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

How you can help crack the insect code at Te Papa
101529 2019-01-23 00:00:00Z Science

How you can help crack the insect code at Te Papa

by Sam Button

Te Papa is on a mission to decipher the secret life of insects.

Read more
Bill Ralston says goodbye to Auckland
101333 2019-01-23 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Bill Ralston says goodbye to Auckland

by Bill Ralston

Our columnist finally turns his back on the congested, costly city of his birth.

Read more
Decision to force woman to pay likely abuser will have 'chilling effect'
101496 2019-01-22 11:12:54Z Crime

Decision to force woman to pay likely abuser will…

by RNZ

The lawyer of a woman ordered to pay $28,000 to her likely abuser has urged the justice minister to intervene.

Read more
7 traits that show how unsuited Trump is to the White House
101194 2019-01-22 00:00:00Z World

7 traits that show how unsuited Trump is to the Wh…

by Paul Thomas

Instead of striving to be disciplined, dedicated and presidential, Trump is flitting between seven characters that have no place in the White House.

Read more
Why vitamin D production is slower in old age
101151 2019-01-22 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Why vitamin D production is slower in old age

by Jennifer Bowden

Getting our quota of vitamin D becomes more important – but more difficult – as we age.

Read more
Why ethical eating often stops at the restaurant door
101520 2019-01-22 00:00:00Z Food

Why ethical eating often stops at the restaurant d…

by Rachel A. Ankeny and Heather Bray

Can a chef promote foraging, seasonality and plant-based eating, yet also serve meat and other animal-derived protein products on the same menu?

Read more
Why the Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery is bound to attract the curious
101463 2019-01-22 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Why the Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery is bound…

by Ellen Rykers

Artist Bruce Mahalski's museum is the result of a lifetime of collecting.

Read more
Gillette ad isn't anti-men, it's anti-toxic masculinity – it should be welcomed
101480 2019-01-21 16:59:29Z Social issues

Gillette ad isn't anti-men, it's anti-toxic mascul…

by Nicola Bishop

The backlash against the Gillette ad shows how painfully little distance we as a society have covered since the #MeToo movement.

Read more