Words Without Borders

“Frantumaglia” by Elena Ferrante

Reviewed by Carla Baricz

Originally published by Edizioni E/O in Italian in 2003 and then progressively augmented with new material in subsequent editions, Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia features short notes and meditations by Ferrante, carefully selected correspondence between Ferrante and her publishers, as well as a variety of interviews with both Italian journalists and members of the international press. As Sandra Ozzola––one of the publishers of the edition––informs readers, this carefully culled selection of documents was made available in order to illuminate “the internal history” of Ferrante’s “motivations, of the struggle to give them shape, and how they changed over time.” The book is aptly titled. Together, the brief meditations, interviews, and letters make up a jumble of frantumaglia: scattered “bits and pieces whose origin is difficult to pinpoint,” a “vortex of debris, a whirlwind of thoughts-words,” “splinters” of the mind that offer tantalizing insights into Ferrante’s imagination, interests, and views.

This fragmentary collection was originally envisioned as a companion book that would give readers some sense of Ferrante’s thoughts about the nature of her work, drawing together documents that could “without too many veils, and by making use of various fragments, notes, explanations, even contradictions, accompany the works of fiction” in some useful way. What is now Part I of the collection––letters, notes, and interviews relating to Ferrante’s work up to and including The Days of Abandonment (Edizioni E/O, 2002)––was later supplemented by a second edition, which included the material which “update[d] the book through The Lost Daughter” [Edizioni E/O, 2006]. Subsequently, Ozzolla and her partner Sandro Ferri released a third edition occasioned by the “reprint [of] Frantumaglia in Italy [. . .] enhanced with a collection of the interviews that Elena has done since the publication of the four installments [2011-2014] of My Brilliant Friend or the Neapolitan Quartet, as it’s called in English.” Ann Goldstein’s English translation is based on this third edition.

Presumably in Italy, collections of interviews, and/or letters and meditations like Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, are not only commonplace but the norm, as they are in France, Spain, Germany, and indeed in most of Europe. The published cahier, the book of conversazioni, the collection of pubblicistica—these are well known forms in which writers collect their meditations and the documents that they have allowed to gather dust in desk drawers. Writers often also use such encompassing genres in order to gather together interviews that otherwise would be lost or inaccessible, to meditate on their craft with its other practitioners, or to engage in polemics. However, Ferrante is not most writers, and this family of related genres that seem to enhance––or at least to enlarge––most writers’ lists of publications does her a disservice and seems to diminish her own. This is not because Ferrante does not understand the formal characteristics of this related group of genres, but because such genres, in their most basic form, depend on the concept of the author as a figure of auctoritas, as a figure who as auctor, as “producer / progenitor” of the work, has authority over it. Such collections are intended for readers already familiar with the writer’s oeuvre, who at the same time wish to know more about the writer herself. They turn to such collections with the implicit belief that the writer’s comments or pronouncements on her works are relevant to one’s understanding of them. These genres are the stuff of which biographies and literary criticism often are made because they are so thoroughly grounded in the idea that knowledge of the author’s life and his or her views matter: that the author can illuminate the work.

Ferrante and her publishers are keenly aware of this fact. After all, the work is titled Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. The volume advertises itself as detailing Ferrante’s inner journey from Troubling Love to the Neapolitan Quartet. It, too, seems grounded in the idea of the author as auctoritas. The title and table of contents imply that this author’s life and thoughts are important to an understanding of the works she has produced. And yet, despite having agreed to the proposed form of the collection, Ferrante gives readers very little concrete information about that journey. She maintains, as she has all along, that “I don’t think one can know more about a work by having information about the reading habits and the tastes of the one who wrote it.” She insists that “I don’t think that the author ever has anything decisive to add to his work” and affirms that the author is “present” in her work, and that is all the presence one can and should expect. She denounces the “media attention” that has “accustomed readers to the idea that the producer of the work counts more than the work [,] as if to say: I will read you because I like you, I have faith in you, you are my small god.”

Unfortunately, this denunciation clashes with the very premise of the book in which it is found. One publishes the cahier, the conversazioni, the pubblicistica precisely because one has faith in the writer who has also published the book of poems that one loves, the novel one admires, or the play one saw performed. One buys such works for the same reason. Indeed, one is interested in the frantumaglia, “the jumble of fragments inside” or “the aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self,” because one is curious about the author of the novels, the plays, the poems. The implication here is that the author can and should be known outside of her works. Ferrante does not agree, but her belief that the author is superfluous to the text and can only be known in and through that text is at odds with the form of the book.

This is not to say that the volume is completely lacking in biographical detail, and as much as Ferrante seems to disagree with the generic form, she acts as though she agrees with its premises. It is these fractured fragments of life, as few and far between as they are, that make up the best material in the collection. Ferrante dazzles when she narrates the world in which she grew up and in which she now lives. She is brilliant on her experience of the tensions between social classes in contemporary Italy, on Elisa Morante’s novels, which she loves, on Caravaggio, on books as miraculous entities that we receive unexpectedly, like the gifts of the Befana, the crone of Italian folklore who delivers presents to children on the eve of the Epiphany. She is brilliant in her discussion of the relationship between the city and the writer, her city and her writing, which she uses to breathe new life into the old metaphor of writing as weaving. She meditates on Walter Benjamin’s “city-labyrinth” and his mysterious Ariadne, who “preserves the art of getting lost” by controlling the thread that unwinds through the vast and threatening urban landscape, on her mother’s sewing machine and the swirls of colored thread with which her mother “weaves her spell,” transforming cloth into garments that will “become one with the body” of a Neapolitan woman, and on Dido, Virgil’s doomed Carthaginian queen, who in losing Aeneas’s love loses the “thread”––or the “art”––that would allow her to find her way through the “urban labyrinth” that her polis of “love” has become. She is brilliant on the question of why she is a feminist, on cultural stereotypes, on how important it is for her to write alone in a little corner. In other words, Ferrante is brilliant when she writes as if for a cahier. We learn about who she is as a writer, as an intellectual, and as a woman living in Italy at the beginning of the twenty-first century, by watching her mind at work, by reading her thoughts on culture, on literature, on Italy and its political and social ills. We learn about who she is by hearing about the winter afternoons she spent with the Aeneid as a young girl, or by thinking about Stanislaw Lem’s Solarisalongside her, or by reliving with her the memory of a first reading of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

Unfortunately, one must search for these snippets as though diving for pearls, both because Ferrante seems constantly at odds with her publisher’s expectations for the volume and because a substantial portion of the book is made up of interviews. When the interviewer is an engaging interlocutor, like Nicola Lagioia—who is himself a writer and who was Ferrante’s co-competitor for Italy’s highest literary honor, the Strega Prize—the questions are both engaging and broad enough to allow Ferrante the space to meditate on the topics that fascinate her. When Ferrante is engaged, she engages us. However, the acuity and perspicacity of the interviewers varies. A number of the interviews are disappointing not because Ferrante is not a thoughtful interlocutor or because the translator Ann Goldstein does not manage to convey Ferrante’s answers into supple English prose, but because the questions are repetitive and tired. More often than not, they center on Ferrante’s identity, even though Ferrante has made it clear that she has nothing more to say on the subject.

Frantumaglia is a difficult book to judge because its form and its publishers’ intentions seem at odds with Ferrante’s own intentions. The volume raises more questions than it answers: How is one meant to judge the publisher’s decision to print this work if in it Ferrante adamantly condemns “the editorial marketplace [that] is [. . .] preoccupied with finding out if the author can be used as an engaging character and thus assist the journey of his work through the marketplace?” Is this not what this “journey” collection does? Has the irony escaped Ferrante? Has it not? Does Ferrante provide such limited (and possibly false) biographical information, which simply reinforces the cultural and literary heritage in which her novels are steeped, in order to underscore the point that all one needs to know about an author can be found in her works? Might it be the case that every single one of those compelling autobiographical moments has its origins in––even derives from––a moment she describes in one of her novels? Is she constructing an auctor simply to teach her readers a lesson? Is this what Ferrante means by calling the book an “afterword?” We may never know, and the recent controversy caused by Claudio Gatti’s supposed revelation of the author’s identity only makes such questions more difficult to answer. Perhaps we should simply take pleasure in reading Goldstein’s elegant English prose and acknowledge the one idea that seems both indisputably true and central to everything that Ferrante writes: deep down we are all made up of “heterogeneous fragments that, thanks to impressions of unity––elegant figures, beautiful form––stay together despite their arbitrary and contradictory nature.”