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

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.