Book review: Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey reveals her desire for privacy
The true identity of the pseudonymous Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has been troubling elements of the literary world since the appearance of her debut novel, Troubling Love, in 1992. Since then, as Ferrante’s fame, reputation and readership have grown (her work has been published in 39 countries; her readers are legion and devoted; she has been the recipient of immense critical approbation), so too has the desire to unearth the real name of the figure responsible for her extraordinary body of fiction.
Or so the narrative goes. Actually, it seems that most of Ferrante’s readers have been, and remain, content to allow her a veil of anonymity. The growing drive to lift it has been propelled predominantly by journalists – usually male journalists. Easier to write about a personality than a novel. And anyway: how dare she?
With these impulses churning away somewhere in his being, the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti recently decided it was time to conduct an investigation into Ferrante’s background. Having scowled at the relevant documents, he concluded that she was an Italian translator (I refuse to be more specific), and as justification for his intrusive and lugubrious exercise in male entitlement, urged us all to remember that “Ferrante was very much a public figure”.
Oh no she wasn’t. Nor did she want to be. As this new volume, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, makes arrestingly and poignantly clear, privacy and authorial absenteeism have always been essential to her literary craft, her personal well-being, her philosophical and aesthetic vision.
Composed of a series of letters, fragments – as the book’s Italian title suggests – of autobiography, written interviews, and discarded fictions from the past 25 years (in which period Ferrante produced her three early novels Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment, The Lost Daughter, and the four volumes of her bewitching Neapolitan Quartet), the book grants us access to the hitherto largely private motivations, anxieties, obsessions, working practices and predilections that lie behind and inform her work.
It is an addictive, powerful, and disquieting miscellany of piercing intelligence, restless questioning, compulsive rumination, equable uncertainty, courteous self-possession, quiet generosity.
And Ferrante’s prose, beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein, is exquisitely balanced, full of enchanting resonance. Here she is on the peculiarly autonomous life of the printed word: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t ... I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of night-time miracle ... True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known.”
And here on the giddiness, and the concomitant fear, of literary invention: “To me it happens like this: I always struggle at first ... no opening seems really convincing; then the story gets going, the bits already written gain power and suddenly find a way of fitting together; then writing becomes a pleasure, the hours are a time of intense enjoyment, the characters never leave you, they have a space-time of their own in which they are alive and increasingly vivid, they are inside and outside you, they exist solidly in the streets, in the houses, in the places where the story must unfold.”
Elsewhere Ferrante writes wonderfully about the sustaining consolations of narrative, which “remains today the most welcome dwelling place for the turbulent or mute world of those in need of stories”; with mordant dismissiveness about received truths (“I doubt that work ennobles man and I am absolutely certain that it does not ennoble women”); and with affecting candour about her abiding sense of “‘private timidity’” and her enduring fear, bequeathed to her by a line in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, of being considered “ugly: to appear ugly to one’s own mother ... The sentence arrived from France and hit me right in the chest, it’s still hitting me, harder than the shove with which [Flaubert’s] Emma sent – sends – little Berthe against the chest of drawers, against the brass fittings”.
For all the brilliance and insight on display, this book is not without difficulty. Much of the material can be repetitive, and there are too many lengthy contributions from Ferrante’s correspondents.
But these shortcomings are negligible when weighed against the imaginative richness, affective complexity and intellectual force that the volume delivers as a whole.
These are the qualities one associates most readily with her fiction, and in common with her fiction, Frantumaglia reminds you of the violence and the absurdity of trying to discover the identity of the real Ferrante.
There she is before you on the page, revealing all that you should ever want to know.
Matthew Adams is a regular contributor to The Review.