The success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels has sparked worldwide buzz in and out of academia, in literary journals, and in book clubs. Ferrante is the author of seven novels, a collection of papers related to her work as a writer, and a children’s book, The Beach at Night.1 When it comes to Ferrante, we may feel, indeed, stranded on a beach, at night, left there to collect the tokens of her presence and whereabouts in this world. The tokens are words and in them we find the lucid exactness of worlds inhabited by characters who are as vivid and real as she is elusive. They deal with what the author has called frantumaglia, a term she borrows from her mother and her Neapolitan dialect (frantummàglia), which she describes as “un malessere non altrimenti definibile che rimandava ad una folla di cose eterogenee nella testa, detriti su un’acqua limacciosa del cervello” (“a malaise that could not be defined otherwise and that hinted at a crowded, heterogeneous mix of things in her head, like rubbles floating on a brain’s muddy waters” [La frantumaglia; 94]). Ferrante’s compelling narrative dives into such muddy waters and surfaces from them with the strength of truth, where truth does not mean moral clarity, but stems from the unmistakable verity of naked human emotions. The origin of the word frantumaglia is very material; it refers, in fact, to a pile of fragments from broken objects that cannot be pieced together again.
This Colloquy seeks to bring together in one ongoing conversation, from a variety of intellectual perspectives, the voices of the international discourse about Elena Ferrante’s novels and the significance of her work in the contemporary literary landscape.
As for who she might be, in light of the quite disturbing invasion of privacy that Anita Raja has undergone, and considering the fact that in both La frantumaglia and several other interviews Ferrante gives us enough detail about what of her life experience gets into her novels, I repeat here what I have previously noted in an article for Storie: who cares? But if we do, why do we? This Colloquy would welcome any contribution that convincingly argues why the author’s biographic data would cast more light on her fiction, or why knowing her name would be at all important, and for whom. In the meantime, I propose again Ferrante’s response to a reader who sought to know her identity: “La personalità di chi scrive storie è tutta nella virtualità dei suoi libri. Guardi li dentro e ci troverà gli occhi, il sesso, lo stile di vita, la classe sociale e la voce dell’es” (“The personality of those who write stories is contained entirely in the virtual worlds of their books. Look in there and you will find their eyes, sex, life style, social class, and the voice of their Id” [La frantumaglia199]).
A native of Naples, Italy, Barbara Alfano is a member of the faculty at Bennington