Saturday, June 24, 2017

Following Elena Ferrant's extrarordinary journey, Part 1

This is the first of two posts about Elena Ferrante's Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey. The book offers too much to readers and writers to pack into a single note.

"Elena Ferrante" is the pen name of an Italian author, who, I suspect, has very mixed feeling about the success and consequent attention her recently-published extraordinary tetralogy My Brilliant Friend has provoked. (Rights sold in forty countries, New York Times best seller.)  

"Frantumaglia" in the Neapolitan dialect means "a jumble of things." Ferrante describes it as the word her mother used to name "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 book is a collection of letters and e-mail responses to interviewers, a jumble of things all related to the author's writing, literature, feminism, and what she has attempted to do in her novels.

Ferrante's first letter in the book, dated September 21, 1991, informs the publisher of her first novel, Troubling Love, that she will do nothing personally to promote the book—no TV, no radio, no personal interviews. "I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won't." What, after all, do we need to know about Shakespeare's childhood, methods of working, or thoughts about other playwrights to appreciate and enjoy his plays? Until very recently when an Italian reporter apparently revealed Ferrante's identity, she had been able to remain anonymous—no book jacket author photo, no potted author biography.

It's a position that contradicts everything I know about American publishing today that, in general, believes an author is a brand and should be marketed as such. What the author produces is almost secondary. Faithful readers are buying King, Steele, Roberts, Cussler, Patterson, Grisham, Woods, Child; their books have to meet a certain level of interest, entertainment, engagement but not much more. With the tens of thousand of books published and self-published every year, how else is an author going to stand out enough for readers to find her.

What I find extraordinary in Ferrante's journey as a writer is that her publisher, Edizioni E/O, with whom she has stuck through nine books, was willing to make that deal. An editor had to fall in love with Troubling Love and be willing to defend it as a publishing investment without the author's participation. Ferrante (and the publisher) were also fortunate that an Italian movie director fell in love with the book and made a well-received film based on it. Ferrante commented extensively on the script, and Frantumaglia includes her observations about and suggestions for the script.

Her publisher was also willing to wait ten years for her next manuscript. Ferrante says that she wrote constantly during those ten years, but produced nothing she felt met her own standards. For her next novel, however, The Days of Abandonment, she had softened enough to answer in writing and at considerable length (70 printed page, including outtakes from the manuscript itself) five relatively short questions from an Italian magazine. To sell foreign rights to My Brilliant Friend, the publisher promised an e-mail interview with Ferrante . . . which is why I suspect she has mixed feelings about the book's popularity.

Finally, I found it extraordinary that Ferrante wrote all four volumes of My Brilliant Friend—1,682 total pages in the English edition—in one go. She writes that she does not think about how long a book should be (or not be) when she's writing. She tells the story that has to be told . . . and I imagine the publisher had to figure out how to put it into a  form a bookstore can actually stock.

So one appeal of Frantumaglia to Ferrant's fans is the insight the author can give to the characters and their stories, all skillfully translated by Ann Goldstein. If you enjoyed The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter, The Beach at Night or the Neapolitan quartet: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child you should find this collection of self-contained
fragments a fascinating appendix.

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