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