Elena Fer­rante may be phys­i­cally in­vis­i­ble but her writ­ing is a deeply phys­i­cal act, writes Stephanie Bishop

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

To­wards the end of The Story of the Lost Child, the fi­nal vol­ume in Elena Fer­rante’s Neapoli­tan Quar­tet, the nar­ra­tor, Lenu, jus­ti­fies the nar­ra­tion of the story as an at­tempt to give her friend Lila ‘‘a form whose bound­aries won’t dis­solve’’. Lila has suf­fered acutely from ex­actly this, a mys­te­ri­ous ill­ness in which the phys­i­cal bound­aries of peo­ple and things ap­pear sud­denly to erode, the ‘‘thing and the per­son … gush­ing out of them­selves, mix­ing liq­uid metal and flesh’’. She is ter­ri­fied by this ‘‘dis­so­lu­tion’’, afraid of be­ing ‘‘plunged into a sticky, jum­bled re­al­ity’’ where she might van­ish.

Through­out the four novels Lila is a fig­ure of par­tic­u­lar in­ten­sity and this mal­ady from which she suf­fers rep­re­sents, in con­cen­trated form, the defin­ing ail­ment and treach­er­ous base con­di­tion of the hu­man self that is con­sis­tently de­picted across all Fer­rante’s works, ex­pe­ri­enced by all her lead­ing women. This con­di­tion is fran­tu­maglia.

The term fea­tures as the ti­tle of Naples-born Fer­rante’s new book, the first col­lec­tion in English of her non­fic­tional pieces, com­prised largely of pro­fes­sional let­ters and in­ter­views since 1991.

As a book of frag­ments, the ti­tle refers to the na­ture of the con­tents. But it also speaks to a vi­sion of the self that is com­mu­ni­cated through­out the ma­te­rial: hu­man iden­tity as some­thing par­tial, frag­mented, con­flicted and het­ero­ge­neous.

The col­lec­tion draws its force from the con­sis­tent re­hearsal and re­vi­sion of this term, fran­tu­maglia. A chameleonic term, it refers to mul­ti­ple phe­nom­ena: it is the cre­ative start­ing point of all Fer­rante’s fic­tion, a dis­com­fort­ing phys­i­cal con­di­tion, an ag­i­tated men­tal state, and the ba­sic make-up of the hu­man psy­che.

In Fer­rante’s vi­sion, the self is a crowd of frag­ments, de­fined by the re­la­tional col­li­sions that shat­ter us: ‘‘To be alive mean[s] to con­tin­u­ally col­lide with the ex­is­tence of oth­ers and to be col­lided with.’’

It would be hard to un­der­es­ti­mate the sig­nif­i­cance of this term for Fer­rante’s oeu­vre. In this col­lec­tion Fer­rante traces the ori­gin of the word to her mother, who used it to de­scribe the in­ca­pac­i­tat­ing sense of be­ing ‘‘racked by con­tra­dic­tory sen­sa­tions that were tear­ing her apart’’.

Fran­tu­maglia here refers to a form of ‘‘dis­quiet’’ brought about by the sense that one is dis­in­te­grat­ing into a ‘‘jumble of frag­ments’’, an ‘‘aquatic mass of de­bris’’. As a psy­chic con­di­tion it is ac­com­pa­nied by phys­i­cal symp­toms: dizzi­ness, the taste of iron in the mouth.

Fran­tu­maglia is also at the source of Fer­rante’s cre­ative process, in­sep­a­ra­ble from the mo­ti­va­tion to write. The work of the writer, Fer­rante ar­gues, is ‘‘to con­trol that noisy per­ma­nent frag­ment­ing in your head’’. There is a ‘‘be­fore’’ to any work of fic­tion, a pe­riod de­fined by an en­counter with this over­abun­dant clash of mem­ory frag­ments — ‘‘the store­house of Fran­tu­maglia: A Writer’s Jour­ney By Elena Fer­rante Trans­lated by Ann Gold­stein Text Pub­lish­ing, 374pp, $29.99 time with­out the or­der­li­ness of a his­tory, a story’’ – and then an after ‘‘when the story be­gins’’, and the pieces find some or­der.

Fran­tu­maglia is never less than com­pelling and we read with a sim­i­lar de­sire to recog­nise a pat­tern. Di­vided into three parts (Let­ters 1991-2003, Tesserae 2003-2007 and Let­ters 2011-2016), the book fea­tures cor­re­spon­dence be­tween Fer­rante and her pub­lish­ers, de­tailed re­sponses to the adap­ta­tion of her ear­lier novels into films, com­pre­hen­sive writ­ten an­swers to in­ter­view ques­tions. The let­ters are pre­sented with­out in­tro­duc­tion, and as we read we’re cu­ri­ous to know how they fit into the larger pic­ture.

Fer­rante’s writ­ten re­sponses to in­ter­views are framed as let­ters with­out the pre­ced­ing ques­tions — th­ese are printed in note form in small font, at the end of Fer­rante’s re­sponse. Many let­ters that ap­pear here were orig­i­nally un­sent, some (we are told post­script) are in­com­plete. One does not know to what de­gree, if any, they have been fi­nessed for this pub­li­ca­tion.

Nor are th­ese your av­er­age let­ters: they are lengthy, many eas­ily ex­ceed­ing 10 or 20 pages and mor­ph­ing into an es­say. They are im­pas­sioned, of­ten polem­i­cal, al­ways pointed. They dra­mat­i­cally un­veil the process of Fer­rante’s cre­ative work, and rail against the cul-

De­tail from an Ital­ian edi­tion of Elena Fer­rante’s Fran­tu­maglia

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