Early in Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, Elena Ferrante acknowledges that she is going to lie. Even though Frantumaglia, a collection of letters, interviews, and other ephemera, is ostensibly non-fiction, it’s a label that seems too flexible, if not entirely meaningless. Ferrante is an unreliable narrator herself but she wouldn’t be the first woman, fictional or otherwise, who was purposefully untrustworthy.
The book’s title, Ferrante writes, is a word borrowed from her mother, a woman Ferrante describes as a talented dressmaker in Naples who spoke in dialect. “[My mother] said she that inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments. The frantumaglia depressed her,” she writes. In her mother’s hands, frantumaglia is both the haunting of history, of fragments of the self that continuously rattle, as well as the source of sadness. In some respect, it is a tabula rasa for womanhood. For Ferrante, the concept of frantumaglia is even more volatile:
The frantumaglia is an unstable landscape, an infinite aerial or aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self. The frantumaglia is the store house of time without the orderliness of history, a story.
The passage could be a manifesto for her novels: the search for the authentic self beneath the rubble of history and womanhood; the subsequent, catastrophic realization that the self is “fated to vanish” into the spectacle of the crowd. It’s a sophisticated passage, steeped in post-modern theories that Ferrante draws from with an elegant ease. And, because it’s Ferrante, the passage is beautifully executed, both evocative and vivid. In short, it’s a perfect Ferrante passage—everything a dedicated reader could possibly want from the writer of the Neapolitan Quartet is here.
And yet, Ferrante’s mother—the woman described in interviews and reproduced here in a loving passage about dressmaking and clothing—is fiction. We know now, after an investigation by the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti, that Elena Ferrante is likely Anita Raja, a translator whose mother fled Germany during the Holocaust. Raja’s mother was not a dressmaker, nor did she speak in Neapolitan dialect. How much of the passage is true—how much of Raja’s own biography is accurately presented throughout Frantumaglia—is unclear.
In these fragments, it’s impossible to tell where the fiction Ferrante ends and the real Raja begins. I’m not certain that the delineation matters. It doesn’t seem to matter who Ferrante actually is; it’s enough to know that she’s beautiful fiction. “The word is always flesh,” Ferrante writes to an interviewer, a winking notation that collapses the space between the women who populate her novels and the author herself.
Ferrante was always present in her novels, as she is here, in narrative fragments, in small pieces. It’s a point she returns to again and again in the interview transcripts included in Frantumaglia. In nearly every interview Ferrante is asked about her identity and subsequently asked how much of her books are autobiographical. In nearly every interview, Ferrante responds by saying that her novels are fiction and she draws from only her personal knowledge of human emotions, particularly their gendered expression. It was an answer that didn’t seem to assuage critics who either simply couldn’t believe that Lenu and Lila were pure creations or who simply wanted more and more of Ferrante’s story.
And yet Ferrante resisted those questions, dismissed them as part of an increasing spectacle that treats authorship as an end goal, rather than the novel itself. “The biographical path does not lead to the genius of a work; it’s only a micro-story on the side,” Ferrante writes. It’s perhaps why the hunt for her identity felt wrong. What would knowing about Anita Raja tell us about Elena Ferrante? Perhaps it could be a confirmation that Ferrante, long rumored to be a man or multiple people, wasn’t all that creative. Ferrante balks at both suggestions, she doesn’t believe that the author is “inessential” just inconsequential to good writing.
Perhaps also, as Ferrante suggests, the clamor for the celebrity author would finally be met, newspapers would be sold, traffic goals would be met, and culture writers could have more than just a good book, they could have a star. But when Ferrante was identified as Raja, readers resisted the identification. Such mundane knowledge seemed designed to ruin the magic of Ferrante, reduce her authoritative representation of gender to its dull realities. The person created by Ferrante—that new autobiography that quite clearly engaged in the magic of her novels—satisfies the reader’s craving of her otherworldliness. In Frantumaglia, you won’t find Ferrante as a real person who, like everyone, is a succession of boring details, of chores and schedules and financial obligations. Ferrante may grapple with the significance of relationships between mothers and daughters, or female friends, she isn’t interested in their minutiae, she is interested in piecing together the fragments.
So here is Ferrante in written fragments: she cranky and difficult, in her own words, she’s “neurotic.” She’s anxious and protective; warm and kind; a woman is who simultaneously politically engaged and an aesthete. She is also an intellectual, she freely cites Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, and the classics. She weaves them into letters personally and effortlessly and is grounded in the literature of university humanities departments. But her intellect isn’t cold, her application of theory isn’t done objectively—the women that populate her novels are not merely flat, fictional objects to Ferrante, rather they’re real and visceral (“the word is always flesh”).
In various letters, Ferrante writes about her characters as if they are flesh and blood women; she has real concerns about how the choices that she makes affect them (there are a number of deleted passages in the book, particularly from Days of Abandonment). The letters, taken together, make plain that Ferrante also knows the contours of these women, the shape of the feelings and their limitations. Olga, Lenu, and Lila seem as real in Frantumaglia as they do in their novels, largely because they are real to Ferrante.
Rendering real women, with their fraught relationships and anger, joy, anxieties, disappointment and sadness, has always been where Ferrante is at her most authentic; where she is her most truthful. But in Frantmuaglia, her first work of non-fiction, the reader finds one of Ferrante’s most convincing works of fiction: Elena Ferrante.