As an Italophile and an Elena Ferrante fan, I’m thrilled to see her nonfiction work, La Frantumaglia, finally making it into English in the form of Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, published this fall by Europa Editions.
I know the book will intrigue American readers with the backstory of her novels and her life as a writer (I’m also thrilled that the original title has largely crossed the Atlantic intact, particularly given the unusual provenance of the Italian word, “frantumaglia,” which Ferrante culled from her mother’s speech and which she defines as a jumble of ideas or thoughts).
One could nonetheless argue, given the nature of the book—a collection of manuscript drafts, interviews and letters—that it will surely fail to stir up the same excitement as did the Neapolitan series or her earlier novels. This is the author, after all, who launched her novel, The Days of Abandonment, with the line: “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Boom! Not to mention the creator of the frenzied, passionate scene between Nino and Elena in the bathroom of the house she shares with her husband, Pietro, from Book Three of the Neapolitan quartet (a scene Elena rushes into after rushing out of the arms of her young children). Whoa! How do you top that?
And of course, it’s not like Frantumaglia confirms (or denies) what Italian investigative reporter Claudio Gatti recently sprung on the literary world (if for no other reason than it had already gone to print). Gatti, as anyone remotely following Italian literature knows, believes he has pulled off an expose by studying real estate records and other documents to deduce that Ferrante is actually a translator named Anita Raja. (Edizioni E/o, Ferrante’s Italian publisher, has denied the claims.)
Yet I can confidently say the Ferrante lines that have made the biggest impressions on me are in La Frantumaglia, which was first published in Italy in 2003.
My partner travels a lot for work and whenever he goes somewhere that he can snag Italian pubs, he brings me back an armload. Usually two editions of an Italian newspaper (La Repubblica and Il Corriere della Sera), one or two of the news weeklies and a lifestyle or travel mag like Bell’Italia.
I array them all on the dining table and prepare to immerse myself in an Italian mag reading marathon. It’s a ritual we’ve been performing ever since leaving Italy years ago to come back to the States.
Yet in the past few years, there’s been a fly in my spaghetti, so to speak. My beloved Italian periodicals are littered with English words and phrases. That complaint can extend to many of the news articles I see online or in my inbox on a more-or-less daily basis.
Recently, a promotional email from the Italian women’s magazine “Io Donna” about an article on swimwear caught my eye (I love swimming). The email read, “4 accessori must have per la spiaggia.” (Four “must-have” accessories for the beach).
Something snapped—and I began writing this essay. Or really, this rant. It’s one I’ve been honing in my head, if one can hone a rant, for years. I’ve held off on sending this thought out into the wider world because it somehow felt churlish, as if I were a Luddite.
At first blush, the complaint has nothing to do with the literary world or the world of literature in translation that Asymptote celebrates and chronicles. An ad for swimwear: of all the silly things to write about!
But who learns a foreign language only to read, say, Dante? I want to read Dante and the Italian newspaper and the weeklies and advertisements on the Metro and the underground comic books and so on. I want to know the Italian equivalent of “must have.” READ MORE…
I don’t care who Elena Ferrante is. I know some people really, really care, including some folks at The New York Times, which just published an article on the Italian author’s mysterious identity. Some people, it would appear, won’t let it rest until they know the name of the author behind the so-called Neapolitan series of novels, which has rocked the literary world on both sides of the Atlantic.
But not me. Every time it comes up, I think, “I don’t care.”
And it’s not because I’m only slightly interested in Italian literature. Oh no. Italian literature is my life. My idea of paradise is being in a room in Italy—any room—where I’m so surrounded by the Italian language, I feel submerged. I read the Ferrante books one after another in the original Italian. I even have a copy of the Italian newspaper article about Ferrante’s identity that inspired the article in The Times. (My partner happened to be in Switzerland the weekend it appeared in an insert to Il Corriere della Sera, and he brought it home for me).
It’s not because professional nosiness is foreign to me. I’m a journalist, in fact. READ MORE…
Last year, a hashtag became wildly popular in the American literary scene for an author no one has seen and who writes in a foreign language.
This year, a different author—one whom everyone knows because she’s won a Pulitzer Prize, among other honors—is taking the nearly unprecedented step of publishing a memoir called In Other Words in dual language format. And—wait for it—the part of the book that contains her original manuscript isn’t in English.
The two authors have something in common: they both write in Italian. That, and they could be presiding over a renaissance in Italian literature (Well, they may be, if publishers, cultural organizations and/or the Italian government exploit this convergence. More on this later).
The first writer is the mysterious Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, celebrated on Twitter by the slogan #ferrantefever, and the second is Jhumpa Lahiri, a British-born, American citizen who decamped to Rome in 2012, with the unusual project of ceasing to read and write in English. (The two have something else in common: Ann Goldstein is their Italian-English translator).
One author shooting to prominence, and shining a spotlight on Italian literature from the inside, the other already enjoying almost unparalleled prominence in American letters, choosing to embark on a courageous path—one which will almost certain provoke curiosity about Italian among non-Italian readers.
Is Italian literature, both in translation and in original form, having its moment? Oh gosh I hope so.