World Literature Today

Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey by Elena Ferrante

In 1992 Edizioni e/o published a first novel, L’amore molesto, by an Italian writer who called herself “Elena Ferrante.” Its provocative cover featured a stylish female figure in a red suit—without her head. Eleven years later, the elegant “headless woman” surfaced again on the cover of a collection of Ferrante’s letters called La frantumaglia (2003). Ferrante’s book covers all feature figures with their faces hidden, just as the novelist has hidden her identity for twenty-four years. Explaining her reasons for anonymity to a relentlessly hungry Italian press in 2003, she wrote, “The true reader, I think, searches 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.”

Reading this collection of Ferrante’s interviews over twenty years (1995–2015), one is struck by her naïveté. Her seven translated novels found a rapt market in the US (1.6 million copies sold of the Neapolitan tetralogy alone), but she has never ceased to be a target for “unmasking.” Whether the secret scribbler is Edizione e/o’s German translator Anita Raja, her husband, Domenico Starnone, or Topo Gigio, her comments on her female narrators and her writing process is revelatory. She describes Neapolitan mothers she has known, for example, as “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 ones she writes about, and their friendships are fragile, “without rules.” The “brilliant friends” Lila and Lenù fight and make up—for sixty years—but they are devoted to each other in a way neither is with her men.

Ferrante has much to say here about her birth city, Naples; her childhood; the origin of her plots; and her need as a fiction writer to be “sincere to the point where it’s unbearable.” I was disappointed at inconsistent or odd translations, such as “difference feminism” for il pensiero della differenza, not to mention rendering frantumaglia (her mother’s word for depression) as “a jumble of fragments.” On the whole, however, Ann Goldstein’s translation does justice to the 2003 original, a volume that serves as a “companion” to Ferrante’s fiction.

Lisa Mullenneaux
University of Maryland University College

Tony’s Reading List

‘FRANTUMAGLIA’ BY ELENA FERRANTE (REVIEW)

Most people would be aware that the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante isn’t one to enjoy the limelight, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to find out more about the mysterious Italian writer (with some going to extreme lengths in an attempt to discover her true identity…).  However, if you’re really interested in the woman behind the Neapolitan Novels, rather than going through the bank accounts and real estate records of prominent Italians, you’d be better advised to have a read of her latest book, a collection of letters and interviews spanning two decades.  It’s an informative and enjoyable read – and probably a lot less illegal too…

*****
Frantumaglia (translated by Ann Goldstein, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) was originally released a while back in Italy, a book featuring letters to and from Ferrante over the first few years of her writing career.  It provided the only glimpse of the writer the reader was likely to get and focused both on her desire for privacy and her thoughts on her first two novels (Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment).  However, over the years the work has grown along with Ferrante’s success, and the English translation is a full copy of the updated version, adding interviews and conversations gathered since the completion of the Neapolitan Novels.

In many ways, the book provides an invaluable glimpse of the person behind the literature.  The countless interviews, with Ferrante’s extended responses to questions on her work, added to the many letters to her publishers and fragments of writing that was never published, persuade us that we’re receiving a privileged look behind the scenes.  Whether that’s true or not is debatable, though.  The writer and (especially) her publishers are masters at using the anonymity to great effect, and there’s always a suspicion here that Frantumaglia is just another step towards enhancing the Ferrante myth.

From beginning to end, Ferrante constantly asserts her desire to let her books talk for themselves, sending them out into the world to be read and understood without her interpretation.  She wonders:

Is there a way of safeguarding the right of an author to choose to establish, once and for all, through his writing alone, what of himself should become public?
p.61 (Europa Editions, 2016)

The answer is probably no, and the interest (in Italy and overseas) in her true identity shows no signs of abating, with recent events showing the lengths people will go to unmask her.  The pieces here do give clues as to her identity, such as her sisters’ ages, her travel destinations, time spent in Greece and her love of the classics – but that’s still relatively little to go on.

Luckily, then, Ferrante herself gives us a nudge in the right direction by pointing out the importance of certain themes in her fiction, and one of these, the mother-daughter relationship, is mentioned repeatedly.  Her childhood was dominated by her dressmaker mother, with little Elena caught in a relationship in which she both disliked and adored her, angry at her for her going out so much, but mesmerised by her seductive beauty.  When angry with her mother, she used to hide in a small room, half hoping to be looked for and found, and Ferrante later describes the room as the genesis of much of her fiction.  Certainly, this sensual, unavoidable relationship is one she feels she has to explore repeatedly in her work.

Many of the ‘fragments’ here also feature the city of Naples heavily, a city (in the writer’s words) full of the best and worst humans have to offer.  Ferrante attempts to explain the effect the city has had on her writing, especially in regard to the way its women are treated.  While many of her protagonists have left the city, they never really escape its influence, and the veneer of cool professionalism often melts away when they return to their home town:

My women are strong, educated, self-aware and aware of their rights, just, but at the same time subject to unexpected breakdowns, to subservience of every kind, to mean feelings.  I’ve also experienced this oscillation.  I know it well, and that also affects the way I write. (p.251)

It’s this sudden turn from being in control to losing it that marks Ferrante’s protagonists, and in these pieces she candidly admits that much of this is drawn from her own experiences.  These stories gradually lead us to the development of the Neapolitan Novels (which are hinted at even in the early letters, long before the work was underway), with a synthesis of the importance of Naples, the struggles of its women and Ferrante’s attraction to melodrama and (what she calls) ‘low levels of storytelling’.  Later, she is able to reflect on the book’s creation, following the traces back, explaining how all her writing, early novels and unpublished pieces, led to this one extended novel.

Part of the charm of Frantumaglia is following Ferrante’s obvious interest in how her work is received, even while she refuses to colour readers’ perceptions.  An excellent example of this is her reaction to the films of her early novels and her fascination with the screenplays she is sent.  Much as she dreads having her story and characters appropriated, her determination to make the work stand on its own means she’s loath to get between book and reader (or film and watcher):

But there is no correct way to activate the power of a written story, and instructions for use are not worth much.  The “right reading” is an invention of academics and critics.  Every reader gets from the book he is reading nothing else but his book. (p.190)

For Ferrante, this isn’t about the death, or the absence, of the author (in fact, she rejects this idea of absence on several occasions); it’s merely a desire to have the work sink or swim on its own merits.

For anyone who has read a few of Ferrante’s novels, working your way through Frantumaglia is a fascinating experience.  The many pieces combine to provide valuable insights into her writing, and the discussions of plot and character show the amount of work and thought that went into the novels.  The writer, despite her supposed reticence, is often unable to control herself in responses to interview questions (Exhibit A here is a seventy-page response to some detailed questions from a journalist) – for someone unwilling to let the author overshadow the work, at times, she simply can’t help herself.  Of course, that’s partly due to the personal nature of her writing and the sense that her novels are an expression of her own experiences:

(Liz) Jobey: The Neapolitan novels have similarities of character and plot to your three earlier novels.  Are you, in some way, telling the same story?
Ferrante: Not the same story but definitely the same features of a single malady.  Life’s wounds are incurable and you write them and rewrite them in the hope of being able, sooner or later, to construct a narrative that will account for them once and for all. (p.350)

Perhaps, then, Ferrante is simply working through her experiences using alter-egos, exploring the possibilities and constraints of an educated Neapolitan woman – and then using the reactions of a global audience to gauge how much they reflect the experiences of women elsewhere…

While Frantumaglia does reveal a different side to Ferrante than that shown by the novels, another intriguing aspect to the book is its meta-referential level.  Both Ferrante and her publishers constantly allude in their letters to the book itself, discussing earlier versions and exploring the idea of expanding the collection to account for further developments in Ferrante’s career.  The Frantumaglia we’re reading today is the result of a gradual accretion of these ‘frantumaglia’, the many pieces floating around in the ether wanting to be formed into something less scattered.  Given this fragmented format, with the reader free to form their own ideas of what the book is about (which I’m sure Ferrante would appreciate), there’s every chance that even this hefty tome, running to almost four-hundred pages, is only a further draft of the work, with more to come with time.

So far, I’ve been nothing but complimentary about the book, but I’d have to say that the nature of the book means that some sections are fairly dull.  There’s a fair amount of repetition, particularly in the third and final part containing interviews with journalists from around the world (yes, it’s impressive that interviewers from so many countries are desperate to speak to Ferrante, but there are only a certain number of ways she can say, no, I don’t regret my decision to remain in the background…).  In addition, while respecting her desire for anonymity, I don’t always agree with how she goes about it, and as much as she may deny that it’s good for sales, her publishers are certainly using it as a marketing tool (it’s no secret that it’s #FerranteFever that they push, focusing on the writer, not the books).

However, overall Frantumaglia is an excellent glimpse behind the curtain, and there are several sections where it simply makes for enjoyable reading.  The best parts are when Ferrante cuts loose, longer sections where she forgets that she’s supposed to be answering questions and just writes whatever she feels like discussing at the time.  In many places, the pieces could be fiction (and quite possibly are…) and provide a timely reminder of why she’s so popular – it’s hard not to be swept away by the passionate honesty of her responses, whether they’re authentic or not.  What’s even more intriguing are the frequent mentions of unpublished work, reams of text that the writer never considered worthy of sending to the publishers.  It’s hard to imagine that none of this will ever see the light of day…

That’s plenty for one post, but before I finish, I need to quickly mention the special attention Ferrante pays to her third novel, The Lost Daughter.  In many places, she describes it as an important piece, a personal work and a crucial connection between her early books and the Neapolitan Novels.  All of which means that having read the other novels, it’s time for me to have a look at that one too to see if it really is the key to Ferrante’s fiction – soon, perhaps😉

The Millions

A Year in Reading: 2016

Based on the entries this year, I can confirm that readers are still very into Elena Ferrante.

We typically schedule the essays and reviews and lists we run at The Millions a week or two in advance. Before the U.S. election, I looked at what we had in the hopper and tried to arrange the posts for timeliness. This was basically a symbolic gesture since The Millions is a total literary miscellany, and mostly contributor-driven — we don’t have the budget to commission much work (see publisher Max Magee’s call for support here). Max and I conferred about what to run on election day itself; we agreed that a lovely, calm installment of Hannah Gersen’s Proust Diary was the thing. I asked him what we should run if Donald Trump won. “SHUT IT ALL DOWN,” he wrote, sort of joking.

It’s obvious now that our disbelief was a luxury — there were plenty of people who knew it could happen. But the shock was real, and so too was the subsequent urge to shut it down. It was unclear, in the days immediately following the election, how a literary site could possibly matter when Donald Trump was the President of the United States, when it felt that all efforts should henceforth be directed at subverting the new regime. (It’s still unclear.)

But then the Year in Reading entries started coming in, from more than 70 writers. This is the 13th year of the series, and it feels like the most necessary yet. The entries have a measure of fear and grief, yes. They are about reckoning with the past, and preparing for the future. They are also full of beauty, full of sensitivity, full of intelligence, full of curiosity and care. They are about dissolving in someone else’s consciousness. About sharing suffering. About taking a break. About falling in love.

Based on the entries this year, I can confirm that readers are still very into Elena Ferrante. But there are many other names to discover in this series — exciting debuts and forgotten classics and authors whose names were on the tip of your tongue. There are hundreds of books: novels, essays, works of nonfiction, and poems.

As in prior years, the names of our 2016 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson). Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run three or four per day. And if you look forward to the Year in Reading every year, please consider supporting the site and ensuring this December tradition continues for years to come.

There are difficult weeks and years ahead, but we hope you’ll be momentarily refreshed and heartened as you hear from an array of prodigious readers and writers. At the very least, you’ll find something good to read.


A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson

 Like so many other people, I devoured Elena Ferrante’s glorious Neapolitan quartet; when I was done, I had a Naples itch, and to scratch it I finally read my ancient copies of John Horne Burns’s The Gallery and Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44, and was bowled over by both. (. . .)

A Year in Reading: Kaulie Lewis

Not to be too contrarian, but sometimes I like people to be wrong. Is that terrible? Maybe it’s terrible. Either way, when everyone I knew said, “just try reading Elena Ferrante, she’s amazing, incredible, you’ll love her, you won’t even look up until you’re through, how lucky are you the fourth book is out, you didn’t even have to wait, I wish I was reading them for the first time again,” I decided I didn’t want them to be right.Ferrante? Not my style, I said.
Alas, 2016 was the year I finally read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and got just as swept up as everyone said I would. I made the mistake of beginning My Brilliant Friend on a plane, headed out to visit friends in San Francisco. Rudely but predictably, I spent the rest of the trip curled up on somebody else’s couch, far more engaged with the novels than I was with my real-life companions and hosts. Day outings were almost painful; I practically had to be dragged out of my imaginary Naples to drive out to a vineyard or to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.Dramatics aside, the Neapolitan novels stunned me. Lila, Lenu, the reality and complexity of their world, and the incredibly insightful, moving, and painful female friendship at its heart, were more than enough to knock me over. I’ve rarely been so glad to be so wrong.


A Year in Reading: Bich Minh Nguyen

This year a group of friends and I started a book club because we wanted to talk about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. It so happened that we also love karaoke, so we became a karaoke book club: we talk about writing and desire and friendship and then we go and sing our hearts out. This pairing works beautifully and maybe it’s because we want to be in a moment, like Ferrante Fever. I’ve been thinking about how much immersion matters, how I’m reading for what books can make me feel, especially a particular collusion of sadness and rage, sparked by longing. This takes many forms: rawness, interiority, yelling, even silence. It has to do with characters working against histories and structures that often seem impossible to break.

Elena Ferrante’s Elena and Lila are trying to figure out their own selves, at times creative and wild, within harsh patriarchal and provincial structures.

 

Public Books

THE FERRANTE PARADOX

MERVE EMRE

December 15, 2016 — Reading Frantumaglia, the new collection of letters, interviews, and occasional prose from Elena Ferrante, I was struck by how often the author opened her correspondence with an apology. “I apologize again for the trouble I cause you,” she writes to her publisher Sandra Ozzola of her unwillingness to appear in person to accept a prestigious literary prize. “I’m sincerely afraid that I don’t know how to contribute to your project … I apologize in advance,” she writes to Mario Martone, the director who wants to adapt her novella Troubling Love into a film, before providing him with 15 pages of brilliant, exacting notes on the script he has sent her. “I apologize in advance for the confusing or contradictory passages you may encounter,” she writes to critic and magazine editor Goffredo Fofi in a letter she ultimately decides not to send. The refrain clangs across all three hundred pages of the book: “I apologize.” “I am sorry,” “I am sorry,” “I am sorry.”

An apology is not a neutral act, especially not an apology that is issued publicly, as Ferrante’s apologies now are. An apology performs an act of deference, yet it need not be sincere. Often, in fact, it isn’t. “I am sorry” can serve as a strategic front, allowing the speaker to present a remorseful or self-vilifying attitude while continuing to think or do whatever she pleases. For Ferrante, apologizing is a tactic for preserving her innocence, a self-protective stance she has assumed since childhood, albeit with certain reservations. “Innocence—I began to convince myself—is never to get into the situation of arousing malicious reactions in others,” she writes. “Difficult but possible. So I taught myself to be silent, I apologized for everything, I reined in my tongue, I was polite and compliant. Yet secretly I was bad.”

Delivered in hindsight, the implicit message here is that preserving one’s innocence through unfelt apologies is a childish strategy, both politically ineffectual and self-deceptive. But Frantumaglia suggests otherwise. Whatever else it may be—a glimpse into the drawers of her writing desk, her publisher’s attempt to stoke or satisfy the curiosity of her readers—it is a book that, apology by apology, builds the case for Ferrante’s writerly innocence: not just her modest withdrawal from the “media circus and its demands,” but her complete exemption from the material and ideological operations of the literary field. “I consider the text a self-sufficient body, which has in itself, in its makeup, all the questions and all the answers. And then real books are written only to be read,” Ferrante writes. Frantumaglia is full of such statements of shallow profundity. Reading “once … was a purely private fact.” “Every reader gets from the book he is reading nothing else but his book.” We all “read books by no one.”

It is not clear to me that this case needed to be made. If Claudio Gatti’s claims about the Ferrante pseudonym revealed anything, it was not her true identity—that has been neither confirmed nor denied, and thus remains unresolved—but the degree to which critics, with nothing short of reverence, had already accepted her insistence on literature’s purity. She had a knack for turning self-proclaimed Marxists and feminists hopelessly middlebrow; for seducing even our most advanced critics into forgetting what they very well knew: that novels do not spring fully formed from the minds of geniuses; that the use of a pseudonym does not subvert a literary marketplace in which books are bought and sold with authors’ names emblazoned on their covers, their spines, on the top of every other page. These were children’s dreams, which perhaps explains why the anger of her defenders so often resembled the anger of children who, peering over the railing on Christmas Eve, were shocked to discover that there was no Santa Claus, only a tired mother pressing her scissors to the ribbons that wrapped their presents.

How did Ferrante manage to undo so many without arousing any malicious reactions? How did she remake the sensibilities of readers trained to sniff out politically suspect ideologies? Frantumaglia is, above all, an astonishing tutorial in unlearning how to read: how to abandon the language of critique that many have cultivated through formal schooling, in the hopes that such abandonment might bring us closer to the state of innocence that Ferrante has claimed for herself and her work. She draws inspiration from Walter Benjamin, who, in the beginning of Berlin Childhood around 1900, writes about learning to get lost in the city of his childhood, its roads and rivers furrowed into his memory. “Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling,” Benjamin writes.1 The same holds true for reading, insofar as unlearning how to read also requires some schooling, or rather, some unschooling. “The ‘right reading’ is an invention of academics and critics,” Ferrante claims. “The books we’ve truly read are phantoms conjured up by reading with no rules.”

<i>Naples, 2007</i>. Photograph by David Evers / Flickr

Naples, 2007. Photograph by David Evers / Flickr

For Ferrante, the best kind of reading is childish, untaught, enchanting. It summons up our “strong, slightly vulgar passions” and unearths a “fund of pleasure” that too many have “repressed in the name of Literature”—the cultural category produced by a disenchanted adulthood of criticism and theory. But a “real book,” a book we have “truly read,” is utterly absorbing, a wormhole to some pre-ideological moment before academic theorists, punishing and cold, unmasked reading and writing for what it was: a densely mediated activity, a marker of class privilege, a field of production in which many kinds of exclusions—by race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality—are erased under the blinding and numinous sign of Art. It is tempting to throw off the burden of political and historical consciousness in the face of enchantment. The magician waves his wand, taps his hat, and we realize, almost as an afterthought, that we do not want to know where the rabbit was hiding.

It is also tempting to believe that writing is “not a job”—another refrain of Ferrante’s throughout Frantumaglia; tempting to believe that a real book is simply an imprint of the author’s consciousness. It is an incantation that guards against the social, economic, or political circumstances of authorial production. This is the fantastical meaning behind frantumaglia, a word that Ferrante says she borrows from her mother’s Neapolitan dialect. Frantumaglia literally means “a jumble of fragments,” but the word wields a fabulous and disorienting performative power. Speaking it makes her mother dizzy. It sets her singing under her breath and drives her out of the house, the stove still on, the sauce burning. It makes her weep. “It’s 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,” Ferrante writes. What we are offered in Frantumaglia, then, is something that predates not just literature, but language; a return to a state of pure sensory impression that could be called “childhood,” were “childhood” not already a compromised notion.

To return us to our childhoods, Ferrante speaks like a child. Her genre of choice is the domestic epic, her heroine the weaving woman: Ariadne, Dido, but above all others, Ferrante’s mother, described as a dressmaker in Naples, whose work Ferrante discusses at length in an interview titled “La Frantumaglia.” It unfolds from the perspective of Ferrante as a child, standing beside her mother at a fabric store, her head just clearing her mother’s waist. She waits and watches as her mother chooses the perfect fabric with which to “weave her spell.” Her mother’s dressmaking was “a spell I was deeply familiar with,” Ferrante writes, “but it enchanted me anyway, always.” Recreating this enchantment for her readers requires a subtle act of narrative erasure (like that of My Brilliant Friend, and unlike Proust, to whom she is so often compared): a refusal to impose any reflexive distance between the perspective of the adult who tells the story and the child she once was. It is as if the adult, and her artful shaping of a memory, never existed.

Except, of course, the adult narrator does exist and the spell her mother casts is nothing if not artfully described:

 

It was the sewing that cast a spell, much more than cutting. The mobile skill of that hand put together the pieces of material, made the seams invisible, the pieces of fabric regained a soft continuity, a new compactness, became a dress, the shape of a female body, skin clinging to skin, an organism that lay in her lap and sometimes slid down to her feet, which were in motion like her hands, ready to go to the pedal of the sewing machine. It was a back and forth that seemed like a dance to me, the hand moved the needle, the mouth bit the thread, the chest often rotated on the chair, turned to the machine to sew, the feet, wide, with a powerful structure, rested on the pedal and started the movement of the machine’s needle …

 

That her description is an allegory for writing fiction is obvious; Ferrante tells us as much when she reveals that the Neapolitan phrase “to cut the cloth on” is slang for telling stories, and that the women who come to try on her mother’s dresses speak of love, betrayal, heartbreak, and revenge with such passion that the fabric trembles under the force of their words. Yet it is also an allegory for the act of anonymous creation; an allegory expertly threaded through the movements of the sentences. It is the “mobile skill of the hand”—not the hand itself, not the woman to whom the hand belongs—that performs all the work and erases all traces of the work’s artfulness. And it is the dress that escapes the agile hand of its maker, taking on a life of its own as a separate “organism,” a compact and continuous shape. All the while its maker remains in fragments: a hand, a mouth, a chest, two wide and powerful feet. The woman to whom they all belong remains veiled by the beauty of the fabrics she has woven together.

<i>Mannequins</i>. Photograph by Karyn Christner / Flickr

Mannequins. Photograph by Karyn Christner / Flickr

The problem with allegory is that it can get heavy-handed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ferrante’s children’s book, The Beach at Night, which I have read aloud two or three times to my son before putting him to bed in the evenings. It tells the story of a pale, dark-haired, self-pitying doll who is abandoned on the shore at sunset and discovered at night by a Mean Beach Attendant, a man with a dark mustache and coarse hands. From between his lips he pulls out a thin golden hook, forces it down the doll’s throat, and rips from her a secret that she has guarded with great care: her name. My son did not appreciate the startlingly allegorical nature of the scene—to be fair, he’s only nine months old—and I found it cheap, gimmicky.

What The Beach at Night reveals is how impossible it is to ignore the biographical in reading Ferrante when so much of her prose turns on her allegories of anonymity, whether in the form of a dress made by no one or a doll who will not speak her name. It is precisely her refusal of the biographical, and her subsequent representation of that refusal, that has lodged the biographical ever deeper into the heart of what she writes. This is a paradox—or parlor trick, depending on one’s perspective—that critics have universally failed to perceive, resulting in a basic misunderstanding of what kinds of claims the biographical allows one to make. For instance, it makes no logical sense to argue, as Alexander Chee does in his review of Frantumaglia, that there is no value in knowing Ferrante’s identity, while also asserting that, if Ferrante is translator Anita Raja, whose ancestors are Polish and Jewish and not among the Neapolitan poor, then Frantumaglia is “a metafiction, her most experimental text yet, a massive prank on criticism and the media.”2Incoherent claims like this have proliferated in Gatti’s wake.

Why were we so invested in Ferrante’s anonymity anyway? After all, we never had it, even when we thought we did; we were always reading biographically, because that’s simply how we read novels when author’s names are appended to them. Setting aside the egregious ethical violations in outing her, the important question for literary criticism is not why would anyone want to know who she is, but why not know? What harm does it to do us? Is her literature so fragile that it can be injured by knowing a name? I would like to believe that the answer is no.

Los Angeles Times

The 10 most important books of 2016

For those who like fiction, the idea of crafting a character who is the stand-in for the novelist is more interesting than poking into a publisher’s financial records. “Frantumaglia” is the real accomplishment.

The 10 most important books of 2016

By Carolyn Kellogg

Books are slow food. It generally takes two years, two hardworking years, to cook up a book from idea to publication. Some writers can go faster — those who publish a book a year (or more) are working at top speed — while others write much more slowly, ruminating and reworking and false-starting for a decade or more. By the time we readers get them, books are self-contained objects, narratives that have evolved outside of the relentless news cycle and Twitter chatter. More than any other medium, books give us deep, rich stories that stand apart from the hubbub.

Except sometimes, that years-long process winds up being right in the center of the conversation. Which brings us to these, the 10 most important books of 2016. No matter when they started or how long they took, they touched on something that was essential this year, and will be essential when we look back at it from 2017 and beyond.

“Frantumaglia” by Elena Ferrante

Ferrante, the Italian author of the internationally bestselling Neapolitan novels, is a phantom, a pseudonym. “Frantumaglia” is an autobiographical assemblage of writings, sharing some of her history (possibly fabricated) and explaining that she wants to remain unknown because of the burdens put on female writers. Weeks before the book’s American release, a European journalist claimed to have discovered Ferrante’s true identity, raising questions of who needs to know what about whom. For those who like fiction, the idea of crafting a character who is the stand-in for the novelist is more interesting than poking into a publisher’s financial records. “Frantumaglia” is the real accomplishment.

Jezebel

The Best Things We Read in 2016 That You Still Can Too

I don’t know about you, but the only time I ever get a consistent amount of reading done is during vacation, when I haven’t spent the entire day scanning webpage after webpage.

As such, here’s some highlights from the year in words that was 2016 that you can enjoy during your holiday downtime, or pass on to others who also need something to distract themselves while watching chestnuts roast—I hear that’s called “gifting”?

The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante: You’re probably shocked to see a white feminist writer recommending an author as obscure and unheard of as Ferrante on highly trafficked woman’s site, but here I am, a goddamn unicorn. After years of knowing that I SHOULD read Ferrante, I finally DID read Ferrante and guess what? The Neapolitan Novels are very good? I feel like we’re on the crest of a Ferrante backlash, so I want to get this in before it fully arrives: She truly does capture the complexity of female friendships and quiet violence of being female better than almost any writer I’ve read before. (I’ve followed the Neapolitan Novels up with Clover’s recommendation, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, and they complement each other very nicely.)

World Literature Today

World Literature Today’s 75 Notable Translations of 2016

75 Notable Translations of 2016

In our fifth annual list of “75 Notable Translations,” we again offer an admittedly incomplete collection of the year’s English translations. And again, we invite you to share your favorites from the year as well as those you’re most eagerly anticipating in 2017 by using the hashtag #2017Reads on Twitter and Facebook.

Two notable firsts: Boubacar Boris Diop’s Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks became the first novel translated from Wolof to English and Phoneme Media published the first English translation of a Burundian novel, Rugero Roland’s Baho!, translated by Chris Schaefer. And a new nonprofit, independent press that will include translated literature among its publications entered the scene. Transit Books will release four titles in 2017.

The conversation about women in translation continued. In September, Alison Anderson and David Shook participated in an interview on WLT’s Translation Tuesday blog series, discussing with Melissa Weiss the status of women authors in translation. In November, WLT published an issue devoted exclusively to women writers, cover to cover, including pieces in translation from Arabic, Chinese, Danish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Macedonian, Norwegian, and Spanish. So if you’re looking for great translations by women writers, perhaps to join Biblio’s #Women in Translation Month, WLT’s November issue and the list below are two great starting points.

We look forward to continuing to serve as your passport to great global reading in 2017.

Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia, trans. Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)

The Australian

Holiday reading: from Coetzee to Keneally, Winton and Ferrante

Summer is the perfect time to catch up on the books you’ve missed.

The challenge at this time of year is, well, entertaining the in-laws (or the spouses, to be fair to in-laws). In this week’s Ragged Claws column, I mention Scorn: The Wittiest and Wickedest Insults in Human History. But let’s not go there unless we need to. First there is an even greater challenge, one I face each December: choosing books for this summer reading/Christmas gift guide.

It’s something I like doing but I do fret about forgetting books that should be remembered. As you read this, I’m at home waiting for an email that blasts “How could you leave out X?!” I also want to cover books that will appeal to different readers, not just myself. It can’t all be about horseracing, I understand.

So, as usual, the following is based on books I’ve read, reviews of ones I haven’t, prizes and sales, talking to friends and checking “books of the year” lists here and there. I’ve also peeked at our own best books wrap-up, the picks of local writers and critics, which we will run next week.

I want to start, however, with my two books of the year, a decision I found easier than usual. Both are international. My favourite novel was Imagine Me Gone by American writer Adam Haslett. It’s a beautiful, moving exploration of a fractured family shadowed by the father’s suicide. My favourite nonfiction book — and indeed my book of the year — was one Peter Carey brought to my attention: The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between, by London-based Libyan novelist Hisham Matar. It’s a complex, aching memoir of his decision to return home to try to learn, 20 years after the event, what happened to his father, who was an opponent of Muammar Gaddafi.

LITERARY STUDIES

There was a row two months ago when an Italian journalist published a piece revealing the “real” name of bestelling Neapolitan author Elena Ferrante. Well, whatever her name is, most of us think of her as Elena Ferrante, and I think will do so even more if we read Frantumaglia, a collection of her correspondence with publishers, readers and journalists. It’s an absorbing explanation of why this writer insists on anonymity, and also reveals a lot about the inspiration for and thinking behind her remarkable novels. Even more authors go about thinking in The Writers Room, in which novelist Charlotte Wood collects the interviews she has conducted with fellow authors. In Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, edited by Maggie Fergusson, there are museum and gallery tributes by authors such as Julian Barnes, Aminatta Forna, Margaret Drabble and Tim Winton. Literary Wonderlands, edited by Laura Miller, is a “journey through the greatest fictional worlds ever created”. Beautifully illustrated, it’s a critical consideration of works from The Odyssey and The Tempest to the works of authors such as Mark Twain, Franz Kafka, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood. David Foster Wallace, JK Rowling and Salman Rushdie. George Orwell is in Literary Wonderlands but the book I want to read about him is John ­Sutherland’s Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological ­Biography. Sutherland had the idea for this book after he lost his own sense of smell, permanently. Rereading Orwell, he was struck by his focus on smells. He started thinking of the “scent narratives” in Orwell’s books. Considering a passage in Nineteen Eighty-Four where Winston Smith, in a flat, smells the “sharp reek of sweat” of “some person not present at the moment”, Sutherland writes: “You need a nose a bloodhound would envy to track the perspiratory reek of someone who has been out of the house for hours.”

The New York Times

‘Ferrante Fever’ Continues to Spread

The Spectator

Rifling through Elena Ferrante’s writing desk

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

(Photo: Getty)

Frantumaglia isn’t strictly a book by Elena Ferrante. Frantumaglia isn’t strictly a book at all. It’s a celebration of the life of the novel and a manifesto for the death of the author, told in a collection of interviews, letters from journalists requesting interviews, letters within letters, stories within letters, and letters from Ferrante’s editor in which the idea of publishing all these letters, dating from 1991 to the present day, is initially proposed.

The whole caboodle is a dizzying ‘jumble of fragments’, ‘a miscellaneous crowd of things’, a mass of ‘contradictory sensations’ which ‘make a noise in your head’. Which is how Ferrante defines ‘frantumaglia’, a word lifted from Neopolitan dialect which will now, doubtless, find its place in the OED. Frantumaglia is what wakes you in the night; frantumaglia, says Ferrante, is the source of all suffering. It is also, she stresses, the origin of writing. It is from the chaos of frantumaglia that stories are born: ‘The stories that you tell, the words that you use and refine, the characters you try to give life to are merely tools with which you circle around the elusive, unnamed, shapeless thing that belongs to you alone.’

Everything in these pages is calculated to make a noise in your head. The layout, for example, is exasperating. We are given Ferrante’s replies to letters before being shown the letter to which she is replying; her detailed responses to interviewers’ questions are given before we are shown the questions themselves. One particularly brilliant letter, to a journalist called
Francesco Erbani, was, we are told only after we’ve read it, never sent.

Ferrante’s editor, Sandra Ozzola, describes the book as a story whose subject is ‘the 25-year history of an attempt to show that the function of the author is all in the writing’. It’s a story that admirers of the Neopolitan Quartet know already: Ferrante’s refusal to join in the media circus has created a media circus; her insistence on privacy has been treated as a crime.

This book is offered as a concession to Ferrante devotees, with the blurb inviting us into her ‘workshop’, where we are free to rifle the ‘drawers of her writing desk’. Which is of course exactly what the investigative journalist, Claudio Gatti, did recently, when he used Ferrante’s bank statements to uncover her real name. His justification was, he said, the ‘lies’ in Frantumaglia, which boil down to Ferrante’s description of her mother as a dressmaker when she apparently had some other job. Elena Ferrante’s nom-de-plume is at the heart of her art, and Gatti’s lumpen literalism, for which he expected a standing ovation, has made him an international pariah. So it is both strange and moving now to read, in the light of her unmasking, Ferrante’s devastating plea for invisibility.

Having perused her mail, I wonder how she has stayed sane. Fighting off the media is Ferrante’s life’s work. In letter after letter she explains, in a thousand different ways and with endless eloquence, why she restricts herself to a small number of email interviews. ‘My entire identity is the books that I write’; ‘I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors’; ‘I wanted the books to assert themselves without my patronage.’ She writes in order to ‘free’ herself from her stories, not to become their ‘prisoner’.Frantumaglia could, without losing volume, be reduced to a series of aphorisms on the subject of authorship.

Meanwhile, the interviews Ferrante is gracious enough to grant focus exclusively on her desire to absent herself from the fanfare of book promotion. Asked the same question again and again, she replies with her usual clarity: ‘Is a book, from the media point of view, above all the name of the person who writes it?’ She has chosen ‘absence’, she repeats, and not ‘anonymity’; her books are not anonymous because there is a name on the cover. Giving yourself to a book, she says, is fantastically exposing — ‘it’s as if you had been rudely searched’ — and so the reader has already seen all of her.

Frantumaglia tells us a great deal about the business of being a writer in a philistine, celebrity-obsessed culture, but this is not where the force of the book lies. Ferrante also reveals something about readers which we are refusing to hear. It’s what Keats explained in a letter to his friend, Richard Woodhouse— the poet can be found in his poems and not in his person.

amNewYork

Brunch in NYC solo with the company of these books

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.

The Muse – Jezebel

In Frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante Is Her Own Greatest Work of Fiction 

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.

Literary Hub

BAFFLING OMISSIONS FROM THE NY TIMES’ 100 NOTABLE BOOKS LIST

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.

cover_9781609452926_806_600

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?

Bogotá sin Edición

“I fervently hope Elena Ferrante will not stop writing”: Judith Thurman

 Foto: premioggm.org

By Laura Quiceno

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.

 Foto: premioggm.org

¿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.

The New Inquiry

Call Me Elena

elena-social

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?