Reviewed by Lisa Mullenneaux
November 22, 2016
In 1991 publishers Sandra Ozzola and Sandro Ferri faced a dilemma: their author, who chose to call herself Elena Ferrante, declined their invitation to promote her first book. My job is done, she explained: I wrote it. “Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the publishing house’s least expensive author. I’ll spare you even my presence.” Luckily, the owners of Rome’s independent Edizioni E/O accepted Ferrante’s terms: she has made them a fortune (1.6 million sales of the Neapolitan Quartet in the U.S. alone)—all without revealing her identity.
This volume of the Italian novelist’s letters, essays, reflections, and interviews over 24 years (1991-2015) begins with her refusal letter, her acceptance of the prize that her debut novel Troubling Love received, and her reactions to Mario Martone’s film script. Ten years pass before commercial buzz from her second novel, The Days of Abandonment, creates a demand for interviews. Another 10 years pass before Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, the tale of a 60-year friendship that was written as a single book and divided into four parts, ignites “Ferrante fever” in America.
Elena Ferrante may be “faceless,” but she has much to say about why she chooses her themes—mothers and daughters for her first three novels, sisterhood for the quartet—and how she uses writing to clarify and repossess her experiences, much like Elena Greco, who narrates the Neapolitan novels. Many incidents are rooted in childhood, some, like “The Beast in the Storeroom,” terrifying; others explain her ambivalence towards her birth city, Naples. Neapolitan mothers she has known, for example, are “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 characters we meet in her pages, and their friendships are fragile, “without rules.” The “brilliant friends” Lila and Lenù fight and make up for decades, but they are devoted to each other in a way neither are with their men. Ferrante’s comments are revelatory, especially her need as a fiction writer to be “sincere to the point where it’s unbearable.”
The Ferrantean novel starts with an emergency that immediately hooks us—the hero’s mother has died suddenly, her husband wants a divorce, her best friend has vanished—then we get the backstory. About this technique, the novelist says, “I tend toward an expansive sentence that has a cold tone but at the same time exposes a magma of unbearable heat. I want readers to know from the first lines what they are dealing with.” A Vesuvian eruption creates the tension and suspense that keep us turning pages and gives us female narrators who battle for their sanity. “I very much enjoy,” writes their creator, “breaking through my character’s armor of good education and good manners, upsetting the image she has of herself, undermining her determination, and revealing another, rougher soul; I make her raucous, perhaps crude.” Ferrante’s women speak proper Italian, but they always curse in dialect.
Olga, who falls into domestic hell only to rise more sovereign in The Days of Abandonment, was intended as the antithesis of de Beauvoir’s “broken woman” Monique. Ferrante says she began this story with the image of a woman locked inside her home, but only when she herself experienced “the humiliation of abandonment” did the plot begin to gel. Similarly, a childhood friend of the novelist gave birth to My Brilliant Friend and its sisters. Female friendship being rife with envy and distrust, it’s a bumpy ride, but this is the psychic landscape of women blossoming post-World War II, juggling the demands of family and career, and sometimes wanting to disappear.
Women disappear at alarming rates in these novels, sometimes with a sudden death, sometimes as a way to resist sexism. The first to disappear in the Neapolitan Quartet are Lila’s and Lenù’s dolls; at the end they reappear in a “happy” ending that is oddly discomforting. Why? Because Ferrante is more comfortable with questions than answers. Mystery as a narrative strategy has served her well since Troubling Love (1992). Frantumaglia is the record of the novelist’s fight to preserve another mystery—her identity—and, more vital to us as readers, her right to remain anonymous.
Initially coy, Ferrante has in recent interviews clarified her debt to the theorists of sexual difference, which turned her thinking “upside down” and allowed her to focus on relationships between women. She names Carla Lonzi, Luce Irigaray, Luisa Muraro, Adriana Cavarero, Judith Butler, and Rosi Braidotti as feminists who “fired her imagination,” and points out how rarely a critic studies a female writer’s influence on a male. As if in answer to those Italian journalists who insisted for years she was male, Ferrante writes: “What if, instead, we’re dealing with a new tradition of women writers who are becoming more competent, more effective, are growing tired of the literary gynaeceum and are on furlough from gender stereotypes. We know how to think, we know how to tell stories, we know how to write them as well as, if not better than, men.”
The word (and title) frantumaglia is borrowed from the author’s mother, and it’s a female condition best demonstrated by Olga as she falls apart and—with brandy in one hand, pills in the other—isn’t sure she really wants to live. But Ferrante also describes it as an affliction she herself has suffered and witnessed in other women. What Ann Goldstein translates as “a jumble of fragments” might more accurately be called a “breakdown,” from the Italian frantumare to break or shatter. Lila’s episodes of smarginatura (dissolving margins) in the Neapolitan novels will become full-blown frantumaglia, the need to disappear without leaving a trace.
Europa’s claim on the book’s dust jacket that Ferrante’s interviews give us “a self-portrait of a writer at work” is disingenuous, especially in light of the pseudonymous author’s recent “unmasking” by Claudio Gatti. Frantumaglia is a portrait of a persona the author has created for public consumption, the better to keep attention on her work. And for many of us that subterfuge is acceptable, even admirable. Remove the mask and you remove my powers, the author warns repeatedly. Her decision 24 years ago “to liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety” has, of course, made her notorious, her attempt to renounce the media circus raising important questions about privacy but also about our assumptions as readers. Do we have a right to her history?
Aware that for many years “women’s writing” was dismissed as too autobiographical, this woman writer chose to disappear behind her words. Elena Ferrante = Elena Greco. Italo Calvino once asked, “How much of the I who shapes the characters is in fact an I who has been shaped by the characters?” In the case of Elena Ferrante, the answer is “all of it.”
Lisa Mullenneaux teaches Advanced Writing for the University of Maryland UC and has written about Elena Ferrante since 2007. She studied Italian Literature at the University of Florence and earned an MA from the Pennsylvania State University. Her critical study of Ferrante’s seven novels, Naples’ Little Women, is available as an e-book.
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