The Australian

Frantumaglia by Elena Ferrante: a life in pieces

Towards the end of The Story of the Lost Child, the final volume in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, the narrator, Lenu, justifies the narration of the story as an attempt to give her friend Lila ‘‘a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve’’. Lila has suffered acutely from exactly this, a mysterious illness in which the physical boundaries of people and things appear suddenly to erode, the ‘‘thing and the person … gushing out of themselves, mixing liquid metal and flesh’’. She is terrified by this ‘‘dissolution’’, afraid of being ‘‘plunged into a sticky, jumbled reality’’ where she might vanish.

Throughout the four novels Lila is a figure of particular intensity and this malady from which she suffers represents, in concentrated form, the defining ailment and treacherous base condition of the human self that is consistently depicted across all Ferrante’s works, experienced by all her leading women. This condition is frantumaglia.

The term features as the title of Naples-born Ferrante’s new book, the first collection in ­English of her nonfictional pieces, comprised largely of professional letters and interviews since 1991.

As a book of fragments, the title refers to the nature of the contents. But it also speaks to a ­vision of the self that is communicated throughout the material: human identity as something partial, fragmented, conflicted and heterogeneous.

The collection draws its force from the consistent rehearsal and revision of this term, frantumaglia. A chameleonic term, it refers to multiple phenomena: it is the creative starting point of all Ferrante’s fiction, a discomforting physical condition, an agitated mental state, and the basic make-up of the human psyche.

In Ferrante’s vision, the self is a crowd of fragments, defined by the relational collisions that shatter us: ‘‘To be alive mean[s] to continually collide with the existence of others and to be collided with.’’

It would be hard to underestimate the significance of this term for Ferrante’s oeuvre. In this collection Ferrante traces the origin of the word to her mother, who used it to describe the incapacitating sense of being ‘‘racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart’’.

Frantumaglia here refers to a form of ‘‘disquiet’’ brought about by the sense that one is disintegrating into a ‘‘jumble of fragments’’, an ‘‘aquatic mass of debris’’. As a psychic condition it is accompanied by physical symptoms: dizziness, the taste of iron in the mouth.

Frantumaglia is also at the source of Ferrante’s creative process, inseparable from the motivation to write. The work of the writer, Ferrante argues, is ‘‘to control that noisy permanent fragmenting in your head’’. There is a ‘‘before’’ to any work of fiction, a period defined by an encounter with this overabundant clash of memory fragments — ‘‘the storehouse of time without the orderliness of a history, a story’’ – and then an after ‘‘when the story begins’’, and the pieces find some order.

Frantumaglia is never less than compelling and we read with a similar desire to recognise a pattern. Divided into three parts (Letters 1991-2003, Tesserae 2003-2007 and Letters 2011-2016), the book features correspondence between Ferrante and her publishers, detailed responses to the adaptation of her earlier novels into films, comprehensive written answers to interview questions. The letters are presented without introduction, and as we read we’re curious to know how they fit into the larger picture.

Ferrante’s written responses to interviews are framed as letters without the preceding questions — these are printed in note form in small font, at the end of Ferrante’s response. Many letters that appear here were originally unsent, some (we are told postscript) are incomplete. One does not know to what degree, if any, they have been finessed for this publication.

Nor are these your average letters: they are lengthy, many easily exceeding 10 or 20 pages and morphing into an essay. They are impassioned, often polemical, always pointed. They dramatically unveil the process of Ferrante’s creative work, and rail against the cultural confinement of women’s writing to what she pithily calls the ‘‘literary gynaeceum’’.

The pieces home in on the enduring influence of the abandoned Dido in the Aeneid, the myth of Medea, the narratives of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, the work of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, difference feminism and classical literature.

Many letters contain long sections from the early novels, sections that Ferrante cut from the final version but which, for the sleuths among us, bear uncanny resemblance to scenes from the Neapolitan Quartet: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of a Lost Child.

Because the correspondence is largely concerned with Ferrante’s fiction, it should come as no surprise that the preoccupations between her novels and these fragments are consistent. It is, in this sense, a collection that exists for the initiates.

In a discursive mode Ferrante unpacks the role of the doll, the relationship with the mother, the prominence of abandoned and vanishing women. She reports, mysteriously, that the dog was the character that most troubled her in while writing The Days of Abandonment, and that the Neapolitan Quartet emerged directly from the doll and the mother-daughter bond in The Lost Daughter.

In all her fiction, attention to visceral life has been paramount. This, too, carries over into these nonfictional writings, with her letters relying on the language of the physical self, returning over and over again to the embodied life of women. Maimed, sagging and abandoned bodies proliferate in real and metaphorical terms, as do pus, blood and milk. Metaphors of physicality are also frequently used to describe what it means to write. When working on a novel, Ferrante says, she searches out the material — the frantumaglia — that remains raw and inflamed.

The kind of book Ferrante is interested in writing is, she claims, one that should stick a finger into a wound that is ‘‘still infected’’. She talks of writing and rewriting ‘‘wounds’’ in order to account for them, with the tone of the work attempting to lift ‘‘layer by layer the gauze that binds the wound’’, so as to ‘‘reach the story of the wound’’. Writing, for Ferrante, is a deeply physical act, moving towards a ‘‘sort of storm of blood’’, something that ‘‘touches every point of the body’’.

But if her writing is known for its visceral force, this is in no small way because of her physical invisibility as an author. When asked by one interviewer in this collection for a self-description, she blankly refuses, lobbing back a quote from Italo Calvino: “I don’t give ­biographical facts, or I give false ones, or anyway I always try to change them from one time to the next.”

If the narrator of the Neapolitan Quartets is unquestionably reliable, the narrator of these fragments is perhaps not. At times she claims to keep her identity hidden because she is reserved by nature and ‘‘lacks physical courage’’. In other entries she asserts her boldness of character.

What’s clear from this collection is that Ferrante has never aimed for anonymity, has never sought to erase herself. Rather, she has chosen to be ‘‘an absent author’’, to fashion her public identity through words.

Given the recent disclosure of her identity by Italian journalist Claudio Gatti, the collection is most troubling for its sustained rehearsal, stretching over more than two decades, of Ferrante’s decision to keep her persona private. And if anything about this collection is tiresome, it is interviewers endlessly nagging her about her reasons for doing so. Ferrante’s arguments on this front are consistently forceful, hinging on the tendency for the author-personality to be ‘‘placed for sale along with the book’’ and used to ‘‘assist the journey’’ of the work ‘‘through the marketplace’’.

In this climate, she argues, such promotional activity too often cancels out the work and the need to read it, with the author becoming better known than what they have written: ‘‘It’s not the book that counts but the aura of its ­author.’’ Contrary to this, Ferrante affirms the self-sufficiency of a work. A good book should have ‘‘in itself, in its make-up, all the questions and all the answers’’. But these arguments also raise concerns regarding the motivation for this very collection, one that is framed as providing us with ­supplementary titbits direct from the authorial figure.

In the preface to the earlier edition (the book first appeared as a shorter volume in Italian in 2003), the publisher clearly states that this collection aims ‘‘to satisfy the curiosity’’ of Ferrante’s readers. As if to exonerate the publisher from any claim of media complicity, the introduction then asserts the hope that these letters will explain Ferrante’s reasons for remaining outside the ‘‘media circus’’. The collection is justified by precisely the kind of interest that Ferrante claims to scorn, while simultaneously positioning itself as an attempt to consolidate and affirm her privacy. Underlying her staunch refusal of going public is Ferrante’s stated need to keep a distance between herself and her books for creative purposes. Her writing depends on her privacy, and is an activity she aims to keep separate from her everyday life. Publicity, she argues, conflates this distance, a distance without which she will not publish. One can only hope, given the outing of her identity, that Ferrante doesn’t follow in the footsteps of her fictional women and vanish without a trace.

Stephanie Bishop is a writer and critic. Her latest novel is The Other Side of the World.