School Library Journal

Guest Post: A New Consideration of Elena Ferrante’s The Beach at Night by Dr. Ellen Handler Spitz

You guys know my penchant for children’s books that fall outside the usual norms. And nothing strikes fear in the good American heart faster than picture books from other countries. I’ve seen even the most sophisticated of readers wrinkle their noses at translations they deemed “weird”. And nothing caused such wrinkling better than the 2016 publication of the American edition of Elena Ferrante’s picture book The Beach at Night. Kirkus argued that the book was not, “a true picture book: with many text-only double-page spreads and illustrations that do little to extend the text, this book will try the patience of most young listeners. The Italian edition of this book is marketed to children 10 and up; the advertised audience in the United States of 6 to 10 feels just plain wrong.” The New York Times was hardly any more kind. And yet, it has its defenders.

Today, guest poster Dr. Ellen Handler Spitz, author of such books as The Brightening Glance: Imagination and Childhood and many others, comments on the book and its reception. Take it away, Ellen!


BeachAtNight1Mysterious, hugely popular Italian novelist Elena Ferrante wrote a children’s book, The Beach at Night, that has curried scant favor in the American press since its 2016 translation by Ann Goldstein. I would like to advocate, albeit gently, for this book. A doll named Celina, left behind on a beach at the end of one day by five-year-old Mati, tells us how that feels: the story is told in her voice, that of an anthropomorphic toy.

Ferrante’s theme— abandonment —touches children’s deepest fears. It plays out within the intimate, oft blurry bonds between a little girl, her doll, and her mother. With short, direct sentences, Ferrante unfurls a catalogue of woe. Being neglected comes first, as Celina watches Mati go to play with Minù, the new kitten her visiting father has just brought her. Humiliation arrives next. Rejected and cast off on the beach, Celina suffers maltreatment by Mati’s grumpy brother, who dumps burning sand on her. Physical discomfort follows fast, and then terror, as the family leaves the beach without her, and the sky changes color. A “Mean Beach Attendant” with a huge Rake frightens her and flings her onto a pile of trash. Fear morphs into sadness and anger. Anxious about being hurt and broken, Celina remembers Mati’s former love. Envy comes barreling in, as she pictures the kitten Minù who has supplanted her and wants spitefully to spoil him. Vindictively, she conjures him having bouts of diarrhea and imagines vomiting on him so that Mati will be compelled to forsake him: an apt projection on Ferrante’s part, since little girls, when expected by their mothers to be clean, may feel unlovable when not.

Loneliness and boredom ensue. Followed by confusion. The Mean Attendant ignites a fire to burn residual beach trash, including Celina. She uncomprehendingly welcomes its warmth because the sunless beach has grown cold. Gradually, however, she understands that the fire which pleases her can destroy her. When it scalds her dress, she chides (as to a naughty pet): “Bad fire.”

Ferrante is partaking, of course, in a time-honored tradition in which dolls come to life in children’s books. Two long-lived examples might be cited: Rachel Field’s Newbery Award-winning Hitty of 1929, in which a doll carved from magical wood recounts her hundred year journey, and the ever-beloved Raggedy Ann stories of c. 1900, in which a stuffed rag doll with a candy heart from grandma’s attic has nocturnal escapades that author Johnny Gruelle based on observations of his daughter Marcella. Turning to animation, there’s Pixar’s Toy Story of 1995, by John Lasseter. Ferrante mines this vein in several novels, including The Lost Daughter and My Beautiful Friend, where dolls play quasi-human roles. Her pages, however, often portray toy characters in nightmarish settings fraught with anxiety.

The Beach at Night, moreover, employs language unpurged of slang (for which, however, as New York Times reviewer Maria Russo points out, the translator may be held responsible), and, as I have emphasized in Inside Picture Books, a reading adult is always free to substitute one word for another. The term “caca,” translated here with an expletive, might easily be rendered by the childish expression “doo-doo.” Nevertheless, Ferrante’s book has been judged by some to be inappropriate for children. Respectfully, I demur.

BeachAtNight2Many books for young children tend to be protective; only rare ones plumb the intensity of feeling to which small children are prey. Maurice Sendak’s oeuvre, of course, stands as an exception. As does Ferrante’s The Beach at Night. Like Jezibaba or Medea, Ferrante dips into the cauldron without gloves, seizes fears, yanks them out, and thrusts them under the glaring strobe lights of her prose. In so doing, she performs a service not unlike that of Sendak, who, in his masterpiece Where the Wild Things Are, unfastens a door and shoves us in, or, better yet, pushes us in and closes the door fast behind us.

Perhaps you are wondering: But, why explore pain in a children’s book? My best reply would entail a wondrously wise 1959 text called The Magic Years by Selma Fraiberg, distinguished University of Michigan psychologist. This classic exploration of young children’s inner lives unsurpassed for more than a half-century tells a cautionary tale about Frankie, a little boy whose devoted parents are eager to do him right. They consult experts, identify typical childhood fears, then systematically keep those fears at bay. Nursery rhymes are edited; fairy tales purged of witches and ogres. When a pet parakeet dies during Frankie’s nap, it is replaced before he can notice. His baby sister’s birth is planned to minimize feelings of jealousy, rivalry, and displacement. Yet, Frankie suffers all the ordinary fears of early childhood and bad dreams as well. Endemic to human growth, Fraiberg explains, fears emanate largely from within. Since they cannot be expunged, growing children need to learn to invent solutions, as Fraiberg puts it, “to the ogre problem.” Ferrante’s Mean Beach Attendant, for example, replete with lizard-like moustaches and nasty ditties seems merely an update of the ogre or bogeyman, familiar from European folk tales.

Elena Ferrante gets this. Her fierce grasp of its truth informs her slender book. No emotion in The Beach at Night is foreign to young children because, as we have come to recognize, at least since the late 19th century, even the youngest have active inner lives despite their lack of words with which to report on it. Fear, envy, confusion, longing, disappointment, anger, and sadness are all poignantly felt. That said, where better to practice coping than in the pages of a story book? Children who encounter danger in books, especially with adults present to help interpret, can do so safely. If intense emotional exploration serves a boon in art and literature for grown-ups, why should it not be made available for children? The Beach at Night offers vicarious adventures that, for some children, may provide a proving ground for mastery, while for others, undeniably, its scenes will be too scary. Parent-and-child or teacher- or librarian-and-child may collaborate to make that call, and this in itself can constitute valuable learning.

Abandonment tops the list of childhood terrors. A college student of mine surprised me in class when she nailed the most abject horror of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. Not darkness, she whispered. Not freezing cold. Not starvation. But the fact that the little girl cannot go home. Cast out, she dies on an empty city street.

BeachAtNight3Ferrante plots Celina’s abandonment with exquisite care. Good turns suddenly to evil and then occasionally reverses. Mati’s love for her doll Celina morphs into rejection. The hot beach becomes chilly at night. The comforting fire harms what it warms. A sea wave saves Celina from fire but then engulfs and nearly drowns her. The aptly colored black and white kitten starts as a rival for Mati’s affection but ends up being the creature who improbably saves her, brings her home, and becomes, at the book’s end, her friend. Mati’s father, kindly giver of the kitten, serves as a foil for the other adult male character, the Mean Beach Attendant, who calls Celina “ugly” and nearly annihilates her.

All these turnabouts match young children’s mental lives, where perceptions reverse in a flash. The hand that caresses stiffens into a spank. The angry grimace softens to a twinkle. Lacking analytical ability as yet and information with which to explain these turnabouts, children find their unpredictability both magical and terrifying.

Darkness matters. Night is when mysterious events take place. And Ferrante uses the beach elsewhere in her work, especially in The Lost Daughter, where her protagonist “rescues” a doll forgotten on a beach and then holds on to it, unable to bring herself to return it to the child who longs for it. As in The Beach at Night, which it eerily overlaps, The Lost Daughter blurs boundaries between girl and doll, mother and daughter, boundaries breeched again by Ferrante in the opening pages of another novel My Brilliant Friend, were two girls play in tandem with their dolls, conversing with them and imitating each other like miniature characters in a Pirandello play until the one with the ugly doll throws another’s beautiful toy into a dark cellar.

A paradigmatic moment in The Lost Daughter occurs when the narrator, mother of two faraway grown daughters, anxiously watches a young mother on the beach with her little girl and a doll. Eavesdropping, she hears the names of mother, daughter, and doll all seem to mingle and merge: Nina, Ninù, Niné, Nani, Nena, Nennella, Elena, Leni. Switching back and forth from childish to grown-up voices as they play, this mother and daughter make the mute doll “speak” as if it were both mother and child without separation. Envious of their fluidity and yearning for lost moments in her own life, the narrator finds the scene intolerable. Unhinged, she rises to intervene, willing them to stop.

That Lost Daughter scene illuminates a key moment of recognition in The Beach at Night. The beach has turned dark; no stars or moon appear, and the abandoned doll Celina recalls her little mistress Mati saying to her in her mother’s voice, “If you catch cold, you’ll get a fever.” Suddenly, the doll understands: Mati is repeating her own mother’s words “because Mati and I are also,” as Ferrante writes, “mother and daughter.” The next thought is surely what Aristotle would have called a peripeteia. Celina comprehends that, because of this identification, Mati cannot possibly have forgotten her. She is not abandoned! And children encountering the story understand. On the last page but one, Mati, having Celina back, hugs her with a face wet with tears.

What then is Celina, the doll? The renowned British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott coined the term “transitional object.” He meant by this a blanket, stuffed animal, or dolly that is neither exclusively the child’s “me” (self) or “not-me” (other) but a quirky amalgam that gets created in the context of the closest human relationship and used to play it out. Ferrante shows us this small miracle and never lets up. Right there on the sand, each of us is led through the dread of abandonment. But, as we close the book with our children, we may feel more aware of and grateful for the loved ones who abide with us, both child and adult.

Tony’s Reading List


As promised in my recent post on Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, it’s time to focus a little more on the role of the doll in the novel.  However, that means reluctantly vacating the blogging chair to allow an expert to take over.  You see, today’s choice is supposedly meant for kids, and when it comes to children’s literature, there’s only room for one blogger in our house – here’s Emily🙂

What’s the name of the book, and who is it by?
The book is called The Beach at Night and it’s by Elena Ferrante (and it’s translated by Ann Goldstein).

What’s it about?
It’s about a doll who gets left behind by her ‘momma’ at the beach, who then goes on many adventures to try and keep herself safe and get back home to her mum, Mati.  First, she gets swept up by the mean beach attendant’s best friend ‘rake’.  Then, she gets scared she’s going to get a fever just like her mum always tells her.  Finally, she gets washed away by the waves until she gets picked up Mati’s pet cat, Minù.

Did you like it?  Why (not)?
It was OK, not my favourite book ever.  I didn’t really like how she said everyone was a living thing, like the waves and the storm.  I also didn’t like how the mean beach attendant kept on swearing and swearing (don’t tell my Dad!).  The pictures were nice, but a bit repetitive, just her lying in the sand or the water.

What was your favourite part?
My favourite part was when Minù picked up Celina (the doll) and took her to Mati🙂

Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls?  Why (not)?
I wouldn’t recommend it to younger children because it may be a bit scary for them – plus the whole swearing thing…

Emily, thank you very much.

The Beach at Night may have been inspired by the story of the doll from The Lost Daughter, but in truth it isn’t really that closely linked.  It’s more a reimagining of the doll’s time away from the little girl, with several differences including a change of names and the addition of a brother.  What comes across very strongly is the bizarre nature of the tale as we follow the lost doll through a worrying, lonely night.

Its status as a children’s book is also fairly dubious.  While I’m not overly concerned about the use of the word ‘shit’ (which comes up in a menacing song the beach attendant sings to himself), it’s true that Ferrante uses a rather dark tone throughout the short work.  If it’s a fairy tale, it’s certainly very grim(m):

I don’t like this cat Minù, in fact I hate him.  Even his name is ugly.  I hope he has diarrhea and vomits and stinks so much that Mati is grossed out and gets rid of him.
p.12 (Europa Editions, 2016)

As Celina is pushed around the beach, escapes a fiery demise and is finally washed out to sea, any child reading could well be forgiven for wondering, as Emily did, whether this is really for kids at all.

I’d certainly agree.  Yes, the language is pitched at a fairly simple level, but there’s a lot going on underneath, with many hints of themes from The Lost Daughter.  In the constant struggles of the Beach Attendant to steal the words, including her name, hidden in Celina’s stomach (represented in Mara Cerri’s excellent illustrations as a string of light being dragged out of the doll’s mouth), you sense a concealed feminist reproach, with the poor doll denied the comfort of keeping her words inside.  Hmm – I wonder if we can tie any of this to a writer you might know who refuses to make her name public…😉

More obvious, though, is the emphasis on the bond between mother and daughter, so prevalent in The Lost Daughter.  Throughout her ordeal, Celina is firm about her connection with the little girl, Mati:

It’s damp, I’ll catch cold.  Mati always tells me: “If you catch cold, you’ll get a fever.”  She says it exactly the way her mother says it to her.  Because Mati and I are also mother and daughter. (p.12)

In The Lost Daughter, Leda observes the way the child on the beach plays with her doll, behaving as a mother would.  Here, Ferrante shows that the doll feels the same way…

The Beach at Night is an odd little book in that I’m not completely sure who it’s actually meant for, the Ferrante-loving adult reader or the juvenile bookworm.  I’m actually tending towards the former as some of the major themes here are a little subtle for kids, and because the book actually works better when read in conjunction with the parent (!) text.  Still, it’s certainly worth a look, and it makes a change (for both Emily and myself) from the usual reading fare.  The moral of the story?  Pack up carefully when you leave the beach for the day – oh, and make sure you read books before you give them to your kids😉

Literary Hub



By Gabrielle Bellot

What is perhaps one of Elena Ferrante’s least-known books may provide a clue to her best-known controversy: the right to living under a pseudonym, which turned into an international debate with a by-now notorious essay at The New York Review of Books’ blog by Claudio Gatti, which appeared simultaneously in Gatti’s own newspaper, Il Sore 24 Ore, as well as other European news outlets. The book I have in mind is The Beach at Night, a short illustrated tale for children published in 2007 and translated into English in October of 2016, which focuses on the power of names—and, particularly, on the power one may gain by trying to take control of another’s name. Ferrante’s tale is as intriguing as it is unnerving.

The Beach at Night is narrated by a doll named Celina. Mati, a five-year-old girl, has brought Celina to the beach, but she decides to play with a cat instead of her doll, at which point her brother decides to partially bury Celina in a hole in the sand. After a while, as the sky becomes darker, it becomes clear that Mati has forgotten Celina on the beach. The doll thinks of Mati almost like a mother—“a perfect mamma,” Celina calls her at one point—and she alternates between optimism about being found and despair at her sense of having been abandoned. A genuinely frightening villain soon appears in the figure of a man known simply as “The Mean Beach Attendant,” who is collecting trash, and who finds Celina by using a disquietingly beastlike tool, a rake, to uncover her—and the word “rake,” of course, has long literary connotations of lechery that only amplify the horror in these pages. The man then decides to force the words from Celina when he learns that she can speak in a disturbing sequence of scenes. However, just as the Mean Beach Attendant is about to rip her name from her, the cat that Mati had played with saves her and brings her home, bringing the unsettling narrative to a close.

Ferrante’s tale has shades of Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved film from 2001, Spirited Away, which also centers around the significance of having—or losing—a name. In Miyazaki’s movie, the witch Yubaba runs a baroque, magical bathhouse for spirits, and, in order to work for her, the young protagonist Chihiro must quite literally sign away her name to Yubaba, for after she signs this contract, she begins to forget the name she once had. What is explicit in Spirited Away is implicit here: that the power of a name matters. Yet, for all this, Ferrante’s tale seems darker, due in part to Mara Cerri’s gorgeous, surreal, and sometimes disquieting illustrations, which are full of shadows and of the sense—echoing the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico or Paul Delvaux—that the dusky unknown is looming around a corner. The way Celina faces losing her name is far more unnerving and sensually depicted, with images that focus on teeth, saliva, and hooks; the male beach attendant tries to rip the words from Celina, his saliva entering her mouth via a nightmarish “hook.” It is difficult not to feel disturbed; this is a rape scene in a children’s book, filtered through the prism of a doll and through the oneiric imagery that softens the terror of what is actually going on. And, in many ways, this seems to echo Ferrante’s fight over preserving her name, once it had been forcibly yanked from her.

In Ferrante’s fiction, dolls and adulthood often connect in subtle ways, like two mirrors facing each other, but at crooked angles. Just as the plot of The Beach at Night centers around the loss of a child’s doll and its disconcerting, almost literal baptism of fire through meeting an adult male, the narrator of the first of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, it is also the loss of a doll that becomes the first major plot arc of the narrative; crucially, when Lila pushes down her doll into the home of Don Achille, it is a kind of opening of a door to adulthood, where our narrator will begin to learn who she truly is in relation to Lila, and what the most fearsome adult in her young life, Don Achille, truly represents.

That The Beach at Night, which is almost a coming-of-age tale, is a book marketed to children is somewhat deceptive. Ferrante’s story is at once a children’s book and a childlike tale for adult readers; the greatest children’s books, after all, as C. S. Lewis famously suggested, are as much for adults as they for children. “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon,” Lewis wrote in his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” “that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.”

In like fashion, Chinua Achebe’s first tale for children, Chike and the River, displays many of the themes so important in Achebe’s other work: the question of what it means to live in one place versus another, displacement, and how to deal with danger. Frog and Toad, Arnold Lobel’s much-loved series, might take on a striking resonance when we read it in light of the fact that Lobel came out to his family as gay in 1974, four years after the series’ first book was published, and famously said in a 1977 interview—a decade before he died from AIDS—that “You know, if an adult has an unhappy love affair, he writes about it. He exorcises it out of himself, perhaps, by writing a novel about it. Well, if I have an unhappy love affair, I have to somehow use all that pain and suffering but turn it into a work for children.” One of my favorite books as a child was The Big Bazoohley, Peter Carey’s only work for children; I read and reread it more times than I can think of, yet had no idea, at the time, who Peter Carey was. Many years later, after reading the magisterial novels Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey became one of my beloved authors as an adult, and I was shocked when I stumbled, by sheer chance, upon the fact that he had written one of the books that meant the most to me as a lonely kid. The Big Bazoohley, suddenly, seemed to mean something bigger than ever to me as an adult. The best children’s books grow as we do.

And what it even means to be a children’s book is complex, as Ferrante’s story illustrates well. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s most iconic short stories, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” and “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” both bear a subtitle that has often puzzled my students when I assign these texts in class: A Tale for Children. Garcia Marquez’s stories are so filled with subtle moments of erudition that it is virtually impossible for a child to fully appreciate them, as when the narrator of “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” reveals that the titular old man—who many of the villagers in the stormy place he lands in imagine to be a decrepit angel—does not speak Latin, so the Catholic priest examining him believes he cannot be an angel, as Latin is the language of God. The same is true for Lewis’s novels about Narnia, which are replete with theological symbolism, as well as with casual examples of problematic systems of imagery we may understand better as adults, like Orientalism. Are these indeed stories for children, if children cannot be expected to get all of these references? But, of course, this is partly the point. Children’s stories are often for adults in different ways than they are for children—and, just as books change for us as we do, children’s tales will, at best, take on new shades of meaning, will reveal new hidden rooms and lofts, as we learn to look at them with more attuned eyes.

Yet children’s stories by adult writers who only wrote occasional works for young readers tend to be neglected in favor of their adult work when assessing a writer: the leitmotifs of their life’s work, their grand themes, their arguments, their clairvoyance, their development. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, like Antoine Saint-Exupery’s marvelous and peculiar The Little Prince, which is often the work of his people know best. But there are many more cases that are not exceptions, like Angela Carter’s Miss Z and The Donkey Prince, two sophisticated tales for children from 1970 that show much of Carter’s later trajectory as a writer, yet tend to be left out of discussions of her work entirely. This is not surprising; after all, work for children must necessarily be simpler than work for adults on some levels, most of all language, and this critical neglect, at least in the Western world, also parallels the unfortunate, still-frequent dismissal of cartoons as being for children rather than adults, an assumption that, notably, exists far less in Japan, where anime—animated work made in Japan—is perhaps more often for adults than for children. But writers are complex tapestries, and we may lose important threads if we only glance over, or ignore altogether, a section of that tapestry that, initially, may seem inferior to the rest.


Pseudonyms, of course, are a door left ajar, yellow or blue light spilling from its crack; who doesn’t wonder what, or who, may be on the other side? It is natural to want to solve this simple sort of mystery. The detective tales of Poe, Doyle, Christie, and Chesterton are based, after all, on just this: that there is something to solve, and, by the end of it, we can rest assured that something will be cleared up. But mystery, too, can be beautiful. Sometimes, finding out what lies on the other side of that door spoils the beauty that that yellow or blue light suggested, not because there is anything indelibly wrong with doing so, but because some mysteries mean so much more when we leave them unsolved. As a nonbeliever, I often want to know, definitively, whether or not there is some kind of deity out there; yet, all the same, and despite the scars religious indoctrination left on me as a child, I also know that I would lose something silly and yet somehow meaningful if I knew the answer with absolute certainty. Enigma is both frustrating and fantastic, wondrous and ponderous and worrisome—and isn’t that the most human things of all, not the incredible power of being able to find an answer, but the ability to choose to revel in its mystery instead?

The Beach at Night is far shorter than the works Ferrante is best known for, yet it is—intentionally or otherwise—immensely revealing about the largest and longest controversy surrounding her. “For those who love reading,” Ferrante told Francesco Erbani in an interview that appeared in La Repubblica in 2006, “the author is purely a name. We know nothing about Shakespeare. We continue to love the Homeric poems even though we know nothing about Homer.” A few moments later, she added, “Someone who truly loves literature is like a person of faith.” I am pulled to know answers to questions—yet, perhaps she is right, that this is enough: to walk into the smoky cathedral of a literature and believe in the author who does not sit anywhere in the pews or appear anywhere near the altar nor rest in any of the flickering crypts below, because it is enough to love the books themselves. The author-God may not be dead, to counter Roland Barthes, but I don’t mind pretending that it is with Ferrante. The grand power of a name, it seems, is in being able to keep it to yourself, which Ferrante seems—rightly—to want children and adults alike to know.

Public Books



December 15, 2016 — Reading Frantumaglia, the new collection of letters, interviews, and occasional prose from Elena Ferrante, I was struck by how often the author opened her correspondence with an apology. “I apologize again for the trouble I cause you,” she writes to her publisher Sandra Ozzola of her unwillingness to appear in person to accept a prestigious literary prize. “I’m sincerely afraid that I don’t know how to contribute to your project … I apologize in advance,” she writes to Mario Martone, the director who wants to adapt her novella Troubling Love into a film, before providing him with 15 pages of brilliant, exacting notes on the script he has sent her. “I apologize in advance for the confusing or contradictory passages you may encounter,” she writes to critic and magazine editor Goffredo Fofi in a letter she ultimately decides not to send. The refrain clangs across all three hundred pages of the book: “I apologize.” “I am sorry,” “I am sorry,” “I am sorry.”

An apology is not a neutral act, especially not an apology that is issued publicly, as Ferrante’s apologies now are. An apology performs an act of deference, yet it need not be sincere. Often, in fact, it isn’t. “I am sorry” can serve as a strategic front, allowing the speaker to present a remorseful or self-vilifying attitude while continuing to think or do whatever she pleases. For Ferrante, apologizing is a tactic for preserving her innocence, a self-protective stance she has assumed since childhood, albeit with certain reservations. “Innocence—I began to convince myself—is never to get into the situation of arousing malicious reactions in others,” she writes. “Difficult but possible. So I taught myself to be silent, I apologized for everything, I reined in my tongue, I was polite and compliant. Yet secretly I was bad.”

Delivered in hindsight, the implicit message here is that preserving one’s innocence through unfelt apologies is a childish strategy, both politically ineffectual and self-deceptive. But Frantumaglia suggests otherwise. Whatever else it may be—a glimpse into the drawers of her writing desk, her publisher’s attempt to stoke or satisfy the curiosity of her readers—it is a book that, apology by apology, builds the case for Ferrante’s writerly innocence: not just her modest withdrawal from the “media circus and its demands,” but her complete exemption from the material and ideological operations of the literary field. “I consider the text a self-sufficient body, which has in itself, in its makeup, all the questions and all the answers. And then real books are written only to be read,” Ferrante writes. Frantumaglia is full of such statements of shallow profundity. Reading “once … was a purely private fact.” “Every reader gets from the book he is reading nothing else but his book.” We all “read books by no one.”

It is not clear to me that this case needed to be made. If Claudio Gatti’s claims about the Ferrante pseudonym revealed anything, it was not her true identity—that has been neither confirmed nor denied, and thus remains unresolved—but the degree to which critics, with nothing short of reverence, had already accepted her insistence on literature’s purity. She had a knack for turning self-proclaimed Marxists and feminists hopelessly middlebrow; for seducing even our most advanced critics into forgetting what they very well knew: that novels do not spring fully formed from the minds of geniuses; that the use of a pseudonym does not subvert a literary marketplace in which books are bought and sold with authors’ names emblazoned on their covers, their spines, on the top of every other page. These were children’s dreams, which perhaps explains why the anger of her defenders so often resembled the anger of children who, peering over the railing on Christmas Eve, were shocked to discover that there was no Santa Claus, only a tired mother pressing her scissors to the ribbons that wrapped their presents.

How did Ferrante manage to undo so many without arousing any malicious reactions? How did she remake the sensibilities of readers trained to sniff out politically suspect ideologies? Frantumaglia is, above all, an astonishing tutorial in unlearning how to read: how to abandon the language of critique that many have cultivated through formal schooling, in the hopes that such abandonment might bring us closer to the state of innocence that Ferrante has claimed for herself and her work. She draws inspiration from Walter Benjamin, who, in the beginning of Berlin Childhood around 1900, writes about learning to get lost in the city of his childhood, its roads and rivers furrowed into his memory. “Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling,” Benjamin writes.1 The same holds true for reading, insofar as unlearning how to read also requires some schooling, or rather, some unschooling. “The ‘right reading’ is an invention of academics and critics,” Ferrante claims. “The books we’ve truly read are phantoms conjured up by reading with no rules.”

<i>Naples, 2007</i>. Photograph by David Evers / Flickr

Naples, 2007. Photograph by David Evers / Flickr

For Ferrante, the best kind of reading is childish, untaught, enchanting. It summons up our “strong, slightly vulgar passions” and unearths a “fund of pleasure” that too many have “repressed in the name of Literature”—the cultural category produced by a disenchanted adulthood of criticism and theory. But a “real book,” a book we have “truly read,” is utterly absorbing, a wormhole to some pre-ideological moment before academic theorists, punishing and cold, unmasked reading and writing for what it was: a densely mediated activity, a marker of class privilege, a field of production in which many kinds of exclusions—by race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality—are erased under the blinding and numinous sign of Art. It is tempting to throw off the burden of political and historical consciousness in the face of enchantment. The magician waves his wand, taps his hat, and we realize, almost as an afterthought, that we do not want to know where the rabbit was hiding.

It is also tempting to believe that writing is “not a job”—another refrain of Ferrante’s throughout Frantumaglia; tempting to believe that a real book is simply an imprint of the author’s consciousness. It is an incantation that guards against the social, economic, or political circumstances of authorial production. This is the fantastical meaning behind frantumaglia, a word that Ferrante says she borrows from her mother’s Neapolitan dialect. Frantumaglia literally means “a jumble of fragments,” but the word wields a fabulous and disorienting performative power. Speaking it makes her mother dizzy. It sets her singing under her breath and drives her out of the house, the stove still on, the sauce burning. It makes her weep. “It’s the right word for what I’m convinced I saw as a child—or, anyway, during that time invented by adults that we call childhood—shortly before language entered me and instilled speech: a bright-colored explosion of sounds, thousands and thousands of butterflies with sonorous wings,” Ferrante writes. What we are offered in Frantumaglia, then, is something that predates not just literature, but language; a return to a state of pure sensory impression that could be called “childhood,” were “childhood” not already a compromised notion.

To return us to our childhoods, Ferrante speaks like a child. Her genre of choice is the domestic epic, her heroine the weaving woman: Ariadne, Dido, but above all others, Ferrante’s mother, described as a dressmaker in Naples, whose work Ferrante discusses at length in an interview titled “La Frantumaglia.” It unfolds from the perspective of Ferrante as a child, standing beside her mother at a fabric store, her head just clearing her mother’s waist. She waits and watches as her mother chooses the perfect fabric with which to “weave her spell.” Her mother’s dressmaking was “a spell I was deeply familiar with,” Ferrante writes, “but it enchanted me anyway, always.” Recreating this enchantment for her readers requires a subtle act of narrative erasure (like that of My Brilliant Friend, and unlike Proust, to whom she is so often compared): a refusal to impose any reflexive distance between the perspective of the adult who tells the story and the child she once was. It is as if the adult, and her artful shaping of a memory, never existed.

Except, of course, the adult narrator does exist and the spell her mother casts is nothing if not artfully described:


It was the sewing that cast a spell, much more than cutting. The mobile skill of that hand put together the pieces of material, made the seams invisible, the pieces of fabric regained a soft continuity, a new compactness, became a dress, the shape of a female body, skin clinging to skin, an organism that lay in her lap and sometimes slid down to her feet, which were in motion like her hands, ready to go to the pedal of the sewing machine. It was a back and forth that seemed like a dance to me, the hand moved the needle, the mouth bit the thread, the chest often rotated on the chair, turned to the machine to sew, the feet, wide, with a powerful structure, rested on the pedal and started the movement of the machine’s needle …


That her description is an allegory for writing fiction is obvious; Ferrante tells us as much when she reveals that the Neapolitan phrase “to cut the cloth on” is slang for telling stories, and that the women who come to try on her mother’s dresses speak of love, betrayal, heartbreak, and revenge with such passion that the fabric trembles under the force of their words. Yet it is also an allegory for the act of anonymous creation; an allegory expertly threaded through the movements of the sentences. It is the “mobile skill of the hand”—not the hand itself, not the woman to whom the hand belongs—that performs all the work and erases all traces of the work’s artfulness. And it is the dress that escapes the agile hand of its maker, taking on a life of its own as a separate “organism,” a compact and continuous shape. All the while its maker remains in fragments: a hand, a mouth, a chest, two wide and powerful feet. The woman to whom they all belong remains veiled by the beauty of the fabrics she has woven together.

<i>Mannequins</i>. Photograph by Karyn Christner / Flickr

Mannequins. Photograph by Karyn Christner / Flickr

The problem with allegory is that it can get heavy-handed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ferrante’s children’s book, The Beach at Night, which I have read aloud two or three times to my son before putting him to bed in the evenings. It tells the story of a pale, dark-haired, self-pitying doll who is abandoned on the shore at sunset and discovered at night by a Mean Beach Attendant, a man with a dark mustache and coarse hands. From between his lips he pulls out a thin golden hook, forces it down the doll’s throat, and rips from her a secret that she has guarded with great care: her name. My son did not appreciate the startlingly allegorical nature of the scene—to be fair, he’s only nine months old—and I found it cheap, gimmicky.

What The Beach at Night reveals is how impossible it is to ignore the biographical in reading Ferrante when so much of her prose turns on her allegories of anonymity, whether in the form of a dress made by no one or a doll who will not speak her name. It is precisely her refusal of the biographical, and her subsequent representation of that refusal, that has lodged the biographical ever deeper into the heart of what she writes. This is a paradox—or parlor trick, depending on one’s perspective—that critics have universally failed to perceive, resulting in a basic misunderstanding of what kinds of claims the biographical allows one to make. For instance, it makes no logical sense to argue, as Alexander Chee does in his review of Frantumaglia, that there is no value in knowing Ferrante’s identity, while also asserting that, if Ferrante is translator Anita Raja, whose ancestors are Polish and Jewish and not among the Neapolitan poor, then Frantumaglia is “a metafiction, her most experimental text yet, a massive prank on criticism and the media.”2Incoherent claims like this have proliferated in Gatti’s wake.

Why were we so invested in Ferrante’s anonymity anyway? After all, we never had it, even when we thought we did; we were always reading biographically, because that’s simply how we read novels when author’s names are appended to them. Setting aside the egregious ethical violations in outing her, the important question for literary criticism is not why would anyone want to know who she is, but why not know? What harm does it to do us? Is her literature so fragile that it can be injured by knowing a name? I would like to believe that the answer is no.

NPR Books

Are you looking for a picture book to help your darling nieces and nephews drift to dreamland, like a lost doll swept to sea? This is not that book, if you would like them to, y’know, EVER SLEEP AGAIN. The Beach at Night is Elena Ferrante’s (yep, the very same) fable about a doll’s night alone on a beach after she is abandoned by her owner. You could be forgiven for thinking this slim volume, with its dreamy illustrations, is a children’s book, and I think it might be, but many American children will not have encountered these themes (or the word “s***” for that matter) in a picture book. (There is also a vaguely sexual overtone to the abuse that Celina, the doll, is put through by her tormentor, The Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset.) That said, for American adults who have devoured Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, it will be a pure and strange delight. It’s a wispy and weird little tale that feels familiar — another Ferrante mother and daughter pair working through the complexity, cruelty and beauty of their bond. (For ages 8 to 12)

— recommended by Barrie Hardymon, Weekend Edition staff

The Sidney Morning Herald

The Beach at Night review: Elena Ferrante’s biggest surprise – a children’s book

Kerryn Goldsworthy

A children’s book is probably the last thing anyone  expected from Elena Ferrante, but this unnerving little gem was first published in 2007 and so pre-dates her Neapolitan  quartet. It’s the tale of a doll that gets left on the beach, at the mercy of the Mean Beach Attendant and his rake and his fire, after being forgotten by the little girl who now has eyes only for her new kitten. Anyone who has suffered the pain of being cast aside in favour of a new love object will relate, and there’s also the powerful imagery of being abandoned to terrifying dark forces once the daylight fades. So I imagine it might give a sensitive or insecure child nightmares, despite its sweet and unexpectedly redemptive ending. Mara Cerri’s softly coloured and dreamlike illustrations are  not sentimental at all.

The Buffalo News

Books in Brief: The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante, A Taste for Monsters by Matthew Kirby


The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante; translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein; illustrations by Mara Cerri; Europa editions; 40 pages, $13.

Anyone familiar with the legendary Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (beginning with “My Brilliant Friend”) will not be surprised to discover her illustrated fable, “The Beach at Night,” to be an intense, surprising, gritty, mysterious and frequently terrifying business and not exactly a story many would consider “suitable” for children.

The haunting, evocative illustrations begin with the cover image of a lifelike doll, apparently staring in horror on a littered, darkening beach. The tale is narrated by the doll, Celina, who has been left behind at the beach, forgotten by her owner and apparently replaced in the girl’s affection by her new pet cat. Celina is seething with jealousy (“I hope he has diarrhea and vomits and stinks so much that Mati is grossed out and gets rid of him”) and is suffering acutely from feelings of abandonment and loss.

Then the Mean Beach Attendant arrives with his Big Rake to comb the sand for debris – and possibly treasure – and Celina finds herself in dire physical peril. (For a sense of Ferrante’s gritty style, here is the attendant’s song, complete with expletive: “Open your maw, I’ve sh—for your craw, Drink up the pee, Drink it for me.” In another scene, boys are trying to see girls’ underwear and pee on their feet.) Celina is threatened by fire, by the sea, and most terribly, by the theft of her words including her own name, when rescue comes from a very surprising source.

This is a strangely compelling tale that will be of great interest to Ferrante fans, and marks a return, the author notes on her website, to a story that animated “The Lost Daughter,” the novel she considers to be a “turning point” in her development as a writer. – Jean Westmoore

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.

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.

Turnaround Blog

Frantumaglia & The Beach at Night – November Books of the Month


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.


Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

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

The Times

The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante

Reviewed by Alex O’Connell

The Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s first children’s book, translated beautifully and uncompromisingly by Ann Goldstein, is a dark tale with a complex girl-doll heroine and a malevolent male baddie for brave little readers.

It’s narrated in the first person by Celina, the favourite talking doll of Mati, a five-year-old girl — referencing the doll belonging to Elena that her “brilliant friend” Lila drops through a grate at the start of the Neapolitan Quartet.

Here Celina is on a beach. She has been upstaged in her “mother” Mati’s affections by Minù the cat, a present from her father.

In the heat of the day and the excitement of the new, the little girl leaves Celina behind, half-buried in the hot sand. So begins the doll’s odyssey as the sun sets: “The Beach Attendant arrives. His eyes, I don’t like his eyes. He folds up the big beach umbrellas, the chaises, I see the two halves of his moustache moving over his lip like lizards’ tails.”

If that’s not bad enough, he has a Big Rake for a friend and sings menacingly: “Open your maw/ I’ve shit for your craw/ Drink up the pee/ Drink it for me.”

Charlie and Lola this ain’t.

The Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset finds Celina and plans to pull out her words with his Hook (hello, nursery feminism! Or is it a nod to the author’s supposed “outing”?) and sell her on the market. He makes do with her name and lights a fire on the beach that melts her fellow victim, plastic Pony.

Yet before Celina burns, the Wave comes and she is saved — but also pulled underwater, a pyrrhic victory until the soft mouth of the Dark Animal picks her up.

It is her nemesis, Minù, who will return her to Mati — and Ferrante delivers what is surely her first truly happy ending.

Mara Cerri’s illustrations are weird and wonderful and my gang, 12, 9 and 3, were all hooked by this peculiar tale of loss and rediscovery. Classic Elena for beginners and their Ferrante-fevered parents.
The Beach at Night (5+) by Elena Ferrante, translated Ann Goldstein, illustrated by Mara Cerri, Europa editions, 40pp, £9.99

Vanity Fair

Ferrante for Kids, The Harvard Lampoon’s Best, and More Books to Read This Month

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Unless you’re a doll. The Beach at Night (Europa) is Elena Ferrante’s children’s fable (first published in Italian almost a decade ago). The story is narrated by Celina, a doll who also appeared in Ferrante’s novel The Lost Daughter. Forgotten by her owner, Mati, Celina must spend the night facing the solitude and terrors of an unfamiliar world, all while grappling with her jealousy over Mati’s new kitten. Because this story is for children, all will be sewn up neatly in the end. But because it’s Ferrante’s conception of childhood, we won’t get there without a little heart pummeling. Nothing says “holiday cheer” quite like abandonment issues.

Entertainment Weekly

5 scariest lines from Elena Ferrante’s creepy children’s book The Beach at Night

Elena Ferrante has written her first children’s book… and it’s terrifying.

The Beach at Night is narrated by a doll named Celina forgotten by her owner on the beach. As night falls, she must endure endless horrors before she makes her way back home. Frights include a vicious beach attendant, his terrifying rake, and almost getting burned and swept out to sea.

In Ferrante’s world, dolls can talk because their owners put words in them that they store in their bodies. The evil beach attendant is determined to take Celina’s words—and her name—out of her mouth by force. The illustrations are creepy as well: even Celina, the protagonist, is wide-eyed and unsettling.

A far cry from her beloved Neapolitan Novels, The Beach At Nightcontains seriously scary moments. Here are the five most horrifying lines.

1. “The Big Rake appears to agree and sticks his teeth out even farther, as if to open up my chest.”

The Big Rake tries to murder Celina by tearing open her chest. Nope, not at all scary.

2. “The Fire finally did it. He leaned forward and grabbed me by the hem of my blue dress. He went ‘Flusss,’ and now the material is burning. It has a nasty smell. ‘Bad Fire,’ I chastise him, but he repeats ‘Fluss’ and spreads even farther, till he brushes my hand with his boiling breath.”

The doll is slowly burning to death. We’re not terrified, not one bit.

3. “He clicks his tongue and from between his lips a small hook emerges, like a raindrop. The Hook, hanging on a disgusting thread of saliva, drops down until it enters my mouth.”

The beach attendant tries to steal her words with the hook in his mouth. What nightmare world is this?

4. “And I’m about to drop onto the sand when a Dark Animal runs by. He grabs me in his teeth and keeps on running.”


5. “Your heart I’ll shred/Until it’s dead.”

Just one lyric from the many dark and terrifying songs that the beach attendant sings.