The Week

In Frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante exquisitely chronicles her own self-erasure

Lili Loofbourow

Last month the literary world exploded over an Italian journalist’s claim to have discovered the “true identity” of Elena Ferrante, the critically acclaimed pseudonymous author of seven novels including her masterpiece, the Neapolitan Quartet, a novel in four volumes that became an international bestseller.

Ferrante had remained pseudonymous for 25 years, resisting awards and publicity and conducting any business her publisher deemed necessary — including long exchanges with two directors who adapted two of her books into films — in writing. That correspondence, along with interviews, unsent letters, and other documents, was collected, and has just been translated into English and published as Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey.

The attention economy spares no one, but it’s especially cruel to women who try to opt out of it. “Outside of my books what am I? A woman not unlike many others,” Ferrante wrote. “Forget about authors, then: Love — if it’s worthwhile — what they write. This is the meaning of my little polemic.” But her decision not to self-promote or accept attention was seen in some quarters as insufferably self-aggrandizing or worse, a marketing ploy. Did she really deserve the right to privacy? Didn’t granting interviews at all erode her professed desire for self-erasure?

The journalist responsible for her outing subscribed to the latter view: He cited Frantumaglia as his justification for tracking her down through her financial records. Ferrante’s latest work purported to be autobiographical, he said, and she sacrificed her right to privacy by lying in it. The lies were as follows: Her mother was not a dressmaker. Nor did the woman he identified as being the real Ferrante have the number of sisters Ferrante claimed to have had growing up. It was in the public interest to correct these egregious misrepresentations.

These are weak claims, not just for their pettiness (and vindictiveness — “she was able to use every possible tool that social media provided without paying any price for it. And make money off it, too,” the man who outed her groused), but for how fundamentally they seem to misunderstand what Frantumaglia is up to.

The word itself, frantumaglia, is defined a number of times throughout the book. Here are a couple definitions — and they collectively describe what the book is better than I can:

  • “Bits and pieces whose origin is difficult to pinpoint, and which make a noise in your head, sometimes causing discomfort.”
  • “The frantumaglia is the part of us that escapes any reduction to words or other shapes, and that in moments of crisis dissolves the entire order within which it seemed to us we were stably inserted. Every interior state is, ultimately, a magma that clashes with self-control, and it’s that magma we have to try to describe, if we want the page to have energy.”

The rollicking volume positions itself as something between an afterword, an appendix, and an archive. There’s not much apparent craft to its assembly. It’s a roughly chronological collection of Ferrante’s correspondence with various people and publications. As such, it’s sometimes repetitive, sometimes frank, generally brilliant, and sometimes — especially when she’s being asked for the umpteenth time to justify her decision to remain pseudonymous — irritable.

It’s also, in a very quiet, Calvinoesque way, funny. Ferrante peppers her interviews with hints (even citing Calvino) that she’s not to be taken too seriously — that “Elena Ferrante” is a construct. “You ask me about influences, a question I find so appealing that frankly I risk telling lies just to confirm your hypothesis,” she writes to one interviewer in 1995. Elsewhere, she suggests that “Ferrante” is a character invented to satisfy the readers who require her:

If there is a blank space, in terms of social or media rituals, which for the sake of convention I call Elena Ferrante, I, Elena Ferrante, can and should exert myself — am obliged by my curiosity as a novelist, by the craving to test myself — to fill that empty space in the text. How? … The author, who outside the text doesn’t exist, inside the text offers herself, consciously adds herself to the story, exerting herself to be truer than she could be in the photos of a Sunday supplement.

As if that weren’t a clear enough sign that the author considers “Elena Ferrante” a part of the work rather than a straightforward expression of the reclusive self, she tells Frieze magazine that her favorite title is The Artist is Present because of the way it reverses expectations: “I admire the reversal that Marina Abramović imposed on a formula that I once detested. The artist is present, but as body/work.”

That last bit is key: That the artist is the body/work might well be Ferrante’s rallying cry. But she goes further. Having established her admiration for Abramović and implied that Ferrante the artist is, like Ambramović, part of the work — having firmly woven her own authorial persona into the work, in other words — she answers Frieze‘s perfectly innocent follow-up question (“What do you like the look of?”) by slyly praising the simple boundaries she constantly muddies: “I belong to the ranks of those who feel attracted to anything that is enclosed within a frame, partly because it helps me to imagine what has remained outside it.”

That playfulness doesn’t mean that the disclosures Ferrante makes in Frantumaglia are without value. Quite the contrary. Ferrante may be reclusive, but she’s not evasive; if anything, her point seems to be that a work’s essential honesty is more a matter of art than a matter of fact. “Whatever piece of reality enters a story has to reckon with literary truth, which is a truth different from that of Google maps,” she writes.

Frantumaglia is not exempt; the book is itself more interested in literary truth than it is in Google Maps. It’s worth pausing to examine her “lie” that her mother was a dressmaker to think a little harder about why she told it.

In an essay that started out as a set of answers to questions from two women at Indice magazine and metastasized, Ferrante reflects on the literary history of “cities of ladies” and how she came to love Dido, whose suicide she resented as a girl. (A recurring theme in Frantumaglia is how, to a young Ferrante, literary greatness seemed inescapably male. Another recurring theme — and this is relevant — is her contempt for the male literati who dismiss female writers with “ironic insults.”)

Here is the offending passage — the falsehood about her mother that cost Ferrante her privacy:

And here I should tell you that my mother was a dressmaker for a long period of her life, and that was important for me. With needle, thread, scissors, fabrics she could do anything. She altered old clothes, made new ones, sewed, unsewed, let out, took in, made tears invisible with skillful mending. Because I had grown up in the middle of all that cutting and sewing, the way Dido tricks the king of the Gaetuli immediately convinced me.

Dido (I promise this is relevant) was the founder of Carthage, but her back story is crucial: Her father, the King of Tyre, died and left his kingdom to her and to her brother Pygmalion equally. Pygmalion took over, so Dido married her uncle Acerbas. Pygmalion heard Acerbas had a secret fortune, so he had him murdered to try to seize it. An understandably irritated Dido decided to spite her brother: She arranged to have Acerbas’ “fortune” thrown into the sea as an offering. (It was actually just bags of sand.) After that bit of stagecraft, she escaped to the coast of North Africa, where she asked the Berber king Iarbas for some land.

Here is how Ferrante continues the above passage:

Iarbas had said to her mockingly: I’ll give you as much land as the kind of a bull can go around. Little, very little, an ironic male insult. The king — I was sure, not for nothing was he the son of Amon — must have thought that even if the bull’s hide was cut into strips it would never surround enough land for the construction of a city. But I had seen the fair-haired Dido in the same concentrated pose as my mother when she worked — beautiful, her black hair carefully combed, her skilled hands scarred by wounds from the needle or the scissors — and I had understood that the story was plausible. All night (crucial labors are carried out at night), Dido had been bent over the hide of the beast, reducing it into almost invisible strips, which were then sewed together in such a way that the seams couldn’t even be guessed at, a very long Ariadne’s thread, a ball of animal skin that would unroll to enclose a vast piece of African land and, at the same time, the boundaries of a new city. That seemed to me true and had excited me.

In sum: This is a parable about how women’s work can take a male gesture of dismissal — an insult — and turn it into an empire by refining the bull’s hide into a dressmaker’s thread. It is a matrilineal literary lineage. It is Ferrante-the-writer’s genesis story. And it is about a woman defining her own boundaries as just as expansively as she can. It is a land grab.

It is also, of course, a literary figure. It may not have been literally true, but it arguably explains quite a bit more about Ferrante’s intellectual formation than whatever her mother’s real job was.

It might be argued that creating a literary genealogy is a slightly different thing than erasing the self. Ferrante would agree, I think: She sometimes describes Ferrante as a construction, but it’s no secret that her work is full of women engaged in their own erasures, and those aren’t quite the same thing. Frantumaglia whips back and forth between these modes. If the value of constructing an author is a very particular kind of novelistic intimacy, the value of erasure, Ferrante says, is “to remove oneself systematically from the cravings of one’s own ego, to the point of making it a way of life.”

The problem of the ego seems especially acute around 2003, when Ferrante — who tends to keep politics separate from literature — accepted that there was a political dimension to her thinking about the “I.” Berlusconi’s outsize television personality was changing the character of Italian politics, and his exceptional ego was symptomatic of the danger of letting your name become your caricature. “I am interested in understanding the fact that everything in life is turning into a show,” Ferrante wrote then, “draining the very concept of citizenship.”

I’m also struck by how the person is more and more unhappily dedicated to becoming a personage. And it frightens me that a classical effect of fiction — the suspension of disbelief — is becoming an instrument of political domination in the very heart of democracies. It seems to me that for now Berlusconi embodies, more completely than Reagan or Schwarzenegger, the change taking place in the democratic election of representatives.

There are other facets to self-erasure, of course. Disappearance can be a surrender, she says, thinking of some of her characters, “but it’s also, I think, a sign of their irreducibility. I’m not sure.”

Its main value, however, is creative:

Today what I fear most is the loss of the completely anomalous creative space I seem to have discovered. 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. That’s why either I remain Ferrante or I no longer publish.

It’s painful to realize, reading that last sentence, that this might be all the Ferrante we’ll ever get. Luckily, it’s a magnificent jumble of insights, reactions, and philosophical play. Those invested in Ferrante’s work will find much that is beautiful and exquisite and polished in Frantumaglia, and some that feels ephemeral or grouchy or mundane. Somehow I find the last bits more intimate. It helps, sometimes, to see the brushstrokes. Asked about the first work of art that made an impression on her, Ferrante mentions Caravaggio’s The Seven Acts of Mercy. But, she says,

the first piece of art that really mattered to me — I say this only half in jest — was the shape of a watch a childhood friend would make on my wrist by biting it. It was a game. Her teeth left a circle on my skin that I would look at, pretending to tell the time, until the circle faded away. Except I didn’t pretend: I really thought it was a beautiful watch.

The injury done to Ferrante is still new; it’s fresh enough that we’re still in the unusual position of being able to enjoy the fading watch for the lovely thing it is, regardless of its accuracy.