On Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey by Elena Ferrante

Natalie Bakopoulos

Translated by Ann Goldstein. New York, NY: Europa Editions, 2016. 400 pages. $24.00.

“It’s not my absence that generates interest in my books,” the Italian writer Elena Ferrante notes in an interview, “but the interest in my books that generates media interest in my absence.” Ferrante has been famously adamant about her anonymity, only giving selective, careful interviews. And though many have speculated about her identity, it had remained unknown, or at least unnamed—and most of us liked it that way. And then this past October, the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti conducted a heartless investigation for the New York Review of Books to uncover it. I won’t go into its details here.

Frantumaglia, released this past November, comprises Ferrante’s various interviews and written correspondence. Critics have noted the irony: a writer such as Ferrante—who insists the work should speak for itself—publishes a book of personal interviews, letters, and deleted scenes. Ferrante herself even asks, in a letter contained in its pages: “Why, above all, add so much of my chatter . . . ?”

Me, I don’t see the contradiction. My question is, Why would she not? Her letters and interviews are decidedly not mere chatter: they, too, are literary works. They show artistry and imagination, and Ferrante even notes the difficulty of answering interview questions because they lead her into a complicated maze of storytelling, artifacts, and searching. Frantumaglia is in itself a compelling narrative, and while immersed in its pages, I often felt I was immersed in a work within a work, a story in documents.

The Neapolitan Quartet, comprising four novels narrated by an Italian writer named Elena Greco, is also a work within a work. The novels focus on the complicated, often antagonistic friendship between Elena and her friend Lila Cerullo, set against the backdrop of their neighborhood in Naples and its cultural, political, and social concerns. Elena Ferrante is the author who writes under a pseudonym. Though Ferrante has not herself called her work an autofiction, Elena Greco’s book is arguably masterfully so, a writer in an urgent attempt to write—and preserve—the self. Elena Greco is the writer of the text we read. And within the book, Elena Greco discusses books she has written, but we don’t have full access to them.

Frantumaglia, then, adds a new artful layer. The book is not without its own meta-elements; it contains dozens of letters between Ferrante and her publisher, many of which discuss the actual making of the book that we hold in our hands. It also includes scenes that were cut from her novels—adding yet another meta-layering. But make no mistake: reading Frantumaglia is not as simple as reading the other half of Elena Ferrante. It is far more complicated than simply splitting her between the I who writes at her desk and the I who exists on the page.

She notes in an interview:

If we were made only of two halves, individual life would be simple, but the “I” is a crowd, with a large quantity of heterogeneous fragments tossing about inside. And the female “I”, in particular, with its long history of oppression and repression, tends to shatter as it’s tossed around, and to reappear and shatter again, always in an unpredictable way. Stories feed on the fragments, which are concealed under an appearance of unity and constitute a sort of chaos to depart from, an obscurity to illuminate.

The word frantumaglia she defines as “a jumble of fragments”: “the storehouse of time without the orderliness of a history, a story.” But the boundaries between these fragments—writer at the desk and the writer inhabiting the invented world—are blurred. “Over the years,” Ferrante writes, “ . . . I’ve come closer and closer to the idea that real writing is what emerges by itself, from an ecstatic condition. But often I discover that ecstasy is imagined as a disembodiment. The ecstasy of writing is feeling not the breath of the word that is liberated from the flesh but the flesh that becomes one with the breath of the words.”

She says: “I tend to throw into words . . . my entire body.” Creating, for Ferrante, is also a deeply physical act. She demonstrates a keen awareness of the overdetermined nature of the female body, both in Frantumaglia and in her work in general. Ferrante is not necessarily claiming she wants to be without a public, cultural voice, but perhaps one without a public body. And if we examine the commentary on the appropriation and fragmentation of the female body in Ferrante’s work: as abject, as decaying, as appropriated, as object of the male gaze, as a corpse, her reasons to not want to become, as she writes of one of her characters, “an erotic gift to the spectator” or one up for mockery or comment, seem self-evident. For example, she writes of not wanting to dress nicely, in form-fitting clothes that showcased the body, or with makeup—“I hid in big shirts, sweaters two sizes too large, baggy jeans”—because she feared a man might think it was for him, and then laugh about it behind her back. This complicated fear, of both being misunderstood and humiliated, is telling.

But I don’t want to read Ferrante’s request to remain hidden as solely a feminist statement. It’s an artistic one too, and she’s careful not to simply blame the patriarchy:

I don’t like to think, as we often do, that the tremendous actions of the heroines of myths are merely the product of a pernicious male racket, of a patriarchal plot: in the end it’s like attributing to women a lack of humanity, and that isn’t useful. We have to learn, rather, to speak with pride of our complexity, of how in itself it informs our citizenship, whether in joy or in rage.

Frantumaglia shows her unyielding interest in female complexity. She notes: “The process of fragmentation in a woman’s body interests me very much from the narrative point of view. It means telling the story of a present-day female I that suddenly perceives itself disintegrating, it loses the sense of time, it’s no longer in order, it feels like a vortex of debris, a whirlwind of thoughts-words.”

And this fragmentation needs self-care. When a male interviewer asks her if she’d be willing to give a physical description of herself, she replies with a firm “No.” She calmly explains herself, but she does not apologize. To which any woman—or any man for that matter, though it’s rare for a male writer to be asked about his children, or spouse, or work-life balance—can attest, it is difficult to refuse to answer, without apology, when asked about one’s private life. Our share-all world has made protecting the private seem almost like a perversion, a deviance, an act to view with suspicion. More than once she cites Italo Calvino, who says: “Ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth, of that you can be sure.” It’s not that Ferrante necessarily draws a line between the I who writes and the I who appears on the page; it’s that perhaps she knows the boundaries between art and life are tenuous. Writing for Ferrante, then, is a sort of frantumaglia, and it’s no wonder that once the book has been released in the world, she’d like to attempt to shore up all that fragmentation.

Throughout this collection, Elena Ferrante asks us to not only respect the boundaries between the work and what remains outside it, “an invisible gutter,” but to also consider what boundaries the work dissolves. “In my experience, the difficulty-pleasure of writing touches every point of the body. When you’ve finished the book, it’s as if your innermost self had been ransacked, and all you want is to regain distance, return to being whole.” In short, her self-preservation becomes a political act. By rejecting her authorial persona as a public body, she forces us to readjust our biases, refuses to let us apply the same language, the same discussion, to her work.

The work is the public presence: “The voice is part of your body, it needs your presence—you speak, you have a dialogue, you correct, you give further explanations. Writing, on the other hand, once it’s fixed on a support structure, is autonomous, it needs a reader, not you.”

“The rest,” she says, “is ordinary private life.”

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