Book review: Frantumaglia - A Writer's Journey by Elena Ferrante

by Elizabeth Heritage / 01 February, 2017

Ferrante’s new book about writing is a journey through the fragments of experience.

Two big things happened while I was reading this book: the US elections and the Kaikoura earthquakes. They bashed my reading sideways. Suddenly, everything – even an esoteric ­discussion about the nature of literature, translated from Italian – was about politics and disaster.

Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey is a collection of letters, interviews and general thoughts by Elena Ferrante (the pen name of an internationally celebrated Italian novelist whose desire not to be known I will respect), translated by Ann Goldstein. In a strange way it was a really helpful book to be reading at that time. Ferrante talks a lot about how, once a book is written, the author is no longer necessary and the reader takes over – “it is the reader’s job to light the fuse of the words”. I was lighting fuses all over the shop.

“Frantumaglia” is a word that Ferrante’s mother left to her in Neapolitan dialect, ­meaning “a disquiet … an effect of the sense of loss, when we’re sure that everything that seems to us stable, lasting, an anchor for our life, will soon join that landscape of debris that we seem to see”. When the elections and then the earthquakes happened, I thought: “Aha. Frantumaglia.”

Frantumaglia is also “the jumble of fragments inside” from which stories can be made: “The act of writing is the continuous conveyance of that frantumaglia of sounds, emotions and things to the word and the sentence.” So when, sore and rattled, I sat down to write this review, I thought: “Aha again. I will ease the jumble in my brain through the process of writing. Frantumaglia.”

Ferrante writes well about writing, ­publishing and literature, and I recommend ­Frantumaglia to writers and those interested in her books (most famously, the Neapolitan quartet, beginning with My Brilliant Friend). She is actively engaged with feminist theory – although she rejects the notion that her novels are feminist works – and I found her thoughts on the place of women in the world illuminating.

“The history of women in the past hundred years is based on the very dangerous ‘crossing of the boundary’ imposed by patriarchal cultures. … the force with which they want to carry us back inside the old borders is … manifested as pure, crude, bloody violence. But also as the good-natured irony of educated men who belittle or demean our achievements.” This captures very well the spirit of the US elections; a giant misogynistic backlash against the progress made by feminism.

Ferrante is one of my favourite novelists and it was a pleasure to fall back into her writing. Having said that, Frantumaglia is a bit of an odd book; rather fragmented and repetitive (in every single interview, journalists grill her on her ­decision to keep her identity private). It is organised chronologically, whereas I think it would have been more helpful for it to have been arranged thematically. Nonetheless, it was an unexpectedly helpful companion through the grief and fear of one hell of a month. Thank you, Elena, whoever you are.

FRANTUMAGLIA: A WRITER’S JOURNEY, by Elena Ferrante, trans Ann Goldstein (Text, $37)

This article was first published in the January 14, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

Latest

Trump's stolen slogan and the campaign advisor who did his bidding
100401 2018-12-13 00:00:00Z World

Trump's stolen slogan and the campaign advisor who…

by Emma Land

If you thought Donald Trump came up with the slogan "Make America Great Again," you’d be mistaken.

Read more
Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty on how life became stranger than fiction
100261 2018-12-13 00:00:00Z Profiles

Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty on how life …

by Diana Wichtel

When Liane Moriarty was summoned to meet Nicole Kidman in a Sydney cafe, the Hollywood star made it clear she was serious about optioning the book.

Read more
Dear Oliver: A son's poignant tribute to his mother
93895 2018-12-13 00:00:00Z Books

Dear Oliver: A son's poignant tribute to his mothe…

by Peter Wells

A reminder that nothing can really prepare us for the death of a beloved parent.

Read more
Big Little Lies author does it again in Nine Perfect Strangers
100041 2018-12-13 00:00:00Z Books

Big Little Lies author does it again in Nine Perfe…

by Catherine Woulfe

The new book by Liane Moriarty can induce cravings despite its health retreat setting.

Read more
Barbershop confidential: Nelson's Man Cave offers more than just haircuts
99534 2018-12-13 00:00:00Z Psychology

Barbershop confidential: Nelson's Man Cave offers …

by Fiona Terry

In Nelson, there’s a place where modern “cavemen” can go to be groomed, chill out to music, and find someone to tell their troubles to.

Read more
The Listener's 50 Best Champagnes of 2018
100190 2018-12-13 00:00:00Z Wine

The Listener's 50 Best Champagnes of 2018

by Michael Cooper

Celebrate the festive season with sparkling wines from Central Otago to Champagne, priced from $10 to $125.

Read more
Win a double pass to Vice, the new Dick Cheney movie
100368 2018-12-12 10:44:10Z Win

Win a double pass to Vice, the new Dick Cheney mov…

by The Listener

Oscar-winning writer-director Adam McKay brings his trademark wit to the true story of US Vice President Dick Cheney in Vice.

Read more
End of an era: Auckland's independent film library Videon to shut its doors
100360 2018-12-12 10:00:59Z Small business

End of an era: Auckland's independent film library…

by Alex Blackwood

An iconic Auckland store is closing.

Read more