On Frantumaglia and the Real Mystery of Elena Ferrante

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.