The Ferrante Paradox

Merve Emre

Reading Frantumaglia, the new collection of letters, interviews, and occasional prose from Elena Ferrante, I was struck by how often the author opened her correspondence with an apology. “I apologize again for the trouble I cause you,” she writes to her publisher Sandra Ozzola of her unwillingness to appear in person to accept a prestigious literary prize. “I’m sincerely afraid that I don’t know how to contribute to your project … I apologize in advance,” she writes to Mario Martone, the director who wants to adapt her novella Troubling Love into a film, before providing him with 15 pages of brilliant, exacting notes on the script he has sent her. “I apologize in advance for the confusing or contradictory passages you may encounter,” she writes to critic and magazine editor Goffredo Fofi in a letter she ultimately decides not to send. The refrain clangs across all three hundred pages of the book: “I apologize.” “I am sorry,” “I am sorry,” “I am sorry.”

An apology is not a neutral act, especially not an apology that is issued publicly, as Ferrante’s apologies now are. An apology performs an act of deference, yet it need not be sincere. Often, in fact, it isn’t. “I am sorry” can serve as a strategic front, allowing the speaker to present a remorseful or self-vilifying attitude while continuing to think or do whatever she pleases. For Ferrante, apologizing is a tactic for preserving her innocence, a self-protective stance she has assumed since childhood, albeit with certain reservations. “Innocence—I began to convince myself—is never to get into the situation of arousing malicious reactions in others,” she writes. “Difficult but possible. So I taught myself to be silent, I apologized for everything, I reined in my tongue, I was polite and compliant. Yet secretly I was bad.”

Delivered in hindsight, the implicit message here is that preserving one’s innocence through unfelt apologies is a childish strategy, both politically ineffectual and self-deceptive. But Frantumaglia suggests otherwise. Whatever else it may be—a glimpse into the drawers of her writing desk, her publisher’s attempt to stoke or satisfy the curiosity of her readers—it is a book that, apology by apology, builds the case for Ferrante’s writerly innocence: not just her modest withdrawal from the “media circus and its demands,” but her complete exemption from the material and ideological operations of the literary field. “I consider the text a self-sufficient body, which has in itself, in its makeup, all the questions and all the answers. And then real books are written only to be read,” Ferrante writes. Frantumaglia is full of such statements of shallow profundity. Reading “once … was a purely private fact.” “Every reader gets from the book he is reading nothing else but his book.” We all “read books by no one.”

It is not clear to me that this case needed to be made. If Claudio Gatti’s claims about the Ferrante pseudonym revealed anything, it was not her true identity—that has been neither confirmed nor denied, and thus remains unresolved—but the degree to which critics, with nothing short of reverence, had already accepted her insistence on literature’s purity. She had a knack for turning self-proclaimed Marxists and feminists hopelessly middlebrow; for seducing even our most advanced critics into forgetting what they very well knew: that novels do not spring fully formed from the minds of geniuses; that the use of a pseudonym does not subvert a literary marketplace in which books are bought and sold with authors’ names emblazoned on their covers, their spines, on the top of every other page. These were children’s dreams, which perhaps explains why the anger of her defenders so often resembled the anger of children who, peering over the railing on Christmas Eve, were shocked to discover that there was no Santa Claus, only a tired mother pressing her scissors to the ribbons that wrapped their presents.

How did Ferrante manage to undo so many without arousing any malicious reactions? How did she remake the sensibilities of readers trained to sniff out politically suspect ideologies? Frantumaglia is, above all, an astonishing tutorial in unlearning how to read: how to abandon the language of critique that many have cultivated through formal schooling, in the hopes that such abandonment might bring us closer to the state of innocence that Ferrante has claimed for herself and her work. She draws inspiration from Walter Benjamin, who, in the beginning of Berlin Childhood around 1900, writes about learning to get lost in the city of his childhood, its roads and rivers furrowed into his memory. “Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling,” Benjamin writes. The same holds true for reading, insofar as unlearning how to read also requires some schooling, or rather, some unschooling. “The ‘right reading’ is an invention of academics and critics,” Ferrante claims. “The books we’ve truly read are phantoms conjured up by reading with no rules.”

<i>Naples, 2007</i>. Photograph by David Evers / Flickr

For Ferrante, the best kind of reading is childish, untaught, enchanting. It summons up our “strong, slightly vulgar passions” and unearths a “fund of pleasure” that too many have “repressed in the name of Literature”—the cultural category produced by a disenchanted adulthood of criticism and theory. But a “real book,” a book we have “truly read,” is utterly absorbing, a wormhole to some pre-ideological moment before academic theorists, punishing and cold, unmasked reading and writing for what it was: a densely mediated activity, a marker of class privilege, a field of production in which many kinds of exclusions—by race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality—are erased under the blinding and numinous sign of Art. It is tempting to throw off the burden of political and historical consciousness in the face of enchantment. The magician waves his wand, taps his hat, and we realize, almost as an afterthought, that we do not want to know where the rabbit was hiding.

It is also tempting to believe that writing is “not a job”—another refrain of Ferrante’s throughout Frantumaglia; tempting to believe that a real book is simply an imprint of the author’s consciousness. It is an incantation that guards against the social, economic, or political circumstances of authorial production. This is the fantastical meaning behind frantumaglia, a word that Ferrante says she borrows from her mother’s Neapolitan dialect. Frantumaglia literally means “a jumble of fragments,” but the word wields a fabulous and disorienting performative power. Speaking it makes her mother dizzy. It sets her singing under her breath and drives her out of the house, the stove still on, the sauce burning. It makes her weep. “It’s the right word for what I’m convinced I saw as a child—or, anyway, during that time invented by adults that we call childhood—shortly before language entered me and instilled speech: a bright-colored explosion of sounds, thousands and thousands of butterflies with sonorous wings,” Ferrante writes. What we are offered in Frantumaglia, then, is something that predates not just literature, but language; a return to a state of pure sensory impression that could be called “childhood,” were “childhood” not already a compromised notion.

To return us to our childhoods, Ferrante speaks like a child. Her genre of choice is the domestic epic, her heroine the weaving woman: Ariadne, Dido, but above all others, Ferrante’s mother, described as a dressmaker in Naples, whose work Ferrante discusses at length in an interview titled “La Frantumaglia.” It unfolds from the perspective of Ferrante as a child, standing beside her mother at a fabric store, her head just clearing her mother’s waist. She waits and watches as her mother chooses the perfect fabric with which to “weave her spell.” Her mother’s dressmaking was “a spell I was deeply familiar with,” Ferrante writes, “but it enchanted me anyway, always.” Recreating this enchantment for her readers requires a subtle act of narrative erasure (like that of My Brilliant Friend, and unlike Proust, to whom she is so often compared): a refusal to impose any reflexive distance between the perspective of the adult who tells the story and the child she once was. It is as if the adult, and her artful shaping of a memory, never existed.

Except, of course, the adult narrator does exist and the spell her mother casts is nothing if not artfully described:

 

It was the sewing that cast a spell, much more than cutting. The mobile skill of that hand put together the pieces of material, made the seams invisible, the pieces of fabric regained a soft continuity, a new compactness, became a dress, the shape of a female body, skin clinging to skin, an organism that lay in her lap and sometimes slid down to her feet, which were in motion like her hands, ready to go to the pedal of the sewing machine. It was a back and forth that seemed like a dance to me, the hand moved the needle, the mouth bit the thread, the chest often rotated on the chair, turned to the machine to sew, the feet, wide, with a powerful structure, rested on the pedal and started the movement of the machine’s needle …

 

That her description is an allegory for writing fiction is obvious; Ferrante tells us as much when she reveals that the Neapolitan phrase “to cut the cloth on” is slang for telling stories, and that the women who come to try on her mother’s dresses speak of love, betrayal, heartbreak, and revenge with such passion that the fabric trembles under the force of their words. Yet it is also an allegory for the act of anonymous creation; an allegory expertly threaded through the movements of the sentences. It is the “mobile skill of the hand”—not the hand itself, not the woman to whom the hand belongs—that performs all the work and erases all traces of the work’s artfulness. And it is the dress that escapes the agile hand of its maker, taking on a life of its own as a separate “organism,” a compact and continuous shape. All the while its maker remains in fragments: a hand, a mouth, a chest, two wide and powerful feet. The woman to whom they all belong remains veiled by the beauty of the fabrics she has woven together.

<i>Mannequins</i>. Photograph by Karyn Christner / Flickr

The problem with allegory is that it can get heavy-handed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ferrante’s children’s book, The Beach at Night, which I have read aloud two or three times to my son before putting him to bed in the evenings. It tells the story of a pale, dark-haired, self-pitying doll who is abandoned on the shore at sunset and discovered at night by a Mean Beach Attendant, a man with a dark mustache and coarse hands. From between his lips he pulls out a thin golden hook, forces it down the doll’s throat, and rips from her a secret that she has guarded with great care: her name. My son did not appreciate the startlingly allegorical nature of the scene—to be fair, he’s only nine months old—and I found it cheap, gimmicky.

What The Beach at Night reveals is how impossible it is to ignore the biographical in reading Ferrante when so much of her prose turns on her allegories of anonymity, whether in the form of a dress made by no one or a doll who will not speak her name. It is precisely her refusal of the biographical, and her subsequent representation of that refusal, that has lodged the biographical ever deeper into the heart of what she writes. This is a paradox—or parlor trick, depending on one’s perspective—that critics have universally failed to perceive, resulting in a basic misunderstanding of what kinds of claims the biographical allows one to make. For instance, it makes no logical sense to argue, as Alexander Chee does in his review of Frantumaglia, that there is no value in knowing Ferrante’s identity, while also asserting that, if Ferrante is translator Anita Raja, whose ancestors are Polish and Jewish and not among the Neapolitan poor, then Frantumaglia is “a metafiction, her most experimental text yet, a massive prank on criticism and the media.” Incoherent claims like this have proliferated in Gatti’s wake.

Why were we so invested in Ferrante’s anonymity anyway? After all, we never had it, even when we thought we did; we were always reading biographically, because that’s simply how we read novels when author’s names are appended to them. Setting aside the egregious ethical violations in outing her, the important question for literary criticism is not why would anyone want to know who she is, but why not know? What harm does it to do us? Is her literature so fragile that it can be injured by knowing a name? I would like to believe that the answer is no.