reading notes

The incandescent lava we have inside: Frantumaglia, by Elena Ferrante

I almost didn’t take notes, as I could have underlined this entire book; but there were some ideas I know I’ll want to refer to later, so here we go.

Perhaps the old myths about inspiration spoke at least one truth: when one makes a creative work, one is inhabited by others–in some measure becomes another. But when one stops writing one becomes onself again, the person one usually is, in terms of occupations, thoughts, language. Thus I am now me again, I am here, I go about my ordinary business, I have nothing to do with the book, or, to be exact, I entered it, but I can no longer enter it. Nor, on the other hand, can the book re-enter me. So what’s left is to protect myself from its effects, and that is what I try to do. I wrote my book to free myself from it, not to be its prisoner.

–letter to Goffredo Fofi, unsent, 1995

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.

–letter to Sandra Ozzola, May 18, 1998

I have to admit with some embarrassment that I haven’t written two books in ten years, I’ve written and rewritten many. But Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment seemed to me the ones that most decisively stuck a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected, and did so without keeping a safe distance. At other times, I’ve written about clean or happily healed wounds with the obligatory detachment and the right words. But then I discovered that that is not my path.

The need for love is the central experience of our existence. However foolish it may seem, we feel truly alive only when we have an arrow in our side that we drag around night and day, everywhere we go.

–interview with Stefania Scateni, September 8, 2002

I work by contrast: clarity of facts and low emotional reaction alternating with a sort of storm of blood, of frenzied writing. However, I try to avoid dividing lines between the two moments. I tend to make them slide into one another without a break.

A writer seeks above all a form for his world. Naturally it’s an interior world, hence private, not yet public or only partly public. In that sense “publishing a book” means deciding to offer to others, in the form that seems to us most fitting, what intimately belongs to us.

Jensen: Ten years passed between your first book and this recent one. Would you call yourself a perfectionist?
Ferrante: No, only someone who writes when she wants to and publishes when she’s not too ashamed of the result.

–interview with Jesper Storgaard Jensen (Denmark), August 17, 2003

If I were capable of writing about our Berlusconian Italy not through allegories, parables, and satires, I would like to find a plot and characters that could represent the mythology within which the symbol Berlusconi is dangerously encysted. I say symbol because the man will disappear, his personal troubles and those of his management have their power, one way or another the political struggle with remove him from the scene, but his ascent as supreme leader within democratic institutions, the construction of his figure as a democratically elected economic-political-television duce, will remain a perfectible, repeatable model.

His money, his television channels, his market surveys have practically demonstrated that the interests of an individual can be installed overnight, thanks to a business group (not a party), on top of the political dissatisfaction of half of Italy, higher classes and lower classes, passed off as a heroic story of national salvation and, above all, without extinguishing democratic assurances.

–letter to Sandro Ferri, April 2002

Ferrante wrote the above about Berlusconi in 2002. Frantumaglia came out in the US in 2016. Just think about that for a moment.

Once, in exasperation, I said in dialect: We need a rope, there’s one in the storeroom.

This is just a cue to remind me of a devastating story Ferrante tells that’s way too long to quote here.

We have to watch ourselves, attend to our very individual expansion into the internal lands that are ours, and drill, searching beyond the tested vocabulary. Better to make a mistake with the incandescent lava we have inside, better to provoke disgust with that, than to assure ourselves success by resorting to murky, cold finds.

“Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.”

–quoting Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood Around 1900

Because I had grown up in the middle of all that cutting and sewing, the way Dido tricks the king of the Gaetuli immediately convinced me. Iarbas had said to her mockingly: I’ll give you as much land as the skin of a bull can go around. Little, very little, an ironic male insult. The king–I was sure, not for nothing was he the son of Amon–must have thought that even if the bull’s hide was cut into strips it would never surround enough land for the construction of a city. But I had seen the fair-haired Dido in the same concentrated pose as my mother when she worked–beautiful, her black hair carefully combed, her skilled hands scarred by wounds from the needle or the scissors–and I had understood that the story was plausible. All night (crucial labors are carried out at night), Dido had been bent over the hide of the beast, reducing it into almost invisible strips, which were then sewed together in such a way that the seams couldn’t even be guessed at, a very long Ariadne’s thread, a ball of animal skin that would unroll to enclose a vast piece of African land and, at the same time, the boundaries of a new city.

–La Frantumaglia (letter to Giuliana Olivero and Camilla Valletti, April 11, 2003)

But there is no correct way to activate the power of a written story, and instructions for use are not worth much. The “right reading” is an invention of academics and critics. Every reader gets from the book he is reading nothing else but his book. The shelves where we line up the volumes we’ve read are deceptive. We have available there only titles, covers, pages. But the books we’ve truly read are phantoms conjured up by reading with no rules… The as yet unsurpassed force of literature lies in its capacity to construct vibrating bodies from whose veins anyone can drink…

–unpublished, October 10, 2005

What can writing do that e.g. film can’t? Literature is the source. Movies look to books to get their stories. That’s why a book adaptation of a movie is NOT like a movie adaptation of a book; the processes aren’t reversible. And that indicates a hierarchy or one-directionalness.

Erbani: How do you feel about the questions that are raised about your identity–are you amused, irritated, or something else?
Ferrante: 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… 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.

–interview with Francesco Erbani, December 4, 2006

I’m convinced, however, that potentially a page has more body than a film. We have to activate all our physical resources as writers and readers to make it function. Writing and reading are great investments of physicality. In writing and reading, in composing signs and deciphering them, there is an involvement of the body that compares only with writing, performing, and listening to music.

Dear Elisabetta, thank you for the verb “to fill”; it’s a beautiful word when it’s used to describe an effect of reading. A book for me must attempt to channel living, magmatic material that cannot easily be reduced to words or to the confessional genre, which is essential for our existence.

We are tornadoes that pick up fragments with the most varied historical and biological origins. This makes of us–thankfully–fickle agglomerations that maintain a fragile equilibrium, that are inconsistent and complex, that can’t be reduced to any fixed framework that does not inevitably leave out a great deal. Which is why the more effective stories resemble ramparts from which one can gaze out at everything that has been excluded.

–Q&A with listeners of Fahrenheit, December 2006

I don’t know what the Neapolitan mother is like. I know what some mothers I’ve known are like, who were born and grew up in that city. They are cheerful and foul-mouthed women, silent victims, desperately in love with males and male children, ready to defend and serve them even though the men crush and torture them; prepared to claim that men have to be men; and incapable of admitting, even to themselves, that, with that, they drive them to become even more brutish. To be female children of these mothers wasn’t and isn’t easy. Their vital, obscene, suffering subjugation, full of plans for insurrection that end in nothing, makes both empathy and disaffected rejection difficult.

This is the key that unlocks all the novels.

We tend to keep distant from us everything that hinders consistency, but a story shouldn’t be consistent, in fact it’s in inconsistency that we should find nourishment.

But I write stories, and whenever the words arrange things with beautiful consistency I become suspicious and I keep an eye on the things that ignore the truth of words and mind their own business.

I write with greatest pleasure when I feel that the story has no need of preamble or even of a perspective. There it is, it’s there, I see it and feel it, it’s a world made up entirely of living material, of breath, of heat and cold.

–interview with Marina Terragni and Luisa Muraro, January 27, 2007

Karen Valby: Have you ever regretted not revealing your identity? Felt a surge of ego that made you want to throw open your window and cry “It’s I who have created this world!”?
Ferrante: Without reserve, I can say that my entire identity is in the books I write. Your image of the window is amusing. My home is on the upper floors, I’m afraid of heights, and my ego gladly avoids leaning out the window.

–interview with Karen Valby (USA), September 5, 2014

I decided to publish Troubling Love not so much because of the story it told, which continued to embarrass me and frighten me, but because for the first time it seemed to me that I could say: here’s how I have to write.

–interview with Sandra Ozzola, Sandro Ferri, and Eva Ferri, 2015 (edited and published in The Paris Review)

The problem, if anything, is the cult of the beautifully wrought page, a recurring feature that I’ve long struggled with in myself. Today I throw out the pages that are too written–I prefer the rough draft to the final version.

–interview with Maurício Meireles (Brazil), May 28, 2015

“Too written.”

Jobey: The Neapolitan novels have similarities of character and plot to your three earlier novels. Are you, in some ways, telling the same story?
Ferrante: Not the same story but definitely the same features of a single malady. Life’s wounds are incurable and you write them and rewrite them in the hope of being able, sooner or later, to construct a narrative that will account for them once and for all.

–interview with Liz Jobey (UK), 2015