This November is marked by the publication of two new Elena Ferrante books. Frantumaglia and The Beach at Night will be available to readers just over a year after The Story of the Lost Child, Ferrante’s final Neapolitan novel, was published in September 2015. Much has happened in that year. Ferrante Fever spread across the globe. Her works were reviewed internationally, garnering unanimous praise. Her translator, Ann Goldstein, held sell-out events in London and beyond, while The Story of the Lost Child made it onto the shortlist for the Man Booker International. More recently of course, an Italian journalist exposed Ferrante’s identity, an identity she had chosen to keep anonymous. It is perhaps a testament to Ferrante’s immense popularity that this journalist has been berated across the media – her readers, at least, understand that the books speak for themselves and that Ferrante’s identity is unimportant in relation to her work.
Identity and anonymity are just two of the many topics covered in Frantumaglia. A collection of occasional writings, letters and essays, the book addresses her choice to remain anonymous. It includes letters between Ferrante and her publishers, who were the only people to know her real name. It’s a fascinating work that explores her literary inspirations, her political and cultural views and her opinions about the role of the writer (and the publisher) in modern society. As ever, Ferrante’s voice is direct, honest and intimate. She offers thoughts on her writing process, her use of genre, the reoccurring themes throughout her books, and her character development. Fans of the Neapolitan Novels – of which there are many – will be thrilled by Ferrante’s thoughtful response to her characters, or her ‘heroines’ as the New York Times put it in a review of the book.
The title Frantamuglia is a made up word that came from Ferrante’s mother. She used the word to describe the contradictory sensations and feelings muddying her brain, or the “jumble of fragments.” The book itself is just this, a jumble of fragments that Ferrante uses to give us glimpses of who she is through the lens of her writing, never giving away too much but still enough to leave readers with a real (fragmented) sense of who she is.
It’s not surprising that Frantumaglia has already been widely reviewed. Thoughtful pieces are appearing across all major media, many dealing with Ferrante’s desire for anonymity. As the New Republic writes:
“In Frantumaglia, Ferrante asserts the most fundamental and important truth of who she is: that she is someone who will do only as she will, and nothing else. That is what is at stake for all women.”
The Guardian ran a lengthy piece last weekend, in which novelist Lisa Appignanesi wrote:
“I had no desire at all at the end to know who the real Ferrante is. I feel I already know. Frantumaglia has added to that knowledge and also offered up some unexpected gems… At times, it is as absorbing as Ferrante’s extraordinary fictions and touches on troubling unconscious matter with the same visceral intensity. For those who can’t wait for the next Ferrante fiction to sink into, it provides a stopgap.”
A review in the London Evening Standard states:
“The book, exquisitely translated by Ann Goldstein of The New Yorker,opens a window on to the life of one of the most mysterious writers at work in Italy today.”
Interestingly, in a point made by the New York Times, Ferrante’s anonymity has actually made her incredibly public:
“As Frantumaglia makes clear, Ferrante really has been a public figure…she [has] given interviews all over the world — to The Paris Review, Vanity Fairand Entertainment Weekly, to newspapers across Europe.”
Despite her mystery, or maybe because of it, she has amassed readers all over the world who remain mesmerised by her work and who will no doubt be delving into Frantumaglia this November.
Published in tandem with Frantumaglia is The Beach at Night, an illustrated children’s book that tells the story of a lost doll (a theme readers will recognise from Ferrante’s other works). It was perhaps surprising that Ferrante would chose to produce a children’s book; her worlds are violent, raw and often unforgiving – not what you’d necessarily expect from a children’s author. The Beach at Night focuses on the tale at the center of The Lost Daughter, Ferrante’s 2006 novel that she considers a turning point in her development as a writer. This time, the tale takes the form of a fable, told from the point of view of the doll Celina, who is lost overnight on a beach during a family outing. In typical Ferrante fashion, we see Celina dealing with many of the sensations adult characters do throughout her novels: jealousy, abandonment, sadness and dark dreams. That is, until the sun comes up and Celina is happily found.
What happens to Celina during that long night on the beach could be described as scary, especially to children aged six to ten, at which the book is aimed. But as Daniela Petracco of Europa Editions said in an interview with The Guardian, it is “a little creepy, but, you know, it’s Ferrante. It was never going to be a sunny story.” In a Times review, the book is “a dark tale with a complex girl-doll heroine and a malevolent male baddie for brave little readers.” In The Washington Post, “Ferrante has started a debate over whether a children’s book she’s about to publish is appropriate for children.” Entertainment Weekly even put together a list of the book’s five scariest lines.
Ultimately though, this is a tale for children, with a happy ending and a strong message. It is also a tale for adults, especially Ferrante fans who will recognise her unique style in its pages. With dream-like illustrations from Mara Cerri, The Beach at Night is a children’s book that only Ferrante could have written, and we can expect it to be a major title in the run up to Christmas.
- Bill Godber, MD