Essay

The Honest Truth: Ferrante's Frantumaglia

by Barbara Alfano

[. . .] scrivere sapendo di non dover apparire genera uno spazio di libertà creativa assoluta. È un angolo mio che intendo difendere, ora che l’ho sperimentato. Se ne fossi privata, mi sentirei bruscamente impoverita.

(Elena Ferrante, La frantumaglia)

Non credo che di un testo si riesca a sapere di più se si hanno informazioni sulle letture e i gusti di chi l’ha scritto.

(Elena Ferrante, La frantumaglia)

 

When I wrote that Elena Ferrante’s identity should have been protected in the same way Italy protects the Marsican bear and the abortion law, I feared that the revelation of her biographical data would necessarily come as a diminishing act, as the scaling down of an artist whose work is already not regarded with the attention it deserves, in Italy. When the winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize was announced, I wondered if it was time for Ferrante to reveal her name in order to own her work. I never expected that somebody would do it for her and so deprive her of the right to remain anonymous. In how many ways could Claudio Gatti’s exposé of Elena Ferrante be bad? They have all been listed, shouted, explored, and reiterated within three days of its international publication on Il sole 24 ore, The New York Review of Books, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Mediapart. The vast majority of the reactions that the article has stirred internationally has been unanimous:  It felt like punishment, something criminals deserve (here); It was a misogynistic attack on a woman whose only fault is to be successful, a failed attempt to diminish her (here and here); it advocates a misguided urge to necessarily know (here) without taking into account the authorial choices; it was a bad and ultimately pointless application of investigative journalism (here, and here); her million readers were definitely invested, and with good reasons, in her anonymity (here, here, and here); its logic is flawed and biased, since it accuses Ferrante of bringing this onto herself (here).

Gatti’s self-defense of his investigation seems to have worsened his case because it fails to justify with an acceptable reason his invasion of Anita Raja’s privacy—whether or not Elena Ferrante “lies” about her origins in La frantumaglia is not a good reason to pry into Raja’s real estate operations.

However, there is something undeniably positive that Gatti’s article accomplishes for readers and scholars of Ferrante: in spite of its intent, it confirms the absolute truth of Ferrante’s La frantumaglia as a programmatic work, completely coherent with the writer’s thought on authorship. La frantumaglia is a collection of essays, letters, reflections, and interviews that was published in Italy for the first time in 2003, later in 2007 in an expanded edition, and this year in a further expanded version.[1]

“Frantumaglia” is a word that Ferrante borrows from her Neapolitan mother, “she pronounced frantummàglia” (La frantumaglia 94, my translation),[2] and that refers to “a malaise that could not be defined otherwise and that hinted at a crowded, heterogeneous mix of things in her head, like rubbles floating on a brain’s muddy waters” (94).  In November, the book will come out for the first time in English as Frantumaglia: A Writers Journey, translated by Ann Goldstein.  Scholars of Ferrante have always treated La frantumaglia as a book that provides insight into the author’s poetics and style. To my knowledge, nobody has looked at it as a biography of sort, or even a collection of bits and pieces from real life. Gatti, showing little literary sensibility, opposes the reality of Anita Raja’s biographical data to Ferrante’s “lies.” He tells us Ferrante lied to her readers because she did not grow up in Naples; she didn’t have sisters, but only one brother; and her mother was not a Neapolitan seamstress, but a Jewish woman born in Worms, Germany. Given the evidence, Gatti adds with a logic that is hard to follow, by lying the author gave up her right to anonymity.

Rather than pondering if and why Anita Raja, who has never signed a novel as such, lied, one must ask the question of what it means for Ferrante to have grown up in Naples and to have had a Neapolitan seamstress as a mother. Here’s what she says to Goffredo Fofi in 1995: “With Naples, however, it’s never over, even from a distance. I have lived in other places for decent amounts of time, but this city is not any place, it is an extension of your body, a matrix of perception; it is the basis for the comparison of every experience. All that has been significant for me over time has Naples as its scenery and sounds in its dialect.” (La frantumaglia 60,)[3] . Ferrante has embraced Naples as the place where she grew up in specific ways, it does not matter whether she lived in Naples every single day of her life as a child and a young adult, or whether she was going back every summer and at Christmas time. It does not matter whether her “sisters” were really sisters or maybe two of her best friends that she considered sisters and who lived in Naples. All this is irrelevant. The Naples Ferrante describes in her novels is undeniably true, as is the Naples she writes of in La frantumaglia, the one she calls “la mia Napoli.” Her authorial choice to disguise the details of her life must be accepted for La frantumaglia in the same way we do for her novels, when we take them as fiction that bears truth. About the relationship between her fiction and reality, Ferrante writes:

Then, there’s the issue of my creative choices [. . .] I reproduce situations in which people I know, or met in the past found themselves. I rely on real-life experiences but not in the way they actually occurred; rather, I consider as “really happened” only the impressions or the fantasies that stemmed from those experiences during the years in which they were lived. Thus, what I write is full of references to situations and events that really took place, but that I reorganize and reinvent in ways in which they never happened [. . .] I want my novel to take the longest possible distance, so that it can deliver its fictional truth and not the accidental bits and pieces of a biography, which it contains nonetheless.   (La frantumaglia 55-56)[4]

La frantumaglia must be read in this light, even if it is not a novel. In La frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante the author is telling the story of Ferrante the author, protecting the biographical details belonging to Anita Raja the translator—provided that Anita Raja is Elena Ferrante; this means that Ferrante is telling the story of what constitutes her authorship, while protecting the reality of her life. It is worthwhile to reproduce here entirely what she says to Goffredo Fofi to this regard:

Is there a way to protect an author’s right to choose to establish through her writing, once and for all, what of herself deserves to become public? The editorial market wants to know first and foremost if an author can be exploited as an intriguing public figure. In theory, if you surrender, you accept that your entire person with all her experiences and her affects, be put up for sale together with the book. But the sensitive nerves of a private life are too reactive; if you touch them, they can only put up a show of grief, or glee, or malevolence, or resentment (sometimes also generosity, but it is flaunted, whether you want it or not). For sure they cannot add anything to your work (La frantumaglia 56-57).[5]

 

Hence, Ferrante prefers to tell us about a mother different from her real one but coherent with her development as an author. In La frantumaglia, she indicates her beginnings as a writer. She tells us that she came to the making of metaphors quite early in life, when she was not even fourteen and was reading Madame Bovary in its original French: “But France for me remained basically Yonville as I discovered it an afternoon of a few decades ago, when I thought I ran into the craft of making metaphors and into myself at the same time.” (187).[6]

If we take into serious consideration the combination between making metaphors and encountering herself, we understand that in this juxtaposition “herself” is herself as a writer. In this short essay, Ferrante is in fact explaining her choices as an author in response to the Swedish editor of The Days of Abandonment, Bromberg. Bromberg decided at first not to publish The Days of Abandonment because they considered Olga’s behavior toward her children “immoral “(La frantumaglia 190). Ferrante replies by telling the experience of her encounter with a reprehensible literary mother, Emma Bovary:

I read Madame Bovary in my home town, Naples. I read it with difficulty, in its original French, by the imposition of an aloof and good professor. My mother tongue, Neapolitan, has layers of Greek, Latin, Arabic, German, Spanish, English, and French, a lot of French. “Leave me” in Neapolitan is “Làssame” and blood is” ‘o sanghe.” No wonder that Madame Bovary’s language seemed, here and there, my own language, the language by which my mum seemed to be Madame Bovary and she said “laisse-moi.” She also said “le sparadrap” (but she pronounced “ ‘o sparatràp”), the patch that I needed—while reading, I was Berthe—because I cut myself hitting against “la patère de cuivre.”

I understood then, for the first time, that geography, language, politics, and all the history of a people, for me were in the books I loved and which I could enter as if I were writing them myself. [. . .] For all my life, since then, I’ve been left with the doubt that at least once, and with Emma’s exact words--the same horrible words--my mother may have thought while looking at me, as Emma does with Berthe: “c’est une chose étrange comme cette enfant est laide!” [. . .] From France that sentence overwhelmed me and hit me right in the chest, it hits me even now, worse than the push by which Emma sent –sends—little Berthe against the dresser, against the copper corner. (188)[7]

We find in this passage the nucleus of Ferrante’s major themes: the relationship with the mother, with Naples and its language, and with the feminine body. Three years later, in 2007, Ferrante tells Luisa Muraro and Marina Terragni:

Ferrante In my experience the predominance of the mother is absolute, without comparison [. . .]

Terragni e Muraro In you, is it the relationship with the mother that asks insistently to be narrated?

Ferrante I believe so. (La frantumaglia 210-11)[8]

The relationship with the mother is not to be intended as the one existing between the woman who hides behind her pseudonym and her real mother, if not in terms of the experience generated also, but not only, by that relationship and which can be attributed to fictional characters, including a seamstress who might have never existed, or may have existed as somebody else’s mother. What counts is the narrability of that experience. In her response to Bromberg, Ferrante reveals to us the beginning of a relationship between mother and daughter that belongs to telling, to narration:

It was my mother who thought, but in her own language, “How ugly this child is!” [. . .] hence, over the years, I have been trying to remove that sentence from French and depose it somewhere in one of my pages, to write it myself in order to feel its weight, transfer it into my mother’s tongue, attribute it to her, hear it from her mouth, and understand whether this is a feminine sentence, if a woman can truly pronounce it, if I’ve ever thought it for my daughters, if, in conclusion, it must be rejected and erased, or accepted and re-worked, stolen from the masculine French page and transported into the female-daughter-mother language. (189-90)[9]

Ferrante the author is the one who carries the experience that needs to be told but doesn’t necessarily need to be anchored for her readers to her real mother. Her choice of choosing a seamstress as a mother tells us that the author is also thinking of what and who has generated her as a writer. Elsa Morante is the most relevant of her literary mothers.[10] It is not by chance that La frantumaglia’s second letter is the one Ferrante wrote to the Prize committee when she won the “Procida Prize Isola di Arturo – Elsa Morante” in 1992, for Troubling Love, the first being the letter that explains her decision not to reveal her identity.  

In that letter Ferante tells of the inspiration she drew from Morante’s short story Lo scialle andaluso. She recalls that Morante’s words tell of how children see their mothers as always old, with shapeless bodies, as do their seamstresses who are incapable to see a mother’s body as such and cut a dress that shows its shape:

Instead, out of habit and without reflecting, they sew on a mother clothes that erase the woman, as if the latter were a plague for the former [. . .] I thought of these mothers’ seamstresses only now, while writing, but I’m very intrigued by them [. . .] the connection between cutting, dressing, and telling excites me [. . .] Maybe, when Elsa Morante talked about mothers and their seamstresses, she was also talking of the necessity to find again a mother’s true clothes [. . .] Or, maybe not. At any rate, I remember more of her images in which it would be nice to lose oneself in order to come back as new seamstresses to fight against the mistake of Shapelessness. (15-16).[11]

The metaphor is established: Elena Ferrante the writer and not Anita Raja the translator (it doesn’t matter where the two overlap), has chosen sewing as the metaphor that generates her writing. Correcting the error of the old mothers’ seamstresses—giving mothers their bodies back and the truth that comes with them—is the task. Hence, to write of women means to become new seamstresses. In this context, if fighting the mistake of shapelessness is the writer’s goal, it makes perfect sense that her mother, the one who has begotten the writer, be a seamstress.

Why the author’s mother would be a Neapolitan is clear from what Ferrante says about the significance of Naples for her writing. It is there that the word frantummàglia originates and it titles a book that is anything but a collection of unrelated fragments. It is of no consequence whether in reality this Neapolitan seamstress was Ferrante’s mother, or her grandmother, a neighbor, an aunt, or somebody she had been told about.[12] The mother she chose is no doubt the truest to her literary agenda, and to her poetics. Elena Ferrante could not have been more honest with us readers, and I thank Gatti for pushing us to confirm so much.

 

 

[1] The quotations in this essay are from the 2007 edition: Elena Ferrante, La frantumaglia, Roma, Edizione E/O.

[2] All translations in this essay are mine, as the official one, by Anne Goldstein, will appear November 1st. The original for the two quotations above reads: “[. . .] (lei pronunciava frantummàglia) [. . .] un malessere non altrimenti definibile che rimandava ad una folla di cose eterogenee nella testa, detriti su un’acqua limacciosa del cervello.”

[3] “Con Napoli, comunque, i conti non sono mai chiusi, anche a distanza. Sono vissuta non per breve tempo in altri luoghi, ma questa città non è un luogo qualsiasi, è un prolungamento del corpo, è una matrice della percezione, è il termine di paragone di ogni esperienza. Tutto ciò che per me è stato durevolmente significativo ha Napoli per scenario e suona nel suo dialetto.”

[4] “Poi c’è il problema delle mie scelte inventive [. . .] riproduco situazioni in cui si sono veramente trovate persone che conosco e ho conosciuto; mi rifaccio a esperienze “vere”, ma non per come si sono realmente compiute, piuttosto assumendo come “veramente accadute” soltanto le impressioni o le fantasticherie nate negli anni in cui quell’esperienza fu vissuta. Così ciò che scrivo è pieno di riferimenti a situazione ed eventi realmente verificatisi, ma riorganizzati e reinventati come non sono mai accaduti [. . .] Voglio, perciò, che il mio romanzo se ne vada il più lontano possibile proprio perché possa dare la sua verità romanzesca e non gli scampoli accidentali, che pur contiene, di autobiografia.”

[5] “C’è modo di tutelare il diritto di un autore alla scelta di fissare una volta per sempre, soltanto attraverso la propria scrittura, quanto di sé merita di diventare pubblico? Il mercato editoriale si preoccupa innanzitutto di sapere se l’autore è spendibile in modo da diventare personaggio accattivane e aiutare così il viaggio mercantile della sua opera. Se si cede, almeno in teoria, si accetta che l’intera persona, con tutte le sue esperienze e i suoi affetti, sia posta in vendita insieme al libro. Ma le nervature del privato sono troppo reattive. Se vanno allo scoperto, possono dare soltanto spettacolo di dolore o di allegria o di malevolenza o di astio (qualche volta anche di generosità, ma volenti o nolenti, esibita); sicuramente non possono aggiungere altro all’opera.”

[6] “Ma la Francia è rimasta sostanzialmente Yonville, come la scoprii un pomeriggio di qualche decennio fa, quando mi sembrò di imbattermi contemporaneamente nel mestiere di lavorare metafore e in me stessa”

[7] “Ho letto Madame Bovary nella mia città natale, Napoli. L’ho letto faticosamente, in originale, per imposizione di una professoressa algida e brava. La mia lingua madre, il napoletano, ha strati di greco, latino, arabo, tedesco, spagnolo, inglese e francese, parecchio francese. Lasciami, in napoletano, si dice làssame e il sangue si dice ‘o sanghe. Non c’è da meravigliarsi se la lingua di Madame Bovary mi sembrò, a tratti, la mia stessa lingua, la lingua con cui mia madre pareva Emma e diceva laisse-moi. Diceva pure le sparadrap (ma pronunciava ‘o sparatràp), il cerotto che bisognava mettere sul taglio che m’ero fatta –mentre leggevo ed ero Berthe – sbattendo contro la patère de cuivre.  

Ho capito allora, per la prima volta, che la geografia, la lingua, la politica, tutta la storia di un popolo per me era nei libri che amavo e dentro cui potevo entrare come se li stessi scrivendo. [ . . .] Per tutta la vita, da allora, mi è rimasto il dubbio che mia madre, almeno una volta, esattamente con le parole di Emma – le stesse orribili parole – abbia pensato guardandomi, come fa Emma con Berthe: c’est une chose étrange comme cette enfant est laide! [. . .] Dalla Francia la frase mi arrivò addosso e mi colpì in mezzo al petto, mi colpisce tuttora, peggio dello spintone con cui Emma aveva mandato – manda – la piccola Berthe contro il comò, contro la pàtera di rame.”

[8]Ferrante Nella mia esperienza, la preponderanza della madre è assoluta, senza termine di paragone [. . .] Terragni e Muraro È il rapporto con la madre che in lei chiede insistentemente di essere raccontato? Ferrante Credo di sì”

[9] “È mia madre che ha pensato, ma nella sua lingua, comm’è brutta chesta bambina [. . .] perciò cerco negli anni di levare dal francese quella frase e deporla da qualche parte in una pagina mia, scriverla io per sentirne il peso, trasportarla nella lingua di mia madre, attribuirgliela, sentirla dalla sua bocca e capire se è frase femminile, se una donna davvero può pronunciarla, se io l’ho mai pensata per le mie figlie, se insomma va respinta e cancellata o accolta e rilavorata, sottratta alla pagina in francese maschile e trasportata in lingua di femmina-figlia-madre.”

[10] Scolars have explored the influence of Elsa Morante on Elena Ferrante’s novels; to this regard see the works of Stefania Lucamante, A Moltitude of Women: The Challenges of the Contemporary Italian Novel, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2008; and Patrzia Sambuco, Corporeal Bonds. The Daughter-Mother Relationship in Twentieth-Century Italian Women’s Writing, Toronto, The University of Toronto Press, 2012. Ferrante herself has often mentioned Morante as her primary inspiration, for instance in an interview for Vanity Fair, published on August 27th, 2015, in which she says: “The novel that is fundamental for me is Elsa Morante’s House of Liars.”

[11] “Esse, anzi, per abitudine, in modo irriflessivo, tagliano addosso alla madre panni che cancellano la donna, come se la seconda fosse una lebbra per la prima [. . .] A queste sarte delle madri ho pensato solo adesso, mentre scrivo. Ma mi attraggono molto [. . .] mi appassiona il nesso tra tagliare, vestire, dire [. . .] Forse Elsa Morante quando parlava delle madri e delle loro sarte parlava anche della necessità di ritrovarne gli abiti veri [. . .]. O forse no. A ogni modo io ricordo altre sue immagini [. . .] dentro cui sarebbe bello abbandonarsi per risalire come nuove sarte a combattere l’errore dell’Informe.”

[12] Ferrante recounts her experience as a child with her mother the seamstress in the essay that closes the 2003 edition of La frantumaglia and bears the same title as the book. 

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