Review: Frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante
By Merve Pehlivan
Meireles: Who is Elena Ferrante, writer, how would you define her?
Ferrante: Elena Ferrante? Thirteen letters, no more, no less. Her definition is all there.
I found Frantumaglia in the “memoirs” section of a bookshop, ready to believe that it fitted the genre. “Frantumaglia”, Ferrante tells us, was a word that her mother had used often which refers to a “jumble of fragments” in the Neapolitan dialect. Frantumaglia also comes to be the repository from which the author of the Neapolitan Quartet and one of the strongest literary voices in our age, culls her stories.
Frantumaglia is the only “non-fiction” work by the Italian writer who has so far published four novels and a children’s book. Over a span of twenty-five years, the book covers letters between Ferrante and her editor, a filmmaker who adapts her first book Troubling Love into a movie and written interviews she gave to various media outlets, including one with Yasemin Çongar, Turkish writer and journalist. Her texts offer a comprehensive meditation on the art of storytelling, writing in the feminine (in the sense of Hélène Cixous’s term écriture feminine), and an equally, if not more, powerful reflection of the public persona of the Writer.
For anyone vaguely familiar with the name Elena Ferrante, she is that mystery novelist whose face has so far escaped book jackets, newspapers, magazines, television and Instagram. A quick enquiry on Google about her identity takes you to an article published on October 2, 2016 by an Italian journalist who claims to have “unmasked” the person hiding behind the pseudonym. As a great admirer of Ferrante’s writing, reading Frantumaglia with the fear that the journalist might have indeed revealed her, was an unsettling experience.
In semiotic terms, Elena Ferrante is a signifier made up of thirteen letters. The signified, the conceptual image the signifier prompts in our minds, is an Italian female novelist. We are devoid of a referent, the concrete entity that the name refers to, a person made up of flesh and blood available to our perception. In that absence the strongest theme of Frantumaglia reveals itself: Without a public identity, the writer allows herself utmost creative freedom while enhancing the reader’s experience.
Ferrante chooses to not become a public personage from “a somewhat neurotic desire for intangibility.” (Disappearances and losses are a running thread in her work.) With the media frenzy following the movie adaptation of her first novel, she experiences “tremendous anxiety” and doesn’t publish anything for a decade. What began as gut-driven attitude later becomes a permanent choice that shapes her writing career: “In the games with newspapers, one always ends up lying and at the root of the lie is the need to offer oneself to the public in the best form, with thoughts suitable to the role, with the make-up we imagine is suitable." Her sometimes curt and dismissive responses to commentators over the years could at first come across as arrogant. Whether arrogance can ever manifest itself without an encounter with a fellow human being is another question.
Ferrante’s attitude rejects the inflated and unjustified value attributed to the writer by way of renown. She exists only in her books; she doesn’t allow her person to be revered or to interfere with the reception of her novels. She frees herself of all the bridles of social pressure, acceptance, antagonism and even failure. She says in Frantumaglia that the media “pays scant attention to the books themselves and tends to assign importance to a work especially if the author already has a solid reputation.” In Turkey, Elif Shafak and Orhan Pamuk have a sizeable number of readers who have lost interest in many of their recent books, judging their early works far more profound than those published after they rose to international stardom. Does having a number of quality novels under one’s belt as well as one’s polished and calculated public persona shield oneself from clear-sighted, negative criticism for future works? Does Shafak’s latest novel, Three Daughters of Eve, flawed and superficial in literary standards, deserve the praise it receives from left and right arguably due to the celebrity of the author? Is it likely that a writer, under the dictate of the ego and market demands, compromise their voice or literary concerns? Ferrante does not lose time with such distractions. She also disagrees that the mystique surrounding her identity was counterproductive, arguing that her books were successful in their own right before the international media spotlighted her absence from public view.
Of her choice for pseudonym, we know a few things: Elena Greco is the protagonist of the Neapolitan Quartet. “Elena”, Ferrante indicates, is the name she always felt closest to. Behind the gauze of that name she allows herself to write without restrain, moving in and out of her stories, drawing from her own experiences but giving them necessary disguises. “My Naples”, she begins a sentence in one interview. The pronoun bounces back at the reader only to take shape and flourish in the many characters about whose Naples we read in Ferrante’s novels.
In a seventy-page response to five questions by a magazine editor, she reflects on her own childhood in words highly evocative of certain aspects of Lila in My Brilliant Friend. In Frantumaglia, Ferrante calls her sister Gina, says she bears her great-grandmother’s name, talks at length about her mother, a seamstress just like Amalia in Troubling Love. Thus what separates “fiction” and “non-fiction” becomes less noticeable, echoing the “dissolving margins” of Lila, and one is left to wonder whether a strict demarcation between the two is significant or even relevant. As the reader is not provided with any means to winnow fact from fiction, her paparazzi urges left unfulfilled, she establishes a closer relationship with the substance of the book. The validity of Frantumaglia doesn’t lie in its pact with the reader as a fact-driven memoir, but in the credibility of its ideas, themes and observations. “I am convinced that fiction, when it works, is more charged with truth.” Ferrante asserts. To bring further depth to her conviction, she makes even her characters “come alive” through writing alone. My Brilliant Friend opens with Lila’s disappearance. Only through her friend’s writing can she materialize. How can those who have read the novel doubt Lila’s authenticity even for a split second? With “the narrowed eyes of a bird of prey”, she haunts us day and night.
“Either I remain Ferrante, or I no longer publish.” the writer says and hints at being in the process of writing a new book. If the Italian journalist’s “exposure” has any foundation, does it mean that we will never read another word from her? Could she further twist the game by continuing to publish, using the mutual exclusivity of her statement to her advantage and to the great joy and relief of her readers? Millions of us worldwide are holding our breath.
(I dedicate this article to Lilita who, giving me her dog-eared copy of My Brilliant Friend made my life a richer, fuller place.)
Merve is a writer, translator and interpreter based in Istanbul. She is also the host and founder of Spoken Word Istanbul and Spoken Word Turkçe, which you can find out more about: @SpokenWordIstanbul
You can find Frantumaglia here