Who is the Me?




BEFORE

ELENA FERRANTE has always been a very public writer. Perhaps the paucity of translated interviews gave English-language readers the wrong impression, but as evidenced by Frantumaglia, a new compendium of letters and interviews translated by Ann Goldstein, Ferrante has been generously and copiously interacting with readers since her debut, Troubling Love, was published in 1992. Although invisibility is perhaps her best-known feature — “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym, and she has made no public appearances — one would be hard-pressed to find another contemporary author whose letters and interviews could comprise a compelling volume of nearly 400 pages.

Frantumaglia, Ferrante tells us, is a word inherited from her mother’s Neapolitan dialect, literally meaning a jumble of fragments. “It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable,” she says, “it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in [my mother’s] head, debris in a muddy water of the brain.” Her mother’s expression became Ferrante’s experience; the author now uses frantumaglia to signify an inner disorder — a “mass of incoherent material” — out of which her stories emerge. Such incoherence, Ferrante says, is what she saw as a child “before language entered me and instilled speech,” and so novels like The Lost Daughter (2006) and the celebrated Neapolitan Quartet (2011–2014) can be seen as literary language shaped from frantumaglia, that “bright-colored explosion of sounds.”

As for the book Ferrante calls a jumble of fragments, it’s anything but. Although she jokes about her tendency to contradict herself, in fact Frantumaglia presents Ferrante as an author who has possessed a coherent artistic philosophy since the early days of her career.

Central to that philosophy is Ferrante’s vision of feminine literature. “When I was very young, my goal was to write with a masculine tone,” she says. “Later, I began to read women’s literature attentively and I espoused the theory that every little fragment that revealed a feminine literary specificity should be studied and put to use.” The condition of modern women forms its own frantumaglia, through which the writer must persevere: “There’s a lot about us that hasn’t been told completely, in fact a lot that hasn’t been told at all, and we discover it when daily life gets tangled up and we need to put it in order.” Examples of these untold realms are female friendship and motherhood, both of which offer a hazardous set of readymade clichés. On every page of Frantumaglia, Ferrante speaks as the enemy of convention, unafraid of the difficulty of discovering new feminine specificities: “The task of a woman writer today is not to stop at the pleasures of the pregnant body, of birth, of bringing up children, but to delve truthfully into the darkest depth.”

The book is subtitled A Writer’s Journey, and it can rewardingly be read just on the basis of its insights into the art of writing, which Ferrante delivers in crystal maxims and dramatic metaphors:

Writing requires maximum ambition, maximum audacity, and programmatic disobedience.

A good story, finally, is one written from the depths of our life, from the heart of our relations with others, from the heights of the books we’ve liked.

Literature that indulges the tastes of the reader is a degraded literature.

To write well you have to do the opposite of what the handbooks prescribe, get close, shorten the distance, abolish it, feel the pulsing veins of living bodies on the page.

Such raw physicality — familiar to readers of The Days of Abandonment (2002) — signals the presence of what Ferrante frequently refers to as “truth.” Above all else, a search for truth characterizes her writing practice (she says she’s left whole manuscripts unpublished for not meeting this exacting standard), and she opens up that truth-seeking process with rare candor in Frantumaglia. Fans of Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment are treated to excised pages, and though what’s false about them might be unclear, Ferrante believes they became “too studied, too limpid, too regimented, too well-phrased” — and threw them away without hesitation. Only through such rigor, she tells us, can a feminine specificity be achieved. The mannered phrase is probably the masculine one, so female writers must risk going further in their search: “Better to make a mistake with the incandescent lava we have inside, better to provoke disgust with that, than to assure ourselves success by resorting to murky, cold finds.”

Too much of Frantumaglia concerns Ferrante’s decision not to appear alongside her books in a conventional authorial role. Again and again and again, correspondents ask her to justify why she won’t give public interviews, or sign books, or be photographed. Ferrante’s answers, which rarely repeat themselves, exhibit an almost superhuman patience. How many different ways can you reformulate the following?: “I would like only to decide myself what part of me should be made public and what instead should remain private.”

Ferrante tells a story from childhood about watching her mother getting ready to go out: “Every gesture in front of the mirror seemed to me an excess: an excess of danger, a further offering of herself to the rapacity of the streets, of the buses and trams, of the shops.” Fear of public exposure (Ferrante says she lacks physical courage) might be at the root of what she calls “a somewhat neurotic desire for intangibility.” But over the course of the book, Ferrante becomes increasingly interested in “the structural absence of the author,” the way in which her intangibility forces readers to focus on the books, just as the darkness of a theater brings the focus to the stage. It isn’t difficult to see how absence is part of Ferrante’s broader advancement of an originally feminine literature. The masculine tradition has set the standard for how an author is expected to behave; as with similarly established literary conventions, that behavior imperils truth, and so Ferrante rejects it.

Readers nevertheless ravenous for biographical detail will find some satiety in Frantumaglia. In addition to reminiscences of her seamstress mother, jealous father, and two sisters, Ferrante searches back into the mind of herself as “a meticulously reflective child” in Naples. Particularly stunning is an extended memory of an imaginary yellow beast in the storeroom of her childhood home. One day, Ferrante tricked a despised sister into the room, hoping she would be killed by the beast, only to become so overwhelmed with guilt that she muscled her sister out of the room and locked herself in with the dreaded creature instead, only to be punished later on with a slap from her mother. In these select primal scenes, we glimpse the formation of Ferrante’s morally ambiguous, at once attractive and repulsive, brutal and beautiful power on the page. “When I write,” she says, “it’s as if I were butchering eels.”

AFTER

Any reading of Frantumaglia now exists in the aftermath of articles by the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti, which were translated into English and published by The New York Review of Books. In those articles, Gatti follows the money trail at Ferrante’s Italian publisher, Edizione E/O, and offers a persuasive case that Ferrante is Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator of German literature. Raja is married to the Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone (who has been named before as a possible source of Ferrante’s writing), and is best known for her translations of the East German author Christa Wolf. [1]

Gatti justifies his naming Ferrante on the basis of Frantumaglia, as though it were his journalistic duty to discover and discredit her. “Raja’s mother was a teacher, not a seamstress,” he writes, “and she wasn’t Neapolitan.”

She was born in Worms, Germany, into a family of Polish Jews who emigrated from Wadowice, a town west of Krakow. She spoke Italian with a strong German accent. Raja has no sisters, only a younger brother, and although she was born in Naples, she moved to Rome with her family at the age of three and has lived there ever since.

In Frantumaglia, we learn that Ferrante’s decision to remain intangible didn’t become “definitive” until after publishing The Days of Abandonment, and it seems that the media reaction to her absence hardened her resolve. Ferrante offers a scathing critique of the media, “whose logic is aimed at inventing protagonists while ignoring the quality of the work.” This narrative, in which the author forfeits control of her character, is written to “assist the journey of [an author’s] work through the marketplace.” For 25 years, Ferrante reimagined the relationship of the author to the media and market. Gatti’s exposure can be seen as the retaliation of a more conventional model, one ordered by the masculine tradition Ferrante painstakingly eradicated from her artistic practice, thus terminating what she calls “the now twenty-five-year history of an attempt to show that the function of an author is all in the writing.” In truth, she’s hardly the first author to prefer a pseudonym. And her voice in the work is consistently loud and clear — not only in the thousands of pages of fiction, but in the dozens of letters and interviews comprising Frantumaglia.

So the obsession with identifying Elena Ferrante seems to have centered around her face. It’s remarkable how many of the pieces collected in Frantumaglia were originally published with headlines fixated on Ferrante’s face: “Elena Ferrante: The Writer Without a Face,” “The Writer Without a Face: The Case of Elena Ferrante,” “I, a Writer Without a Face.”

How do we account for this fixation? Ferrante’s being a woman certainly played a crucial part. Only consider the example of Clarice Lispector, another major foreign-language author who recently conquered the world in translation, whose face graces the covers of almost all her books. Partly, this speaks to Lispector’s own close association of her body and her work [2] — an association Ferrante rejects — but it also speaks to the marketplace’s reflexive habit of representing female writers through extra-literary imagery. There’s probably also something unique about the Italian media, which Ferrante skips no opportunity to single out for special denigration. Does the media of a Catholic nation have a greater urge to transform authors into icons?

The desire to locate Ferrante’s physical person might also be perceived as a reaction to the so-called Death of the Author, which asserts that authorial intent is finally meaningless to a reader’s reception of a book. While such an idea is a source of stress for some authors, Ferrante is completely comfortable with her books striking unknown chords in her readers. Those determined to expose her seem to suffer from a pronounced anxiety about a world in which the author is absent, leaving the reader to his or her own interpretation. It’s as if some, Gatti among them, couldn’t handle that much freedom. To borrow one of Ferrante’s phrases, they were “accustomed to the supremacy of the author.”

In Gatti’s articles, Ferrante’s greatest offense is her appropriation of Naples. For those who, in the absence of Ferrante’s person, chose to read the Neapolitan Quartet as a thinly veiled autobiography, such a revelation could be unsettling. And if Gatti’s findings are correct, then Ferrante does misrepresent her background throughout Frantumaglia. She refers to it as “the city I grew up in,” and says, “It remains in my gestures, my words, my voice, even when I put an ocean between us.” According to Gatti, it was Anita Raja’s mother who “remained very attached to Naples,” [3] yet in Frantumaglia, Ferrante refers to the city as “my experience.”

But who is the “me” in such a formulation? Ferrante defines the author as “the sum of the expressive strategies that shape an invented world,” and in Ferrante’s invention, experience is fluid, not limited to the border of any particular self. The complementary and contradictory identities of Lila and Lenù in the Neapolitan Quartet are in a constant state of dynamic interaction, mutually invading and nourishing each other on the tectonic levels of the self. Likewise, Troubling Love ends with the narrator’s absorption of her mother: “Amalia had been. I was Amalia” — a phrase that dramatizes, in Ferrante’s words, how the narrator becomes able to “accept her mother in herself and represent her,” not unlike how Ferrante’s inheritance of the word frantumaglia came with the variety of experience it signified to her mother. Experience in Ferrante’s invented world is a complex phenomenon, not categorically true or false.

Ultimately, however, there’s no need to defend Ferrante. Her world, as far as any reader should be concerned, easily maintains its integrity. Even so, certain passages in Frantumaglia leave the reader uneasy, as if Ferrante herself might not see it that way. “Today what I fear most is the loss of the completely anomalous creative space I seem to have discovered,” she says. “Either I remain Ferrante or I no longer publish.” Does she mean it? Her structural absence has been replaced by a presence; now we watch the stage with the house lights on.

¤

Michael LaPointe is a writer and critic in Toronto, Canada. He contributes to the Times Literary Supplement and writes a monthly literary essay for The Walrus.

¤

[1] “Elena Ferrante: An Answer?” Gatti, Claudio. The New York Review of Books.

[2] “In Search of the Thing-Itself.” LaPointe, Michael. Tikkun.

[3] “The Story Behind a Name.” Gatti, Claudio. The New York Review of Books.


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