New Stateman

“Writing is everything and I am nothing”: the vanishing acts of Elena Ferrante

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 Her one-off pieces (many of them previously unpublished), about subjects including an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad short story and how Flaubert shaped her conception of France, are thoughtful and suggest acute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