The not-so-secret continuity of Elena Ferrante

Among the theories that abound as to the authorship of Elena Ferrante is the suggestion that she is, in fact, a collective of writers. As with all matters surrounding the continually posed question of why she remains anonymous, Ferrante has an arsenal of analogies for such occasions. But we accept that Elsa Morante wrote both House of Liars and Aracoeli, she observed in the Corriere della Sera; Joyce, Dubliners, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, in the Paris Review. We happily interpolate a career’s coherence where we are given someone to pin it to; in its absence, we flounder. Mercifully, the best recent criticism has been more attentive in conceiving of a kinship between Ferrante’s works that shouldn’t be difficult to see. In fact, Ferrante intimated a kind of unifying vision behind her early works over a decade ago in “La frantumaglia,” the last chapter in her non-fiction book of the same name (forthcoming in English this year). Reading those words now, with the Neapolitan quadrilogy behind us, offers another way to conceive of Ferrante’s evolution over timelends it the appearance, even, of inevitability.

 

In 2003, Giuliana Olivero and Camilla Valletti of Indice wrote to Ferrante. They observed that her protagonists till thenDelia of Troubling Love and Olga of The Days of Abandonmentseemed to come from myths and models of Mediterranean femininity from which they had extricated themselves only in part. Was their suffering, the editors asked, “the result of this intermittent rapport with their origins, of this difficult and never resolved estrangement from traditional roles?”[1] Ferrante responded that she found their theory intriguing, but that to engage with it she couldn’t proceed from their vocabulary: “origin is too loaded a word; and the adjectives you use (archaic, Mediterranean) have an echo that confuses me.”[2] She proposed instead a word of Neapolitan dialect, inherited from her mother: frantumaglia. Though not standard Italian, it seems to follow a recognizable rule: frantumi means fragments or shards; the -aglia suffix turns feminine plural nouns into pejoratives.

 

Because Ferrante suggests that she never asked her mother what was meant by the word, her initial sketches of what frantumaglia is work backwards, drawing inferences from childhood memory: “At times it made her dizzy, gave her a taste of iron in the mouth… it was at the origin of all suffering not attributable to a single obvious reason… it woke her in the middle of the night… suggested to her indecipherable tunes to sing under her breath that soon extinguished themselves with a sigh."[3] (Though Ferrante never states it, frantumaglia is clearly a femininely-coded affliction.) However, as she acknowledges that nowadays the word has more to do with her own conception than her mother’s, her definitions become increasingly abstract, though often related to a fear of losing the capacity for self-expression. It is the painful realisation of life’s incoherence and to confront the ugly frailty of bodies. It is both what causes suffering and what those who suffer are destined to become; it is an “unstable landscape” that violently reveals itself as your “true and only interiority.”[4] Drawing on a discarded passage of Troubling Love where a young Delia hacks off her hair in filial revolt, Ferrante summarized the effect of frantumaglia as the small movement that causes a tectonic shift. That moment, she wrote, dissolves distinctions of linear time, schematic ideas of before/after, past/present or myth/reality; sinks us into the primordial depths of “our unicellular ancestors” and “mutterings… in the caves,” all while we suppose ourselves anchored to the computers at which we sit.[5] What lends coherence to Ferrante’s vertiginous piling-on of definitions is the convenient fact that it functions in the same way as the concept itself: the ordinary opens out—in a sudden and not completely explicable way—onto the cosmic.

 

To consider what frantumaglia offers that “archaic,” “myths of Mediterranean origin” and settling accounts with the past to become “women of today” do not is an interesting proposition. In fact, it makes sense of the leap between the compact early novels and the sprawling Neapolitan cycle. First, that the series returned directly to Naples and to girlhood, depicting the course of a life rather than adult women in exile. Archaic can simply mean very old, but it also implies an element of incongruityan antique object out of place in a prevailing present. Olivero and Valletti suggested an “intermittent rapport” with one’s past and origins, a failure to conform to or properly dispose of “traditional roles” as the source of suffering. Their phrasing implied adult women removed in time and space from their origins, and the management of their relationships to this past as the problem. Yet Lila and Lenù suffer in girlhood not from the residue of an unreconciled past either personal or abstract-historical, but in response to their immediate surroundings: protracted episodes of malaise “not reducible to a single obvious reason.”

 

As if to underline the fact that frantumaglia belongs not solely, or even first, to the upwardly mobile, middle-class protagonists of Ferrante’s first novels, My Brilliant Friend also features an expanded cast of Neapolitan women. Figures who had heretofore been peripheralappearing only to Delia, Olga and Leda as threatening visions of fates narrowly avoidedbecame full and important characters in their own right. The dead Amalia of Troubling Love is supplanted by Lenù and Lila’s living mothers, Immacolata and Nunzia; Melina Cappucio is the poverella of The Days of Abandonment, minus drowning. Beyond the strictures of motherhood or marriage, Maestra Oliviero crucially steers Lenù towards a high school education, and Manuela Solara presides over the neighborhood with the secrets aggregated in her ledger of debts. Dayna Tortorici argues in n+1 that one of Ferrante’s strengths is her ability to lucidly incarnate concepts of feminist theory like entrustment and the “symbolic mother,” her gift to literary women “books that speak to them in a language their mothers can understand.” What Tortorici observes of Ferrante’s novels in general is also true here: Frantumaglia is a word legible to the women who would most identify with the experience it describes. In declining the editors’ lexicon and supplying her own, Ferrante rejects what might be considered “obfuscating theoretical language,” however well-intentioned it may be. Lenù’s mother openly resents her daughter’s intellectual pretensions. These women would sooner identify as Neapolitan than Mediterranean; Lila, by choice, never leaves Naples in her life. Frantumaglia is a formulation they might embrace, even if “myths of Mediterranean origin” is not.

 

By supplanting abstract terms with a very specific one, Ferrante was paradoxically suggesting a broader scope to her concerns and signaling the extent of what David Kurnick called in Public Books her “grand novelistic ambition.” Ferrante concluded that her problem with the kind of theory suggested by Olivero and Valletti was its neatness. The past, in her view, is urgent; it is not something that can be superannuated, but only possibly redeemed. Delia’s achievement is not to put distance between herself and her mother but to realise that she had “been” Amalia. Olga overcomes her abandonment only by realising the constitutive role the poverella has played in her life and according it its proper place. Ferrante, defining frantumaglia and her theory of female suffering in an ever more expansive and associative way, begins with her mother sighing and weaves around it an atmosphere of intangible menace, explaining and interpreting until that first image is of a piece with the collapse of time and the contemporaneousness of all history. Even if Ferrante had not yet thought to write them, it gives some account, perhaps, of the scale of her Neapolitan novels-to-be, and their deft interweaving of the personal and the political.

 

[1] “Il dolore è il risultato di questo rapporto intermittente con le proprie origini, di questo faticoso e mai risoltato distacco dai ruoli tradizionali?”

[2]origine è un vocabolo troppo affollato; e l’aggettivazione che usate (arcaico, mediterraneo) ha un’eco che mi confonde.”

[3] “A volte le dava capogiri, le causava un sapore di ferro in bocca... era all’origine di tutte le sofferenze non riconducibili a una sola evidentissima ragione… La frantumaglia… la svegliava in piena notte… le suggeriva qualche motivetto indecifrabile da cantare a mezza bocca che presto si estingueva in un sospiro.”

[4] “La frantumaglia è un paesaggio instabile… che si mostra all’io, brutalmente, come la sua vera e unica interiorità.”

[5] “Il dolore ci sprofonda tra le antenate unicellulari, tra i borbottii rissosi o terrorizzati dentro le caverne… pur tenendoci ancorate - mettiamo - al computer su cui stiamo scrivendo.”