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A Writer’s Journey
$ 24.00 / £ 16.99
Frantumaglia invites readers into Elena Ferrante’s workshop. It offers a glimpse into the drawers of her writing desk, those drawers from which emerged her three early standalone novels and the four installments of My Brilliant Friend, known in English as the Neapolitan Quartet. Consisting of over twenty years of letters, essays, reflections, and interviews, it is a unique depiction of an author who embodies a consummate passion for writing.
In these pages Ferrante answers many of her readers’ questions. She addresses her choice to stand aside and let her books live autonomous lives. She discusses her thoughts and concerns as her novels are being adapted into films. She talks about the challenge of finding concise answers to interview questions. She explains the joys and the struggles of writing, the anguish of composing a story only to discover that it isn’t good enough for publication. She contemplates her relationship with psychoanalysis, with the cities she has lived in, with motherhood, with feminism, and with her childhood as a storehouse of memories, material, and stories. The result is a vibrant and intimate self-portrait of a writer at work.
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by Natalie Bakopoulos
“It’s not my absence that generates interest in my books,” the Italian writer Elena Ferrante notes in an interview, “but the interest in my books that generates media interest in my absence.” Ferrante has been famously adamant about her anonymity, only giving selective, careful interviews. And though many have speculated about her identity, it had remained unknown, or at least unnamed—and most of us liked it that way. And then this past October, the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti conducted a heartless investigation for the New York Review of Books to uncover it. I won’t go into its details here.
Frantumaglia, released this past November, comprises Ferrante’s various interviews and written correspondence. Critics have noted the irony: a writer such as Ferrante—who insists the work should speak for itself—publishes a book of personal interviews, letters, and deleted scenes. Ferrante herself even asks, in a letter contained in its pages: “Why, above all, add so much of my chatter . . . ?”
Me, I don’t see the contradiction. My question is, Why would she not? Her letters and interviews are decidedly not mere chatter: they, too, are literary works. They show artistry and imagination, and Ferrante even notes the difficulty of answering interview questions because they lead her into a complicated maze of storytelling, artifacts, and searching. Frantumaglia is in itself a compelling narrative, and while immersed in its pages, I often felt I was immersed in a work within a work, a story in documents.
The Neapolitan Quartet, comprising four novels narrated by an Italian writer named Elena Greco, is also a work within a work. The novels focus on the complicated, often antagonistic friendship between Elena and her friend Lila Cerullo, set against the backdrop of their neighborhood in Naples and its cultural, political, and social concerns. Elena Ferrante is the author who writes under a pseudonym. Though Ferrante has not herself called her work an autofiction, Elena Greco’s book is arguably masterfully so, a writer in an urgent attempt to write—and preserve—the self. Elena Greco is the writer of the text we read. And within the book, Elena Greco discusses books she has written, but we don’t have full access to them.
Frantumaglia, then, adds a new artful layer. The book is not without its own meta-elements; it contains dozens of letters between Ferrante and her publisher, many of which discuss the actual making of the book that we hold in our hands. It also includes scenes that were cut from her novels—adding yet another meta-layering. But make no mistake: reading Frantumaglia is not as simple as reading the other half of Elena Ferrante. It is far more complicated than simply splitting her between the I who writes at her desk and the I who exists on the page.
She notes in an interview:
If we were made only of two halves, individual life would be simple, but the “I” is a crowd, with a large quantity of heterogeneous fragments tossing about inside. And the female “I”, in particular, with its long history of oppression and repression, tends to shatter as it’s tossed around, and to reappear and shatter again, always in an unpredictable way. Stories feed on the fragments, which are concealed under an appearance of unity and constitute a sort of chaos to depart from, an obscurity to illuminate.
The word frantumaglia she defines as “a jumble of fragments”: “the storehouse of time without the orderliness of a history, a story.” But the boundaries between these fragments—writer at the desk and the writer inhabiting the invented world—are blurred. “Over the years,” Ferrante writes, “ . . . I’ve come closer and closer to the idea that real writing is what emerges by itself, from an ecstatic condition. But often I discover that ecstasy is imagined as a disembodiment. The ecstasy of writing is feeling not the breath of the word that is liberated from the flesh but the flesh that becomes one with the breath of the words.”
She says: “I tend to throw into words . . . my entire body.” Creating, for Ferrante, is also a deeply physical act. She demonstrates a keen awareness of the overdetermined nature of the female body, both in Frantumagliaand in her work in general. Ferrante is not necessarily claiming she wants to be without a public, cultural voice, but perhaps one without a public body. And if we examine the commentary on the appropriation and fragmentation of the female body in Ferrante’s work: as abject, as decaying, as appropriated, as object of the male gaze, as a corpse, her reasons to not want to become, as she writes of one of her characters, “an erotic gift to the spectator” or one up for mockery or comment, seem self-evident. For example, she writes of not wanting to dress nicely, in form-fitting clothes that showcased the body, or with makeup—“I hid in big shirts, sweaters two sizes too large, baggy jeans”—because she feared a man might think it was for him, and then laugh about it behind her back. This complicated fear, of both being misunderstood and humiliated, is telling.
But I don’t want to read Ferrante’s request to remain hidden as solely a feminist statement. It’s an artistic one too, and she’s careful not to simply blame the patriarchy:
I don’t like to think, as we often do, that the tremendous actions of the heroines of myths are merely the product of a pernicious male racket, of a patriarchal plot: in the end it’s like attributing to women a lack of humanity, and that isn’t useful. We have to learn, rather, to speak with pride of our complexity, of how in itself it informs our citizenship, whether in joy or in rage.
Frantumaglia shows her unyielding interest in female complexity. She notes: “The process of fragmentation in a woman’s body interests me very much from the narrative point of view. It means telling the story of a present-day female I that suddenly perceives itself disintegrating, it loses the sense of time, it’s no longer in order, it feels like a vortex of debris, a whirlwind of thoughts-words.”
And this fragmentation needs self-care. When a male interviewer asks her if she’d be willing to give a physical description of herself, she replies with a firm “No.” She calmly explains herself, but she does not apologize. To which any woman—or any man for that matter, though it’s rare for a male writer to be asked about his children, or spouse, or work-life balance—can attest, it is difficult to refuse to answer, without apology, when asked about one’s private life. Our share-all world has made protecting the private seem almost like a perversion, a deviance, an act to view with suspicion. More than once she cites Italo Calvino, who says: “Ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth, of that you can be sure.” It’s not that Ferrante necessarily draws a line between the Iwho writes and the I who appears on the page; it’s that perhaps she knows the boundaries between art and life are tenuous. Writing for Ferrante, then, is a sort of frantumaglia, and it’s no wonder that once the book has been released in the world, she’d like to attempt to shore up all that fragmentation.
Throughout this collection, Elena Ferrante asks us to not only respect the boundaries between the work and what remains outside it, “an invisible gutter,” but to also consider what boundaries the work dissolves. “In my experience, the difficulty-pleasure of writing touches every point of the body. When you’ve finished the book, it’s as if your innermost self had been ransacked, and all you want is to regain distance, return to being whole.” In short, her self-preservation becomes a political act. By rejecting her authorial persona as a public body, she forces us to readjust our biases, refuses to let us apply the same language, the same discussion, to her work.
The work is the public presence: “The voice is part of your body, it needs your presence—you speak, you have a dialogue, you correct, you give further explanations. Writing, on the other hand, once it’s fixed on a support structure, is autonomous, it needs a reader, not you.”
“The rest,” she says, “is ordinary private life.”
The great explorer Thor Heyerdahl, when asked to consider the question of borders, answered: “I have never seen one. But I have heard that they exist in the minds of some people.”
Heyerdahl, I think, would nonetheless have enjoyed two of the timeliest travel books to have appeared in the past six months; books that I would urge you to make room for wherever you’re heading this summer.
Devotees of Elena Ferrante, author of the bestselling novels of female friendship in post-war Naples, have readily accepted her argument that she writes under a pseudonym because it’s essential to her work. They were outraged when a journalist claimed last autumn to have “unmasked” the writer. In Frantumaglia (Europa Editions), a collection of letters and interviews whose publication was overshadowed by the row, Ferrante offers a glimpse into her working life and the way in which jumbled fragments of memory find fictional form.
Rumpus: In Lucky You, there are tidbits of information about the characters’ pasts. There are time gaps between sections. There is a lot that goes unspoken. This seems to require you, as the author, to have a lot of trust in the reader. Can you talk a bit about this relationship of trust between author and reader?
Carter: When I was writing this, I had no agent or publisher, and was far from even thinking about having readers. So, that was freeing, because I wasn’t trying to please anyone. It’s interesting now, though, because I’m writing my second book, and I’m still not trying to please anyone—I feel like I’m just writing what has to be said, in the best way I know how to say it.
Lucky You is definitely not for everyone, but I would never want to write a book for everyone. I’d like to quote Elena Ferrante here, from her interview with the Paris Review, on this subject:
I employ all the strategies I know to capture the reader’s attention, stimulate curiosity, make the page as dense as possible and as easy as possible to turn. But once I have the reader’s attention I feel it is my right to pull it in whichever direction I choose. I don’t think the reader should be indulged as a consumer, because he isn’t one. Literature that indulges the tastes of the reader is a degraded literature. My goal is to disappoint the usual expectations and inspire new ones.
by Franco Baldasso
Last fall’s noisy dispute around Elena Ferrante’s biographical identity ignited a wealth of contrasting yet instructive reactions. Whether troubled or newly admiring or indifferent to the apparent divergences between the empirical author’s life and that of her character Elena Greco, readers and critics did not venture to question the assumed existential parallel between the two. The books themselves, along with their marketing materials, quite clearly encourage it. But what if the alleged correspondence between Elena Ferrante and Elena Greco were just a diversion? What if the characteristics we identify in the latter, and implicitly attribute to the former, were only a carnival mirror shielding a deeper but less obvious commonality, the one between Ferrante and the brilliant friend herself, Lila Cerullo: namely, the unbearable loss of their presence?
The formulation and answering of this question was greatly assisted by the publication, in the same season, of Ferrante’s first work of nonfiction, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. Thanks to the scattered pieces comprising the collection—interviews, unsent letters to critics and readers, pages expunged from the author’s novels—we can further appreciate the author’s intellectual prowess and talent as a storyteller by measuring not only the affinities, but also the distance, between her and the character who shares her first name. The carnival mirror emerges from Frantumaglia quite cracked, yet it is through such minute gaps that one of the underlying themes of all of Ferrante’s work becomes visible.
From the opening pages of My Brilliant Friend, the story told by Elena Greco is haunted by the loss of Lila Cerullo. The loss finds full narrative disclosure only in the fourth installment of the cycle, Story of the Lost Child, with an uncanny doubling, as both Lila and her daughter abandon the scene with hardly a trace. In fact, Lila consciously erases any remnant of her existence; she decides to disappear, choosing an autonomous destiny that ambiguously overlaps with the fate of the entire city in which she has been living—and struggling—her whole life. At the end of the Neapolitan Quartet, the boundaries of Lila’s character lose their edges and seemingly overlap with the contours of Naples, a city that is obsessively present throughout the four books with its uncanny beauty, unrestrained violence, and blatant lack of social justice. Naples’s unresolved contradictions are before our very eyes throughout. Like Lila, the city offers no index, defies any conclusive description, blurs contours, and subtracts itself from external gaze. In the Quartet’s last pages, however, Naples’s obsessive presence fades away from our view; its countless voices, vigorous yet enervating, turn into a distant echo. In the same vein, Lila, with her disappearance, chooses absence over the courageous and stubborn presence that marked her life—at least as it was narrated by Elena Greco.
While Lila never leaves Naples, establishing the city’s contours as the ultimate extension of her vitality, her friend Elena chooses an utterly different path to establish her own presence. The Neapolitan Quartet is also the novel of Elena’s conquest of personal independence and her emancipation from the suffocating air of the rione, from the family-ism and gender inequality that the city of Naples epitomizes, like a Pandora’s box open to the bluest sky. Elena’s liberation from the restrictions of her city is hardly straightforward and never definitive. Exemplified by her tortuous relationship with her mother, Elena’s emancipation is an ongoing repudiation of her own origins, which runs parallel to and recurrently intermingles with Lila’s struggles. To be complete, however, Elena’s emancipation needs to transcend her origins and Naples’ very boundaries—and essentially free herself from Lila’s shadow. Instead of infighting and openly challenging the violent tensions of the rione, Elena will build and solidify her presence through assiduous work toward a radically different emancipation model. By becoming a public figure as a writer, she aims at the acquisition of literary authority and intellectual respectability, a status seemingly unharmed by the quarrels of her poor neighborhood. Nevertheless, Elena’s new role requires her subjugation to other dynamics, more opaque and no less pervasive: such as the commodification of intellectual labor in the literary market and media circus. Crucially, Lila might admire, envy, even misunderstand and aggrandize her friend’s intellectual authority, yet she grasps that such a path is not for her, as it would not allow her the continuous shift of direction that best characterizes her life and exuberant vitality. To the novels’ characters and readers alike, Lila’s charisma and gravitational power lie in her creative resistance, in her obstinate refusal to accept subjugation of any sort. Her strange magnetism derives from her unique noncompliance to any steady configuration, or, to borrow a key term from Italian contemporary philosophy’s biopolitical debate, to any stable “form-of-life.”1
ELENA GRECO’S STORY SEEMS TO MIRROR ELENA FERRANTE’S EXPERIENCE. YET FERRANTE IS NOT THERE. INSTEAD, SHE HAS CHOSEN LILA’S PATH.
“A story begins when, one after another, our borders collapse,” Ferrante writes in Frantumaglia. It could be a perfect motto for Lila. Like the eccentric protagonists of Luigi Pirandello’s groundbreaking play Six Characters in Search of an Author, Lila refuses to be a character fixed once and for all. By withstanding subjugation, she preserves the constitutional fluidity of her life, culminating in her choice to disappear. Remarkably, Elena Greco’s story of their friendship begins only after all the borders have collapsed. Lila’s story can start because of her attempt at self-erasure, the final sign of her unyielding commitment to otherness. “The disappearance of women,” Ferrante argues, “should be interpreted not only as giving up the fight against the violence of the world but also as clear rejection. There is an expression in Italian whose double meaning is untranslatable: ‘Io non ci sto.’ Literally it means: I’m not here, in this place, before what you’re suggesting. In common usage, it means, instead: I don’t agree, I don’t want to. Rejection means shunning the games of those who crush the weak.”
For Elena, instead, writing Lila’s story and their decades-long relationship is something akin to casting a spell, maybe even to conducting an exorcism. It is a form of magic she has been training for her entire life. Elena encapsulates her friend’s irresistible vitality in a character, so as to control her haunting presence—in a phase of her existence when ghosts from the past are more pressing than real people. And yet this exorcism is not the confession of a failure, but the beginning of a journey: “a writer’s journey,” as in Frantumaglia’s subtitle. Such a journey is not Lila’s anymore; it is only Elena’s.
It is precisely when Elena Greco emerges as a public figure that the assumed existential parallel between her and Elena Ferrante proves to be misleading. Through her writing talent, Elena Greco resolves to become a public persona. She sets out to fight her personal battles by following an intellectual model intimately connected to so many of the glories and delusions of the 20th century. She chooses impegno (engagement)—a form of intellectual commitment to present time—which distinguished the lives and works of numerous left-wing Western European writers in the postwar period, alongside the widely popular theories of Marxist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Antonio Gramsci. Although in different ways, the two philosophers argue for the necessary conjunction of intellectual responsibility with political action. In fact, the debate over the intellettuale impegnato (engaged intellectual) is a conspicuous component of postwar cultural, intellectual, and political history in France and Italy, and it is only partially comparable to the Anglo-American concept of “public intellectual.” In Italy, the intellettuale impegnato was clearly linked to the Communist Party and, to a minor extent, the Socialist Party. The space and impact this model had in Italian civil society had no correspondence in English-speaking countries. For the majority of postwar intellectuals in Italy, the Communist party represented the only alternative to the restoration of conservative forces after World War II.
Many of the Quartet’s characters strive to approximate this model with their public actions and personal behavior, each of them in highly idiosyncratic ways. Elena Greco’s Neapolitan teachers, her boyfriend Franco along with other students at the Scuola Normale di Pisa (Italy’s equivalent to Harvard), the entourage of academic excellence and intellectual prestige constituting Pietro’s family (which backs Elena once she marries him), and even the infamous Nino: all get personally involved in this political season. Pietro embodies the crisis of this intellectual model and Nino its progressive corruption, as they both equally steer clear of a real confrontation with the previous generation’s responsibility. As it historically appeared in Italy, the intellettuale impegnato is predominantly a male model, not without narcissistic connotations. Yet Elena initially embraces it in her personal battle to excel, to find a suitable position in a field barely accessible to women, which eventually enables her to articulate original views and gain an intellectual credibility that are fully her own.
In fact, Elena’s feminism is not ideologically predetermined; its acquisition does not have the trajectory of a destiny. She is no stock character, for she elaborates her individual ideas on gender inequality partly by emulation of other characters, female and male alike, partly by reflections on her own experience. As Ferrante is at pains to explain in Frantumaglia, “Every woman novelist, as with women in many other fields, should aim at being not only the best woman novelist but the best of the most skilled practitioners of literature, whether male or female. To do so we have to avoid every ideological conformity, every false show of thought, every adherence to a party line or canon.” Like her male counter-models and the men of her life, Elena’s struggle is not devoid of narcissistic undertones either. It is not by chance that in the Neapolitan Quartet, Elena’s anxieties to live up to the many expectations that her public persona implies often overwhelm her and recurrently take central stage.
Elena Ferrante’s own choice in this regard is precisely the opposite. Nowhere does she put it more clearly than in her 2014 New York Times interview, collected in Frantumaglia: “I didn’t choose anonymity; the books are signed. Instead, I chose absence. … This choice created a small polemic in the media, whose logic is aimed at inventing protagonists while ignoring the quality of the work, so that it seems natural that bad or mediocre books by someone who has a reputation in the media deserve more attention than books that might be of higher quality but were written by someone who is no one.” Still, this decision has a history: from this angle, the disparate pieces collected in Frantumaglia can be read as the intellectual history of Ferrante’s choice of public “absence,” to abandon the stage—or rather, to desert TV studios—and let her works speak instead of her. Through her “absence,” Ferrante questions both the commodification of intellectual engagement as a media event and its debased, male-dominated forms.
Ferrante’s self-effacement continues with the very title of her first nonfiction book. “Frantumaglia” is an untranslatable word that Ferrante claims she owes to her mother’s personal version of Neapolitan dialect. It literally means “a jumble of fragments,” which she describes as a precondition of her writing. Publishing dates, the only guiding criterion of this disparate volume, chart the emerging intellectual stature of Ferrante over the past 25 years, along with her literary achievements, the resounding noise triggered by her personal withdrawal from the media circus, and all the hype surrounding her global success. Present in all the interviews included in Frantumaglia are the obligatory questions that journalists ask Ferrante regarding her real identity. Her decision to let her books speak for themselves—with no interference from their author’s biography—is supported by literary and personal reasons, which are stated throughout the volume. Ferrante’s most articulated response, however, is to be found in the dialogue with her editors first published in The Paris Review in the spring of 2015. Her provisional conclusion on this pivotal issue, which might have appeared not too long ago as a relic of old-fashioned literary snobism, looks politically timely today: “I’m still very interested in testifying against the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media. The demand for self-promotion not only diminishes the role of the works in every possible sector of human activity; it now rules everything.”
Ferrante’s decision to desert the public sphere allowed her to pursue otherwise unviable narrative possibilities. Unlike her character Elena Greco, she avoided concentrating on the public construction of her figure as an author, exploring instead an alternative mode of communication with the reading public based on writing alone. Her absence is both a story of self-education and a form of resistance to subjugation by any model imposed from the outside—a path that echoes that of her character Lila. In a 2014 interview for the Italian daily La Repubblica, Ferrante claims: “It’s not a small thing to write knowing that you can orchestrate for readers not only a story, characters, feelings, landscapes but the very figure of the author, the most genuine figure, because it’s created from writing alone, from the pure technical exploration of a possibility.”
FERRANTE RELUCTANTLY ADMITS, “I LOVE LILA MORE, BUT ONLY BECAUSE SHE FORCED ME TO WORK VERY HARD.”
Because of the unique space of creative freedom Ferrante has carved for herself, Frantumaglia’s subtitle—A Writer’s Journey—bears only partial witness to the complexity of Ferrante’s choice of absence. Yet this subtitle openly reinforces the impression that her path overlaps with Elena Greco’s. The impression of superimposition between author and character, however, was not a feature of the original 2003 version of the collection published in Italy, in which the dialectal term forming the title stands alone, with no subtitle. A more fitting description of Frantumaglia would instead be “autobiography of a character,” of a unique literary character called Elena Ferrante presented as the author of her novels, whom readers around the world have loved as possibly her own most fascinating and controversial literary creation.
Yet Ferrante’s authorial absence not only occasioned her literary experiments, the “pure technical explorations of a possibility,” it also became a generative force, one of the fundamental questions her novels address, each from its unique standpoint. With her narrative, Ferrante investigates the absence of the beloved person, in the terms analyzed above, not only from a psychological perspective, but also as an anthropological and somehow transhistorical category, without indulging in essentialisms of sorts. As a trigger for storytelling, absence defies literary and genre restrictions; the universality of this experience extends beyond the circumstantiated account of recent Italian history and social structures that constitute the setting and ambiance of Ferrante’s stories, as her international success attests.
Ferrante’s authorial absence found a correspondence in the very fabric of her stories, in a narrative device that is both highly idiosyncratic and universal. Her novels work through the mourning for an intimate loss—almost always that of a woman. From the elusive Amalia in Troubling Love, to the many lost daughters of her fiction, to the missing Lila at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante’s stories are occasioned by a disappearance, which leaves other characters bereft not just of a person they deeply loved, but of something essential they are unable to explain. This disappearance radically shatters everyday life as they always knew it. “Disappearance” in Ferrante is never an occasion for abstract philosophical speculation, but always features narrative contours and context. It acquires a profound literary necessity through the multilayered depiction of historical contingency—as in the case of postwar Naples for her Quartet. Disappearance signals the loss of the object of desire: embodied by a full-fledged character always exceeding its simple biography, ambiguously imposing its absence over the entire story.
Ferrante portrays her characters as both supremely realistic, in the long-standing tradition of the European novel, and as allegories of loss (the mother, the daughter, the brilliant friend), whose retrieval, or lack thereof, soon becomes other characters’ dominating obsession. In a certain sense, disappearance is the true moment when all the “borders collapse,” and in which her stories’ characters are born, as they are forced to enter in a new life’s cycle, a sort of rebirth. “The loss of love,” writes the author in an early piece published in Frantumaglia, “is the common experience closest to the myth of the expulsion from the earthly paradise.” In other words, it is through this loss, which Ferrante describes explicitly as a sottrazione (subtraction) that human history originates—not unlike in her own stories.
By disappearing, by erasing their traces and thus inflicting a more piercing loss, Ferrante’s characters, such as Lila in My Brilliant Friend or Amalia in Troubling Love, actively impose on others their choice for absence. The author narrates their choices as a subtraction, literally the action of taking away a quantity from another to obtain a difference. Their absence is synonymous with their difference: profoundly affecting, if not devastating, other characters’ existences, such as Lila’s lifetime friend Elena Greco or Amalia’s daughter Delia. It does not come as a surprise, then, that in Ferrante’s novels the narrators are not characters who impose their absence by disappearing, but the ones who have been abandoned. Elena and Delia’s mourning prompts the tales of their absent friend and mother, stories which uncomfortably turn into a creeping criticism of their own lives.
Ferrante’s authorial absence engages readers in a similar way. With a piercing irony, Ferrante distances herself from the Neapolitan Quartet’s narrator, Elena Greco, in the precise moment when the accord of the two voices seems most firm and well-defined. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, when Elena Greco glimpses for the first time her newly published novel in a book store’s window, she is truly unable to contain her trepidation: “But the effort of finding a form had absorbed me. And the absorption had become that book, an object that contained me. Now I was there, exposed, and seeing myself caused a violent pounding in my chest.” In the instant when Elena Greco follows in the footsteps of her author—describing the contrasting drives within her chest after seeing her novel in a bookstore—the character-narrator goes in exactly the opposite direction of Ferrante, resolving to become an intellettuale impegnato, a public figure. The story of Elena Greco’s engagement with her own times is a major plotline of the Quartet that grows in intensity and complexity, even beyond her choice to work for public recognition and visibility. Painful difficulties and contradictions between her private behavior and public pronouncements arise, especially in the last two novels. Elena Greco proudly chooses presence despite all the difficulties and personal setbacks, as one of the hallmarks of her literary and intellectual success. In so doing she embodies a model antithetical to the ethics of writing professed in Frantumaglia.
In the New York Times interview mentioned above, Ferrante claims: “Today what counts most for me is to preserve a creative space that seems full of possibilities, including technical ones. The structural absence of the author affects the writing in a way that I’d like to continue to explore.” Ferrante’s authorial absence was born decades ago as a polemical stance against the commodification of writing and life, countering a prescriptive intellectual environment that ultimately narrowed down women’s participation in the public sphere. Today it has become an unpredictable heuristic tool, acquiring persuasive cognitive penetration and unsettling literary force in her novels.
Ferrante’s absence multiplies the sense of bereavement at the center of her stories. It brings about a fictional short circuit with the narrative disappearance of characters she is creating out of writing alone, an idiosyncratic interaction that dismantles traditional literary dynamics that we as readers are used to accepting. By implicitly suggesting—but not forcing—readers to associate Elena Greco with her real persona, Ferrante highlights the ironic distance between her own nonconformist intellectual practice and her character’s urge to become a public figure. Readers, encouraged by Ferrante to empathize with Elena Greco’s search for Lila, experience the character’s confrontational relationship with her brilliant friend. They not only endure the pain of Lila’s disappearance, but also undergo Elena’s anxieties to live up to the difficult standards set by Lila with her uncompromising difference, the radical resistance to subjugation which best describes her. Readers are supported in this feat by the impression that they are not alone in this troubling quest, as Elena Greco’s story mirrors Elena Ferrante’s experience. Yet Ferrante is not there with them. Instead, she has chosen Lila’s path, challenging power dynamics—first of all, the burden of personal biography over her own writing—and leaving readers completely alone to confront Elena Greco’s ghosts.
In the Quartet, Ferrante resolutely refrains from taking sides between Elena and Lila. Still, in a Frantumaglia interview, she reluctantly admits, “I love Lila more, but only because she forced me to work very hard.” Ferrante’s preference for absence turns into an artistic ethics, one which implicitly disavows the character that readers are led to take for an alter ego. The kind of intellectual engagement Ferrante pursues aligns her instead with Lila’s path: the intransigent resistance to the gaze of the other, to the economics and power dynamics shaping lives—female or male alike—through forced self-promotion. As it is for her character Lila, Ferrante’s “I’m not here” means at the same time, “I don’t want to.”
- For a compelling inquiry into the concept of “life” and its biopolitical consequences (seen as fundamental to the Italian philosophical tradition, though in a different manner than for other strands of continental philosophy), see Roberto Esposito, Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy (Stanford University Press, 2012). ↩
HBO recently announced its decision to bring Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels to the small screen, signaling even greater heights for the quartet of bestsellers. The series of books, translated from Italian and written by a pseudonymous author, includes My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child.
The groundbreaking success of these novels did not come as a surprise to Carole DeSanti, who has championed women’s original voices in literature throughout her editing career at Viking Penguin. In the following interview, she examines why and how this series of novels has turned reading and current notions of “authorship” on its head. Ferrante fans and curious readers can join DeSanti for an in-depth exploration of the Neapolitan books during the Aspen Summer Words writing conference and literary festival this June.
The Neapolitan novels seem like unlikely bestsellers. What do you think accounts for the unanticipated success of these books?
So much of what is “anticipated” or touted in the world of popular books turns out to be less than satisfying, and sometimes real originality is rewarded, reader by reader. The best bestsellers, in my view, are those created by word-of-mouth and the pleasure we take in sharing what resonates with us. These are the books that stand the test of time. What I think we respond to in the Ferrante novels is their stark truthfulness — in the sense of the author’s fidelity to the emotional lives of her characters over the arc of days and years. And with that, her ability (which is masterful) to locate and bring forth an epic drama that unfolds over a lifetime. In terms of the two women at the center of these novels this reaches a depth not before seen in fiction. Their world is an easy one to enter, but then the scope grows and grows.
From your perspective as a reader, what do you love about these books?
So many things! Bringing a place, Naples, so alive — from Vesuvius looming over the city to a brilliant young girl furiously making beautiful shoes when she’s not allowed to stay in school. From a cup of coffee in a pastry shop with a bedeviled history to the way a writer creates her voice, renounces it, and circles back again to re-making it: fiercely loving, full of struggle, tender and brutal all at once. But it’s the ever-spiraling, conflicted, ultimately extraordinary feminism in these novels that most touches me. That difficult, ultimate, affirming-of-being, but in a feminine context. I’ve just never read anything like it. I don’t think it’s ever been done. And it’s about time.
From your perspective as an editor, why are these books significant in the publishing landscape?
In publishing we’re living in a moment of great worry and concern (warranted or not) mostly because of digital technologies and the pace of change. What the popularity of these novels suggests to us — confirms, really — is that what we come back to, again and again in literature, is strong and steadfast, regardless of all of the things we worry about in the industry. One way these novels are significant is the way they transmit nuanced emotion over time and place and bring to light what we have not yet seen or examined. This is a quality peculiar to literature. It’s not going to go away, and from time to time is proved anew. So, many in publishing had to sit back and take notice. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, but in the publishing of these books, Europa reminds us that we can still befriend our deepest passions as well.
Can these novels be compared to any other books that have come across your desk over your editing career?
Absolutely not! I have worked on some wonderful books, but these novels stand apart which is why I am championing them as a reader. To survive, literature must be a joint project among writers, publishers, and readers. I would love to have worked on them, but I’m grateful that others had the wisdom and foresight to do so.
Why do you think the anonymity of the author has caused such a stir?
Well, again, it goes against the grain. We have a culture of literary celebrity that has become entrenched. What the anonymity of “Ferrante” tells us is that there is something about the unknown-ness of the author that allows for something that we value even more than what songs she has on her playlist, whether she writes in a nightgown at midnight or jeans on the weekend, or what she happens to enjoy when she’s not at her desk. All of that trivia that authors and publishers (and all have done it, sometimes with the best intentions) have tried to merchandise. Ferrante’s anonymity has reversed the received wisdom and inspired us in doing so. She has said, quietly, “this is what I need to preserve my voice and its integrity.” We appreciate its result. We see that it is valued by others. To authors, I hope Ferrante has sent a new message: You don’t have to do it that way. Find your own way. That’s what she did. It took a long time and, I’m sure, great faith.
You are known as a champion for new voices and diverse points of view in literature. Do you think these books have helped to widen the scope of what publishers might be willing to consider? Will we start to see more translations, or books centered on women and female friendship?
I can only hope that it’s the start of a kind of corrective movement in writing away from the cult of self-publicity and onto a new and interesting path to authenticity. What I really wish for is that her work will allow writers — men and women — to feel more empowered to do what is truly their own. Of course, Ferrante’s novels are about the blurring of boundaries, how we borrow and re-make continually from those we love and envy and compete with, and I would love to see us more boldly claim those influences too. She has thrown open a door to many new wings of literary endeavor, should we choose to venture in.
What might Readers’ Retreat participants expect to get out of this session that they might not otherwise glean from an independent reading?
My experience of reading these novels is that I was bursting with the need to talk about them, and I’ve heard that from others, too. I think it is because they speak to us so intimately, but are also highly social — showing us so many interrelations and co-creations, how we make and un-make one another, find and mirror each other – in all kinds of ways. What is it about these novels that feels so different, and so important? What do they crystallize about this moment in history, especially for women? I want to hear what others have to say about this. I’m eager to know it all!
Carole DeSanti is Vice President, Executive Editor at Viking Penguin, and the author of a novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R.
Frantumaglia is a collection of letters, interviews, and other correspondence between the author Elena Ferrante, her editors, and fans/journalists/artists. It was at the suggestion of her editors in fact, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, that this book even came to fruition. It chronicles the time from when her first book, Troubling Love was published in Italy (1992), through the publication of the final installment in the Neapolitan Quartet, The Story of the Lost Child in America in 2015. All of the writings were originally in Italian, but have been translated into English by Ferrante’s exclusive English translator – Anne Goldstein.
For fans of Ferrante’s work, this book gives insights into the themes she has explored, as well as some recommendations of authors whom she finds inspiring and formative. For readers who are new to Ferrante, this correspondence demonstrates the thoughtful and precise way she utilizes language. Her writing style isn’t particularly poetic or fluid, but is incredibly well-crafted. She puts so much thought and care into every phrase, and that is part of why I find it so addicting to read.
Because this book includes transcripts of decades’-worth of interviews, there are some recurring questions. The most frequent one regards the author’s identity. It is widely known that Elena Ferrante is a pen name, and the user of that nom de plume has taken great pains to ensure that her true identity is concealed. She does not take part in any in-person or audio interviews, and requires all correspondence to be funneled through her editors. Because of this, the media (especially the Italian literary media) have made it their mission to “uncover” the true identity of Elena Ferrante. As recently as October, 2016 (long after Frantumaglia was published) an Italian article was published that purports to have uncovered Elena Ferrante’s true identity, going so far as to obtain (through what means..?) financial documents that show unusually large transactions between a publisher, an author, and a translator – to give weight to the claim. In what universe do people care so much about the identity of an author that they would go to such extremes? To what extent is an artist allowed privacy and the choice of a non-public life?
This cult of discovery is troubling on many levels. First, once one releases a work of art into the world, is that person then obligated to have any further involvement in the work? There seems to exist, in some perspectives, an umbilical connection between a work and its creator, that the personality branding of the person who wrote the book must carry some weight on the book itself. I also wonder how much attention there would be if the pen name of the author was masculine – Emilio Ferrante, let’s say. There runs an undercurrant of sexism here – suggesting that this writer must be revealed because it is so difficult to believe a woman capable of creating such a vivid and expansive world. In a culture where fame is seen as the pinnacle of a career, for someone to eschew such recognition may be difficult to understand.
Over and over again, interviewers make comparisons between her and famous Italian authors, and ask if she and those other authors are the same person. She never answers these questions, nor gives any particular details that might clarify any part of her identity. In fact, she, at one point, tells her editors that she may follow writer Italo Calvino’s lead and freely answer questions…but not with the truth. That is part of what is so interesting about Frantumaglia – you can try to read the personal into her answers, but ultimately what matters is the creative process and its products. Wondering whether characters, descriptions, or plots in any of her stories are autobiographical is a waste of energy. She believes wholeheartedly that the author’s job comes to an end once the writing is complete. It shouldn’t matter who the author is, as long as the story explores some greater truth.
By Dina Kleiner
Elena Ferrante, a contemporary Italian author who’s gained a large following in the United States, is most widely known for two things: her highly-acclaimed Neapolitan series and her identity, which was a mystery until last September.
“Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym. The writer is fiercely private—she doesn’t do publicity, she doesn’t do any promotion, and she doesn’t do book tours. She rarely does interviews, and when she does, they are via email. She’s blown up in the literary world, yet remains largely unknown to the average person. She’s also one of the best writers I have ever read in my entire life.
The Italian author has said in written interviews that she would stop publishing books if her real identity were revealed. Fans of Ferrante didn’t want to know her real name. They aggressively defended her anonymity with a kind of protectiveness that’s rare for fans of anything in this era, an age in which people believe they’re entitled to the private lives of artists. In September, an Italian investigative journalist named Claudio Gatti outed Elena Ferrante’s alleged real identity, igniting anger from fans and drawing a surge of new readers to her novels.
As intriguing as the writer’s anonymity is—especially in a publishing era where press tours are the main way publishers market books—the secrecy surrounding Ferrante’s identity isn’t what attracts readers to her work. Ferrante is regarded by many as one of the best contemporary writers, earning stunning reviews from critics across the board and attracting fervid fans who’ve developed a cult-like obsession with her work.
The positive reception of Ferrante’s work in the United States took form far before the controversy surrounding the exposure of her identity. It’s rare to see so many critics uniformly praise Ferrante in such an effusive manner. They don’t review her work so much as they seem to personally urge readers to read it. Her Neapolitan series has been called a tour de force and a modern masterpiece.
Ferrante isn’t marketed as a feminist writer, but her books undoubtedly are just by virtue of her unabashed honesty about sex, adolescence, violence, and the body. Her illustration of the female psyche is so spot-on that it makes other works that aim to achieve similar depictions appear shallow and half-hearted, as though they only touch the surface of what reality feels like when compared to Ferrante’s words.
The New Yorker wrote, “Ferrante’s polished language belies the rawness of her imagery.” But don’t be fooled—her prose is layered with emotion, rage, and grotesqueness. Underneath the timid nature of many of Ferrante’s protagonists lies an anger that slowly reveals itself within narration, an indignation at the world that wells up and bursts like a tsunami crashing against a lifetime of subtle oppression. Critic John Freeman wrote, “Ferrante’s fictions are fierce, unsentimental glimpses at the way a woman is constantly under threat, her identity submerged in marriage, eclipsed by motherhood, mythologized by desire. Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are.”
Those looking to immerse themselves in the “Elena Ferrante experience” should start with her Neapolitan series. The first of the four-book series is My Brilliant Friend, which illustrates the childhood of two young girls growing up in a poor town outside Naples, Italy. I have never read anything that so accurately portrays what it feels like to go through puberty as a young girl. The series grows with its characters, exploring adulthood, classism, abuse, and independence with Ferrante’s signature emotion and underlying rage.
People who want to read Ferrante but don’t want to make a four-book commitment (although I highly recommend starting the series, even if you’re not committed to finishing it) should start with one of her slimmer novels, Troubled Love or Days of Abandonment. These novels are less epic in nature than the Neapolitan books—they feel like an intense dive into the psyche of women at critical points in their lives rather than a sprawling bildungsroman. These novels are angrier. They are jam-packed with quiet fury, brimming with an outrage that makes itself known instead of moving surreptitiously beneath the surface.
The cover of Ferrante’s novels are uncool at best and tacky at worst—they look like the kind of books that grandmothers buy at airports. I think it’s because no one expected Ferrante to become such a huge hit—they didn’t think they should bother putting money toward a more modern cover design, the kind of cover meant for books targeted for best-seller lists. They didn’t know what a success Ferrante would be. They didn’t know that an anonymous, elusive Italian writer could gather a fan base so dedicated it defends her privacy, that she would write one of the best depictions of female friendship and womanhood of all time, that her words would hold so much power and truth that they cause women across the globe to look up from their novels and exclaim to themselves: “That’s exactly what it feels like.”
by Mika Provata-Carlone
Elena Ferrante is traditional in the most radical, boundary-dissolving ways; conventional with subversive fervour and delicately powerful talent. In Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey she proves above all the invincible strength of her authorial translucence, the rock-solid presence of her so-called anonymity, which she invariably corrects as being a determined gesture of absence.
The word frantumaglia, we are told, belongs to her mother, a dressmaker, and comes from that maternal world of tattered fabrics, frayed hems, unravelling stitches, matted skeins and tangled bobbins. It is a passe-partout term to encapsulate female suffering, its cobweb of existential angst that is inarticulate as well as unspeakable. “The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause.” Bursting with the ineluctable impetus of dialect, frantu derives from frantumare, to shatter, shiver, smash, crush; maglia is a knitted jumper, a jersey, as well as a knitter’s stitch, secured or dropped (see Erasures). It is an image that conjures up a certain ethereality, a metaphor of evanescence and mystical transparency, of life as an elusive aurora borealis of words and stories, but also an allegory of the tactility and permanence of traumas, of the salvaging, re-patching process that is, inevitably, at the heart of all reconstruction, recollection and perhaps narrative itself.
Yet this self-proclaimed collection of ‘fragments’ is anything but fragmentary or precarious, gossamer-thin or spurious. Nor is there anything tangled or disorderly about it, even if many of the statements by Ferrante or her vicarious interlocutors may appear anarchic and defiant. To pursue the dressmaking metaphor a step further, this is more like wool-felting than unpicking, a process which will result in a dense fabric of stories, laboriously and expertly welding together yarns of memory and the strands of the past.
There is an irresistible mystique about this intensely intimate, personal collection, and Ferrante’s voice often has the timbre of a lover and not just of a correspondent, an essayist or diarist. For all her assertions that she will not burden her books (or this epistolary miscellany of thoughts and conversations) with her presence as their writer, the friction and tension between creator and creature, as well as the connective umbilical cord, is constant, tantalising, something Ferrante has also explored extensively in her fiction. Frantumaglia is, in a way, the geography of an uncharted life, the cartography of a human terra incognita, which promises dazzling light on the absolute premise of an indissoluble and cryptic darkness.
One gets a distinct sense of Ferrante as a mystic, a Pythia-like figure holding on to a holy as well as terrifying trance, which alone will engender and enable that ultimate vital process, writing.”
Ferrante not only responds to but also piercingly questions her interviewers, and this often reveals both what she has called “a somewhat neurotic desire for intangibility”, but also a latent, yet dominant, demand to be discovered and sought after, a yearning for an almost virginal admiration. She is hounding and charming, enchanting in her persistence that detail is of supreme importance, exuding a seductive grande dame aura, vivacious and eccentric, a rebel who refuses to relinquish absolute control over her work. One gets a distinct sense of Ferrante as a mystic, a Pythia-like figure holding on to a holy as well as terrifying trance, which alone will engender and enable that ultimate vital process, writing.
What seeps indirectly though the lines is a non-desire of detachment, a refusal to abandon what is in fact a very intimate, total relationship with her texts, evinced in the difficulty she admits to regarding the reading of scripts that are born out of her novels, and the meticulously exhaustive, almost exegetic engagement that ensues. In contrast to her emphasis on anonymity, it often feels as though Ferrante is anxious to guarantee the scope and conditions of a very precise ‘Ferrante philology’. And bizarrely enough, this does not seem like a contradiction, but as a natural extension and development of her authorial presence and identity. One could be tempted to say that there is nothing authentic about this very intense, de profundis, almost obsessive commitment to writing, to discoursing on the themes of literature and readership, the human self and the psyche, that it is a brilliant, magnificently erected construct to house Ferrante’s omnipresent, evasive persona. And yet it feels alive with a fundamental genuineness and truth. Were Ferrante to reveal all, perhaps this is how she would speak.
A curious but not unexpected feature of this book is that it is pre-empted by an explanatory note by Ferrante’s publishers, Sandra Ozzola and her husband Sandro Ferri, affirming that the authorial deliberation and initiative, perhaps even the authorship, should be firmly delegated back to them as editors, collectors, arbiters of these extra-authorial writings. Ferrante is confirmed as a real person with private thoughts, with scattered scribblings on the flotsam and jetsam of the mind and of consciousness, with a correspondence – i.e. a bilateral relationship with equally real others – rather than existing only in an ingenious, inimitable and groundbreaking monologue; at the same time, she is preserved behind veils that diffuse all that is private, so that the balance between the genuinely personal and the insularly individual becomes a feat but also a challenge, an aporia for the reader, and, one feels, ultimately also for the writer herself. The game of peering through these veils, through light and shadows, to a corporeal as well as spiritual life, the numerous titillating glimpses of a real centre of being, are not an unpleasant experiment, on the contrary the experience is mesmeric, absorbing, provocative and thought-provoking. Does it matter whether literary judges will ever be able to pronounce a verdict at this court of ‘authenticity’, where purported letters to the editors become purloined excuses for languorous peregrinations into the furthest recesses of interiority? Part invention of resplendent sincerity, part crystalline distillation of a singular voice, Frantumaglia emerges as yet another heteronym full of the elusive whole.
Except perhaps for Thomas Woolfe’s long-suffering, brilliant editor Maxwell Perkins, who also had to care for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, few publishers have had to nurture and at the same time shield such talent as that of Ferrante. Since the publication of her first novel, the Ferris have been embroiled in a suspense novel of their own, a novel of infinite complexity and complications, as Ferrante herself acknowledges repeatedly, indulgently, unequivocally. Sweeping aside the manifold conspiracy theories about Ferrante’s identity or non-identity, they have collected letters to her publishers and readers, any interviews given or conceived of, they have retrieved a remarkable body of unusual drafts (begging several obvious questions), and put together a constellation of responses, creating, quite literally, a fully controlled archive for future academic research.
How much editorial intervention has gone into the final presentation of this material is unknown, yet the addressees, irrespective of whether they were, in point of fact, addressed at all in the end, are certainly real, remaining staunchly undaunted by silence. What emerges is a veritable anthology of reflections, guttural reactions, urgently pressing wisdom, throbbing contributions to the question of what is literature, why we write or read, how stories shape reality and how truth is only possible in fiction; we are given a resounding apologia for a genuine female voice, or what Ferrante calls a “literary genealogy of their own”. Frantumaglia is the ultimate treat for Ferrante devotees, but also a rare delight for those who feel that literature is a vital, living gesture. Ultimately, it is a bold quest after absolutes, for the “space of absolute creative freedom.”
Ferrante shows a piercing shrewdness about politics, literature, art, life, all that provides her with a sharper lens for a more sincere and more pugnacious gaze upon reality.”
Intriguingly, it is not merely a mosaic of philosophical meditations: it is also, and unabashedly, a treasure-trove of the sort of biographical anchorage we have been denied all along, for all the caveat of Calvino’s declaration, “ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth, of that you can be sure.” By the end of Frantumaglia we have learned all this, which may be true, or a very elegant, flawless, infinitely human and magnificent fabric of true lies: Elena Ferrante grew up near Secondigliano, a suburb in the north of Naples. Her father was “jealous of the possible” and her mother was very beautiful, cantankerous, a dressmaker of great creative vitality. Ferrante had a cat, which was taken away from her, and she lived in many rented houses as a child. She fled Naples and lived in Greece for a time. Contrary to popular belief, she has never been in analysis or trained in any relative field. She has a degree in classical literature, and describes her professional world as follows: apart from writing, “I study, I translate, I teach.” She rejects any feminist label: “to assert I have a feminist mindset seems to me exaggerated.” She likes smells, especially of “creams, of lipsticks, a smell of sugared almonds.” Above all, “I have a life I consider satisfying, both on the private and on the public level.” She is a mother of daughters, to whom she has promised not to be too much of an embarrassment – a promise she knows (like most mothers) that she will be unable to keep. She has read most of the feminist pioneers, is in awe of Elsa Morante, considers Chekhov, Walter Benjamin, Hans Christian Andersen, Karen Blixen, Melanie Klein, Federico Tozzi, Alba de Cespedes and Madame de La Fayette as some of her companions. She loves Virgil, especially the Aeneid, the tragedies of Sophocles and Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, but also sentimental stories in women’s magazines.
We learn that she “still [has] this childish wish for marvels, large or small”, that she “look[s] for ideas by running after words”, and that it takes her “many sentences, real, confusing, jumbled speeches, to arrive at an answer.” That she thinks of “writing now as a long, tiring, pleasant seduction”, aiming to “seize what lies silent in my depths, that living thing which, if captured, spreads through all the pages and gives them life.” For Ferrante, the central motive force in everything is love, lost, gained, nurtured or destroyed: “someone who takes love away from us devastates the cultural structure we’ve worked on all our lives, deprives us of that sort of Eden that until that moment had made us appear innocent and loveable.”
Frantumaglia is an irrepressible torrent of such revelations, intimations and declarations, and Ferrante shows a piercing shrewdness about politics, literature, art, life, all that provides her with a sharper lens for a more sincere and more pugnacious gaze upon reality. A simple reference can launch her into a bravado, often tongue-in-cheek, display of extraordinary sensitivity and erudition, whether it is an analysis of the third book of the Aeneid by way of Apollodorus’ Library, or the remark that “Bovary and Karenina are, in some ways, descendants of Dido and Medea.” This is a compulsive tome to relish, cherish and read with the leisure of slowness and humanity, a beautifully confessional chronicle of all that should matter in the life and mind of an artist.
Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia is published by Europa Editions, along with her novels The Days of Abandonment (2005), Troubling Love (2006), The Lost Daughter (2008), the Neapolitan quartet My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child (2012–2015) and the children’s picture book The Beach at Night (2016), illustrated by Mara Cerri. All are translated by Ann Goldstein.
My Brilliant Friend, a two-part stage adaptation of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet starring Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack, premiered at the Rose Theatre, Kingston on 25 February and continues to 2 April.
Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.
By Jeff Simon
Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey By Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions, 384 pages, $24
By the end of 2016, this exceptional book had proved to be one of most controversial literary books of the year. It came out in November. What preceded its publication were news stories in which the true identity of Elena Ferrante — one of the most admired Italian writers since Calvino — supposedly was discovered by Italian journalist Claudio Gati and subsequently revealed in a blog by the New York Review of Books.
Whether Italian translator Anita Raja is the real identity of the pseudonymous Ferrante–or, for that matter, Ferrante, whoever she is, somehow created journalist Gati–the whole thing made for a gloriously enticing Hall of Mirrors which does a nice job of refracting images of a writer demanding even more American attention than she’s previously had.
The title of the book means “loose and disconnected fragments” in Neapolitan dialect, all of which — letters, interviews, whatever — reveal deeply the life and thoughts of a writer who appointed another name just in order to exist. The gist of the passionate objections to Gati’s investigative journalism is that Ferrante’s anonymity as a writer deserved to be as inviolate as, say, the private life that J.D. Salinger had and that Thomas Pynchon still has. At issue for some in the “unmasking” of Ferrante as Raja is the implication, in some eyes, that Ferrante’s much-admired works — including a quartet of Neapolitan novels — were influenced in some way by Raja’s husband, Italian novelist Domenico Starnone, a lesser figure who has also been accused of being Ferrante.
It all seems to come out of a combination of Nabokov, Henry James and Fernando Pessoa, the astonishing Portuguese writer and poet whose way of writing pseudonymously was to invent several separate but fully imagined authorial personalities along with their subsequent works. So this richly involving book of autobiographical fragments was published last fall amid a rainstorm of asterisks it didn’t deserve. What we have here are incredibly fascinating interviews and letters and such from a writer who says she has struggled to not lead a life “where the success of the self is measured by the success of the written page.”
In 1992 Edizioni e/o published a first novel, L’amore molesto, by an Italian writer who called herself “Elena Ferrante.” Its provocative cover featured a stylish female figure in a red suit—without her head. Eleven years later, the elegant “headless woman” surfaced again on the cover of a collection of Ferrante’s letters called La frantumaglia (2003). Ferrante’s book covers all feature figures with their faces hidden, just as the novelist has hidden her identity for twenty-four years. Explaining her reasons for anonymity to a relentlessly hungry Italian press in 2003, she wrote, “The true reader, I think, searches 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.”
Reading this collection of Ferrante’s interviews over twenty years (1995–2015), one is struck by her naïveté. Her seven translated novels found a rapt market in the US (1.6 million copies sold of the Neapolitan tetralogy alone), but she has never ceased to be a target for “unmasking.” Whether the secret scribbler is Edizione e/o’s German translator Anita Raja, her husband, Domenico Starnone, or Topo Gigio, her comments on her female narrators and her writing process is revelatory. She describes Neapolitan mothers she has known, for example, as “silent victims, desperately in love with males and male children, ready to defend and serve them even though the men crush and torture them. . . . To be female children of these mothers wasn’t and isn’t easy.” Those children are the ones she writes about, and their friendships are fragile, “without rules.” The “brilliant friends” Lila and Lenù fight and make up—for sixty years—but they are devoted to each other in a way neither is with her men.
Ferrante has much to say here about her birth city, Naples; her childhood; the origin of her plots; and her need as a fiction writer to be “sincere to the point where it’s unbearable.” I was disappointed at inconsistent or odd translations, such as “difference feminism” for il pensiero della differenza, not to mention rendering frantumaglia (her mother’s word for depression) as “a jumble of fragments.” On the whole, however, Ann Goldstein’s translation does justice to the 2003 original, a volume that serves as a “companion” to Ferrante’s fiction.
University of Maryland University College