At the first literary conference I attended, I was surprised to find that the advice I was given pertained less to craft and more to the management of public persona. Attendees discussed the nuances of the author photo and how to make their Twitter accounts appeal to a wide audience, and I was advised to have an answer prepared for when I am asked how much of my fiction comes from Real Life. After coming out of the modeling industry, where everything is quite explicitly about appearance, it was disheartening to discover that the literary world was no haven from these dynamics. Elena Ferrante’s desire to maintain the freedom of private life has always seemed quite sensible. In newspaper headlines she was called “The Writer Without a Face,” but why did she need one?
Enter Ferrante’s new book, Frantumaglia, which includes selections of over 20 years of her essays, correspondences, and interviews. The book, whose title translates to “a jumble of fragments,” has been available in Italian since 2003. While there is no comparable word to frantumaglia in English, Ferrante illuminates what the term meant to her specifically, comparable to Lila’s “disappearing margins” in the Neapolitan novels:
My mother left me a word in her dialect that she used to describe how she felt when she was racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart. She said that inside her she had frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments. The frantumaglia (she pronounced it frantummaglia) depressed her. Sometimes it made her dizzy, sometimes it made her mouth taste like iron. It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause…Often it made her weep, and since childhood the word has always stayed in my mind to describe, in particular, a sudden fir of weeping for no evident reason: frantumaglia tears.
This concentration on the suffering of women is appropriately potent throughout the book, as is Ferrante’s own professed fragility. She states her deep interest in feminism, but does not consider herself to be well versed in it. She is deeply concerned for her goodness as a human, she is deeply apologetic to her publisher when she does not complete an interview or make an appearance, explaining that it is both a choice and a personal necessity that she is not subjected to a more public literary life. She corresponds with Mario Martone, the director of the film adaptation of her novel Troubling Love, expressing that she has no idea how to contribute to the project. Often, she defends her choice to write under a pseudonym. Whenever Ferrante is forced to communicate about her work, her communication is laced with an intense self-surveillance. The book is restrained and self-protective, and I find myself protective of her as well.
Regrettably, the writing of this review is complicated somewhat by Claudio Gatti’s reveal of what is likely Ferrante’s true identity, a translator named Anita Raja. Gatti’s months-long probe was conducted with the tenacity of a criminal investigation, and served the purpose of radically violating the terms under which her work was created. He asserted that, given the publishing of a volume like Frantumaglia, the public had the right to Ferrante’s true identity. This reveal is significant to a book review only because Gatti pointed out several discrepancies between what Ferrante says of herself in the volume and what is known to be true about the life of the woman he says she is. For instance, Ferrante writes of having three sisters in Frantumaglia, while Raja has none. Ferrante writes luminously of her mother’s work as a dressmaker, while Raja’s mother was a teacher. Ferrante says that “Naples is a space containing all my primary, childhood, adolescent, and early adult experiences,” while Raja was born in Naples but moved to Rome at age three, and so on.
But the real Elena Ferrante is, quite explicitly, a fiction. In her new volume, Ferrante herself acknowledges that she sometimes resorts to lies “when necessary to shield my person, feelings, pressures.” In this way, the volume takes on a narrative of its own, though the plot, if there is one at all, is subtle. What is exceptionally clear is that the way Ferrante presents herself, however minimally, is too calculated, too realized to exist anywhere outside the realm of fiction. And why should it? As writer Nicola Lagioia wrote to Ferrante’s publisher, “If she wants to adjust, polish, clarify the argument, that’s fine of course. For me literary needs always take precedence over journalistic ones.”
I have always relished reading the journals, letters, and reflections of the writers I admire. When I got my hands on Susan Sontag’s journals as a teenager, it felt as though I was being allowed access to the formation of the sort of mind I hoped to cultivate myself. Frantumaglia, as might be expected, offers access to a very different sort of process, in which Ferrante both practices the exercise of her literary needs (in crafting the story of herself) and defending her right to do so. She spends a significant portion of the book repeatedly explaining to journalists, her publisher, filmmakers, and others why she feels the need to remain anonymous. It doesn’t seem difficult to grasp: she believes that books should be able to exist in the world without being tied to a personality. For this reason, it has been suggested that the assembling of this book is antithetical to her professed desire for anonymity, that it seems to fly in the face of her convictions. I do not believe this to be the case, given that Ferrante has stated, in a correspondence with her publisher, the function that she wishes for the book to serve as an afterword and companion to the novels:
In other words, I’m uncertain. I think a book like that might perhaps possess cohesiveness, but not autonomy. I think, that is, by its nature, it can’t be a book in itself. You’re very right to call it a book for readers of Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment… Which is to say that, if you do decide to publish it, you have to do so feeling that it is editorially, as an appendix to those two books, a slightly dense afterword…
It seems very successful as such. Frantumaglia contains a similar construction of female identity that we see in her novels, and, as with her novels, the line between fact and fiction is unclear.
“The biggest mystery outside Italy about Italy is Elena Ferrante,” Gatti said in defense of his investigation and subsequent reveal of Raja. But he is perhaps incorrect — or at least, those who are readers and not fans of Ferrante’s are haunted by a much more compelling mystery, which is that of the female condition — how to exist in a world as a female body subjected to the trials and tribulations that seem to come with it. At a dinner party in Rome this summer, I spoke with Italian director Anna Negri about what could be fueling the American engrossment with Ferrante’s works. Negri believes that Ferrante is captivating in that she tells the woman’s side of the Italian machismo that Americans have grown fascinated with via movies and television like The Godfather and The Sopranos. Essentially, Ferrante warns us (in case the domestic abuse in these films and shows wasn’t convincing enough) — it’s not that great. Ferrante ends up addressing this phenomenon herself in one of Frantumaglia’s featured interviews:
The greatest risk now is female regret for the “real men” of bygone days. Every form of male violence should be fought against, but the female desire to regress should not be neglected. The crowd of women who adore the sensibility and sexual energy of the worst male characters in My Brilliant Friend illustrate this temptation.
The same kind of immediacy Ferrante exhibits in her fiction is most present and potent in Frantumaglia when she speaks of her concern for other women: “Even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard — out of love, or weariness, or sympathy, or kindness — we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved,” she says when asked by an interviewed what she hopes readers will take away from her work.
In a literary culture that has elevated personality to currency, in a world where my beginning fiction students frequently assess the value of writing based off how “relatable” they find the author to be, there is much to be learned from Ferrante. Even if she is who Gatti says she is, she has created a body of work that lucidly and luminously shown us a very different kind of life. What is fiction for, if not for this? What does a female artist owe the world? Certainly not consistency; hopefully not “authenticity” or “relatability.” Ferrante’s true readers (as opposed to fans — she draws a sharp distinction between the two) will be grateful for Frantumaglia and the story it tells, which is exquisite, regardless of those who would fact-check her.
“Literature has more dogs than babies,” Rivka Galchen writes in Little Labors, “and also more abortions.”
Put like that, the observation is startling. And though the babies are definitely out there — Galchen finds them in Beloved, The Millstone, A Personal Matter, The Fifth Child, and Dept. of Speculation for starters — the search seems to leave her (playfully) grasping at straws. Perhaps Frankenstein’s monster is her favorite fictional baby, Galchen cheekily suggests. Perhaps Rumpelstiltskin is the metaphoric firstborn of the fairy tale, and his hijinks are merely sad attempts to gain his surrogate mother’s attention.
From my own bookshelf I’ll add to the list Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, a vicious and spry chronicle of her daughter’s first year. Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” features a baby of sorts. (Though one centimeter over is “Hills like White Elephants,” in which there will soon be an abortion.) Trials of parenting, once a child has achieved a certain age, give us highs of tenderness and brushstrokes of true cruelty. See Mrs. Ramsey winding her shawl around a fright-giving pig skull in To the Lighthouse; or Jason’s attempts to corral his mutinous niece in The Sound and the Fury.
And yet between courtship and marriage, or between the searchings of early adulthood and the intrigues of family life, literature seems to draw a two-year blank. A survey of 1,000 novels might produce nuanced portraits of extramarital affairs, or descriptions of all-night benders, but scant answer to the questions: Where do people come from? Under what circumstances are we born?
Why the omission?
Galchen isn’t sure. Thankfully not. Her investigations shoot off from her subject like finely-pointed spokes from a hub. The book’s split-up structure fits her purpose well. On the one hand you can occasionally imagine these short chapters as the immediate and authentic jotting-downs of a new mother reporting from the front. (For instance, Galchen on iPhone videos of her daughter, a.k.a. the puma: “footage of the puma has the unfortunate quality of making it seem as if the puma has passed away and the watcher, me, is condemned to replaying the same scene again and again and again.”) On the other hand, the book’s loose form also gives room to Galchen’s commendable analytical mind. Here, as in her novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, she is the type of writer who can show you in an outstretched arm one view of a sphere, then spin her subject in hand, and show you something quite different.
Unifying these chapters is a low-wattage but steadily glowing anxiety: that babies are not a subject of literature because babies are not interesting. To their parents and families in real life, yes, but not in general, not as a surface that will for the writer yield fruitful depths. Before she was a mother herself, Galchen confesses a nose-in-the-air dismissiveness toward a subject so patently and traditionally female. And her aloofness, she admits, didn’t stop at just babies: the authors she liked were all men (including Denis Johnson, whom she mistook for a French woman during an attempt to diversify her reading.) Two people with otherwise equal qualities would differentiate by gender: the man inevitably more magnetic in the pair. As for babies? The way Galchen tells it, you’d think it a prerequisite of youthful intellectualism to fall asleep at the mere mention of the word: God help you if you cared to go into particulars. Or put those particulars into writing.
But Galchen knows that’s not the whole story. Only recently have women begun writing with equal output of men, and with equal education to back them up. Only very recently have writers who are also women and also mothers had any significant spousal or institutional support to continue their work with children at home. Karl Ove Knausgård, for instance, whose influence is apparent in passages, manages to write about children’s birthday parties, his wife’s labor, a child’s real-time soiling of a diaper, in a way that makes those moments tremble with cosmic meaning. (Of course in Knausgård everything trembles with cosmic meaning.) Perhaps, though, the subject matter isn’t really the problem. Perhaps the problem is that while you are taking care of a baby you often don’t have time to write about taking care of a baby. Or as Galchen describes life with a newborn:
The world seemed ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning. Which is to say that the puma made me again more like a writer (or at least a certain kind of writer) precisely as she was making me into someone who was, enduringly, not writing.
And it isn’t just time that’s the problem. Despite the fertile ground that Galchen describes — and which other new parents must certainly feel — it seems remarkably difficult to see past the “dull” label that has been affixed to infant heads. And no wonder, given a literary tradition in which an erection can boast an established history of metaphoric usage, while a menstrual cycle, for instance — with exceptions such as in Elena Ferrante’s Troubling Love — is a detail that writers habitually leave out with trips to the bathroom and the buzzing of morning alarms.
Galchen, though, breathes decided life into her topic. And her writing is so good that her observations double as arguments for her choice of subject. Take, for example, this passage on a baby’s seemingly metaphysical essence:
We know babies are the only ones among us in alliance with time. They are the only incontestable assessors to power, or, at least, they are immeasurably more well-placed than their elder co-unequals. The way a baby, in a stroller, briefly resembles a fat potentate, for a moment unlovable, has something in it of the premonition. Even as to see a baby raise its chubby hand — to bow down before that random emperor can feel very right.
Or consider this, a comment on a baby’s loss of intrigue with the acquisition of language:
It’s as if babies don’t grow larger but instead smaller, at least in our perception. It’s striking that in the canonical Gospels, we meet Jesus as a baby and as an adult, but as a child and teenager, he is unserviceable.
There are a few places in this book where the writing does make a dangerous shift from brightly analytical to willfully cryptic (e.g., an unnecessarily complex description of a movie poster and its surrounding geography.) But that is rare. In Little Labors Galchen is recognizably the writer of the masterful short story, “The Lost Order.” Language like “random emperor” and “unserviceable” are the brilliant norm.
In interviews, Galchen has cited Sei Shōnagon’s 11th-century The Pillow Book as an influence for her work’s fragmented and miscellanea-driven structure. Shōnagon’s text gets room here, in summary form, if not thanks to what it offers on motherhood than as good evidence for the artistic worth of daily domestic life. (If an empresses’s court indeed counts as daily domestic life.) But Little Labors might be too tightly wrought, too self-conscious to really call back the flowing, pure diary feel of that book. Observations here more frequently have the ring of Susan Sontag or William Vollmann than dashed-off notes-to-self. And even the vivid glimpses of quotidian life with a child — the comments provoked by a trendy orange snowsuit, the comical tribulations involved in obtaining a passport photo for an infant, a child’s eerily suspicious fall among playmates — give the cumulative effect of toes cautiously dipped into water. Does this count as literature? the book seems to be asking itself. And this?
The result is that this quietly revolutionary little book is extremely difficult to qualify. I found myself thinking of it as a metanarrative on the genre of parenting novels: a genre, in other words, that does not yet fully exist. That is not Galchen’s fault; nor does it detract from the book. The way she writes, you feel she is onto something, as if she were peering down a long pathway of New Yorker issues to a literature ahead.
Little Labors ends as inconspicuously as it began. The child’s grandmother totes her to a senior dinner at their synagogue, where the child charms the crowd, “carrying her winter pants here and there, offering them to diners, rescinding the offer.” Couldn’t you charge $1,000 a day to bring a baby to a nursing home? the grandmother jokes afterwards. Couldn’t a family charge 20 bucks an hour to babysitters, adds the father, for the privilege of being with the baby? “Everything they said was true,” Galchen concludes, “and yet also, we know, not the case.”
Given what’s come before, it’s nearly impossible not to read this final note as a mordant analogy to the ambivalent place that the baby occupies in literature at large. After all, if novels are investigations into the workings of human existence — shouldn’t a baby, and a baby’s arrival, provide a useful key? Isn’t a baby a good place to start? In life, in literature, to borrow Galchen’s phrase, a baby should be a goldmine. And yet we know it is not the case.