Call Me Elena

Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia has been marketed as non-fiction. Does it matter if it isn’t?

ON October 2, the New York Review of Books published an article by the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti titled “Elena Ferrante: An Answer?” Gatti’s revelations were co-published by the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore (which commissioned Gatti’s investigation), the German newspaper Frankurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and the French website Mediapart. The question to which Gatti was offering a possible answer was that of Ferrante’s “real-world” identity.

The fantastic success of the Neapolitan Quartet–Ferrante sold 2.6 million books in the English-language market–transformed the author’s decision to publish pseudonymously from a journalistic irritant (Ferrante’s refusal to be interviewed in person made it impossible for critics to write a traditional profile) to a demurral that international notoriety made necessary. By writing under a pseudonym “I have gained,” Ferrante told Vanity Fair after the final installment of the quartet was published, “a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.”

Gatti appears to have understood Ferrante’s decision as a deliberate provocation. The timing of his “unveiling” seemed particularly directed at the publication of Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, a collection of Ferrante’s non-fiction, which now appears in English for the first time. His description of Frantumaglia is pointedly ungenerous–“a volume purporting in part to outline her family background”–and his prelude to the big reveal is a snide flourish: the woman behind Ferrante isn’t “the daughter of Neopolitan seamstress described in Frantumaglia,” he crows, she is “a Rome-based translator whose German-born mother fled the Holocaust and later married a Neopolitan magistrate.”

Writing for The Week, the critic Lili Loofbourow explains Ferrante’s claim that her mother was a dressmaker as a parable. “It is Ferrante-the-writer’s genesis story… 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.” Loofbourow’s analysis argues for the pleasure of reading Ferrante’s words through a broad thematic, rather than a specifically personal lens. Frantumaglia has been marketed as non-fiction, but perhaps it isn’t. It might be better described as criticism by an author who just happens to go by the same name as the writer whose works she is exploring.

 
IF Elena Ferrante’s novels–seven since 1992–can be said to be governed by a central metaphor, it is that of a woman falling apart. The phenomenon is best named in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. “From her unstuck head,” the novel’s narrator, Elena, writes of her friend Lila, “figures and voices of the day were emerging, floating through the room… Her heartbeats were now so powerful that they seemed capable of exploding the interlocking solidity of objects.” I would call this a panic attack. Lila calls it “dissolving boundaries.”

For Ferrante’s women, the lines between the body and the city, between personal and familial identity, between a friend’s mind and one’s own, are forever on the verge of collapse. Ferrante is particularly interested in tracking the moment of dissolution: how, where, and what is felt when a woman temporarily crosses from sanity into madness. In her first novel, Troubling Love, the narrator hallucinates her mother, whom she has just buried, in a funicular station. In The Days of Abandonment, Ferrante’s second novel, written a decade after her first, Olga, whose husband has just left her, finds she is suddenly unable to open her own front door. In The Lost Daughter, her third, a middle-aged professor vacationing at the beach steals a child’s doll and cannot bring herself to return it.

“Every interior state,” Ferrante told the Turkish journalist Yasemin Çongar in 2015, “is, ultimately, a magma that clashes with self-control, and it’s that magma we have to try to describe if we want the pages to have energy.” Ferrante’s female protagonists resist the magma. They prefer to hold the world at bay and their emotions in check; their memories of childhood are populated by neighborhood wives who, abandoned by their husbands, went crazy. Menaced by the specter of these feral women, Ferrante’s heroines labor to construct chilly, respectable personas. This makes their eventual loss of self-control all the more painful, for it is a loss not only of control but of self. And it is always a question of when, not if, the world will rush in and emotions will pour out. A breach is, in Ferrante’s novels, always inevitable.

So perhaps it was also inevitable, though not remotely fair, that the private barrier Ferrante resolutely constructed between herself and the world by publishing under a pseudonym would crumble. Perhaps, too, it was predictable that what would emerge was a personal history more complicated than the one Ferrante had been disclosing.

 
FRANTUMAGLIA is appropriately a disjointed text. (Ferrante defines “frantumaglia” as “a jumble of fragments”). It is a gathering of interviews, essays, and letters (some unsent) written to her publishers, to journalists, and to the directors who adapted her first two novels for the screen. (An earlier version of the volume was published in Italy in 2003; the Vanity Fair interview and the dialogue with Çongar quoted above are both reprinted within.) What does not vary is Ferrante’s tone, which will be familiar to readers of her fiction; she speaks, or rather writes (the interviews were, with one exception, conducted in writing), coolly. (Part of the appeal of Ferrante’s novels is that while the themes may be emotional, her prose never is. It is thanks to–and not in spite of–the calm precision of her descriptions that the reader feels plunged into the turbulent states on the page, states which suddenly seem comprehensible, even logical.)

This is true especially of Ferrante’s answers about what has been, unfairly but not unexpectedly, the most heated topic of all: her decision to use a penname. Almost every interview collected in Frantumaglia includes a question about Ferrante’s choice to remain anonymous. One side effect of this fact is that throughout Frantumaglia, Ferrante frequently seems to be arguing against the collection’s very existence. “I consider the text a self-sufficient body, which has in itself, in its makeup, all the questions and all the answers,” she told a Danish newspaper in 2003. “For those who love reading,” she told the Italian journalist Francesco Erbani three years later, “the author is purely a name.” “I think authors should be sought in the books they put their names to,” she explained to the Financial Times last year, “not in the physical person who is writing or in his or her private life.”

Although neither the question nor the essential answer has changed, Frantumaglia shows how Ferrante’s reasons for anonymity have evolved over the years. As she explains in an interview first published in the Spring 2015 issue of the Paris Review, she was originally “frightened by the possibility of having to come out of my shell… Later, it was hostility toward the media… It’s not the book that counts, but the aura of the author.” What Ferrante does not say but must be aware of is that the author known as “Elena Ferrante” has of course accrued such an aura over the course of her career. Frantumaglia itself could not have been published otherwise.

Consider this: In the mid 1900s, the Italian journalist Francesco Erbani wrote to Ferrante to ask if she would be interested in an interview that would have been pegged to the release of a film based on her first, and at the time only novel, Troubling Love. In an unsent reply included in the collection (the letter is undated, but an editorial note speculates that it was written in 1995), Ferrante wonders why Erbani, who in his original missive writes of his admiration for her novel, did not approach her for an interview until a film based on Troubling Love was underway. “Question,” she writes, “if my book had said nothing to you and my name had said something, would it have taken you less time to ask for an interview?” Erbani replied to the author after seeing the letter in the 2003 edition of Frantumaglia. In a note that follows Ferrante’s, he explains that he did not contact her when Troubling Love was first published because he was, at the time, working at the foreign news department of a press agency and so not in a position to interview her. The name “Ferrante” became known without the assistance of authorial self-promotion because her books indeed said something; but it is in part because the name “Ferrante” now says something that she has been, for years, so eagerly interviewed.

In keeping with her decision to remain pseudonymous, Ferrante does not, in Frantumaglia or elsewhere, provide readers with quotidian details–a description of her writing space, anecdotes about her children. She does, however, offer up bits of personal narrative, most frequently about her childhood. These are at odds with the biography of the woman behind Ferrante that Gatti presents. That woman grew up in Rome, the city to which her family moved when she was three; Ferrante writes of growing up in Naples. That woman has one younger brother; Ferrante writes of two younger sisters.

The other personal details Ferrante has revealed in the past fifteen or so years (her first published interview dates from 2002) have not been many, but they have rhymed with the biographies she’s constructed for her characters: Delia’s mother in Troubling Love is a seamstress; almost all of her novels are set in Naples, and when they are not–The Days of Abandonment takes place in Turin–her protagonists are often, like Olga, from the southern city. It is precisely because I agree that authors do not owe us information about their quote-unquote real lives that I find this disappointing. And it does not seem wholly accidental; the invitation is to read biographically. Provided Gatti has indeed identified the correct woman, these discrepancies imply that as firmly as Ferrante believed her books themselves were enough, she didn’t quite trust her readers would believe the same.

“Literary truth,” Ferrante says in the version of her Paris Review interview reprinted in Frantumaglia, “is the truth released exclusively by words used well, and it is realized entirely in the words that formulate it.” Ferrante’s novels, in their incisive descriptions of violent inner tumult, pulse with precisely this kind of truth. They never needed the support of matching biographical facts.

 
THE convenience of the autobiographical information Ferrante offers–the ease with which it allows readers to assume her novels are “authentic” because something in them is literally “true”–must be acknowledged. But the autobiographical information itself is a distraction, for Frantumaglia is, as Loofbourow suggests, far more interesting as a critical text than it is as a personally revelatory one.

In 1992, Troubling Love won a debut novel prize named after the Italian writer Elsa Morante. Ferrante did not attend the ceremony in person, but she penned an acceptance speech for her publishers to read. Riffing off a passage from Morante’s short story collection The Andalusian Shawl, Ferrante spoke of the figure of the “mother’s dressmaker” and the invisibility of maternal bodies. The mother’s dressmaker, Ferrante wrote, “cuts out clothes for the mother that eliminate the woman.” The ideal, in her view, would be for “the mother’s dressmaker” to construct clothes that would reveal rather than hide, that would “recover the woman’s body that the mother has… undress her [so that] her body, her age, would no longer be a mystery with no importance.” Recovering the mother’s body, her age, undressing her and therefore imbuing her with importance–this is as succinct an encapsulation of Ferrante’s novelistic project as any I’ve read. But it is also worth noting that the undressing Ferrante proposes is figurative. She wants the mother’s body clad in clothes that will reveal her; she does not want the mother to be entirely naked, undefended by artifice.

With the pseudonym destroyed, I worry that the author of the novels I love will retreat. For decades, Ferrante has written the magma. She has embraced messiness on the page. This embrace seems to have necessitated a counterbalancing neatness elsewhere, in the stories from Ferrante’s childhood that appear in Frantumaglia. While Ferrante’s novels speak complicated truths, the allegedly autobiographical narratives she provides from her childhood serve largely to confirm some readers’ simplistic hopes that those complicated truths are the fruit of fact rather than imagination. In an unsent letter written to Goffredo Fofi in 1995, Ferrante explained that “writing with the knowledge that I don’t have to appear produces a space of absolute creative freedom. It’s a corner of my own that I intend to defend, now that I’ve tried it. If I were deprived of it, I would feel absolutely impoverished.” Gatti’s investigations have given us a fuller, messier picture of the writer, but I fear this mess will be counterbalanced with a neatness elsewhere–that if Ferrante’s non-fiction has been made messy, her fiction will now, as a result, be made neat. And what could be neater than a blank page?