TLS – The Times Literary Supplement

Books of the Year 2016


Following the success of the Neapolitan Quartet, Ann Goldstein has now translated two further books by Elena Ferrante, both published by Europa Editions. The first, Frantumaglia: A writer’s journey, is a greatly expanded version of a book of letters, interviews and reflections on writing that first appeared in Italian in 2003. Cumulatively these fragments offer fascinating insights into Ferrante’s working methods and artistic purpose. The second, The Beach at Night, is a surreal and brilliant children’s book, beautifully illustrated by Mara Cerri, first published in Italy in 2007. Appearing in the anglophone world together in 2016, these books have overtaken the widely resented attempt to “unmask” Ferrante, and redirected attention back to her words.


Two books stand out this year, about the grubby world of writing and the ambi­valence of authorship. Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia: A writer’s journey (Europa) describes, through a selection of letters and interviews, what her editor calls “the now twenty-five-year history of an attempt to show that the function of the author is all in the writing”. Norma Clarke’s Brothers of the Quill (Harvard) follows Oliver Goldsmith’s rise from Irish hack to English national treasure. Goldsmith both cherished and reviled literary celebrity; Ferrante simply reviles it, and her insistence that her novels can speak for themselves is particularly moving in the light of her recent unmasking. For Goldsmith and his circle, “writing for bread” was “an unpardonable offence”, while authorship in eighteenth-century England was considered as lowly as Irishness itself. Both Ferrante and Norma Clarke say a great deal about the powerlessness of writers, and the growing authority of readers.