Reviewed by Melissa Katsoulis
If you have been living in a bunker for the past month, let me be the first to tell you the news: the cult Italian novelist known as Elena Ferrante has apparently been unmasked by a cunning journalist called Claudio Gatti (now the most hated hack in Europe) as a middle-class German translator from Rome rather than an impoverished Neapolitan. And the whole world has gone mad.
Furious readers from Pontefract to Puglia have turned on Gatti, cursing him for outing their beloved “Ferrante”, who for 25 years had successfully maintained her anonymity. No confirmation or denial has come from the author or her publishers, but if his theory is wrong, then the mystery really is one of God-like proportions because who else would have been paid enormous royalties by a tiny publishing house in sync with Ferrante’s skyrocketing sales?
Now, in the midst of all this excitement, comes Frantumaglia, an “unabridged and updated” version of the letters and notes published in 2003.
The majority of this writing concerns the hot topic of the author’s anonymity. Naturally this is the focus of most journalists’ emailed questions (no face-to-face contact, of course, which has historically fired up the rumours about Ferrante being a man or even a collective of hoaxers).
She could close these questions down with a simple “no comment” but is far too interested in herself to do that. Instead she presents a series of lengthy analyses on why privacy is important to her: she is a particularly special sort of writer who can’t do it unless she is doing it in secret; she mistrusts the media and the cult of the literary personality. She warns us that she might lie about her personal life if asked. Which sorely tempts one to come over all teacher/parent and ask, “What’s so special about you, young lady? Think there’s one rule for you and one for everyone else?” Although that sort of invocation of the super-ego would delight Ferrante and ignite an epic disquisition on the role of the parent in literature.
Parents and children are an obsession for her and she writes that the tension in the mother-daughter relationship is at the base of her creative output. It is also the way she sees herself in relation to her books; as a mother who must detach her creations from her body.
Ferrante is far too interested in herself to say ‘no comment’ to personal questions
One of the most rewarding passages is a beautifully nuanced discussion of clothing in art and literature — specifically a mother’s clothes; their smell and shape. Yet this, as so many subjects she raises in this necessarily uneasy book, brings to mind one of the mis-truths she has allowed us to believe about her life: that her mother was a poor dressmaker in Naples. If Gatti’s research is correct, her mother was a teacher in Rome. Even the title, Frantumaglia, is said to come from something her Neapolitan mama used to say in dialect when a mass of troubling thoughts and feelings would crowd her romantic southern mind. However, family friends say that her Jewish mother spoke Italian with a strong German accent, having fled her homeland in the Second World War.
Just as she feared, these questions about Ferrante’s identity are an annoying distraction from a body of work that is impressively broad and sophisticated. In Frantumaglia there are some outstanding passages of literary criticism, feminist theory, film studies, sociology and philosophy. As a reader one longs to forget the gossip about her identity and just appreciate her as a critical thinker. Yet she has said she will not be able to write if the Ferrante persona is compromised.
If Gatti’s unmasking of her means her quarter- century career in fiction is at an end, her fans will want to kill him. For me, however, apparently the only woman who was left unmoved by her overwrought, look-at-me Neapolitan novels, the prospect of her writing only this sort of blistering cultural criticism from now on is rather wonderful.