Illustration by Dionne GainWhile Elena Ferrante’s fiction has created an international phenomenon dubbed “Ferrante Fever”, the author has always hidden behind a pseudonym. Privacy allows the “creative space” essential to her intimate writing about the emotional lives of Italian women, she insists, and the fiction should speak for itself.
She responded with silence to a recent expose by an Italian journalist who claims to have used financial records to identify a translator of German literature as the author of the seven intense novels, including the best-selling quartet that begins with My Brilliant Friend.
However, in a new collection of her letters and email interviews over 25 years, Frantumaglia (meaning “fragments” in English), Ferrante provides insights into her intellectual influences, her writing process and aspects of her personal life that inspire her fiction. Many of the letters are to Sandra Ozzola and Sandro Ferri, her publishers at Edizioni E/O in Rome and Europa Editions in New York, supposedly the only people who have known Ferrante’s real identity since the beginning.
In the introduction they write – perhaps naively – that they collected these pieces to “satisfy the curiosity” of her growing audience and so they “should clarify, we hope conclusively, the writers’ motives for remaining outside the media circus and its demands…”.
When Ferrante wrote the following letter to Ozzola, she had published one short novel, L’amore molesto, in 1992 (translated as Troubling Love in 2006) and was unknown outside Italy. As she explains in other pieces, she writes a lot but chooses to publish only when the words find the right form. “If it doesn’t happen, I retreat. I have drawers full of failed attempts.”
Susan Wyndham, literary editor.
I owe you an explanation. The manuscript I promised to give you to read will not reach you. I see that you’ve already tried to find a title (I like Working Women; I rule out Women Workers), but I’ve changed my mind, the story doesn’t seem ready to be read yet.
In the past week I myself couldn’t read even a line without feeling disgusted. I need time to return to it calmly and understand what to do with it. But as soon as I’ve made a decision I’ll let you know. Now, don’t think it’s your fault, you were right to insist. In all these years every time you’ve pressed me to let you read something I’ve begun to write with greater motivation; I was glad that at least one person – you – was waiting for my new book.
In this case maybe it was a mistake to summarise the contents of the book. I must have perceived your editorial disappointment; or I became worried because of the length of the manuscript – you’ve always said that, except for thrillers stuffed with adventures, books that are too long put readers to flight.
But, even if that were the case, my decision not to keep my promise has other motives. I wrote this story because it has to do with me. I was inside it for a long time. I kept shortening the distance between the protagonist and me, I occupied all her cavities, and there is nothing about her, today, that I wouldn’t do. So I’m exhausted, and now that the story is finished I have to catch my breath. How? I don’t know, maybe by starting to write another book. Or reading as many as possible on the subject of this story, and so remaining nearby, on the sidelines, and testing it the way you test a cake to see if it’s baked, poking it with a toothpick, pricking the text to see if it’s done.
I think of writing now as a long, tiring, pleasant seduction. The stories that you tell, the words that you use and refine, the characters you try to give life to are merely tools with which you circle around the elusive, unnamed, shapeless thing that belongs to you alone, and which nevertheless is a sort of key to all the doors, the real reason that you spend so much of your life sitting at a table tapping away, filling pages. The question in every story is the same: is this the right story to seize what lies silent in my depths, that living thing which, if captured, spreads through all the pages and gives them life? The answer is uncertain, even when you get to the end.
What happened in the lines, between the lines? Often, after struggles and joys, on the pages there is nothing—events, dialogues, dramatic turns, only that – and you’re frightened by your very desperation. To me it happens like this: I always struggle at first, it’s hard to get started, no opening seems really convincing; then the story gets going, the bits already written gain power and suddenly find a way of fitting together; then writing becomes a pleasure, the hours are a time of intense enjoyment, the characters never leave you, they have a space-time of their own in which they are alive and increasingly vivid, they are inside and outside you, they exist solidly in the streets, in the houses, in the places where the story must unfold; the endless possibilities of the plot select themselves and the choices seem inevitable, definitive. You begin every day by re-reading to get energised, and re-reading is pleasant, it means perfecting, enhancing, touching up the past to make it fit with the story’s future. Then this happy period comes to an end. The story is finished. You have to reread not the work of the day before but the entire narrative. You’re afraid. You test it here and there, nothing is written as you had imagined it.
The beginning is insignificant, the development seems crude, the linguistic forms inadequate. It’s the moment when you need help, to find a way to draw the ground the book rests on and understand what substance it is truly made of. Now I’m just at that anguished point. So, if you can, help me.
What do you know about novels that tell a story of women’s work obsessively observed by an idle, malicious, sometimes fierce gaze? Are there any? I’m interested in anything that focuses on the female body at work. If you have any title in mind – it doesn’t matter if it’s a good book or junk – write to me. I doubt that work ennobles man and I am absolutely certain that it does not ennoble woman. So the novel is centred on the hardships of working, on the horror implicit in the necessity of earning a living, an expression in itself abominable.
But don’t worry: I assure you that, although I’ve used all the jobs I am thoroughly familiar with because I’ve done them myself, and also those I’m familiar with thanks to people I know well and trust, I haven’t written an investigation into women’s labour: the story has great tension, all kinds of things happen. But I don’t know what to say about the result. Now that the book seems to me finished I have to find reasons to calm myself. Eventually, in all serenity, I will tell you if the novel can be read or not, if it can be published or should be added to my writing exercises. In the latter case I would be truly sorry to have disappointed you again. On the other hand, I believe that, for those who love to write, time spent writing is never wasted. And then isn’t it from book to book that we approach the book that we really want to write? Until next time,
NOTE Letter of May 18, 1998. The publisher never received the novel under discussion.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.