It is an irony that will escape few that Elena Ferrante, an author who has been relentless in defending her absence over the years, has turned out to be so overwhelmingly present in her work. Many insist on reading her novels as thinly veiled biography, and despair as critics might at this, Ferrante herself endorses the biographical fallacy in Frantumaglia, a collection of essays, letters, and notes, published in its first edition in 2003; the work claims to—and demands the right to—guide readers through the meaning of her fiction.
As a result, it is nearly impossible to read the Neapolitan Novels without the specter of their creator and her mystery hovering over us. It’s as if—in disembarrassing herself of the inconveniences of being an author in the flesh and opting to transmute her persona into artistic work—Ferrante has welcomed herself into the house of fiction, not solely as its architect but as its housekeeper, its butler, its cook. By some dexterous sleight of hand, in performing her absence and recapitulating Barthes’s dictum, she has, in fact, very much resuscitated the author, and not just any author but an exacting author, nosy at best, manipulative at worst.
Faced with this intricate a level of authorial orchestration, critics find themselves in the unenviable position of having to choose between two interpretive approaches. The first, sanctioned by Ferrante, invokes the words, images, and authors that populate Frantumaglia. The second approach, less common, rehearses some of the tools of paranoid reading that factions of academia have denounced in recent years; it heeds Ferrante’s call, but seeks to look beyond it.
This rift is neatly illustrated by two recent monographs—Alessia Ricciardi’s Finding Ferrante: Authorship and the Politics of World Literature and Stiliana Milkova’s Elena Ferrante as World Literature. Though comparable in scope, these books adopt opposing stances vis-à-vis the elusive author who reshaped the literary landscape of the last decade.
Ricciardi ignores the guidance of Ferrante and Frantumaglia to draw her own, refreshingly original conclusions about the Neapolitan Novels and how they fit into not just our understanding of Italian culture but also world literature. Meanwhile, Milkova follows Ferrante’s lead, but in an unexpected way. The result is not simply a well-researched monograph but a model of academic praxis that takes its cue from Ferrante’s interest in female collaboration and collective authorship.
The rift caused by critical/literary disobedience is not a trivial matter. Nor is it one that can be neatly divided into egregious offenders and uncritical adherents.
Reviewing David Markson’s exquisite Wittgenstein’s Mistress in 1990, David Foster Wallace mused on novels that “not only cry out for what we call ‘critical interpretations’ but actually try to help direct them.”1 Most of us are familiar with these fictionalized thought experiments. The 20th century, burdened by its social torments, penchant for formalist acrobatics, and affinity for psychoanalysis, churned them out through the likes of Mann, Sartre, and Nabokov. When tethered to ideology, these texts are doomed to fail (as literature, anyways). When, however, they strike the fine balance between dramatizing an intellectual argument and spinning a fine thread, they can be splendid material for both heart and brain.
No one in the contemporary literary landscape is a more thrilling heir to this tradition than Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian author who rose to stardom with the publication of the Neapolitan Novels. Back in 1991, Ferrante wrote to her publisher that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” Ever since, she has been fiercely protective of her privacy, declining to grant in-person interviews and refusing to participate in book readings or TV appearances.
But the circumstances of her absence are now storied. What’s worth noting is how Ferrante has compensated for this absence with Frantumaglia, where, despite disavowing the need for an author, she offers a clearer authorial figure than most “real” writers could ever wish for.
Frantumaglia might well be her most fascinating text: it is both fiction incarnate and a work of self-exegesis. In it, amid numerous readings of her own novels, Ferrante spins a tale of biographical genesis: she writes of her poor upbringing, her abusive father, the looming presence of Naples in her life, and of her mother, a seamstress rent by an existential malaise she called frantumaglia.
In conjuring a story that is too obvious a transfiguration of her plots—and, as it turns out, false—Ferrante has pried open the doors of her fictional house. Not only that; like the Ariadne she so admires, she has spun a thread for readers to follow as she unravels and reveals the literary, philosophical, and mythological influences behind her fiction. She has created an oeuvre that, in Wallace’s words, screams to be interpreted.
In this sense, Frantumaglia intends to guide our analysis of a larger body of work. The results are undeniable. One would be hard-pressed to find a study of the Italian author that does not gravitate around terms like smarginatura and frantumaglia, or that does not situate her in the literary universe she herself has fashioned.
Whether to play by Ferrante’s rules or not is, of course, the reader’s prerogative. In her superb introduction, Ricciardi is not afraid to lay out her cards, distancing herself from Ferrante’s path and from the vast majority of scholars in the US who have remained diffident in addressing the big elephant in the room: “It is high time,” she writes, “that we acknowledge Ferrante’s apparent identity as the eminent Germanist and translator Anita Raja.”
For such a statement to come this early in the book feels like a refreshing disavowal of the usual acrobatics critics—myself included—often resort to in an effort to tiptoe around the issue of Ferrante’s identity. But, unlike Claudio Gatti’s scandalous 2016 exposé, Finding Ferrante is not fueled by morbid curiosity. Ricciardi does not care to unmask. Rather, this initial acknowledgment serves to prop up her thoughtful analysis of Ferrante’s place not just within the bounds of a national literary tradition but “at the confluence of Italy and Germany’s cultural histories.”
The ante is upped, too, when we consider that Ricciardi’s goal is twofold. First, she seeks to trace the German legacy of Ferrante’s imaginary. And, in so doing, she also seeks to wrest her oeuvre from the clutches of an anglophone market intent on siphoning off the Neapolitan Novels into the vast repository of readily consumable, ahistorical stereotypes.
Despite the admirable goals of her project, this we can’t ignore: by insisting on Raja’s German heritage, Ricciardi explicitly disregards Ferrante’s wishes. She remains respectful and even admiring of her, but at no point does she allow herself to be circumscribed by the world and decrees sketched in Frantumaglia.
Most notable is her refusal to exonerate the author for her absence. Finding Ferrante carefully teases out the political implications of the subterfuge Ferrante has contrived. Ricciardi’s gripe does not rest on an accusation of cultural appropriation (Raja does not hail from a lower-class background), but rather on the conviction that such a trick obscures the quartet’s masterful critique of Italian society and “risks abetting readers too willing to be misled on the subject of Southern Italy’s complicated cultural and historical realities.” In other words, in aligning her fictional biography with the lives of Elena and Lila, Ferrante is fueling the fire of autofictional readings that ignore the complex transnational dynamics at play in the novels and, in the process, run roughshod over the characters’ historical specificity. (It is hard not to cheer along as Ricciardi dismisses the two bogeymen of contemporary literary criticism: autofiction and metafiction.)
The main culprits, it seems, are readers, by which Ricciardi, in a somewhat condescending but not wholly unjustified manner, often means anglophone readers: “The average anglophone reader,” she writes, “will welcome Ferrante’s invented biography far more readily than her real one.” Through her indictment of the global literary market, Ricciardi seeks to rescue Ferrante’s work from surfing “the wave of global marketing, especially the tidal current of anglophone publicity, toward the shore of what might be called world literature lite, where readers welcome titles from all nations into a state of slightly exoticized naturalization.”
I leave to others to decide whether Ricciardi’s transgression constitutes an ethical breach. I will say, however, that in refusing to play by Ferrante’s rules, Ricciardi has managed to expand the reach of the Neapolitan Novels, propping them up as a worthy exemplum of Goethe’s vision for Weltliteratur, a mode of literary circulation that champions difference in lieu of the prevalent “flaccid globalisms” (per Apter) of our day, imbricated as the literary market is with the practices of neoliberalism. In the end, Ricciardi delivers on her promise to offer a different reading of Ferrante’s novels, enlarging the universe of Frantumaglia to include the likes of not only Goethe but also Wolf, Bachmann, Büchner, and Jelinek.
What to do with Ferrante? In the name of what values are we allowed to go against her wishes to remain absent?
In contrast with Ricciardi’s less reverent stance, Milkova’s Elena Ferrante as World Literature remains more deferential to its object of study. It recognizes Ferrante’s authority and seeks to “translate abstract concepts into concrete plot events.” The book amasses an impressive bibliography that includes the staples of literature and philosophy as well as the latest publications on the subject.
It is here, perhaps, other than in their treatment of the Raja/Ferrante scandal, that these books are most patently different: Ricciardi almost entirely overlooks current scholarship on Ferrante, mentioning Tiziana de Rogatis’s Elena Ferrante’s Key Words only once and in passing, and leaving other scholars of Ferrante such as Ferrara, Milkova, Pinto, Santovetti, and Wehling-Giorgi unnamed. Milkova, on the other hand, assiduously incorporates disparate critical voices to devise an argument that is polyphonic but ultimately her own.
Her monograph is ambitious in scope. It covers the entirety of Ferrante’s oeuvre, aiming to “introduce Ferrante’s writing to a broader academic audience and to provide a scholarly apparatus for studying it.” It more than delivers on this front, proceeding methodically and leaving no text of Ferrante’s untouched. Even The Beach at Night, which most critics and readers slept through, gets its due attention. Milkova is primarily interested in exploring how women in these stories attempt to break free from the traditional discourses on femininity that confine them. To this end, and in true interdisciplinary spirit, she resorts to feminist geography, philosophy, visual studies, literary criticism, and art history to complement her readings.
Among some notable moments in the book that display Milkova’s far-reaching capabilities are, first, her discussion of framing and unframing (I am certain even Ferrante would be surprised by some of the book’s insights), and, second, her interest in topography as observed through the lens of feminist geography. Her musings on Naples and Turin as sites of female oppression work toward her goal of illuminating “the workings of Ferrante’s literary imagination and her construction of an embodied female subjectivity, a maternal body and voice grounded in psychical, corporeal, and spatial realities.”
Milkova is at her best when trading the birds-eye view for the labor of textual analysis. She draws on thematic similarities to place the Ferrantean corpus in conversation with other works of world literature. But her arguments, bolstered by astute philological observations, also pack a real punch.
Take, for instance, the parallels she draws between Troubling Love or The Days of Abandonment and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It would be easy enough to underscore their shared depiction of pathologized women and controlling men. Yet, Milkova also finds lexical overlaps between the novels and the translation of Gilman’s story (two words in particular, strisciare [to crawl] and giallo [yellow] are at the center of her analysis). Her obsessive attention to language is commendable but also unsurprising: as a translator herself, Milkova is clearly attuned to the semantic potentialities and risks of translation.
All along, Milkova proceeds with the confidence of someone guided by the ethos of Frantumaglia. “Each of these chapters,” she writes, “relies on a combination of analytical tools, a practice warranted by Ferrante’s own creative approach detailed in La frantumaglia.” In fact, though the book’s bibliography remains admirably expansive, its critical compass remains the urtext of the Ferrantean universe. In a move that recognizes Ferrante’s quasi-despotic control over her work and its reception, Milkova describes Frantumaglia as “the first scholarly monograph on Elena Ferrante, a detailed (self-)study of her poetics.” In this sense, Milkova stands as a rightful successor to the Ferrantean exegetic legacy. She does not read against Ferrante, but alongside her, turning what others might perceive as an intrusive presence into a stamp of approval.
Ferrante Breaks the Frame
The rift caused by critical/literary disobedience—as Milkova and Ricciardi teach us—is not a trivial matter. Nor is it one that can be neatly divided into egregious offenders and uncritical adherents.
It’s a question that anguished Milan Kundera, who condemned Max Brod’s decision to publish Kafka’s manuscripts despite his friend’s explicit wishes to the contrary: “To me, Brod’s indiscretion is inexcusable. He betrayed his friend.”2 And yet, Kundera reluctantly confesses that he could not have refrained from committing the same violation: “Even though a dead friend’s wish has for me the force of law, I am not a lackey to the laws, I respect them as a free being who is not blind to other values, values that may stand opposed to the law.”3
What, then, to do with Ferrante? In the name of what values are we allowed to go against her wishes to remain absent? In the name of what values, we’d do well to ask, was Elena allowed to go against Lila’s wishes to disappear, spawning with that betrayal one of the 21st century’s greatest literary successes?
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.