The Guardian

Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey by Elena Ferrante review – astute, revelatory ruminations

A detail from an illustration in Elena Ferrante’s new children’s book, The Beach at Night.
A detail from an illustration in Elena Ferrante’s new children’s book, The Beach at Night. Photograph: Mara Cerri/Europa Editions

Like some bloodhound on the trail of Berlusconi or a mafia magnate, the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti recently unearthed financial documents suggesting that the pseudonymous novelist Elena Ferrante, author of the acclaimed Neapolitan novels, was really a translator with little link to Naples except through her husband.

To many of her readers, the outing felt like a violation, and not only of authorial privacy. It also gave off a sweaty odour of macho politics. Rumours had long travelled the Italian circuit suggesting that no woman could be both so brilliant and so popular a writer: ergo Elena must be a man. Now, by linking his “real” Elena to a well-known Neapolitan writer-husband, Gatti had reinforced that rumour.

The finger-pointing revelations have been denied. But the fact that they have preceded the publication of a new book of reflections, letters and interviews, by just a few weeks, shadows one’s reading of it: your eyes linger a little over the passages that state or assume a childhood in Naples, that ponder truth and lies. Such is the polluting power of journalistic innuendo – as our tabloids have long known.

Ferrante’s insistence on staying out of the stranglehold of celebrity culture has been to avoid this scrutiny. The reduction of a book to its author and spurious autobiography is one of the recurring themes in her interviews, never conducted in person. “Lacking a true vocation for ‘public interest’, the media,” she writes, “would be inclined, carelessly, to restore a private quality to an object that originated precisely to give a less circumscribed meaning to individual experience. Even Tolstoy is an insignificant shadow if he takes a stroll with Anna Karenina.” And Shakespeare’s plays will remain great whether we know for certain or not that he sported a beard and travelled to Italy.

A stand against a system that transforms thinking citizens into swayable audiences – embodied in Italy by Berlusconi, politician and media mogul in one – is only one of the strands of Frantumaglia. The title itself is rich in that layered Ferrante-lore which has made her books a passion for reading women, as well as men. The word comes from her mother, of course. She used it to describe a disquieting jumble of fragments that tore her apart and depressed her, a mysterious “debris in a muddy water of the brain” that woke her in the night and made her weep for no immediate reason.

The child Elena didn’t understand the word, but now, with the accrual of experience, Ferrante associates it with that growing buzz of sound before speech comes into being. Gathering associations, the jumble rumbles on to become both “a storehouse of time without the orderliness of history” and the deeply buried conflicts that engender suffering for her heroines. Frantumaglia is a spur to the writing through which Ferrante frees herself from that very state – as do her first heroines, Delia in Troubling Love, Olga in The Days of Abandonment, and in my eyes the greatest and most chilling, Leda in The Lost Daughter, who, without knowing how or why, steals a little girl’s doll on the beach, thereby fracturing a life. This very doll makes a haunting comeback in Ferrante’s newly translated children’s book, The Beach at Night. She is now the voice of the narrative – an uncanny embodiment of Ferrante’s preoccupations.

Heroines who observe themselves vigilantly, though at times they break down and can’t; mothers; daughters and their troublesome porous, ever changing bodies; children; female friends and the vagaries of love – these are Ferrante’s most compelling subjects. Thinking about her characters in Frantumaglia, she engages in astute, at times dream-like ruminations: on clothes and their link to mother’s body and smell; on figures like Dido, whose tragic abandonment and loss of love lead to fury and the destruction of a city; on her very own beast in the nursery – or, in this case, the storeroom of childhood. Desperate to feed her little sister to a huge fly, she wants also to rescue her. She ends up feeling guilty, both for wanting her sister dead and wanting to save her. Moral ambiguity is fundamental to Ferrante’s universe.

The ambiguity extends to her understanding of feminism – which is, after all, the product of female humans, not always any more rational than their male counterparts. Asked by an interviewer whether the struggle for equality has increased the distance between men and women, Ferrante – brought up in a milieu where “foul-mouthed”, victimised mothers were desperately in love with males and male children, and herself a feminist since the 1970s – writes:

“Female expectations became very high. The behavioural models that made the sexes mutually recognisable, unfortunately, were torn apart and couldn’t be mended, nor has a radical redefinition of mutual satisfaction been possible so far. The greatest risk now is female regret for the ‘real men’ of bygone days. Every form of male violence should be fought against, but the female desire to regress should not be neglected. The crowd of women who adore the sensibility and sexual energy of the worst male characters in My Brilliant Friend illustrate this temptation.” So, one might speculate, do the crowd who adore Donald Trump.

This is a fascinating volume, as ever beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein. At times, it is as absorbing as Ferrante’s extraordinary fictions and touches on troubling unconscious matter with the same visceral intensity. For those who can’t wait for the next Ferrante fiction to sink into, it provides a stopgap. There are perhaps one or two interviews with wordy interviewers too many. But occasional repetitions are outweighed by the insights into Ferrante’s writing process, her love of story above the fine, polished style so prized in contemporary Italian fiction.

I had no desire at all at the end to know who the real Ferrante is. I feel I already know. Frantumaglia has added to that knowledge and also offered up some unexpected gems. I was delighted to learn that she has long been interested in painterly Annunciations, in just how an artist imagines the moment when Mary puts aside the book she’s reading. “When she opens it again,” Ferrante comments wryly, “it will be her son who tells her how to read.”