Elena Ferrante is traditional in the most radical, boundary-dissolving ways; conventional with subversive fervour and delicately powerful talent. In Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey she proves above all the invincible strength of her authorial translucence, the rock-solid presence of her so-called anonymity, which she invariably corrects as being a determined gesture of absence.
The word frantumaglia, we are told, belongs to her mother, a dressmaker, and comes from that maternal world of tattered fabrics, frayed hems, unravelling stitches, matted skeins and tangled bobbins. It is a passe-partout term to encapsulate female suffering, its cobweb of existential angst that is inarticulate as well as unspeakable. “The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause.” Bursting with the ineluctable impetus of dialect, frantu derives from frantumare, to shatter, shiver, smash, crush; maglia is a knitted jumper, a jersey, as well as a knitter’s stitch, secured or dropped (see Erasures). It is an image that conjures up a certain ethereality, a metaphor of evanescence and mystical transparency, of life as an elusive aurora borealis of words and stories, but also an allegory of the tactility and permanence of traumas, of the salvaging, re-patching process that is, inevitably, at the heart of all reconstruction, recollection and perhaps narrative itself.
Yet this self-proclaimed collection of ‘fragments’ is anything but fragmentary or precarious, gossamer-thin or spurious. Nor is there anything tangled or disorderly about it, even if many of the statements by Ferrante or her vicarious interlocutors may appear anarchic and defiant. To pursue the dressmaking metaphor a step further, this is more like wool-felting than unpicking, a process which will result in a dense fabric of stories, laboriously and expertly welding together yarns of memory and the strands of the past.
There is an irresistible mystique about this intensely intimate, personal collection, and Ferrante’s voice often has the timbre of a lover and not just of a correspondent, an essayist or diarist. For all her assertions that she will not burden her books (or this epistolary miscellany of thoughts and conversations) with her presence as their writer, the friction and tension between creator and creature, as well as the connective umbilical cord, is constant, tantalising, something Ferrante has also explored extensively in her fiction. Frantumaglia is, in a way, the geography of an uncharted life, the cartography of a human terra incognita, which promises dazzling light on the absolute premise of an indissoluble and cryptic darkness.
One gets a distinct sense of Ferrante as a mystic, a Pythia-like figure holding on to a holy as well as terrifying trance, which alone will engender and enable that ultimate vital process, writing.”
Ferrante not only responds to but also piercingly questions her interviewers, and this often reveals both what she has called “a somewhat neurotic desire for intangibility”, but also a latent, yet dominant, demand to be discovered and sought after, a yearning for an almost virginal admiration. She is hounding and charming, enchanting in her persistence that detail is of supreme importance, exuding a seductive grande dame aura, vivacious and eccentric, a rebel who refuses to relinquish absolute control over her work. One gets a distinct sense of Ferrante as a mystic, a Pythia-like figure holding on to a holy as well as terrifying trance, which alone will engender and enable that ultimate vital process, writing.
What seeps indirectly though the lines is a non-desire of detachment, a refusal to abandon what is in fact a very intimate, total relationship with her texts, evinced in the difficulty she admits to regarding the reading of scripts that are born out of her novels, and the meticulously exhaustive, almost exegetic engagement that ensues. In contrast to her emphasis on anonymity, it often feels as though Ferrante is anxious to guarantee the scope and conditions of a very precise ‘Ferrante philology’. And bizarrely enough, this does not seem like a contradiction, but as a natural extension and development of her authorial presence and identity. One could be tempted to say that there is nothing authentic about this very intense, de profundis, almost obsessive commitment to writing, to discoursing on the themes of literature and readership, the human self and the psyche, that it is a brilliant, magnificently erected construct to house Ferrante’s omnipresent, evasive persona. And yet it feels alive with a fundamental genuineness and truth. Were Ferrante to reveal all, perhaps this is how she would speak.
A curious but not unexpected feature of this book is that it is pre-empted by an explanatory note by Ferrante’s publishers, Sandra Ozzola and her husband Sandro Ferri, affirming that the authorial deliberation and initiative, perhaps even the authorship, should be firmly delegated back to them as editors, collectors, arbiters of these extra-authorial writings. Ferrante is confirmed as a real person with private thoughts, with scattered scribblings on the flotsam and jetsam of the mind and of consciousness, with a correspondence – i.e. a bilateral relationship with equally real others – rather than existing only in an ingenious, inimitable and groundbreaking monologue; at the same time, she is preserved behind veils that diffuse all that is private, so that the balance between the genuinely personal and the insularly individual becomes a feat but also a challenge, an aporia for the reader, and, one feels, ultimately also for the writer herself. The game of peering through these veils, through light and shadows, to a corporeal as well as spiritual life, the numerous titillating glimpses of a real centre of being, are not an unpleasant experiment, on the contrary the experience is mesmeric, absorbing, provocative and thought-provoking. Does it matter whether literary judges will ever be able to pronounce a verdict at this court of ‘authenticity’, where purported letters to the editors become purloined excuses for languorous peregrinations into the furthest recesses of interiority? Part invention of resplendent sincerity, part crystalline distillation of a singular voice, Frantumaglia emerges as yet another heteronym full of the elusive whole.
Except perhaps for Thomas Woolfe’s long-suffering, brilliant editor Maxwell Perkins, who also had to care for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, few publishers have had to nurture and at the same time shield such talent as that of Ferrante. Since the publication of her first novel, the Ferris have been embroiled in a suspense novel of their own, a novel of infinite complexity and complications, as Ferrante herself acknowledges repeatedly, indulgently, unequivocally. Sweeping aside the manifold conspiracy theories about Ferrante’s identity or non-identity, they have collected letters to her publishers and readers, any interviews given or conceived of, they have retrieved a remarkable body of unusual drafts (begging several obvious questions), and put together a constellation of responses, creating, quite literally, a fully controlled archive for future academic research.
How much editorial intervention has gone into the final presentation of this material is unknown, yet the addressees, irrespective of whether they were, in point of fact, addressed at all in the end, are certainly real, remaining staunchly undaunted by silence. What emerges is a veritable anthology of reflections, guttural reactions, urgently pressing wisdom, throbbing contributions to the question of what is literature, why we write or read, how stories shape reality and how truth is only possible in fiction; we are given a resounding apologia for a genuine female voice, or what Ferrante calls a “literary genealogy of their own”. Frantumaglia is the ultimate treat for Ferrante devotees, but also a rare delight for those who feel that literature is a vital, living gesture. Ultimately, it is a bold quest after absolutes, for the “space of absolute creative freedom.”
Ferrante shows a piercing shrewdness about politics, literature, art, life, all that provides her with a sharper lens for a more sincere and more pugnacious gaze upon reality.”
Intriguingly, it is not merely a mosaic of philosophical meditations: it is also, and unabashedly, a treasure-trove of the sort of biographical anchorage we have been denied all along, for all the caveat of Calvino’s declaration, “ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth, of that you can be sure.” By the end of Frantumaglia we have learned all this, which may be true, or a very elegant, flawless, infinitely human and magnificent fabric of true lies: Elena Ferrante grew up near Secondigliano, a suburb in the north of Naples. Her father was “jealous of the possible” and her mother was very beautiful, cantankerous, a dressmaker of great creative vitality. Ferrante had a cat, which was taken away from her, and she lived in many rented houses as a child. She fled Naples and lived in Greece for a time. Contrary to popular belief, she has never been in analysis or trained in any relative field. She has a degree in classical literature, and describes her professional world as follows: apart from writing, “I study, I translate, I teach.” She rejects any feminist label: “to assert I have a feminist mindset seems to me exaggerated.” She likes smells, especially of “creams, of lipsticks, a smell of sugared almonds.” Above all, “I have a life I consider satisfying, both on the private and on the public level.” She is a mother of daughters, to whom she has promised not to be too much of an embarrassment – a promise she knows (like most mothers) that she will be unable to keep. She has read most of the feminist pioneers, is in awe of Elsa Morante, considers Chekhov, Walter Benjamin, Hans Christian Andersen, Karen Blixen, Melanie Klein, Federico Tozzi, Alba de Cespedes and Madame de La Fayette as some of her companions. She loves Virgil, especially the Aeneid, the tragedies of Sophocles and Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, but also sentimental stories in women’s magazines.
We learn that she “still [has] this childish wish for marvels, large or small”, that she “look[s] for ideas by running after words”, and that it takes her “many sentences, real, confusing, jumbled speeches, to arrive at an answer.” That she thinks of “writing now as a long, tiring, pleasant seduction”, aiming to “seize what lies silent in my depths, that living thing which, if captured, spreads through all the pages and gives them life.” For Ferrante, the central motive force in everything is love, lost, gained, nurtured or destroyed: “someone who takes love away from us devastates the cultural structure we’ve worked on all our lives, deprives us of that sort of Eden that until that moment had made us appear innocent and loveable.”
Frantumaglia is an irrepressible torrent of such revelations, intimations and declarations, and Ferrante shows a piercing shrewdness about politics, literature, art, life, all that provides her with a sharper lens for a more sincere and more pugnacious gaze upon reality. A simple reference can launch her into a bravado, often tongue-in-cheek, display of extraordinary sensitivity and erudition, whether it is an analysis of the third book of the Aeneid by way of Apollodorus’ Library, or the remark that “Bovary and Karenina are, in some ways, descendants of Dido and Medea.” This is a compulsive tome to relish, cherish and read with the leisure of slowness and humanity, a beautifully confessional chronicle of all that should matter in the life and mind of an artist.
Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia is published by Europa Editions, along with her novels The Days of Abandonment (2005), Troubling Love (2006), The Lost Daughter (2008), the Neapolitan quartet My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child (2012–2015) and the children’s picture book The Beach at Night (2016), illustrated by Mara Cerri. All are translated by Ann Goldstein.
My Brilliant Friend, a two-part stage adaptation of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet starring Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack, premiered at the Rose Theatre, Kingston on 25 February and continues to 2 April.
Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.