something many writers feel. Have you found a solution for it?
Yes. Be silent, recover my strength, start again.
Do you smoke cigarettes?
Until a few years ago I smoked a lot, then I stopped abruptly. I tell you this because what is written while smoking seems better than that which fears for its health. But we have to learn to do well without necessarily doing harm to others and ourselves.
Do you keep copies of the books you have written and published in the room where you write?
You’ve written, “A novel about today that is engaging and full of characters and events should be a novel about and against the suspension of disbelief.” How does your work avoid the necessity of the suspension of disbelief, and do you find too many novels are written today that require the suspension of disbelief? If readers are trained to suspend their disbelief, are they less effective political actors on their own behalf?
Those words of mine were a political metaphor. I was referring to what seems to me to have happened in recent decades: the transformation of citizens into a public involved in representations of the world that are skillfully constructed in order to suspend incredulity. The citizen risks acting like a fan, an enthusiastic consumer of media narratives that are plausible but deceptive, because those narratives are not the truth but have the appearance of truth. In other words, we have to return to not believing what they tell us. We have to relearn to distinguish between truth and verisimilitude.
Why do you do interviews? How do you decide which interviews to participate in? Are there rules you follow? Why not let the books exist without the interviews? Are you ever going to stop doing interviews altogether? Why not now?
I no longer follow any rule. The main thing is that it doesn’t seem to me that I’m giving interviews. You think that we’re doing an interview? I don’t. In an interview the person being interviewed entrusts his body, his facial expressions, his eyes, his gestures, the way he speaks—an often-improvised speech, inconsistent, poorly connected—to the writing of the interviewer. Something that I can’t accept. What we are doing resembles, rather, a pleasant correspondence. You think about it and write me your questions; I think about it and write my answers. It’s writing, in other words, and I like/am fond of all occasions for writing. In the past it seemed to me that I was unable to come up with answers suitable for publication. Either they were too succinct, a yes or a no, or a short question became an occasion for reflection, and I wrote pages and pages. Now I think I’ve learned something but not necessarily. So no, I don’t give interviews, to anyone, but I find these exchanges in writing increasingly useful—for myself, naturally. It’s writing that should be placed beside that of the books like a fiction not very different from literary fiction. I’m telling you about myself, but you too—a writer, I read one of your books in Italian, which I loved—with your questions are telling me about yourself. I talk about myself, as do you, as a producer of writing. I do it truthfully, addressing not only you and our possible readers but also myself, or at least that substantial part of myself that considers it completely senseless to waste so much time writing and needs reasons that justify the waste. In short, your questions help me to invent myself as an author, to give form, that is, to this unstable, elusive part that I myself know little or nothing about. Something that I imagine has happened to you too, as an author, when you have formulated the questions.
In Magda Szabó’s The Door, Emerence—the intelligent cleaning-woman with a strong inner code of behaviour, who keeps house for the intellectual woman-writer protagonist—reminds me a bit of Lila, and Szabó’s protagonist is reminiscent of your Elena. Yet Emerence is somehow the superior of the pair, as is Lila. Is there something in the figure of the intellectual woman writer that pales in comparison (from the perspective of the woman writing) to the (comparatively) uneducated woman who yet knows and understands the world? Why do so many female writers demean the “intellectual” female figures we create? Do we still not truly value female literary work, women who work with their minds? Is it a kind of self-loathing? Why do we often portray intellectual women as having lost more than they have gained?
You pose a very interesting question; I have to think about it. Why do we invent cultivated, intelligent women and then lower their level or even their pleasure in life? Who knows. Maybe because we’re still incapable of a convincing portrayal of female intelligence. We haven’t completely set aside the literary model that represented us at the side of a superior man who would take care of us and our children. Thus, though we have now acquired the sense of our inner richness and our intellectual autonomy, we portray them in a minor key, as if our capacity to produce ideas and culture were a presumptuous exaggeration, as if, even having something extra, we ourselves didn’t really believe in it. From here, probably, comes the literary invention of secondary female figures who possess that something extra in themselves, remind us of it, assure us that it’s there and should be appreciated. We are still in the middle of the crossing, and literature makes do however it can.
You write in Frantumaglia that you were the sort of child who “apologized for everything.” But as an adult, you realize that goodness “derives not from the absence of guilt but from the capacity to feel true loathing for our daily, recurring, private guilt.” Yet how can a woman ever truly know what she should be guilty for, when women live in a world of codes that have been created by men; when we live in “male cities” (as you have termed it) and when the route to understanding who one is necessarily involves exploring one’s instincts to “disobey”? How can you tell the difference between what you should feel guilty for and what you are made to feel guilty for but shouldn’t feel guilty for?
Our future depends on this connection. There is no true liberation without a strong sense of self. The systematic practice of disobedience is in fact an integral part of male values, and so doesn’t really free us; rather, at times, it crushes us, makes us even more acutely the victims of men’s needs, especially in the realm of sex. We need an ethics of our own to oppose that which the male world has imposed on and claimed from us. We need a hierarchy of our own of merits and faults, and we need to reckon with truth. But that’s possible only if we consider ourselves to be exposed to good and evil like any human being. When literature represents us as the positive pole of life or as having been exposed to evil only as victims—an evil that in the end will turn out to be a good, if looked at with spectacles different from those imposed by males—it is not doing its duty. The duty of literature is to dig to the bottom. We are a subject not only unpredictable but unknown even to ourselves. We have an urgent need for representation and for an ethics of our own. We have the right and the duty to explore ourselves thoroughly, to slip away, to cross the borders that make us suffer. I insist on self-surveillance, which means choice, assumption of responsibility, and the necessity of losing restraint in order to know ourselves, not lose ourselves.
Did you ever fear what you would lose by not participating in the media, festivals, etc.? How did you set about so confidently not pleasing your publisher? And do you think it’s possible for a writer who has sent herself around in the world as a writer to stop? Or does the fact of ever having been seen mean that something is forever lost and any retreat is useless? Finally, have you ever signed a book?
Yes, I made the mistake of signing a hundred copies, some years ago. It was naïve. It seemed to me that since I was doing it at home, in private, it wouldn’t cost me much. Today I think that I could have spared myself even that. I remain of the opinion that a book has to absolutely make it on its own; it shouldn’t even use advertising. Of course, my position is extreme. And among other things the market has by now absorbed it and made the most of it, while the media have readily changed it to gossip and a puzzle to be solved. But for me the small cultural polemic underlying the choices I made twenty-five years ago remains important. I will never consider it finished, and I trust that no one who feels that writing is fundamental will completely set it aside. Good books are stunning charges of vital energy. They have no need of fathers, mothers, godfathers and godmothers. They are a happy event within the tradition and the community that guards the tradition. They express a force capable of expanding autonomously in space and time.
The Story of a New Name is the second book of the Neapolitan Novels. It’s raw and brilliant, with a light that shines unblinking on its characters
Naples has always hung its washing to catch the air – it’s a city that knows its secrets … and so does Elena Ferrante. In her novels she packs the unhidden into private lives and passes it on to us.
The novel follows Lila, Elena and their peers through courtship, abuse, marriage, summers and work, and we see them now from two angles … from the thick of their lives in Naples, and from the refined distance of academia and college in Pisa.
On the one hand Elena brings her Naples, her life, directly to the table whilst in the other she elevates herself to where we might like to think we sit … apart, better. Through her we circle the story as she shows us those forced to live with the unbearable while she strives through learning to achieve a purer life.
This might suggest a clear cut support for one side over the other but Elena Ferrante never goes this way. Instead she gives us empathy and a sense of loss with writing so strong that it’s impossible to choose sides or to know what’s next. We’re taken deep into friendships, shown brutal truths and left with questions about ourselves.
The two characters that attract the spotlight are Elena and Lila, but there is another that never leaves the pages: Naples.
There are no long physical descriptions of the city instead we are taken straight to its heart, to its crowded core, and shown why it beats like it does. We see courage, pain, brilliance, ignorance, love and corruption as they entwine in the struggle for the heights of Vomero or the wealthy life of Chiaia.
This is how Naples today still feels – restless, watchful, intense and alive.
Perhaps you are undecided as to whether or not to read these Neapolitan novels … if so, here are three reasons that I hope will persuade you: first – there is the pleasure of the writing and the power of the tale; second – there is the chance to be led right inside the heart of Naples; and third – there is provocation, the kind that makes you think, such as this for instance from near the end of the novel (page 466):
“…she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.”
Book four in the series, The Story of the Lost Child, has just been published.
It may be the next best thing to her being there.
Brookline Booksmith and WBUR have just announced that they will present a conversation on the work of the illusive Elena Ferrante Nov. 29 to mark the publication of Ferrante’s first collection of nonfiction, “Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey,” a collection of letters, essays, and interviews conducted via e-mail.
The event will feature Ann Goldstein, Ferrante’s translator; Vogue book critic Megan O’Grady; and Michael Reynolds, editor in chief of Europa, Ferrante’s US publisher. Christopher Lydon, host of WBUR’s “Open Source,” will moderate the discussion.
Ferrante, a pseudonym for an author desperate to remain unmasked, is best known in the United States for four novels called the Neapolitan series, which chronicle a beautiful and difficult decadeslong friendship between two girls from Naples. The books, translated from the Italian, have quietly and unexpectedly become a huge hit among American readers.
The event will take place at Coolidge Corner Theatre at 6 p.m. Tickets are $5, available through Brookline Booksmith.
Elena Ferrante on the Myth of Inspiration, Writing on Demand, and the Central Truth of the Creative Process
“Words draw out words: one can always write a banal, elegant, heartfelt, amusing coherent page on any subject, low or high, simple or complex, frivolous or fundamental.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Tchaikovsky proclaimed in a letter to his patron in contemplating how inspiration factors into on-demand creative work.
More than a century later, beloved Italian novelist Elena Ferrante attests to this central truth of creativity in a magnificent letter to her publisher, Sandra Ozzola, included in Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey (public library) — the nonfiction volume that gave us Ferrante’s elegant case for anonymity.
September of 1994 marked the fifteenth anniversary of Ozzola’s publishing house, Edizioni E/O, which a couple of years earlier had taken a chance on a young first-time author writing under a pseudonym. Ozzola invited Ferrante to write a short piece commemorating the occasion. Ferrante, noting that to “say no to people whom we love and trust” is not her way, complied in a largehearted letter that begins with a meta-meditation on the creative process itself and ends with a beautiful parable celebrating the occasion. It stands as a testament to the fact that where there is groundwater of genius, the well of inspiration can be dug anywhere and any personal experience can quench the universal thirst for meaning.
Ferrante, translated as always by Ann Goldstein (who embodies “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original”), writes:
What a terrible thing you’ve done: when I happily agreed to write something for the anniversary of your publishing venture, I discovered that the slope of writing to order is a slippery one, and that the descent is in fact pleasurable. What is next? Now that you’ve made me pull out the plug, will all the water flow out through the drain? At this moment I feel ready to write about anything.
Will you ask me to celebrate the new car you’ve just bought? I’ll fish out from somewhere a memory of my first ride in a car and, line by line, end up congratulating you on yours. Will you ask me to compliment your cat on the kittens she’s given birth to? I will resurrect the cat that my father first gave me and then, exasperated by its meowing, took away, abandoning her on the road to Secondigliano. You’ll ask me to contribute an essay to a book you’re doing on the Naples of today? I’ll start from a time when I was afraid to go out for fear of meeting a busybody neighbor whom my mother had thrown out of the house, and, word by word, bring out the fear of violence that reaches us on the rebound today, while the old politics touches up its makeup and we don’t know where to find the new that we ought to support. Should I make an offering to the feminine need to learn to love one’s mother? I will recount how my mother held my hand on the street when I was little: I’ll start from there… I preserve a distant sensation of skin against skin, as she held tight to my hand, out of anxiety that I would slip away and run along the uneven, dangerous street: I felt her fear and was afraid.
Words draw out words: one can always write a banal, elegant, heartfelt, amusing coherent page on any subject, low or high, simple or complex, frivolous or fundamental.
With this, Ferrante puts her ethos into practice and delivers a most inspired iteration on the assignment:
In one of the many houses where I lived as a child, a caper bush grew, in all seasons, on the wall facing east. It was a rough, bare stone wall, riddled with chinks, and every seed could find a bit of earth. But that caper bush, especially, grew and flourished so proudly, and yet with colors so delicate, that it has remained in my mind as an image of just force, of gentle energy. The farmer who rented us the house cut down the plants every year, but in vain. When he decided to fix up the wall, he spread a uniform coat of plaster over it and then painted it an unbearable blue. I waited a long time, trustfully, for the roots of the caper to win out and suddenly fracture the flat calm of that wall. Today, as I search for a way to congratulate my publisher, I feel that it has happened. The plaster cracked, the caper exploded anew with its first shoots. So I hope that Edizioni E/O continues to struggle against the plaster, against all that creates harmony by elimination. May it do so by stubbornly opening up, season upon season, books like the flowers of the caper.
Complement this particular fragment of Ferrante’s thoroughly satisfying Frantumaglia with Leonard Cohen on creativity and work ethic, Agnes Martin on the nature of inspiration, Carole King on inspiration vs. perspiration, and Elizabeth Gilbert on what Tom Waits taught her about creativity.
Celina’s terrifying night ends well, and for a specific set of mature middle-grade (and up) readers of creepy tales, this could be a precursor to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (2002). —Annie Bostrom
Nice little stories with happy endings or some kind of moral resolution? Not for La Ferrante!
As an Italophile and an Elena Ferrante fan, I’m thrilled to see her nonfiction work, La Frantumaglia, finally making it into English in the form of Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, published this fall by Europa Editions.
I know the book will intrigue American readers with the backstory of her novels and her life as a writer (I’m also thrilled that the original title has largely crossed the Atlantic intact, particularly given the unusual provenance of the Italian word, “frantumaglia,” which Ferrante culled from her mother’s speech and which she defines as a jumble of ideas or thoughts).
One could nonetheless argue, given the nature of the book—a collection of manuscript drafts, interviews and letters—that it will surely fail to stir up the same excitement as did the Neapolitan series or her earlier novels. This is the author, after all, who launched her novel, The Days of Abandonment,with the line: “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Boom! Not to mention the creator of the frenzied, passionate scene between Nino and Elena in the bathroom of the house she shares with her husband, Pietro, from Book Three of the Neapolitan quartet (a scene Elena rushes into after rushing out of the arms of her young children). Whoa! How do you top that?
And of course, it’s not like Frantumaglia confirms (or denies) what Italian investigative reporter Claudio Gatti recently sprung on the literary world (if for no other reason than it had already gone to print). Gatti, as anyone remotely following Italian literature knows, believes he has pulled off an expose by studying real estate records and other documents to deduce that Ferrante is actually a translator named Anita Raja. (Edizioni E/o, Ferrante’s Italian publisher, has denied the claims.)
Yet I can confidently say the Ferrante lines that have made the biggest impressions on me are in La Frantumaglia, which was first published in Italy in 2003.
These impressions may have been especially vivid because I read the book in Italian. Indeed, when I think about my relationship with Italian, it sounds almost Ferrantesque. My passion for the language feels like a powerful, titillating, all-consuming obsession. I hear mystery in Italian, and I see mystery in Italy. And Ferrante’s writing especially—including her bold, expansive, presumably candid responses to journalists’ questions in Frantumaglia—reminds me that Italy will remain eternally beguiling (perhaps because it’s the Other for me, as an American).
Many Italian authors have written passages that have left me as breathless as a love letter. In the case of Ferrante, I’m left breathless and with my hand flying up involuntarily to my mouth in shock. Consider how Ferrante shows Olga, the protagonist of The Days of Abandonment, so gripped by potent emotions as she grapples with her husband Mario’s departure that in one chilling scene, she unloads her rage on the family dog. The animal has unwittingly become a nagging reminder of Mario’s flight. She loses her patience with Otto while out for a walk, and begins to strike him mercilessly. As she rains blows upon him, Otto becomes the object of all of her rage as a cuckolded wife. Suddenly Olga stops herself in alarm: she’s taken revenge for Mario’s sin on an innocent creature.
Ferrante depicts her female protagonist not merely contemplating acts of violence, but carrying them out. To be sure, other literary heroines have also lashed out; Medea, in the Greek tragedy of the same name, kills her children. But Medea is conceived as a mad figure. By contrast, Ferrante allows her characters—her female characters—to express rage as a normal course of life. Olga will regret her actions and calm down. The “black frenzy of destruction,” as Ferrante writes, is temporary. She is a fully-realized human being, and like male characters in other works, she sometimes experiences blind rage.
Or take this line from her novel La Figlia Oscura [The Lost Daughter]: “Le lingue per me hanno un veleno segreto.” Languages contain a secret poison for me. Whoa, again. As I said in my MFA graduate lecture earlier this year at Bennington College, leave it to Ferrante to zero in on the insidious nature of something inanimate like learning a foreign language.
Yet despite such arresting moments in her novels, I must confess that the words of Ferrante that have captivated me the most are included in Frantumaglia—something she wrote about writing. The critical revelation comes in a passage where she explains to an interviewer for the Italian newspaper L’Unità that what distinguishes The Days of Abandonment from other books she’d begun writing but pushed aside is that it “stuck fingers in particular wounds of mine that were still infected.”
Wounds of mine that were still infected. I underlined the sentence, then bracketed the paragraph. In my journal, I found myself returning to those words, in the original Italian: ferite [wounds] ancora [still] infette[infected]. As an aspiring fiction writer, I’ve often lamented to my diary, “I’m not writing enough about the ferite ancora infette.”
There are all kinds of other interesting tidbits in the book, and certainly, there’s information in there that one could use to consider Gatti’s hypothesis. But even back before we had any clue about her identity, back when I first read La Frantumaglia, I moved quickly away from any questions about who she was once I got to the part about the festering wounds. In fact, I leapt to this question: do I have festering wounds? And can I exploit them properly through fiction? (I believe this notion would hold for any reader, even those who don’t aspire to write fiction. What are my wounds? Can I identify them? What do they tell me about myself?)
As author Lisa Appignanesi wrote in her review of the book for The Guardian, “At times, it is as absorbing as Ferrante’s extraordinary fictions and touches on troubling unconscious matter with the same visceral intensity. For those who can’t wait for the next Ferrante fiction to sink into, it provides a stopgap.”
In the same 2002 interview with Stefania Scateni from L’Unità, Ferrante says that she’s also written stories that sprang from something like what we in English would call “happy endings,” the part when the slight or the misunderstanding was made right. But she says she then discovered, “Non è quella la mia strada.” As translator Ann Goldstein puts it in her wonderful English translation, “That is not my path.”
I feel a breeze moving over me from the briskness of that statement. Nice little stories with happy endings or some kind of moral resolution? Not for La Ferrante!
Ferrante says something else that left me impressed. She says the need for love is the most fundamental experience of human life, adding that, even though it may seem odd, we are only truly alive when we have “an arrow in our side that we drag around night and day.”
Now I should say something that illuminates these observations but please excuse me, I’m still trying to catch my breath after re-reading that passage I’ve ingested many times, but which continues to stun me for its simple veracity, its profound, almost stubborn insight. I want to write next to it in the margins, “Yes, yes, yes” (or perhaps better, “Madonna, si, si, è vero”).
So what is my point?
Well, with these two passages from Frantumaglia in mind, I come perhaps to the too-tidy conclusion that it doesn’t matter if Gatti is right and Elena Ferrante is really Ms. Raja. Like many others, I’ve always held that what intrigues me most is her writing, and what she will come out with next. But I’m compelled to offer this reasoning especially when considering Frantumaglia.
Whoever she is, this author concluded that her writing springs from personal wounds that are still infected and that the search for love, the desperate need for love, drives all human life, and that person, be it Ms. Raja or someone else, will always have something to say to me, something that I will always want to hear, even if it leaves me gasping.
The real mystery is how this writer evolved, how she came to hold these beliefs and to be able to articulate them spontaneously in an interview and then dramatize them through unforgettable stories and characters.
The mystery for me lies in the exact brain circuitry that imagined Olga in The Days of Abandonment attacking, in addition to the dog, Mario and his lover on the street in broad daylight, with me, the reader, flabbergasted and thrilled at the same time. As Appignanesi notes in her Guardian review, “Moral ambiguity is fundamental to Ferrante’s universe.”
This same mystery, if we were able truly to discover it, would explain how a grown adult can successfully cultivate and insinuate an obsession with dolls into multiple works of fiction (including the Neapolitan quartet and The Lost Daughter), in a way that’s creepy and effective. Childhood, for Ferrante, is every character’s home country—one that can never fully be left behind, and that gives me the shivers as much as any whodunit.
Saying the name Anita Raja (or any other name that may come down the pike from the investigative wing of the literary world) won’t ever fully explain these mysteries, and that is thrilling. Nor will reading Frantumaglia, but, if you’re like me, you’ll enjoy it for that very reason.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and journalist based in Atlanta, GA. Her creative writing, including nonfiction essays and book reviews, have appeared online at The New York Times, Literary Hub, Catapult,Consequence and Asymptote Journal. She studied Italian Literature at Wesleyan University and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College.
More than 60 bookstores across the country staged #FerranteNightFever events last week, a focal point of the November 1 launch in the U.S. of two new titles by Elena Ferrante–Frantumaglia: An Author’s Journey and the children’s book The Beach at Night. Publisher Europa Editions provided participating bookstores with a kit with event ideas, discussion questions, posters, buttons and bookmarks.
Some of the most striking events took place in the New York area. At Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, a lively discussion was moderated by novelist and critic Darcey Steinke and featured actor/filmmaker John Turturro, Ferrante scholar Giancarlo Lombardi and literary biographer/critic Judith Thurman. An international, SRO crowd heard the group discuss Ferrante’s work in the context of the Italian literary landscape; Naples as a fertile territory for storytelling; the film adaptation of Troubling Love; feminism in Ferrante’s work (and why it’s important for men to read these novels), and a comparison of the reception of Ferrante’s work in Italy and the U.S.
|At McNally Jackson: Ann Goldstein, Dayna Tortorici, Roxana Robinson|
On Tuesday, McNally Jackson in New York City hosted a panel consisting of novelist Roxana Robinson, Dayna Tortorici from n+1 and Ann Goldstein, translator of Ferrante’s work, moderated by Europa Editions editor-in-chief Michael Reynolds, which considered Ferrante’s books (Frantumaglia in particular), her literary influences and her thematic concerns.
On Friday at Astoria Bookshop in Queens, another SRO crowd heard novelists Siddhartha Deb and Elissa Schappell, journalist Jennifer Maloney and translator Ann Goldstein–also moderated by Michael Reynolds–discuss Ferrante’s importance as a feminist writer and her writerly style (her tight sentences and “virile” writing), her approach to class and poverty and the political nature of her work.
Finally on Saturday, Reynolds moderated a panel at BookCourt in Brooklyn with authors Stacey D’Erasmo and Summer Brennan, New Yorker features editor Emily Stokes, National Book Foundation executive director Lisa Lucas and Ann Goldstein, which focused on Ferrante’s writing, how each participant discovered her work and what they find important about it and more. The q&a included an impassioned discussion of the role of dialect in Ferrante’s books.
By Alex Clark
Elena Ferrante’s “unmasking” by the journalist Claudio Gatti, whose article on her identity, originally written for the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, appeared in the New York Review of Books to the outrage of many of her readers, conformed beautifully to 21st-century type. It was characterised by a quality of sooner-or-later inevitability: a puzzle (of sorts), a period of “mounting speculation”, a touch of frustration, then a revelation that was dull enough for the focus to move on to a debate about its ethics.
I should unmask myself as a Ferrante aficionado. I will never repeat her “real name” – at least, not until she has sanctioned it. I am hopelessly parti pris. For me, Ferrante’s novels were not just an intense aesthetic experience but came to feel like the gateway to a different way of writing and reading, and the assault on her identity was intrinsically tied to her work and to our narcissism. The Neapolitan novels, for example, begin with a woman disappearing: not, in the narrator’s opinion, as a result of an impulse to run away, or through suicide, but to achieve a more complex form of self-erasure. Ferrante’s novels – and her writings in Frantumaglia, a collection of letters, interviews and pieces from 1991 to this year – are an attempt, in part, to explore that impulse.
In common with all of Ferrante’s work, Elena’s and Lila’s intertwined story demonstrates what happens to women as they are slotted into societal roles and fall under the gaze of men and, indeed, other women: how they must invent themselves, politically, socially, sexually, psychically.
The damage of exposure is a constant feeling. In My Brilliant Friend, we learned how Lila suffered episodes of “dissolving boundaries”, moments of panic and dissociation that distanced her from herself and from her supposedly familiar environment. Eventually, what she requires is an entirely private space.
The pieces in Frantumaglia (the word translates as “the act of falling apart”) assert that space over and over again. In her written responses to interviewers’ questions or editors’ letters, or her exchange with Mario Martone, who wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of her novel Troubling Love, she is precise, continually dissecting queries and weighing her words. Her one-off pieces (many of them previously unpublished), about subjects including an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad short story and how Flaubert shaped her conception of France, are thoughtful and suggest acute self-editing. Yet there also is her love of pure story, from those of Dido and Aeneas and Madame de La Fayette’s 1678 novel La Princesse de Clèves – her “closest companion” when she was writing The Days of Abandonment – to tales that appear in popular magazines. Always there is the tacit refusal to be reduced. In one response to a critic, Ferrante describes “a somewhat neurotic desire for intangibility”.
She repeatedly returns to a sentence from The Andalusian Shawlby Elsa Morante: “No one, starting with the mother’s dressmaker, must think that a mother has a woman’s body.” Ferrante is discussing the way that maternal bodies are made shapeless, unsexed, but she also links this to the limitations placed on the maker: “I had imagined scissors that refused to cut, measuring sticks that lied about length, basting that didn’t hold, chalk that didn’t leave a mark. The mother’s body produced a revolt among the dressmaker’s tools, an annihilation of her skills.”
This ambivalent attitude towards making – the understanding that it can be creation, appropriation or even destruction – underpins Ferrante’s work. The realism of her scenarios – the streets and slums of Naples, the airy riverside apartments of Turin, the vagaries of employment, education, marriage and divorce in postwar Italy – sits alongside elemental dramas that more closely resemble the psychodramas of the fairy tale. In The Days of Abandonment, a woman cooks dinner for her faithless husband to try to win him back but accidentally serves him a shard of glass that embeds itself in his palate; in the Neapolitan novels, Elena’s mother dies and bequeaths her daughter a limp.
It is perhaps the power of that combination of the banal and the mystical that requires the private space. Keats, Ferrante notes, declared that he had no self or identity beyond that of a poet, “that he is whatever there is that is most unpoetic”. “In general,” she muses, “one reads that letter of his as an announcement of aesthetic chameleonism. I on the other hand see in it an untying in which the author boldly separates himself from his writing, as if he were saying: writing is everything and I am nothing, address it, not me. It’s a disruptive position.”
Whatever the facts of her life – whether she turned out to be an ancient man living in the Icelandic interior or a woman waiting tables at a Texan diner – Ferrante writes in an autobiographical mode. That is fuel for the truthers, a sort of literary ankle-flashing. But it is also good cover for another motive: a very contemporary form of envy of another’s autonomous space and their creativity, a rage that while they give us their work, they will not also give us their person. Discomfort, too, that we are not that self-effacing person. As Ferrante points out, she is not anonymous. Her name is on the cover of all her books. We are simply denied the right to penetrate further than that.
An interview in the Corriere della Sera, published in November 2011, ends with a final question: “So will you tell us who you are?” To which the answer is: “Elena Ferrante. I’ve published six books in 20 years. Isn’t that sufficient?”
Frantumaglia: a Writer’s Journey by Elena Ferrante is published by Europa Editions, 384pp, £16.99
Elena Ferrante c’est moi: intervista ad Ann Goldstein
di Johnny L. Bertolio
TORONTO – La misteriosa Elena Ferrante, almeno in Nord America, ha un volto: è quello di Ann Goldstein, penna del New Yorker e traduttrice di classici italiani, tra cui appunto la Ferrante, Pier Paolo Pasolini e Primo Levi. Traduttrice di una traduttrice, se è vero, come si mormora da tempo e come ha insinuato una recente inchiesta del Sole 24 Ore, che dietro l’autrice dell’“Amica geniale” si cela Anita Raja. Ann Goldstein sarà a Toronto il 15 novembre per la presentazione dell’edizione inglese della “Frantumaglia” (Europa Editions), il volumetto in cui Elena si rivela ai lettori al di fuori di una cornice romanzesca. Il dibattito, co-presentato dall’Istituto italiano di cultura, sarà moderato da Elizabeth Renzetti, editorialista del Globe and Mail.
Miss Goldstein, come nasce il suo incontro con Elena Ferrante?
«I proprietari della casa editrice italiana e/o, Sandro e Sandra Ferri, hanno deciso nel 2004 di aprire una filiale in America: dopo l’11 settembre, pensavano che fosse importante avviare un’iniziativa su base globale. Avevano già pubblicato in Italia i primi due romanzi di Elena Ferrante, “L’amore molesto” e “I giorni dell’abbandono”, e avevano provato a venderli in America, ma senza successo. Come primo libro della neo-nata Europa Editions hanno scelto “I giorni dell’abbandono” e si sono messi alla ricerca di un traduttore. Hanno affidato in prova a circa quattro o cinque candidati il primo capitolo dei ”Giorni dell’abbandono”: e io ho “vinto”. Subito dopo aver cominciato il libro mi è venuta voglia di tradurlo».
Nei romanzi di Elena Ferrante la lingua scorre senza intoppi e le incursioni dialettali sono minime; eppure, concetti come quello di “smarginatura” non sono così semplici da tradurre: come si è comportata in questi casi?
«“Smarginatura” è una parola della tipografia che significa “togliere le marginature alle forme stampate” o “tagliare i margini delle pagine”. Non è una parola comune, neanche in italiano. Compare nel primo libro della trilogia dell’“Amica geniale”: “Il 31 dicembre del 1958 Lila ebbe il suo primo episodio di smarginatura. Il termine non è mio, lo ha sempre utilizzato lei forzando il significato comune della parola”. Ho cominciato con una traduzione letterale, “trimming the edges”, quindi “losing the edges”. Nella frase successiva, Lila precisa il significato e dice che “si dissolvevano i margini delle persone e delle cose”; ho provato con “dissolving the margins” o “dissolving the boundaries” e alla fine ho deciso che “dissolving margins” esprimeva sia il contenuto emotivo sia il senso originario della parola».
«Non credo che l’autrice usi la parola “frantumaglia” nella tetralogia. Nella scena del terremoto, nella “Storia della bambina perduta”, compare il verbo “frantumare” nel suo significato più letterale (“Il terremoto – il terremoto del 23 novembre 1980 con quel suo frantumare infinito – ci entrò dentro le ossa”). Nel volume “La frantumaglia” l’autrice parla a lungo del significato, o meglio dei significati, della parola. In questo caso, abbiamo deciso di lasciare la parola in italiano, invece di cercare una parola inglese che sicuramente sarebbe stata riduttiva».
Parliamo dell’identità di Elena Ferrante: “La frantumaglia” dà vita ad una persona autoriale che, pur sfuggente, di fatto conferma la necessità che un libro abbia un creatore definito. È così oppure l’autore è davvero un semplice mediatore tanto quanto il traduttore?
«Il fatto non è tanto che un libro non ha bisogno di un creatore; piuttosto, non è necessario che il creatore sia una persona conosciuta. La Ferrante non dice di non esistere. Una persona che si chiama Elena Ferrante ha scritto i libri, certo, ma non è necessario conoscere i dettagli della sua vita o della sua persona. Avere i suoi libri è sufficiente. Dunque, noto o meno che sia, l’autore continua a essere un vero e proprio creatore».
Inutile nascondere il polverone che si è alzato le scorse settimane in seguito ad un’inchiesta giornalistica che avrebbe individuato, sulla base di informazioni strettamente personali, la “vera” Elena Ferrante: le è parsa legittima come operazione?
«L’intera operazione mi è sembrata del tutto illegittima: non ci sono scuse né giustificazioni. È stata una intrusione nella vita privata di una persona. Perché è stato fatto? Elena Ferrante non è un criminale e ha il diritto di rimanere anonima, di mantenere privata la propria identità. La vicenda mi ha turbato molto e spero che non abbia come conseguenza che la Ferrante non pubblichi più (il che è altamente probabile)».
(Our Brilliant Friend: Discussing Elena Ferrante – Hot Docs, 15 novembre, 6.30 PM, 506 Bloor Street West @ Bathurst, Toronto)
(Martedì 8 novembre 2016)
Last Thursday, November 3, 2016 was one of the best evenings of my life. I attended the Ferrante Night Fever party at I AM Books, a charming little bookstore in the North End (Boston’s Little Italy) that carries titles written by Italian and Italian American authors. It was a wonderful coincidence that last Thursday was also my 35th birthday, and the occasion was thoroughly enhanced by this particular celebration of my very favorite author – Elena Ferrante.
If you are not familiar with Elena Ferrante and her work, here is a quick Ferrante 101:
- Elena Ferrante is a pen name, a pseudonym. No one knows the true identity of Ms. Ferrante. Through interviews, Ms. Ferrante claims that she does not want celebrity because she wants more time for her writing, rather than traveling and doing readings.
- Ms. Ferrante is incredibly popular in Italy, but it has only been in the last few years that she has become well-known in the American market.
- Elena Ferrante’s most popular works are a series of 4 books known as the Neapolitan Novels. These books focus on the lives of two women, Lenú and Lila, who have grown up together and whose lives are entangled, even during periods when they do not talk or see one another. These novels are narrated by Lenú, and, despite Lenú’s achievements as a scholar, she always feels inferior to the uneducated yet brilliant and aggressive Lila.
- All of Ferrante’s novels focus on the lives of women, and they are considered by many readers to be extremely dark.
- Fans of Ms. Ferrante are livid that an Italian journalist has recently tried to expose Ms. Ferrante’s identity. They feel it is an invasion of her privacy, and they want to protect her from unwanted attention.
I have to say that, at the Ferrante Night Fever party (which, by the way, was completely free of charge), everyone was made to feel like a guest of honor. We were treated to a feast of Italian food – arancini, meatballs, and amushroom stuffing – as well as cream-filled pastry horns for dessert.
The crowd of mostly women gathered to celebrate the release of Ferrante’s Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey in its English translation. Unlike her other books, which are novels or novellas, Frantumaglia is a treasury of letters, essays, and interviews that reveal Ms. Ferrante’s writing process. As a writer myself, this book particularly interests me, as I feel it will provide insights to inspire my own process.
I am saving my copy for a Thanksgiving Break read-through, and I look forward to finishing it all in one go. I was on maternity leave when I read Ferrante’s other works (and I have read all of them), and it was wonderful to move through them all in one go. Our family has no firm plans for Thanksgiving, which gives me the gift of time to dedicate to this book.
At the event, a wonderful Italian journalist (whose name I unfortunately did not catch) not only brought us wine, but he also facilitated an engaging discussion of Ferrante’s work. A key wondering that arose was why Ms. Ferrante’s work was so popular with Americans. One women from Naples suggested that Americans have a love affair with Italy, and many at the gathering agreed. I think this is true about Americans, but for myself, I wouldn’t say I have an infatuation with Italy. For me, the novels stand alone because they are revealing of how women interact and how a female writer and scholar perceives herself, her relationships, and the world. I am particularly interested in the way Ms. Ferrante’s characters separate themselves from their families and feel criticized because of it in order to accomplish scholarly work or inventions.
As an educator, I connect very strongly with the theme of education and applied intelligence as a means of gaining freedom from violence and poverty in Ferrante’s work. The Neapolitan novels begin in the extremely raw Naples of the 1950’s. Men beat their wives in public. Women stay indoors nearly all the time. Babies are thrown out of windows. And yet silence is preserved, especially amongst women. Yet Lenú finds success in school, reads vigorously, and she convinces her family to permit her to continue through high school. In contrast, Lila is forced to leave school after the 5th grade to work in her family’s shoe store. Still, Lenú feels she is the inferior “white swan”, technically perfect but she will never rise to the styling of Lila’s “black swan”. Lila is able to invent a famous style of shoe, create a brilliant work of photography, learn computer engineering, and eventually run a successful business with seemingly little effort. Lenú feels clumsy as she joins in intellectual circles with those who have had a far more privileged upbringing than herself. She devotes herself to her writing, and she becomes a successful scholar and writer. Yet Lenú has to make incredible efforts with all she does, and Lila’s achievements are always in the front of her mind.
The Ferrante Night Fever gathering was the first time I had ever attended an book club-style discussion. My reading and writing life is something very personal. While I feel comfortable writing about it, I am far less confident in discussing my ideas with others. This event made me realize how a thorough discussion can aide my understanding of and deepen my connection to literature. I was shy at first, but then loosened up, especially because my dear friend Ms. Gro was with me, and she is the life of any party. I left feeling that it had been the perfect evening…and a perfect birthday celebration.
I AM Books is the country’s first Italian American Bookstore. It is located at 189 North Street in Boston’s North End. It is open seven days per week. Website: iambooksboston.com
I started Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy all jumbled up. A book store had a special order of the Europa editions of her novels in English translation, their fabulous covers being an immediate draw. The final book was not yet out in English, and as is my habit when attracted to an unread series, I started with the second book. (Don’t ask.) It also helped that the editions had cover flaps. (A big takeaway from endless conversations with other readers is that we are divided irreconcilably into two groups, those who adore cover flaps, and those who hate them. I’m a life member of the former, smaller group.) Having judged the books by their covers, and been won over by the endorsements printed within, it seemed that all I needed to know about the writer was on the back flap of the book, The Story of a New Name: “Elena Ferrante was born in Naples. She is the author of…”.
Clues about identity
Having read — inhabited actually — her Neapolitan saga thereafter, it remained just a curiosity that Elena Ferrante was a pseudonym, that she had managed to protect her (some speculated his, arguing that these feminist novels of love and friendship were written by a man) identity through so many books and such success. For the new Ferrante reader, such speculation is diversionary, as you are compelled to swing from one book to the next, till you have read them all, and have in the process become protective about her privacy. Coincidentally, when I finished the books, I was offered a potential interview (it didn’t happen). Excited, I went back to reread her books as homework, and now I could not shake off the temptation to keep a keen eye out for some telling detail so that I could frame questions to get never-before-elicited clues about her identity.
In the time since, an Italian journalist has claimed to have conclusively identified the ‘real’ Ferrante, a well-regarded Rome-based translator called Anita Raja — but back then that second reading was disconcerting, as if the opportunity to interact with Ferrante had taken me away from the deeper reading of her fiction that had been so nourishing. Reading Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey (Europa Editions), a collection of her interviews and letters just out in English translation, it’s interesting to see how persistently, almost to the exclusion of much else, she is questioned on identity, and how patiently she answers the question each time, year after year.
She told a Turkish journalist in 2015: “One need only glance at the publishing history of my books to realise that it’s not the absence of the writer that has produced their success but their success that has made the subject of my absence central… what has been surprising is the discovery that those who became aware of the books later, at times as a result of the media attention, at least here in Italy, encounter them with an initial distrust, if not hostility, as if my absence were an offensive or culpable type of behaviour.”
At one point another interviewer asks, “Who is Elena Ferrante? How would you define her?” Ferrante replied: “Elena Ferrante? Thirteen letters, no more or less. Her definition is all there.”
It’s a wonder how many different ways Ferrante answers questions about her resolve to keep her identity secret — there is no resort to stock answers, there is no evasion. As she takes on the question from different angles, interview after interview, it becomes clear that there is more than vanity here in choosing to publish a collection of interviews and writings on her refusal to reveal her identity. To be “Elena Ferrante” is for the author of these beloved novels essential to her craft.
An essential separation
She tells an interviewer in 2002: “I’ve always had a tendency to separate everyday life from writing. To tolerate existence, we lie, and we lie above all to ourselves. Sometimes we tell ourselves lovely tales, sometimes petty lies. Falsehoods protect us… Instead, when one writes one must never lie. In literary fiction you have to be sincere to the point where it’s unbearable, where you suffer the emptiness of the pages. It seems likely that making a clear separation between what we are in life and what we are when we write helps keep self-censorship at bay.”
Who knows what the Italian investigative journalist who went after the income details of writers suspected to be Ferrante really wanted to out. But the fact that so many of her readers were disturbed by this “outing” shows that they — we — had internalised, however incoherently, the need for a separation that made her books possible. Hearing her explain it, interview after interview in one volume, helps.
A month after being ‘identified’ in the foreign press, why does the novelist Elena Ferrante remain out of sight?
Last month, the invisible author Elena Ferrante was apparently exposed by an Italian investigative journalist, whose article was published in a number of countries simultaneously. Claudio Gatti claimed that Ferrante – whose four Neapolitan Novels have sold millions of copies worldwide – was in fact a half-German translator named Anita Raja.
He cited as evidence bank records that showed transfers of large sums of money around the time of Ferrante’s greatest successes from her publisher to Raja (the novels were originally published, in Italian, between 2011 and 2014; their English translations followed a year behind). Gatti’s move was so widely criticised that The New York Review of Books, which had accepted the English language version of his article for its website, has since added…
Towards the end of The Story of the Lost Child, the final volume in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, the narrator, Lenu, justifies the narration of the story as an attempt to give her friend Lila ‘‘a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve’’. Lila has suffered acutely from exactly this, a mysterious illness in which the physical boundaries of people and things appear suddenly to erode, the ‘‘thing and the person … gushing out of themselves, mixing liquid metal and flesh’’. She is terrified by this ‘‘dissolution’’, afraid of being ‘‘plunged into a sticky, jumbled reality’’ where she might vanish.
Throughout the four novels Lila is a figure of particular intensity and this malady from which she suffers represents, in concentrated form, the defining ailment and treacherous base condition of the human self that is consistently depicted across all Ferrante’s works, experienced by all her leading women. This condition is frantumaglia.
The term features as the title of Naples-born Ferrante’s new book, the first collection in English of her nonfictional pieces, comprised largely of professional letters and interviews since 1991.
As a book of fragments, the title refers to the nature of the contents. But it also speaks to a vision of the self that is communicated throughout the material: human identity as something partial, fragmented, conflicted and heterogeneous.
The collection draws its force from the consistent rehearsal and revision of this term, frantumaglia. A chameleonic term, it refers to multiple phenomena: it is the creative starting point of all Ferrante’s fiction, a discomforting physical condition, an agitated mental state, and the basic make-up of the human psyche.
In Ferrante’s vision, the self is a crowd of fragments, defined by the relational collisions that shatter us: ‘‘To be alive mean[s] to continually collide with the existence of others and to be collided with.’’
It would be hard to underestimate the significance of this term for Ferrante’s oeuvre. In this collection Ferrante traces the origin of the word to her mother, who used it to describe the incapacitating sense of being ‘‘racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart’’.
Frantumaglia here refers to a form of ‘‘disquiet’’ brought about by the sense that one is disintegrating into a ‘‘jumble of fragments’’, an ‘‘aquatic mass of debris’’. As a psychic condition it is accompanied by physical symptoms: dizziness, the taste of iron in the mouth.
Frantumaglia is also at the source of Ferrante’s creative process, inseparable from the motivation to write. The work of the writer, Ferrante argues, is ‘‘to control that noisy permanent fragmenting in your head’’. There is a ‘‘before’’ to any work of fiction, a period defined by an encounter with this overabundant clash of memory fragments — ‘‘the storehouse of time without the orderliness of a history, a story’’ – and then an after ‘‘when the story begins’’, and the pieces find some order.
Frantumaglia is never less than compelling and we read with a similar desire to recognise a pattern. Divided into three parts (Letters 1991-2003, Tesserae 2003-2007 and Letters 2011-2016), the book features correspondence between Ferrante and her publishers, detailed responses to the adaptation of her earlier novels into films, comprehensive written answers to interview questions. The letters are presented without introduction, and as we read we’re curious to know how they fit into the larger picture.
Ferrante’s written responses to interviews are framed as letters without the preceding questions — these are printed in note form in small font, at the end of Ferrante’s response. Many letters that appear here were originally unsent, some (we are told postscript) are incomplete. One does not know to what degree, if any, they have been finessed for this publication.
Nor are these your average letters: they are lengthy, many easily exceeding 10 or 20 pages and morphing into an essay. They are impassioned, often polemical, always pointed. They dramatically unveil the process of Ferrante’s creative work, and rail against the cultural confinement of women’s writing to what she pithily calls the ‘‘literary gynaeceum’’.
The pieces home in on the enduring influence of the abandoned Dido in the Aeneid, the myth of Medea, the narratives of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, the work of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, difference feminism and classical literature.
Many letters contain long sections from the early novels, sections that Ferrante cut from the final version but which, for the sleuths among us, bear uncanny resemblance to scenes from the Neapolitan Quartet: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of a Lost Child.
Because the correspondence is largely concerned with Ferrante’s fiction, it should come as no surprise that the preoccupations between her novels and these fragments are consistent. It is, in this sense, a collection that exists for the initiates.
In a discursive mode Ferrante unpacks the role of the doll, the relationship with the mother, the prominence of abandoned and vanishing women. She reports, mysteriously, that the dog was the character that most troubled her in while writing The Days of Abandonment, and that the Neapolitan Quartet emerged directly from the doll and the mother-daughter bond in The Lost Daughter.
In all her fiction, attention to visceral life has been paramount. This, too, carries over into these nonfictional writings, with her letters relying on the language of the physical self, returning over and over again to the embodied life of women. Maimed, sagging and abandoned bodies proliferate in real and metaphorical terms, as do pus, blood and milk. Metaphors of physicality are also frequently used to describe what it means to write. When working on a novel, Ferrante says, she searches out the material — the frantumaglia — that remains raw and inflamed.
The kind of book Ferrante is interested in writing is, she claims, one that should stick a finger into a wound that is ‘‘still infected’’. She talks of writing and rewriting ‘‘wounds’’ in order to account for them, with the tone of the work attempting to lift ‘‘layer by layer the gauze that binds the wound’’, so as to ‘‘reach the story of the wound’’. Writing, for Ferrante, is a deeply physical act, moving towards a ‘‘sort of storm of blood’’, something that ‘‘touches every point of the body’’.
But if her writing is known for its visceral force, this is in no small way because of her physical invisibility as an author. When asked by one interviewer in this collection for a self-description, she blankly refuses, lobbing back a quote from Italo Calvino: “I don’t give biographical facts, or I give false ones, or anyway I always try to change them from one time to the next.”
If the narrator of the Neapolitan Quartets is unquestionably reliable, the narrator of these fragments is perhaps not. At times she claims to keep her identity hidden because she is reserved by nature and ‘‘lacks physical courage’’. In other entries she asserts her boldness of character.
What’s clear from this collection is that Ferrante has never aimed for anonymity, has never sought to erase herself. Rather, she has chosen to be ‘‘an absent author’’, to fashion her public identity through words.
Given the recent disclosure of her identity by Italian journalist Claudio Gatti, the collection is most troubling for its sustained rehearsal, stretching over more than two decades, of Ferrante’s decision to keep her persona private. And if anything about this collection is tiresome, it is interviewers endlessly nagging her about her reasons for doing so. Ferrante’s arguments on this front are consistently forceful, hinging on the tendency for the author-personality to be ‘‘placed for sale along with the book’’ and used to ‘‘assist the journey’’ of the work ‘‘through the marketplace’’.
In this climate, she argues, such promotional activity too often cancels out the work and the need to read it, with the author becoming better known than what they have written: ‘‘It’s not the book that counts but the aura of its author.’’ Contrary to this, Ferrante affirms the self-sufficiency of a work. A good book should have ‘‘in itself, in its make-up, all the questions and all the answers’’. But these arguments also raise concerns regarding the motivation for this very collection, one that is framed as providing us with supplementary titbits direct from the authorial figure.
In the preface to the earlier edition (the book first appeared as a shorter volume in Italian in 2003), the publisher clearly states that this collection aims ‘‘to satisfy the curiosity’’ of Ferrante’s readers. As if to exonerate the publisher from any claim of media complicity, the introduction then asserts the hope that these letters will explain Ferrante’s reasons for remaining outside the ‘‘media circus’’. The collection is justified by precisely the kind of interest that Ferrante claims to scorn, while simultaneously positioning itself as an attempt to consolidate and affirm her privacy. Underlying her staunch refusal of going public is Ferrante’s stated need to keep a distance between herself and her books for creative purposes. Her writing depends on her privacy, and is an activity she aims to keep separate from her everyday life. Publicity, she argues, conflates this distance, a distance without which she will not publish. One can only hope, given the outing of her identity, that Ferrante doesn’t follow in the footsteps of her fictional women and vanish without a trace.
Stephanie Bishop is a writer and critic. Her latest novel is The Other Side of the World.
This November is marked by the publication of two new Elena Ferrante books. Frantumaglia and The Beach at Night will be available to readers just over a year after The Story of the Lost Child, Ferrante’s final Neapolitan novel, was published in September 2015. Much has happened in that year. Ferrante Fever spread across the globe. Her works were reviewed internationally, garnering unanimous praise. Her translator, Ann Goldstein, held sell-out events in London and beyond, while The Story of the Lost Child made it onto the shortlist for the Man Booker International. More recently of course, an Italian journalist exposed Ferrante’s identity, an identity she had chosen to keep anonymous. It is perhaps a testament to Ferrante’s immense popularity that this journalist has been berated across the media – her readers, at least, understand that the books speak for themselves and that Ferrante’s identity is unimportant in relation to her work.
Identity and anonymity are just two of the many topics covered in Frantumaglia. A collection of occasional writings, letters and essays, the book addresses her choice to remain anonymous. It includes letters between Ferrante and her publishers, who were the only people to know her real name. It’s a fascinating work that explores her literary inspirations, her political and cultural views and her opinions about the role of the writer (and the publisher) in modern society. As ever, Ferrante’s voice is direct, honest and intimate. She offers thoughts on her writing process, her use of genre, the reoccurring themes throughout her books, and her character development. Fans of the Neapolitan Novels – of which there are many – will be thrilled by Ferrante’s thoughtful response to her characters, or her ‘heroines’ as the New York Times put it in a review of the book.
The title Frantamuglia is a made up word that came from Ferrante’s mother. She used the word to describe the contradictory sensations and feelings muddying her brain, or the “jumble of fragments.” The book itself is just this, a jumble of fragments that Ferrante uses to give us glimpses of who she is through the lens of her writing, never giving away too much but still enough to leave readers with a real (fragmented) sense of who she is.
It’s not surprising that Frantumaglia has already been widely reviewed. Thoughtful pieces are appearing across all major media, many dealing with Ferrante’s desire for anonymity. As the New Republic writes:
“In Frantumaglia, Ferrante asserts the most fundamental and important truth of who she is: that she is someone who will do only as she will, and nothing else. That is what is at stake for all women.”
The Guardian ran a lengthy piece last weekend, in which novelist Lisa Appignanesi wrote:
“I had no desire at all at the end to know who the real Ferrante is. I feel I already know. Frantumaglia has added to that knowledge and also offered up some unexpected gems… At times, it is as absorbing as Ferrante’s extraordinary fictions and touches on troubling unconscious matter with the same visceral intensity. For those who can’t wait for the next Ferrante fiction to sink into, it provides a stopgap.”
A review in the London Evening Standard states:
“The book, exquisitely translated by Ann Goldstein of The New Yorker,opens a window on to the life of one of the most mysterious writers at work in Italy today.”
Interestingly, in a point made by the New York Times, Ferrante’s anonymity has actually made her incredibly public:
“As Frantumaglia makes clear, Ferrante really has been a public figure…she [has] given interviews all over the world — to The Paris Review, Vanity Fairand Entertainment Weekly, to newspapers across Europe.”
Despite her mystery, or maybe because of it, she has amassed readers all over the world who remain mesmerised by her work and who will no doubt be delving into Frantumaglia this November.
Published in tandem with Frantumaglia is The Beach at Night, an illustrated children’s book that tells the story of a lost doll (a theme readers will recognise from Ferrante’s other works). It was perhaps surprising that Ferrante would chose to produce a children’s book; her worlds are violent, raw and often unforgiving – not what you’d necessarily expect from a children’s author. The Beach at Night focuses on the tale at the center of The Lost Daughter, Ferrante’s 2006 novel that she considers a turning point in her development as a writer. This time, the tale takes the form of a fable, told from the point of view of the doll Celina, who is lost overnight on a beach during a family outing. In typical Ferrante fashion, we see Celina dealing with many of the sensations adult characters do throughout her novels: jealousy, abandonment, sadness and dark dreams. That is, until the sun comes up and Celina is happily found.
What happens to Celina during that long night on the beach could be described as scary, especially to children aged six to ten, at which the book is aimed. But as Daniela Petracco of Europa Editions said in an interview with The Guardian, it is “a little creepy, but, you know, it’s Ferrante. It was never going to be a sunny story.” In a Times review, the book is “a dark tale with a complex girl-doll heroine and a malevolent male baddie for brave little readers.” In The Washington Post, “Ferrante has started a debate over whether a children’s book she’s about to publish is appropriate for children.” Entertainment Weekly even put together a list of the book’s five scariest lines.
Ultimately though, this is a tale for children, with a happy ending and a strong message. It is also a tale for adults, especially Ferrante fans who will recognise her unique style in its pages. With dream-like illustrations from Mara Cerri, The Beach at Night is a children’s book that only Ferrante could have written, and we can expect it to be a major title in the run up to Christmas.
- Bill Godber, MD
Before the publishing calendar settles down for the holidays, November is the month for the heavy hitters: big names like Elena Ferrante, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem.
We’ve got them all on our list for the month, but we balanced them out with some lesser-known gems too, from new translations of cult classic texts to illuminating nonfiction about social issues. Read on.
Frantumaglia; A Writer’s Journey, Elena Ferrante
This collection of interviews and letters from the elusive, but brilliant writer is a gorgeous gift to hardcore Ferrante fever sufferers, full of tidbits about the author’s writing life, her decision to remain anonymous, and the themes in her work, from feminism to family. Although those of us who haven’t read her complete oeuvre would probably do equally as well to pick up one of her novels, Frantumaglia is there for those who need more Ferrante, and need it now.
From Elena Ferrante’s supposed memoir to a book about Polaroids, vinyl records and Settlers of Catan, here are your buzz-worthy books for November.
At the beginning of each month, the National Post’s Paul Taunton previews books that you’ll want to read and be seen reading over the next few weeks. Here’s what you can look forward to this November:
Elena Ferrante’s “memoir” is already famous for its role in outing the pseudonymous author, and the discrepancies between it and her real life. But many of us assume that most memoirs (and sometimes the memoirists themselves) are creations. So if you like Ferrante’s novels, that’s as good a reason as any to read this. Translator Ann Goldstein appears in conversation with Elizabeth Renzetti at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on November 15.
The “unmasking” of Italian author Elena Ferrante doesn’t sit well with John Turturro.
Speaking on a panel for “Ferrante Night Fever!” at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn on Thursday night, “The Night Of” star told a tightly squeezed audience he found the alleged unveiling of the best-selling author a “violation.”
“Not only is it a violation,” the 59-year-old actor said. “But sometimes people need that distance in order to be creative. They need to have that mask which sort of says, ‘That’s the best way I can function.’ You’re invading something sacred to that particular person.”
Turturro is referring to journalist Claudio Gatti, who penned a piece for the New York Review of Books in which he argued that German translator Anita Raja wrote “My Brilliant Friend” under a pseudonym.
Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Novels” tetralogy are ever popular in the literary world, where her success has hit the mainstream, including being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2016.
Turturro explained that he found Ferrante’s books to be “a real education for a man.”
“If you’re interested, or you don’t know the interior life of what women have to go through,” he told the audience. “Or you’ve imagined seeing these things but you were never able to ever articulate them demonstrated before your eyes. It’s really a great thing to enter into that world and it’s very civilizing in a great way.”
Panelists included the New Yorker’s Judith Thurman and Giancarlo Lombardi, and the moderator was author Darcey Steinke.