Although she has written seven novels in Italian and is, in translation, all the rage among the English language reading public, Elena Ferrante remains mysterious.
The name Ferrante is a pseudonym and the wildly popular writer has tried to stay undercover and eschew the expected round of interviews and book signing tours.
That mystery was somewhat lifted in October, when Italian journalist Claudio Gatti claimed to unmask Ferrante as Anita Raja, a translator who lives in Rome.
Before that revelation, however, Ferrante agreed to the publication of Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, a glance-back at nearly 25 years of authorial silence.
The volume, which appeared in Italian 10 years ago and now in English translation, is a scattered collection of letters, interviews, essays and miscellaneous observation which may, hopefully, shed more light on Ferrante and on her impressive array of work.
The Italian writer, for those not familiar with her reputation, is the author of not only three best-selling novels, The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love and The Lost Daughter, but of the internationally lauded Neapolitan Quartet, published between 2012 and 2015.
Her translator, Ann Goldstein, who has never met Ferrante, has also been widely praised.
Ferrante herself defines her recent book’s title, Frantumaglia, as a “tangle” as a term which may best describe the interconnectedness of the world, of the role still played among the living of those who have died, “all those others who were once in the world and who have acted or who now act through us. In the most absolute tranquility or in the midst of tumultuous events, in safety or danger, in innocence or corruption, we are a crowd of others. And this crowd is certainly a blessing for literature.”
Ferrante’s book is, in part, a catch-up, a narrative wherein the author, while remaining anonymous, consents to give readers a behind-the-scenes look at how she thinks and how she works.
Writing, she reminds us, is both a joy and a drudgery, a pleasure and a constant struggle, a minefield through which she is now willing to guide her legions of readers.
Or, at least, to fill them in on how the vagaries of the writing life have affected her personally.
Ferrante is interesting on writing as a sidebar to feminism.
As she sifts though the stages of a prolific writing career, Ferrante has much to say to an eager audience.
She covers, with aplomb, questions regarding “authenticity” in literature and cites, as examples, such favoured authors as Jane Austen, Virginia Wool and Alice Munro who have, she suggests, an outstanding degree of literary power.
“But its hard to acknowledge. For example, women writers are still compared only with one another. You can be better than other well-known women writers but not better than well-known male writers. Just as its extremely rare for great male writers to say they’ve taken as models great women writers.”
In another interview, Ferrante returns to this theme.
Great literature is generally thought to be literature penned by men, she points out.
“Apart from a few fine souls, men don’t read books by women, as if such reading would weaken their virile power. Educated, broad-minded men treat female thought with polite irony, as a by-product, good only as a pastime for women.”
Glimpses into Ferrante’s cast of mind include memories of childhood, of places she has lived, her thoughts on female friendship and how it has affected the writing of the Neapolitan Quartet, the adaptation of novels into film, the centrality of the mother-daughter relationship in her own life and on her perceived role as storyteller rather than as general writer.
The book offers an unusual mosaic of reminiscence and current musing and will be a welcome surprise to fans of Ferrante’s astonishing novels.
Nancy Schiefer is a London freelance writer.