The Sidney Morning Herald

Frantumaglia review: Elena Ferrante’s ‘fragments’ about identity and motivation

Drusilla Modjeska

Who is Elena Ferrante? Is she a fiction? A literary conceit? A brand? And who is the woman who writes as Elena Ferrante? Is she the daughter of a Neapolitan seamstress? Or the daughter of a German-Jewish refugee who married a Neapolitan magistrate?

And when it comes to the novels of Elena Ferrante, does it matter who she is, the one who lies behind the one whom we think we know as we read her words?

Frantumaglia, this “jumble of fragments” from interviews and letters was published in Italian back in 2003 in order, according to the publisher’s preface, to “clarify, we hope conclusively, the writer’s motives for remaining outside the media circus and its demands”.

<i>Frantumaglia</i> By Elena Ferrante.
Frantumaglia By Elena Ferrante. 

It is a hope reaffirmed in this “unabridged and updated” English language edition, which – far from settling the matter – has landed on our shelves a month after journalist Claudio Gatti outed Elena Ferrante in The New York Review of Books as the Rome-based academic and translator Anita Raja. It is a “media circus” being played out not in the tabloids but in the high-end literary pages.

Writing in The Guardian, Jeanette Winterson called this unmasking malicious and sexist. Malicious because it goes against Ferrante’s stated wishes; sexist because it is still an uneven field for those who purport to write from intimate experience.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Winterson points out, can reveal his most intimate self in volume after volume without being trashed, or even reduced, “because his claim to be his own artwork is accepted”. A woman writer doesn’t have the same protection when it comes to writing frankly – “truthfully” – about sex and sexuality, let alone about the ambivalences of motherhood and the betrayals of female friendships.

For his part Gatti, the journalist, argues that the “sensational” success of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet makes it inevitable that she would be outed, and that in any case “she” had lost any claim to privacy by admitting that she’d “lie” in interviews to protect that privacy.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, a Norwegian writer known for his six-volume autobiographical book.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, a Norwegian writer known for his six-volume autobiographical book. Photo: New York Times

The question that Frantumagliaraises for me is this: if Elena Ferrante is so determined to remain anonymous, why has she given interviews at all? And having given them – some dating back to the 1990s – why republish them along with letters that could easily remain private? And why now? As Ferrante herself says, it is the international success of the Neapolitan Quartet – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child – that has put her identity “at the centre”. Yet it is in the wake of the quartet that these fragments are published.

At a personal level Ferrante’s anonymity is self-protective. It began with shyness, she tells us, and then morphed into a need to avoid the publicity circuit. “I publish only when the text seems of some value to me and my publishers. Then the book makes its way and I go on to occupy myself with something else.” Elsewhere she says she doesn’t want to get caught up in the madness of a “person” becoming a “personage”. She needs to be free of all that if she’s to write, as she says she does, from experience that can be “elusive, embarrassing, at times un-sayable”.

The “literary” case she makes for her anonymity is to defend the primacy of the novel over the life of the writer. Fiction stands on its own ground, she says in interview after interview; precisely because it is imagined, it can hold the power of a “reality” that we, as readers, accept – paradoxically – as a form of “truth” that bites through the spin and “fiction” of the reality we supposedly inhabit.

“It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance,” Henry James famously said, “… and I know of no substitute for the force and beauty of its process.” It is the process of fiction that Ferrante wants us to consider.

Literature, she tells us more than once, is a great “repository” through which “life” can be transmuted into “art”. Ferrante’s success rests on the most traditional of literary devices – cliff-hangers, reversals, foreshadowing, flashbacks etc – combined with a radical frankness about the messy realities, the bodily and emotional experiences of women as mothers, lovers and friends.

It is a potent mix, especially when offered to us with the narrative reliability and intimacy of voice that makes the Neapolitan Quartet such compulsive – and “believable” – reading. Ferrante is right when she insists that the “truth” of Lenú and Lila, the friends at the heart of the quartet, depends more on her skill as a writer than on the details of her own life.

Throughout Frantumaglia, she insists on this. And still the autobiographical questions keep coming.

The fact that Lenú, the quartet’s narrator, is a writer – Elena Greco, who struggles with the fall-out from her fiction – plays into the identification of the two Elenas, character and author. Even for a practised reader, it’s hard not to conflate the Elena Ferrante of the interviews with the Elena Greco of the novels. It’s not just that many details connect them, but that the voice of the fragments is so similar to the voice we know as Elena Greco.

My opinion, based only on reading her, is that “Elena Ferrante” has become as much a fiction as her characters. And why not? As she says, fiction is an elastic process with ways of its own.

It would seem from these fragments that the shy author of the first novels didn’t start with the intention of letting her pseudonym become another character; more likely, and more interestingly, she hints that it began in homage to Elsa Morante, who was married to Alberto Moravia, both of them Jewish (as was Anita Raja’s mother) and whose novel House of Liars was published in 1948, when Ferrante and her characters were children.

This is a thread, sadly, that disappears under the elaborations and evasions of interviews as a shy young writer becomes a celebrity author. Once the concealing details, however slight, accrue to the fiction of Elena Ferrante, they are held up as evidence against her, and every move she makes in each next interview adds to the fixing of an identity that is neither self nor character.

For all that her novels are full of multiples, fictions within fictions, names changing, identities morphing and changing, she doesn’t make the case for a pseudonymous fiction, another layering: a post-modern feminist conceit, perhaps. That would have made for interesting reading, a blasting through the assumptions, the reductions, the projections that writers have thrust upon them, and have done for generations, especially when they are women writing the “unsayable” of their day.

If anyone could do that, if anyone has – or had – the critical acumen or moral authority to do it, it is Elena Ferrante. But she doesn’t. Instead the question of her identity becomes tangled in needless detail – that Gatti calls lies – and caught between impossible alternatives.

Did she, and her publishers, really think these fragments could end the “controversy” now, in 2016, when, as she says, “everything in life is turning into a show”? Elena Ferrante, in all her guises, has every reason to know that the censorious and salacious “circus” she wants to avoid thrives on celebrity and exposure. All Gatti had to do was follow “the money trail”. That is the world we live in.

So how do we account for Frantumaglia? Hubris? A fiction that’s got out of hand? A game within the publishing and literary industries over which she – and her publishers – lost control? Some self-defeating impulse to be known even as she conceals herself? Worse still, has Elena Ferrante become a brand? None of these are conclusions I come to happily – either for the woman behind the shield of Elena Ferrante, or for us, her readers.