The Times Literary Supplement

Elena Ferrante: Game of clothes


The Mean Beach Attendant stares at me with his cruel eyes. He strokes the lizard tails of his mustache. Then he extends his gnarled, dirty hands, picks me up, tries to open my mouth, shakes me.

“She still has words in her,” he says to the Big Rake.

Then he asks me: “How many did your mamma put inside you, eh?”

This sadistic scene is from Elena Ferrante’s children’s book, The Beach at Night (La spiaggia di notte, 2007). The mamma is a child who has abandoned her doll on the beach. At nightfall a man and a rake come to clear the sands, looking for saleable treasure amid the detritus. Words are especially valuable: “At the doll market they pay a lot for words that come from games”. The most precious of all the words hidden inside the child’s doll is “mamma”. This is the word that saves the doll, consoles the child and secures the story’s happy ending.

Frantumaglia: A writer’s journey (La frantumaglia, 2003) – an expanded version of the Italian original – takes its title from a word Ferrante says her mother gave her:

My mother left me a word in her dialect that she used to describe how she felt 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 a word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain.

Ferrante has taken this word and given it new meaning: “The frantumaglia is an unstable landscape, an infinite aerial or aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self. The frantumaglia is the storehouse of time without the orderliness of a history, a story”. To understand fully the extraordinary text Ferrante has constructed, emphasis must fall on her subtitle. The interviews, letters, discarded passages of prose assembled here are companion pieces, cumulative appendices, to the novels she has published. “I have written four novels, the last in four volumes”, she explains. Frantumagliaelucidates and comments on the creative process through which Ferrante has drawn all these novels from her disorderly imaginative storehouse. It is an intimate history of her progress between one book and the next; an invitation to sit at her desk and to see as she sees the work she does with words.

The child or adult reader of The Beach at Night might well ask how the words are put into the doll. How are they pulled back out by the mean man and sold in the marketplace? The same could be asked of the author’s books. In Frantumaglia Ferrante reflects on her decades of struggle with words: “For a lifetime I’ve been trying to learn to tell a story with written words”. Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Journal is a partial precedent. In 1953, Leonard Woolf published extracts from his deceased wife’s diaries to show her in the act of writing, when “she reveals, more nakedly perhaps than any other writer has done, the exquisite pleasure and pains . . . of artistic creation”. Ferrante has more control than Woolf did in exposing her creativity. But her choice is to renounce that control: to offer not a retrospective account – “the story of my success so far” – but instead an assemblage of contingent reflections in real time that fit alongside the books as they were written. In doing so she provides an elaborate answer to the puzzle of the connection between her slim and somewhat surreal first three novels – Troubling Love(L’amore molesto, 1992); The Days of Abandonment (I giorni dell’abbandono, 2002); The Lost Daughter (La figlia oscura, 2006) – and the expansive, seemingly realist, Neapolitan Quartet (2011–14), embedded in the post-war history of Naples.

The first two novels, published ten years apart, emerged from the author sifting through her frantumaglia, moving fragments of disquieting memory around until they eventually cohered into stories she deemed worth publishing. “How I moved from the frantumaglia that I’d had in my mind for years to a sudden selection of fragments, combining to make a story that seemed convincing – that escapes me, I can’t give an honest account. I’m afraid that it’s the same as with dreams. Even as you’re recounting them, you know that you’re betraying them.” The third novel began in the same way as its predecessors. The Lost Daughter is a story about a woman who steals a doll from the child of another woman on the beach: a story about the complicated relationships between women. But as she was writing, Ferrante found “the writing dragged in unspeakable things, so that I erased them myself, the next day, because they seemed important and yet had ended up in a verbal net that couldn’t sustain them”.

All of those important and unspeakable things that had been pushed back were still there when she began the first novel in the Neapolitan series, My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale, 2011): “It’s no coincidence that when I came to the Neapolitan Quartet I started off again with two dolls and an intense female friendship captured at its beginning”. The experience of writing the quartet was completely different from the painstaking reworking of the earlier books. Ferrante reveals that she wrote as many as a hundred pages at a time without re-reading or revising them. “From the start I had the sensation, completely new for me, that everything was already in place.” She positions the quartet against the backdrop of her small private gallery of “fortunately unpublished” stories of uncontrollable girls and women who are in vain repressed by their men and environment, yet always wary of disappearing or dissolving into their mental frantumaglia.

In 2006, the year before Ferrante published The Beach at Night, she agreed to take part in an Italian radio programme called Fahrenheit, in which listeners sent in their questions and Ferrante’s answers were read out by an actress. One woman wrote in to describe a series of photographs she had taken of little girls and Barbie dolls on the beach. She compared her dolls, buried in the sand, to Ferrante’s female protagonists. This was the response:

I understand this and I feel close to you. I’m curious about your manipulation of dolls and sand. If you want, you can send me a few photos. I know little about the symbolism of dolls, but I’m convinced that they are not merely a miniaturization of the daughter. Dolls can be stand-ins for women, in all the roles that patriarchy has assigned us.

Of all the challenges to patriarchy that Ferrante has issued, the most dramatic is her decision to sever the connection between her private life and her work. She is not anon­ymous – her books have a named author who is vividly present in the text and who engages indirectly with interviewers, reviewers, critics and readers – but she is absent, physically separated from her writing. She does not appear in photographs, at prize-givings or literary festivals alongside her books; she refuses to answer questions about her personal appearance, love or family life. Her reasons may have shifted subtly over time as her fame and sales have grown, but they remain essentially the same: “knowing that nothing of the concrete, definite individual I am will ever appear beside the volume, printed as if it were a little dog whose master I am, showed me sides of the writing that were obvious, of course, but which I had never thought of. I had the impression of having released the words from myself”. Ferrante’s absence liberates her, her words and her readers from patriarchal patterns of possession and ownership. “I would like to think that, while my book enters the marketplace, nothing can oblige me to make the same journey.”

Almost everyone wins – Ferrante is free to sit at her desk and get on with writing, her book is free to make its way in the world, and readers are free to take or leave the text on its own terms and theirs. The only people who lose are the hapless employees of publicity and newspaper editorial departments who, it sometimes seems, gave up reading actual books long ago. For them some tittle-tattle about where a successful and good-looking author eats, shops, or sleeps is always welcome, but everyone knows those column inches and photo shoots have nothing whatever to do with literature. Ferrante connects her stance to a long literary tradition dating back to Homer and Virgil, through Tolstoy, Keats and Shakespeare:

I think that in art, the life that counts is the life that remains miraculously alive in the works. So I am very much in agreement with Proust’s stand against positivist biography and against anecdotalism in the style of Sainte-Beuve. Neither the color of Leopardi’s socks nor even his conflict with the father figure helps us understand the power of his poems.

This is not a blanket rejection of biographical writing or journalism, but an insistence that the truths they pursue are different from the truth with which literature is concerned. Ferrante hopes that her readers search not for “the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood, who makes herself beautiful for the occasion, but for the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word”. Literary truth, she insists, is not founded on any autobiographical, journalistic or legal agreement, “it is not the truth of a police report or a sentence handed down by a court; it’s not even the plausibility of a narrative constructed with professional skill. Literary truth is the truth released exclusively by words used well, and it is realized entirely in the words that formulate it”. The lover of literature knows there is nothing for him or her at “the bureau of vital statistics” where the keepers of the positivist flame, like bean counters, fastidiously divide fact from falsehood. The whole of world literature is technically a lie.

“I don’t at all hate lies”, Ferrante declares in Frantumaglia, “in life I find them useful and I resort to them when necessary to shield my person, feelings, pressures. But lying about books makes me suffer, literary fiction seems to me made purposely to always tell the truth”. A few weeks ago the Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti claimed to have unmasked Ferrante by dislodging her pseudonym and connecting her work to the tax and payment records of the Rome-based translator Anita Raja. “I don’t like lies”, Gatti declared, winning some hollow applause, perhaps, in the empty halls of the bureau of vital statistics, but none in the vital literary world. Of all the shabby things he could think of to justify his journalism, the worst was his suggestion that the quasi-“biographical” Frantumaglia is a cat-and-mouse game through which Ferrante aims to mislead her readers. Evidence for this rests on two main points of contention: Ferrante’s relationship to Naples and her mother’s occupation.

If Ferrante is Raja – and let us assume she is – she probably left Naples earlier than Frantumaglia suggests. Does the length of time Ferrante has lived in Naples, continuously or intermittently, affect the veracity of her claim that “Naples is my city”? If what is at stake here is her local tax liability, of course it does. But that is not what is at stake. In Frantumaglia Ferrante aligns Naples with Dido’s Carthage, the ruined female polis – dux femina facti – that was destroyed by erotic love. “Often when Naples comes to my mind, it’s a cold city in a storm.” She quotes Dido’s devastating last curse, nullus amor populis nec foedera sunto – “let there be no love or accords between our peoples”. She describes her childhood love of the classics, her dislike of Dido, until she re-read the Aeneid to help her write The Days of Abandonment, and was struck by Virgil’s use of the city:

Carthage isn’t a background, isn’t an urban landscape for people and events. Carthage is what it has not yet become but is about to be, material that is being worked, stone exploded at times by the internal movements of the two characters. Not coincidentally, even before Aeneas admires the beautiful Dido, he admires the bustling activity of the work of building.

In the Neapolitan Quartet, Naples is material exploded between the movements of the lifelong friends Elena and Lila in exactly this way. More than background, the city is almost molten, like the lava that flows from Vesuvius, preserving ancient stories and inserting them into the present. We don’t need to track down the exact building in which Ferrante was born and put a plaque on the wall to appreciate her relationship with the city.

In Frantumaglia Ferrante claims that her mother was a dressmaker from Naples. Raja’s mother was German and probably not a professional dressmaker. It is hard to imagine circumstances in which this discrepancy would be significant. Ferrante knows exactly what she is doing. The figure of the dressmaker isn’t just a superficial joke, or a way of putting literalists such as Gatti off the scent. For a start, it is another link to Dido, who was mockingly granted by the King of the Gaetuli only as much land to found her city as the hide of a bull would go round. She cut the hide into near-invisible strips and stayed up all night stitching them together into what became Carthage’s perimeter. The dressmaker is also a link to Elsa Morante, the Italian writer of the previous generation who has most influenced Ferrante. In Frantumaglia Ferrante quotes Morante: “No one, starting with the mother’s dressmaker, thinks that a mother has a woman’s body”. She goes on to position her own creative purpose alongside this claim: “I’ve tried to describe the painful, more or less unhappy journey of the fabric – let’s say – with which even we ourselves, the daughter-dressmakers, make the mother’s body shapeless”. Finally, she includes a dream-like childhood memory of going into her mother’s bedroom, where finished dresses waiting to be worn were laid out on the bed. As she entered the room, a draught brought one of the dresses fleetingly alive, but when she lifted the fabric, she saw a disfigured female torso beneath: “I’ve always felt that dresses aren’t empty, that they are human beings who at times stand empty in a corner, desolately lost. When I was a child I tried on my mother’s dresses”.

An “intense game of clothes” runs throughout Ferrante’s fiction. Sometimes the roles of wife and mother are self-annihilating, sack-like dresses; sometimes they are flamboyant, tightly fitting carapaces. In Frantumaglia the author includes an adolescent nightmare cut from Troubling Love in which a young girl is expected to undress in front of a man. She cannot do so, because her clothes seem to be drawn on her skin. He starts to laugh and in an effort to please him she grabs her chest with both hands and opens it: “I opened up my own body as if it were a bathrobe. I didn’t feel any pain, I saw only that inside me there was a live woman, and I suddenly understood that I was only someone else’s dress, a stranger’s”. If women’s bodies are dresses, in this anguished metaphorical sense, all of our mothers are dressmakers.

Ferrante, like Alice Munro – another writer whose influence she explicitly acknowledges – draws on the achievements of Sigmund Freud without allowing psychoanalysis to reduce literary fiction to a series of case studies or archetypes: “I love Freud and I’ve read a fair amount of him: it seems to me that he knew better than his followers that psycho­analysis is the lexicon of the precipice”. By the precipice she means what stands between all characters, real or imagined, and their “dissolving margins” – a state that recurs in the Neapolitan Quartet – beyond which there is only inco­herence. In Frantumaglia Ferrante refers to Freud’s Totem and Taboo, which tells of a woman who gave up writing her own name:

She was afraid that someone would use it to take possession of her personality. The woman began by refusing to write her own name and then, by extension, she stopped writing completely. I am not at that point: I write and intend to continue to write. But I have to confess that when I read that story of [neurotic] illness it right away seemed wholly meaningful. What I choose to put outside myself can’t and shouldn’t become a magnet that sucks me up entirely.

The doll in The Beach at Night does not choose to put her words outside herself. She tries to hide them at the back of her throat, then deeper in her chest, but the beach attendant drops a hook on a line of saliva down into her mouth and wrenches out her name:

I see Celina – my Name, the Name that my Mati [mamma] gave me – fly through the air attached to the Mean Beach Attendant’s saliva and then disappear beneath the lizard tails, into his big mouth.

Whatever it was that motivated Claudio Gatti to try to steal Ferrante’s name from her – money, perhaps, or fame, or professional allegiance to the bureau of vital statistics where literature is not understood – he has ended up indistinguishable from a mean man in a children’s book with a thread of drool hanging from his big mouth. His words are already nothing. “How much will they give us for a doll’s name? Two bucks? Three?”, the beach attendant asks. Elena Ferrante’s words, however, will last as long as there are readers who love them. It has been her lifetime’s work to separate her words from herself so that they will endure without her. As an ardent classicist she surely knows Ausonius’s epigram: mors etiam saxis nominibusque venit – death comes even to stones and to names. In great literature alone death is almost infinitely postponed. Carthage lives long after the stones have crumbled, and the names of Dido and Aeneas have not disappeared among the ruins.