What does a successful female artist owe the world?
An Italian journalist by the name of Claudio Gatti made the decision for Elena Ferrante in a piece published Sunday in the New York Review of Books and three European publications, citing financial documents to expose the identity of the internationally acclaimed author who wanted to remain unknown and used the name Ferrante as a pseudonym.
As aggressors have long done, Gatti justified his actions as inevitable. A successful woman, he claims, can’t expect to forgo public scrutiny entirely. If she won’t surrender and expose herself, someone else will have to do it for her, according to Gatti, for the terms of a woman’s relationship to the public are not hers to decide.
It was this kind of misogynist thinking that led Ferrante, in 1991, to tell the publishers of her first novel that she’d rather place the book in a drawer than put her real name on it and subject herself and her family to the Italian media. She said the reasons she desired total anonymity were difficult to explain. “I will only tell you,” she wrote in a letter, “that it is a small wager with myself, with my convictions.”
Under the name Elena Ferrante, this resolutely private writer went on to publish two more stand-alone novels and a four-part series known in English as the Neapolitan Quartet, every one of which has received more acclaim and readership than the one before it.
Despite 25 years of relentless requests to show up for awards ceremonies, Ferrante has remained firm in her refusal to be publicly connected to her fiction.
The convictions driving what Ferrante calls her “desire for intangibility” are evident on every page of “Frantumaglia,” which contains her extensive written correspondence with her publishers, numerous interviews and her responses to director Mario Martone, who adapted her first novel into a film in 1995. Europa Editions describes the volume as a “self-portrait” of a writer at work — a curious choice for a book by a writer determined to remain unseen.
I suspect the irony of calling “Frantumaglia” a “self-portrait” was intentional, a sly gesture toward the central question that readers of Ferrante’s novels have been debating for years: Would her radical investigation of women’s inner lives and relationships have been read with less reverence if she had allowed her physical body to be displayed on every cover? Ferrante’s decision has led to endless conjecture, in dozens of languages, about what a female writer stands to lose when she complies with the expectation to be photographed and speak at podiums where people can consider her face and body as she reads from her work.
And what is the psychic cost of accepting these requests, of being continually, publicly observed reading from one’s work? Does it impede a writer’s capacity for candor, as Ferrante suspects?
In each interview in this volume, Ferrante repeats her conviction that an author’s duty ends with writing a meaningful book. One of the many pleasures of this book is the increasing feistiness of her replies. “We know nothing about Shakespeare,” she says in a recent interview. “We continue to love the Homeric poems even though we know nothing about Homer. Why would anyone be interested in my little personal story if we can do without Homer’s or Shakespeare’s?”
In 2006, when an Italian journalist opens with the question, “How are you?” Ferrante responds: “An interview that begins with ‘How are you’ is a little frightening. What do you want me to say? If I start digging into the ‘how,’ I’ll never stop.”
Three years before this response, Ferrante went ahead and dug into the “how” with a reply that goes on for dozens of pages. That lengthy answer, the longest entry in this volume, includes an explanation of the book’s title. It is presented as the sort of autobiographical reflection that readers are eager for her to provide.
Regardless of whether it is an entirely invented description, the entry is complex and powerful. She describes her mother in Naples, Italy, complaining in dialect of suffering from a “frantumaglia.” Ferrante comes to understand frantumaglia as a contradictory jumble of sensations, an indefinable disquiet so intense that it leaves her mother dizzy. The author goes on to say that this feeling of “debris in the muddy water of the brain” accompanied her during the writing of her first two books. That feeling of wading through unsettling debris presents itself in her correspondence about those two first novels as well, and in much of the writing collected here. It is a volume of dizzying frantumaglia.
In that same many-page response from 2003, Ferrante writes her way to a moving reflection of her father’s conflicted desire to both display and hide her beautiful mother. The uncertainty of whether this is an actual memory or a concoction only adds to the potency of Ferrante’s ruminations on how she began to internalize this conflict. She describes how she comes to mistrust her father and fear for her mother to such a degree that she conceals herself in a dark closet for hours. The passage doesn’t draw an explicit connection between these childhood scenes and Ferrante’s now-famous wager with herself as a writer. The line, if one exists, between her father’s desire to control who sees her mother, and Ferrante’s adamant refusal to be seen at all is left undiscussed, its nuances left for readers to consider on their own.
When her editors received this post from her, they asked whether she would be open to publishing it with other interviews and correspondence. With reluctance, she agreed, and the book was published in Italy in 2003. Now, American readers hungry for every Ferrante sentence they can get will find many here in which she lowers her knife through the bread of life with the same startling force as she does in her novels.
No matter how many times Ferrante is presented with the same questions, she always responds with care and urgency.
“We are still in the thick of the battle,” she replied earlier this year when asked, yet again, to reflect on her protagonists and their determination to live on terms beyond those prescribed by the patriarchy.
She then discusses how many women still live in abject conditions before returning to the reality of educated women like herself. “Although we are free and combative,” she says, “we accept that our need for fulfillment in this or that field should be ratified by men in authority, who co-opt us after having evaluated whether we have sufficiently absorbed the male tradition and are able to become its dignified interpreters, free of female issues and weaknesses.”
When a writer can send a response of this depth and clarity about the ways a male-dominated society continues to confine women’s lives, even in countries that consider themselves egalitarian, it’s no wonder that some journalist would find the opportunity to finally expose her irresistible.
Would more female writers have been taken seriously enough to become part of the canon if every century had a brilliant writer who could address the cost of being visible and a woman with this much fiery eloquence while attempting to remain bodiless herself? We’ll never know. But I’m grateful the current century has had at least one.
Novey is the author of “Ways to Disappear,” a New York Times Editors' Choice and a finalist for the 2016 Eagles Prize.
“Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey” (out Nov. 1)
By Elena Ferrante
Europa Editions: 400 pp., $24