In some ways Elena Ferrante’s latest book, Frantumaglia, helps alleviate readers from what has aptly been coined “Ferrante Fever”. Likened to an addiction, her novels—most notably her Neapolitan tetralogy—have spread faster than an airborne disease across the globe. Women, men and teens have all found themselves caught in Ferrante’s fictitious net of addictively relatable stories and most of them can’t help but wonder: how much of this is fiction?
Since the very dawning of the epidemic, there’s been an excess of questions around Ferrante’s identity—Frantumaglia is a compelling anthology of answers to such questions. Although, if you were hoping to learn about the author’s early adolescence in Naples, a broken down marriage or an ambiguous friendship that blurs the dichotomy between enemies and allies you’ll be disappointed. This time Ferrante’s words slow down, move away from fiction and open up a dialogue for things which are paramount to her: identity (or lack of), the media, gender and— most importantly—literature.
Split into three sections, the book is chronologically comprised of Ferrante’s letters to her Italian publisher (Edizioni E/O); interviews with various editors and journalists; and correspondence with a selection of readers. Only the last third of the book relates to her Neapolitan quartet, the rest of the text discusses her three earlier novels: Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love and The Lost Child.
As would be expected, the book primarily addresses the difficulties of asking the public to accept an author’s name without a face, and why, for Ferrante, there isn’t a need for that face. She believes ‘that books, once they are written, have no need for their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.’ Essentially, the name Elena Ferrante has become an advocate for literature, she’s the pin-up girl cut out of letters that champions the written word. She argues that we shouldn’t need to sell the author as an additional character to support the text; the text should be strong enough to function autonomously, regardless of who wrote it.
I must admit that part of me was curious as to why Ferrante decided to engage in any interviews —why communicate with the pubic at all? Why not give them the novels, a name and nothing else? In 1995 she specifically stated in a letter to her publisher that she would not participate in any interviews. But by 2002 her novels had gained so much traction that her publishers insisted that it was necessary for her to engage in interviews, most of which end up with Ferrante trying to communicate and justify the reasons for her anonymity.
It’s because of this obsession with her absence that Frantumaglia sometimes drags the reader around in circles. This doesn’t so much reflect negatively on Ferrante as it does on the journalists who interview her. The questions regarding her anonymity become repetitive as there are queries relating to her identity in almost every interview. To Ferrante’s credit, she provides diverse and engaging responses that illustrate why the text is imperative, and why, once it’s written, it’s completely separate from her. But most impressively, Ferrante critiques the media’s role in devaluing literature, noting that literature’s position in cultural hierarchies is always perceived as inferior to that of film or television. She draws attention to the irony of the media’s obsession with her identity even though she has emphasised that it should have no impact on the significance of her texts. I presume Frantumaglia was published to purposely allow light to spill only on the silhouette of an author who defiantly wants to create in the shadows.
Above all the book demonstrates that Ferrante is a literary purist, there’s scarcely a page where she doesn’t reference another text, from Chekhov to Elsa Morante she draws on a plethora of literary fiction to emphasise her appreciation and knowledge of literature. You need only read the correspondence in the first section of the book between Ferrante and Mario Martone (who adapted her novel Troubling Love into a film) to understand how meticulous she is in ensuring characters, plot, symbols and dialogue contribute to making the overall narrative truthful. It’s this literary truth, which she goes on to discuss at length, that is paramount to the authenticity of her books. Ferrante writes: ‘I believe that in fiction one pretends much less than one does in reality. In fiction we say and recognise things about ourselves, which, for the sake of propriety, we ignore or don’t want to talk about in reality.’ For Ferrante, the most torturous and painful things to write about create the most relatable, authentic and compelling narratives.
In addition to understanding what makes her writing authentic, Ferrante also divulges the writing techniques used to achieve her distinctive post-feminist style. She describes her first-person narration, as being reflective of women’s need to keep diaries and write as a means to understand and make sense of their situation. It’s this style, which has uniquely depicted a multitude of female relationships, that solidifies Ferrante’s novels as some of the most progressive and influential works in contemporary literature. While I was reading Frantumaglia my father picked up the book, absently flicked to a page in the middle and briefly skimmed the text. He said that the book seemed over-written, adding that the best writers, like Hemingway, have the ability to use fewer words to situate themselves as some of the most influential writers of our time. I thought about this at length and how Ferrante has been accused of being a male writer. She discusses the perception that women are incapable of writing with the same vigor as men. There is this belief that the female gender ‘cannot mimic anything, for it is betrayed by its “weakness”;what it produces could not possibly fake male potency.’ Sadly Ferrante’s identity was revealed last year in the New Yorker, confirming that the author is in fact female. In turn though this only highlights the limitations we place on the female author, we automatically attribute progressive literature to that of a man because, conventionally, male writers have dictated literary traditions.
Ferrante shows that the thousand year old invention of women’s lives being expressed by the modules that the male world defines as feminine is inhibiting and fails to reflect the complexity of female lives. Ferrante’s women ‘are strong, educated, self aware and aware of their rights, just, but at the same time subject to unexpected breakdowns, to subservience of every kind, to mean feelings.’ This oscillation is what epitomises her writing.
For any aspiring female writers or literary enthusiasts I can’t recommend a contemporary book that has more insight into the fictional construction of the female gender than Frantumaglia. Particularly in regard to portraying heroines of our time through language that painfully reflects the inner conflict of the female person. Her devotion to syntax and voice will leave readers in awe of her dedication to the written page. She shows us how writing female characters from the female perspective requires us to go beyond the gender binary, beyond the image of femininity and step out of the box that men have built for women and use fiction to dig into wounds which would otherwise only be poked and prodded at.