End of author’s anonymity
Elena Ferrante wrote for decades without revealing her identity, saying readers should judge her work on its own merits rather than on an opinion of her There’s a Groundhog Day-like quality to the interviews in Frantumaglia, a collection which also includes various correspondence, conducted over 25 years with the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante.
It’s hard not to feel for Ferrante — whose Neapolitan Quartet catapulted her to fame on these and many other shores — as she’s pelted again and again with the same questions: Why have you chosen anonymity? Hasn’t this backfired by generating more interest in you than in your books?
We learn plenty about Ferrante in the pages of Frantumaglia. One is that she’s patient. Though the fundamentals of Ferrante’s answer have stayed the same all these years, the way she comes at the question (which, notably, has been pursued most aggressively by her male interlocutors) has changed in interesting ways. This speaks to her main point: judge me by my words, not my author photo.
Ferrante has in fact long insisted that she’s not anonymous; that she has merely withdrawn from the media rituals associated with book marketing. Those rituals have intensified since Ferrante began publishing in the pre-Internet early 1990s. Nowadays, writers routinely tweet their every review and award nomination (while grumbling privately about their publicists’ failure to do so). They’re also expected to express gratitude for this — witness the petulance of at least one Nobel committee member over Bob Dylan’s failure to acknowledge his (unsolicited) accolade.
She despises author idolatry or treating readers as consumers (“Literature that indulges the tastes of the reader is a degraded literature.”) In Ferrante’s view, if a book can’t stand up on its own, then it shouldn’t be published in the first place. Her own books have stood up well; so well that an Italian journalist was able to follow the money they’ve generated and “unmask” her a few weeks ago as Italian translator Anita Raja.
Less surprising than Ferrante’s real name was the backlash this generated; dragging her into the open may have the ironic effect of forcing that journalist into hiding.
Ferrante has long maintained that everything we need to know about her is in her novels. Frantumaglia rounds out this picture, minus the fictional gauze. Here, she delves into her thoughts on feminism (she’s a feminist but fears the “linearity of militant causes; in literature they have a terrible effect”), Italian society, film, the classics (which she studied) and motherdaughter relationships.
She speaks about her work — its themes, characters, inspirations — with insight and analysis but rejects the notion of “correct” interpretations.
We can gloat over her naming Alice Munro in her personal pantheon of the greatest female writers, along with Woolf and Austen.
The book’s most astounding section is Ferrante’s 70-page response, from 2003, to five questions from the editors of an Italian literary magazine. Among other things, she explains how a term borrowed from her dressmaker mother, frantumaglia — meaning fragments, or “bits and pieces whose origin is difficult to pinpoint and which make a noise in your head, sometimes causing discomfort” — serves as a metaphor for her own creative process.
Ferrante writes about anonymity having a freeing effect on her work. It arguably had a freeing effect on readers, too: freedom from the conflict that comes when we discover a writer’s views to be contradictory to our own, freedom from the identity politics that have dominated recent literary discussion. She repeatedly says she would stop writing if this were taken away. Time will tell if that’s the case, but it would be a monumental loss for a negligible gain. The furor over Ferrante’s desire that we judge her work not according to our like, or dislike, of the personality behind it — or for the “importance” of its subject matter but for its “literary truth” — says more about us than about her.
Like the novels, Frantumaglia ends with a cursory “About the Author” that lists Ferrante’s fictional output: seven novels and a children’s book. It’s a nod to convention but also a scolding irony given the painstaking critical insights and reflections that take place on the previous 400 pages. It’s a subtle way of saying what Ferrante has been saying all along: Here I am, hiding in plain sight. Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries