Most people would be aware that the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante isn’t one to enjoy the limelight, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to find out more about the mysterious Italian writer (with some going to extreme lengths in an attempt to discover her true identity…). However, if you’re really interested in the woman behind the Neapolitan Novels, rather than going through the bank accounts and real estate records of prominent Italians, you’d be better advised to have a read of her latest book, a collection of letters and interviews spanning two decades. It’s an informative and enjoyable read – and probably a lot less illegal too…
Frantumaglia (translated by Ann Goldstein, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) was originally released a while back in Italy, a book featuring letters to and from Ferrante over the first few years of her writing career. It provided the only glimpse of the writer the reader was likely to get and focused both on her desire for privacy and her thoughts on her first two novels (Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment). However, over the years the work has grown along with Ferrante’s success, and the English translation is a full copy of the updated version, adding interviews and conversations gathered since the completion of the Neapolitan Novels.
In many ways, the book provides an invaluable glimpse of the person behind the literature. The countless interviews, with Ferrante’s extended responses to questions on her work, added to the many letters to her publishers and fragments of writing that was never published, persuade us that we’re receiving a privileged look behind the scenes. Whether that’s true or not is debatable, though. The writer and (especially) her publishers are masters at using the anonymity to great effect, and there’s always a suspicion here that Frantumaglia is just another step towards enhancing the Ferrante myth.
From beginning to end, Ferrante constantly asserts her desire to let her books talk for themselves, sending them out into the world to be read and understood without her interpretation. She wonders:
Is there a way of safeguarding the right of an author to choose to establish, once and for all, through his writing alone, what of himself should become public?
p.61 (Europa Editions, 2016)
The answer is probably no, and the interest (in Italy and overseas) in her true identity shows no signs of abating, with recent events showing the lengths people will go to unmask her. The pieces here do give clues as to her identity, such as her sisters’ ages, her travel destinations, time spent in Greece and her love of the classics – but that’s still relatively little to go on.
Luckily, then, Ferrante herself gives us a nudge in the right direction by pointing out the importance of certain themes in her fiction, and one of these, the mother-daughter relationship, is mentioned repeatedly. Her childhood was dominated by her dressmaker mother, with little Elena caught in a relationship in which she both disliked and adored her, angry at her for her going out so much, but mesmerised by her seductive beauty. When angry with her mother, she used to hide in a small room, half hoping to be looked for and found, and Ferrante later describes the room as the genesis of much of her fiction. Certainly, this sensual, unavoidable relationship is one she feels she has to explore repeatedly in her work.
Many of the ‘fragments’ here also feature the city of Naples heavily, a city (in the writer’s words) full of the best and worst humans have to offer. Ferrante attempts to explain the effect the city has had on her writing, especially in regard to the way its women are treated. While many of her protagonists have left the city, they never really escape its influence, and the veneer of cool professionalism often melts away when they return to their home town:
My women are strong, educated, self-aware and aware of their rights, just, but at the same time subject to unexpected breakdowns, to subservience of every kind, to mean feelings. I’ve also experienced this oscillation. I know it well, and that also affects the way I write. (p.251)
It’s this sudden turn from being in control to losing it that marks Ferrante’s protagonists, and in these pieces she candidly admits that much of this is drawn from her own experiences. These stories gradually lead us to the development of the Neapolitan Novels (which are hinted at even in the early letters, long before the work was underway), with a synthesis of the importance of Naples, the struggles of its women and Ferrante’s attraction to melodrama and (what she calls) ‘low levels of storytelling’. Later, she is able to reflect on the book’s creation, following the traces back, explaining how all her writing, early novels and unpublished pieces, led to this one extended novel.
Part of the charm of Frantumaglia is following Ferrante’s obvious interest in how her work is received, even while she refuses to colour readers’ perceptions. An excellent example of this is her reaction to the films of her early novels and her fascination with the screenplays she is sent. Much as she dreads having her story and characters appropriated, her determination to make the work stand on its own means she’s loath to get between book and reader (or film and watcher):
But there is no correct way to activate the power of a written story, and instructions for use are not worth much. The “right reading” is an invention of academics and critics. Every reader gets from the book he is reading nothing else but his book. (p.190)
For Ferrante, this isn’t about the death, or the absence, of the author (in fact, she rejects this idea of absence on several occasions); it’s merely a desire to have the work sink or swim on its own merits.
For anyone who has read a few of Ferrante’s novels, working your way through Frantumaglia is a fascinating experience. The many pieces combine to provide valuable insights into her writing, and the discussions of plot and character show the amount of work and thought that went into the novels. The writer, despite her supposed reticence, is often unable to control herself in responses to interview questions (Exhibit A here is a seventy-page response to some detailed questions from a journalist) – for someone unwilling to let the author overshadow the work, at times, she simply can’t help herself. Of course, that’s partly due to the personal nature of her writing and the sense that her novels are an expression of her own experiences:
(Liz) Jobey: The Neapolitan novels have similarities of character and plot to your three earlier novels. Are you, in some way, telling the same story?
Ferrante: Not the same story but definitely the same features of a single malady. Life’s wounds are incurable and you write them and rewrite them in the hope of being able, sooner or later, to construct a narrative that will account for them once and for all. (p.350)
Perhaps, then, Ferrante is simply working through her experiences using alter-egos, exploring the possibilities and constraints of an educated Neapolitan woman – and then using the reactions of a global audience to gauge how much they reflect the experiences of women elsewhere…
While Frantumaglia does reveal a different side to Ferrante than that shown by the novels, another intriguing aspect to the book is its meta-referential level. Both Ferrante and her publishers constantly allude in their letters to the book itself, discussing earlier versions and exploring the idea of expanding the collection to account for further developments in Ferrante’s career. The Frantumaglia we’re reading today is the result of a gradual accretion of these ‘frantumaglia’, the many pieces floating around in the ether wanting to be formed into something less scattered. Given this fragmented format, with the reader free to form their own ideas of what the book is about (which I’m sure Ferrante would appreciate), there’s every chance that even this hefty tome, running to almost four-hundred pages, is only a further draft of the work, with more to come with time.
So far, I’ve been nothing but complimentary about the book, but I’d have to say that the nature of the book means that some sections are fairly dull. There’s a fair amount of repetition, particularly in the third and final part containing interviews with journalists from around the world (yes, it’s impressive that interviewers from so many countries are desperate to speak to Ferrante, but there are only a certain number of ways she can say, no, I don’t regret my decision to remain in the background…). In addition, while respecting her desire for anonymity, I don’t always agree with how she goes about it, and as much as she may deny that it’s good for sales, her publishers are certainly using it as a marketing tool (it’s no secret that it’s #FerranteFever that they push, focusing on the writer, not the books).
However, overall Frantumaglia is an excellent glimpse behind the curtain, and there are several sections where it simply makes for enjoyable reading. The best parts are when Ferrante cuts loose, longer sections where she forgets that she’s supposed to be answering questions and just writes whatever she feels like discussing at the time. In many places, the pieces could be fiction (and quite possibly are…) and provide a timely reminder of why she’s so popular – it’s hard not to be swept away by the passionate honesty of her responses, whether they’re authentic or not. What’s even more intriguing are the frequent mentions of unpublished work, reams of text that the writer never considered worthy of sending to the publishers. It’s hard to imagine that none of this will ever see the light of day…
That’s plenty for one post, but before I finish, I need to quickly mention the special attention Ferrante pays to her third novel, The Lost Daughter. In many places, she describes it as an important piece, a personal work and a crucial connection between her early books and the Neapolitan Novels. All of which means that having read the other novels, it’s time for me to have a look at that one too to see if it really is the key to Ferrante’s fiction – soon, perhaps😉