FRANTUMAGLIA: A Writer’s Journey. By Elena Ferrante. Translated by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions. 384 pages. $24.
What is a frantumaglia? Here’s how Italian superstar novelist Elena Ferrante (the Neapolitan Quartet) explains the title of her hodgepodge collection, the revised and expanded version of a book she published in 2003: “My mother left me a word in her dialect that she used to describe when she was racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart. She said that inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments. … It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable; it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in the muddy water of the brain.”
Among her own fragments, Ferrante includes open-ended, exploratory writing about what it means to be an artist and a woman in the present moment. Whether she’s writing a letter that she’ll never send or answering questions for a “Paris Review” interview, Ferrante is unsentimental and thrillingly blunt. There is no one like her.
All of the collected interviews address a decision Ferrante made 25 years ago: to absent herself from the public stage. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. The opening letter, written to her editors before she published her first book, sets the terms of her public invisibility: “I’ve already done enough for this long story. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient.”
Ferrante’s refusal to be seen is interesting for the questions it raises about the covenant between writer and reader. Beyond their words on the page, what do writers owe us of themselves? Ferrante’s life is a lesson in balance, between offering and withholding. Lovers of her books — and I am one of them — will testify that she’s given us plenty. Why insist on more? Biography, as she says, “is just a micro-story on the side.” Even Tolstoy “is an insignificant shadow if he takes a stroll with Anna Karenina.”
Ferrante’s reasons for sticking with her decision change over the years. When she was a new writer, Ferrente was timid and anxious about the story she was telling, particularly its connection to her own life and the lives of her friends and acquaintances. Later, she became hostile to every form of publicity. The limelight, she says, “conceals rather than reveals.” We are, Ferrante believes, “in a permanent spectacle which…goes hand in hand with superficiality.”
She trusts her books and sends them into the world without protection. They live or die on their own strength, without benefit of their author’s picture. In some interviews, she brushes off questions about living a lie by reminding her interrogators that literature is a lie, too, “a self-contained world made up of words.” This is her world.
Throughout the collection, Ferrante credits invisibility with keeping her free. These days, she remains intangible because she values the creative space opened up by her absence. A 2014 interview, published in “Frantumaglia,” carries the headline “If You Discover Who I Am I’ll Give It All Up.” Intangibility for Ferrrante was rarely a cloak. It was always a declaration. She became overtly what we all are in some existential sense—unknown and unknowable. No one who reads “Frantumaglia” can doubt how important disembodiment is to the author.
How sad then to report, as many are already aware, that Ferrante was unmasked by journalist Carlo Gatti, in an article that appeared simultaneously in a number of publications, among them the “New York Review of Books.” According to Gatti, she is Anita Raja, a successful translator of German literature who is married to novelist Domenico Starnone, long considered a candidate himself as writer of the Ferrante books.
In the pages of “Frantumaglia,” Ferrante declares that she’d lie to protect her cover, and if (the big if) Gatti is correct, she has. While Elena Ferrante’s mother was a Neapolitan seamstress, Anita Raja’s mother was a Polish Jew who taught school and who married an Italian magistrate. Raja was born in Naples, but only lived there for the first three years of her life. Since then, her home has been in Rome.
There’s something deflating about Gatti’s methods — tracking down the money until it leads to a couple of Roman apartments and windfalls of cash. A similar conjunction between two worlds, the ordinary and the artistic, occurs at the ending of “My Brilliant Friend,” the first novel of the Neapolitan Quartet. In a scene at her wedding, Lila Cerullo, the shoemaker’s daughter, looks down to find the shoes that she lovingly designed and stitched are scuffing along the floor. Lila is both horrified and amused that the rich world of the imagination could make contact with ordinary earth: “The mind’s dreams have ended up under the feet.”
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.