The Spectator

Rifling through Elena Ferrante’s writing desk

As a sop to the media, the reclusive author gives us Frantumaglia — a deafening Neapolitan jumble of stories, letters and stories within letters, guaranteed to keep us quiet

(Photo: Getty)

Frantumaglia isn’t strictly a book by Elena Ferrante. Frantumaglia isn’t strictly a book at all. It’s a celebration of the life of the novel and a manifesto for the death of the author, told in a collection of interviews, letters from journalists requesting interviews, letters within letters, stories within letters, and letters from Ferrante’s editor in which the idea of publishing all these letters, dating from 1991 to the present day, is initially proposed.

The whole caboodle is a dizzying ‘jumble of fragments’, ‘a miscellaneous crowd of things’, a mass of ‘contradictory sensations’ which ‘make a noise in your head’. Which is how Ferrante defines ‘frantumaglia’, a word lifted from Neopolitan dialect which will now, doubtless, find its place in the OED. Frantumaglia is what wakes you in the night; frantumaglia, says Ferrante, is the source of all suffering. It is also, she stresses, the origin of writing. It is from the chaos of frantumaglia that stories are born: ‘The stories that you tell, the words that you use and refine, the characters you try to give life to are merely tools with which you circle around the elusive, unnamed, shapeless thing that belongs to you alone.’

Everything in these pages is calculated to make a noise in your head. The layout, for example, is exasperating. We are given Ferrante’s replies to letters before being shown the letter to which she is replying; her detailed responses to interviewers’ questions are given before we are shown the questions themselves. One particularly brilliant letter, to a journalist called
Francesco Erbani, was, we are told only after we’ve read it, never sent.

Ferrante’s editor, Sandra Ozzola, describes the book as a story whose subject is ‘the 25-year history of an attempt to show that the function of the author is all in the writing’. It’s a story that admirers of the Neopolitan Quartet know already: Ferrante’s refusal to join in the media circus has created a media circus; her insistence on privacy has been treated as a crime.

This book is offered as a concession to Ferrante devotees, with the blurb inviting us into her ‘workshop’, where we are free to rifle the ‘drawers of her writing desk’. Which is of course exactly what the investigative journalist, Claudio Gatti, did recently, when he used Ferrante’s bank statements to uncover her real name. His justification was, he said, the ‘lies’ in Frantumaglia, which boil down to Ferrante’s description of her mother as a dressmaker when she apparently had some other job. Elena Ferrante’s nom-de-plume is at the heart of her art, and Gatti’s lumpen literalism, for which he expected a standing ovation, has made him an international pariah. So it is both strange and moving now to read, in the light of her unmasking, Ferrante’s devastating plea for invisibility.

Having perused her mail, I wonder how she has stayed sane. Fighting off the media is Ferrante’s life’s work. In letter after letter she explains, in a thousand different ways and with endless eloquence, why she restricts herself to a small number of email interviews. ‘My entire identity is the books that I write’; ‘I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors’; ‘I wanted the books to assert themselves without my patronage.’ She writes in order to ‘free’ herself from her stories, not to become their ‘prisoner’.Frantumaglia could, without losing volume, be reduced to a series of aphorisms on the subject of authorship.

Meanwhile, the interviews Ferrante is gracious enough to grant focus exclusively on her desire to absent herself from the fanfare of book promotion. Asked the same question again and again, she replies with her usual clarity: ‘Is a book, from the media point of view, above all the name of the person who writes it?’ She has chosen ‘absence’, she repeats, and not ‘anonymity’; her books are not anonymous because there is a name on the cover. Giving yourself to a book, she says, is fantastically exposing — ‘it’s as if you had been rudely searched’ — and so the reader has already seen all of her.

Frantumaglia tells us a great deal about the business of being a writer in a philistine, celebrity-obsessed culture, but this is not where the force of the book lies. Ferrante also reveals something about readers which we are refusing to hear. It’s what Keats explained in a letter to his friend, Richard Woodhouse— the poet can be found in his poems and not in his person.