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The Author Is Purely a Name

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Fragments on writing, publishing, and being an anonymous worldwide phenomenon.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/ferrante.jpg
Illustration by Stephen Olson.

Elena Ferrante—a pen name; the writer’s identity is unknown—was born in Naples. She is the bestselling author of The Days of Abandonment, which the New York Times described as “stunning,” Troubling Love, and The Lost Daughter. Her Neapolitan novel series has been hailed by critics as “a masterpiece” and “the first true literary classic of the 21st century.”

The following text appeared in a collection of interviews and letters that were published in Italy as La frantumaglia by edizioni e/o. In these writings, the author discusses her unwavering decision to remain out of the public eye, her thoughts on the art of writing, and the authors and books she admires. The full collection will be published in English by Europa Editions as Fragments: On Writing, Reading, and Absence in January 2016.

*                      *                     *

“I feel ready to write about anything.”

Dear Sandra,

What a terrible thing you’ve done: when I happily agreed to write something for the anniversary of your publishing venture, I discovered that the slope of writing to order is a slippery one, and that the descent is in fact pleasurable. What is next?

Now that you’ve made me pull out the plug, will all the water flow out through the drain? At this moment I feel ready to write about anything.

Will you ask me to celebrate the new car you’ve just bought? I’ll fish out from somewhere a memory of my first ride in a car and, line by line, end up congratulating you on your car. Will you ask me to compliment your cat on the kittens she’s given birth to? I will resurrect the cat that my father first gave me and then, exasperated by its meowing, took away, abandoning her on the road to Secondigliano. You’ll ask me to contribute an essay to a book you’re doing on the Naples of today? I’ll start from a time when I was afraid to go out for fear of meeting a busybody neighbor whom my mother had thrown out of the house, and, word by word, bring out the fear of violence that reaches us on the rebound today, while the old politics touches up its makeup and we don’t know where to find the new that we ought to support. Should I make an offering to the feminine need to learn to love one’s mother? I will recount how my mother held my hand on the street when I was little: I’ll start from there—actually, thinking about it, I’d really like to do this. I preserve a distant sensation of skin against skin, as she held tight to my hand, out of anxiety that I would slip away and run along the uneven, dangerous street: I felt her fear and was afraid. And then I’ll find a way to develop my theme to the point where I can cite Luce Irigaray and Luisa Muraro. Words draw out words: one can always write a banal, elegant, heartfelt, amusing coherent page on any subject, low or high, simple or complex, frivolous or fundamental.

What to do, then, say no to people whom we love and trust? It’s not my way. So I’ve written some commemorative lines, trying to communicate a true feeling of admiration for the noble battle that you’ve been fighting all these years, and that today, I think, is even more difficult to win.

I feel capable of writing to order on the youth of today, the abominations of TV, Di Giacomo, Francesco Iovine, the art of the yawn, an ashtray.

Here, then, is my message: good wishes. For the time being, I’ll settle for beginning with a caper bush. Beyond that, I don’t know. I could inundate you with recollections, thoughts, universalizing sketches. What does it take? I feel capable of writing to order on the youth of today, the abominations of TV, Di Giacomo, Francesco Iovine, the art of the yawn, an ashtray. Chekhov, the great Chekhov, talking to a journalist who wanted to know how his stories originated, picked up the first object he happened on—an ashtray, in fact—and said to him: You see this? Come by tomorrow and I’ll give you a story entitled “The Ashtray.” A wonderful anecdote.

But how and when does the opportunity to write become necessity? I don’t know. I know only that writing has a depressing side, when the sinews of the occasion are visible. Then even the truth can seem artificial. So, to avoid any misunderstandings, I will add in the margin, without capers or anything else of the sort, without literature, that my congratulations are true and heartfelt.

Until next time,

Elena

In one of the many houses where I lived as a child, a caper bush grew, in all seasons, on the wall facing east. It was a rough, bare stone wall, riddled with chinks, and every seed could find a bit of earth. But that caper bush, especially, grew and flourished so proudly, and yet with colors so delicate, that it has remained in my mind as an image of just force, of gentle energy. The farmer who rented us the house cut down the plants every year, but in vain. When he decided to fix up the wall, he spread a uniform coat of plaster over it and then painted it an unbearable blue. I waited a long time, trustfully, for the roots of the caper to win out and suddenly fracture the flat calm of that wall.

Today, as I search for a way to congratulate my publisher, I feel that it has happened. The plaster cracked, the caper exploded anew with its first shoots. So I hope that edizioni e/o continues to struggle against the plaster, against all that creates harmony by elimination.

May it do so by stubbornly opening up, season upon season, books like the flowers of the caper.

[Letter to Sandra Ozzola on the occasion of edizioni e/o’s fifteenth anniversary, September 1994. The text at the end of the letter was included in the anniversary catalog.]

*                      *                     *

“Someone who truly loves literature is like a person of faith.”

How are you?

An interview that begins with “How are you” is a little frightening. What do you want me to say? If I start digging into the “how,” I’ll never stop. So I will say: fine, I think, and I hope that you are, too.

After so many years, are you still sure about your decision to remain in the shadows?

“Remain in the shadows” is not an expression I like. It savors of plots, assassins. Let’s say that, fifteen years ago, I chose to publish books without having to feel obliged to make a career of being a writer. So far, I haven’t been sorry about it. I write and I publish only when the text seems of some value to me and to my publishers. Then the book makes its way, and I go on to occupy myself with something else. That’s it, and I don’t see why I should change my behavior.

How do you feel about the questions that are raised about your identity—are you amused, irritated, or something else?

They are legitimate, but reductive. For those who love reading, the author is purely a name. We know nothing about Shakespeare. We continue to love the Homeric poems even though we know nothing about Homer. And Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Joyce matter only if a talented person changes them into the subject of an opera, a biography, a brilliant essay, a film, a musical. Otherwise they are names, that is to say labels. Why would anyone be interested in my little personal story if we can do without Homer’s or Shakespeare’s? Someone who truly loves literature is like a person of faith. The believer knows very well that there is nothing at all at the bureau of vital statistics about the Jesus that truly counts for him.

Among the identities that have been proposed for you—[the novelist Domenico] Starnone, Goffredo Fofi, [the writer Fabrizia] Ramondinot—which one intrigues you most?

None: it seems to me a banal media game. An insignificant name, mine, is associated with names of greater substance. The opposite never happens. It would not occur to any newspaper to fill a page with the hypothesis that my books were written by an old retired archivist or by a young, newly hired bank clerk. What can I tell you? I’m sorry that people I respect should be annoyed by this.

When people speak of your novels, the problem of your identity often overshadows the literary questions. Does this disturb you? How do you think it can be avoided?

Yes, it disturbs me. But it also seems to me the proof that the media cares little or nothing about literature in itself. Let’s take these questions of yours: I’ve published a book, but, despite knowing that I would answer in very general terms, you have focused the whole interview on the theme of my identity. Up to now, if you will allow me to say so, there’s been nothing that touched on The Lost Daughter, its subject, or its writing. You ask me how to keep people from talking only about who I am, and neglecting the books. I don’t know. Certainly you—forgive me—aren’t doing anything to reverse the situation and confront what you call the literary questions….

Is one of the other reasons for your insistence on privacy still valid, that is to say the presence in your novels of autobiographical roles variously combined and disguised but still recognizable?

Yes. Like anyone who writes, I work with events, feelings, emotions that belong to me very intimately. But over time the problem has changed. Today it’s important to me above all to preserve the freedom to dig deeply, without self-censorship, into my stories….

What do you think of the attention that has been focused on Naples recently? In your view is it a media exaggeration or has the pressure of crime in fact become more acute?

It’s a media exaggeration. Naples should always be in the spotlight. It has a long history of decline; it’s a metropolis that has anticipated and anticipates the troubles of Italy, perhaps of Europe. So we should never lose sight of it. But the media makes its living on the exceptional: murders, garbage piling up, a wonderful book by [Roberto] Saviano. The daily standard of unlivability isn’t news. So when the exceptional passes, everything is silent and everything continues to rot.

Naples, you said once, makes you extremely uneasy: a violent city, of sudden quarrels, beatings, a vulgar city, where people are rowdy, self-aggrandizing, quick to small cruelties. Does it still give you that feeling?

Yes, nothing has changed, except the fact that what seemed to me particular to my city, to my region, because of its historical character, now seems to be spreading into the rest of Italy.

You escaped from this Naples as soon as you could, and yet you have carried it with you as “a surrogate for always keeping in mind that the power of life is damaged, humiliated by unjust modes of existence.” Have you ever gone back? Would you ever live there again?

I return from time to time. As for living there, I don’t know. I would if I were convinced that the change is not a rhetorical trick, but a true political and cultural revolution.

[From an interview with Francesco Erbani that appeared in La Repubblica, December 4, 2006, entitled “Io, scrittrice senza volto” (“Me, writer without a face”).]

*                      *                     *

“I am interested in everything that focuses on the female body at work.”

Dear Sandra,

I owe you an explanation. The text I promised to give you to read will not reach you. I see that you’re already looking for a title (Working Women I like; however, I would rule out The Women Workers), but I’ve changed my mind; the story no longer seems to me ready to be read yet. In the past week I myself could not manage to read a line without feeling nauseated. I need time to return to it calmly and figure out what to do. But as soon as I’ve made a decision I’ll let you know.

I wrote this story because it has to do with me. I was inside it for a long time.

Don’t now think that it’s your fault, you were very right to insist. In all these years, every time you’ve pressed me to let you read something, I’ve started to write with greater motivation, I was pleased that at least one person—you—were waiting for my new book. On this occasion, perhaps, it was a mistake for me to summarize the contents of the book for you. I must have perceived your editorial disappointment, or I felt a worry about the length of the manuscript—you have always said that books that are too long, apart from adventurous thrillers, drive readers away. But, even assuming that this was 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 me and the protagonist, I occupied all her cavities, and there is nothing of her, today, that I wouldn’t do. So I’m exhausted, and now that it’s finished I have to catch my breath. How? I don’t know, perhaps by starting to write another book. Or reading as many as possible on the subject of this event, and so remaining near it, on the sidelines, and, as one does with a cake to see if it’s baked, poking it with a toothpick, pricking the text to see if it’s done. Now I think of writing as a long, tiring, pleasant seduction. The stories you tell, the words you use and work on, the characters you try to give life to, are only tools with which you circle around the evasive thing, unnamed and shapeless, which belongs only to you, and which is a sort of key to all the doors, the true reason that you spend so much of your life sitting at a table tapping the keys, filling pages. The question of every story is always: Is this the right story to seize what lies silent in the depths of me, that living thing which, if captured, spreads through all the pages and animates them? The answer is uncertain, even when one arrives at the end of a story. What happened in the lines, between the lines? Often, after struggles and joys, on the pages there is nothing—events, dialogues, dramatic turns, only this—and you’re frightened by your very desperation.

To me it happens like this: at first I struggle, it’s hard to get started, no beginning seems to me truly convincing; then the story sets off, or 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 no longer 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 are solidly in the streets, in the houses, in the places where the event must take shape; the thousand possibilities of the story choose themselves and the choices appear inevitable, definitive. Every day you begin work by rereading to regain energy, and rereading is pleasant, in perfecting, enriching, touching up the past to make it fit with the future of the story. Then this happy period comes to an end. The story is finished. You are no longer rereading the work of the day before but the entire story. You’re afraid. You test it here and there, nothing is written the way you imagined it. The beginning is insignificant, the development seems crude, the linguistic forms inadequate. It’s the moment when one needs help, to find a way to draw the ground on which to place the book, and understand what substance it is truly made of.

Now, I am 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, at times fierce gaze? Are there any? I’m interested in everything 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 absolutely rule out that it ennobles woman. So the novel concentrates 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, though I’ve used not only all the jobs I’m deeply familiar with because I’ve done them myself but also those I know about thanks to people I know well and trust, I haven’t written an inquiry into women’s labor: the story has great tension, all kinds of things happen. But, as for the result, I don’t really know what to say. 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 is to 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 one approaches the book that we truly wish to write?

Until next time,

Elena

[From a letter to Sandra Ozzola. The novel alluded to here was never delivered to the publishers.]

G

Excerpted from Fragments: On Writing, Reading, and Absence by Elena Ferrante. Copyright © by Europa Editions 2016. Translation by Ann Goldstein. Printed by arrangement with Europa Editions.

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3 comments for The Author Is Purely a Name

  1. Comment by Peter Byrne on October 1, 2015 at 11:22 am

    Well, yes, biographical detail can throw light on an author’s fiction. But not all that much. We can easily do without it. In Ferrante’s case the subject is now a bore. Whoever she is, it would help if she refused to talk about it and encouraged her publisher to do the same. Her visceral tie to Naples is clear enough from her work. The city and its hinterland proves as inescapable as the those capers in Southern Italian cooking. Has no one, as she said, much touched on her ‘The Lost Daughter’? That may be because its conclusion is so clear. You can’t snuff out an inherited way of life in yourself no matter how hard you try or how far you flee. One reason is that at bottom you don’t want to. To do so would sever something vital in yourself and leave you in a vacuum. The abhorred way of life is your necessary connection to impulses and instincts beyond geography.

  2. Comment by Liz on October 7, 2015 at 11:43 am

    These letters stopped me in my parking spot. I respect Elena’s anonymity and yet it must take work to maintain. Her inner circle is sworn to secrecy? Her business.

    What I find fascinating reading her books in English only is that those are not the words Elena chose, but the words Ann chose. The meaning is a match. What’s lost in translation and what’s gained? Does Elena speak English? Is this phrase as great in Italian?:

    “struggle against the plaster, against all that creates harmony by elimination.”

  3. Comment by Peter Byrne on October 11, 2015 at 5:45 am

    Translation is alway a losing game. But not all that much for Ferrante. She admits to not being a ‘stylist’ in Italian: “I’m a storyteller. I’ve always been more interested in storytelling than in writing. Even today, Italy has a weak narrative tradition. Beautiful, magnificent, very carefully crafted pages abound, but not the flow of storytelling that despite its density manages to sweep you away.” This may be one reason why reception of her work has never been so feverish in Italy as it now is abroad. What’s lost reading her in the larger world, it seems to me, is an awareness that Neapolitan life is something special, sui generis. For example her characters often have a strong distaste for the city’s dialect. (‘Dialect’ hardly does justice to what is really a language that boasts some great writing.) So that dislike for it by anyone born in Naples takes on significance as far as class and psychology goes.

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