Elena Ferrante:’ I believe that books, once written, have no need of their authors’

Her Neapolitan novels have stimulated the author a literary sensation. In this extract from Frantumaglia, a new collecting of letters and interviews, she talks about her compulsion to write and why she maintained her identity secret

The first novel written under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante was published in 1992. By 2014 the name was celebrated internationally as that of a mysterious author of a highly praised series of Neapolitan novels. The writer made global headlines last month when her closely guarded anonymity was apparently unmasked by Italian journalist Claudi Gatti in the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore . This is an extract from her latest volume, Frantumaglia: A Writers Journey , a selection of her letters, interviews and reflections, which is published the coming week by Europa Editions.

Letter of 21 September 1991. Sandra Ozzola and Sandro Ferri are Elena Ferrantes publishers and founders of Edizioni E/ O and Europa Editions. Her first fiction, Troubling Love , was published the following year .

Dear Sandra,
During the session I had recently with you and your spouse, which was very enjoyable, you asked me what I intend to do for the promotion of Troubling Love ( its good that youre getting me used to calling the book by its final title ). You asked the issues to ironically, with one of your bemused expressions. There and then, I didnt have the gallantry to answer you: I thought I had already been clear with Sandro; he had said that he perfectly agreed with my decision, and I hoped that he wouldnt return to the subject, even jokingly. Now Im answering in writing, which eliminates awkward pauses, hesitations, any possibility of compliance.

I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love , anything that were likely to involve the public involvement of me personally. Ive already getting enough for this long tale: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient. I wont participate in discussions and conferences, if Im invited. I wont go and accept prizes, if any are awarded to me. I will never promote the book, especially on television , not in Italy or, as the occurrence is a possibility, abroad. I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum. I am absolutely committed in this sense to myself and their own families. I hope not to be forced to change my mind. I understand that this may cause some difficulties at the publishing house. I have great respect for your work, I liked you both instantly, and I dont want to cause trouble. If you no longer mean to support me, tell me right away, Ill understand. Its not at all necessary for me to publish this volume. To explain all the reasons for my decision is, as you know, hard for me. I will only tell you that its a small wager with myself, with my sentences. 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 wont. There are plenty of examples. I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a kind of night-time miracle, like the gifts of the Befana[ the Befana is an old woman who brings gifts to good children somewhat in the manner of Santa Claus on the eve of Epiphany, 6 January ], which I waited for as small children. I went to bed in great excitement and in the morning I woke up and the gifts were there, but no one had considered the Befana. True miracles are the ones whose manufacturers will never be known; they are the very small miracles of the secret spirits of the home or the great miracles that leave us genuinely astounded. I still have this childish wish for wonders, large or small, I still believe in them.

Therefore, dear Sandra, I will say to you clearly: if Troubling Love does not have, in itself, thread enough to weave, well, it means that you and I were misstep; if, on the other hand, it does, the thread will be woven where it can be, and we will have only to thank the readers for their patience in taking it by the end and pulling.

Besides, isnt it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the publishing homes least expensive author. Ill spare you even my presence.
Warmly, Elena

Ferrantes publishers, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola, at their office at Edizioni E/ O in Rome. Photo: Chris Warde Jones/ NYT

Letter to Sandra Ozzola on the occasion of Edizioni E/ Os 15 th anniversary, in September 1994.

Dear Sandra,
What a terrible thing youve done: when I merrily 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 youve stimulated 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 auto youve merely bought? Ill fish out from somewhere a memory of my first ride in a auto and, line by line, end up congratulating you on yours. Will you ask me to compliment your cat on the kittens shes devoted 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. Youll ask me to contribute an essay to a volume youre doing on the Naples of today? Ill start from a time when I was afraid to go out for anxiety of fulfilling a busybody neighbour whom my mother had hurled 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 dont know where to find the new that we ought to support. Should I make an offering to the feminine need to learn to love ones mother? I will recount how my mother held my hand on the street when I was little: Ill start from there actually, thinking about it, Id really like to do this. I preserve a remote sensation of scalp against scalp, as she held tight to my hand, out of nervousnes that I would slip away and run along the uneven, dangerous street: I felt her fear and was afraid. And then Ill find a way to develop my theme to the point where I can cite Luce Irigaray[ 1] and Luisa Muraro[ 2 ]. Words draw out terms: one can always write a banal, elegant, heartfelt, amusing coherent page on any topic, low or high, simple or complex, frivolous or fundamental.

What to do, then, say no to people whom we love and trust? Its not my way. So Ive written some commemorative lines, trying to communicate a true feeling of appreciation for the noble battle that youve been fighting all these years, and that today, I suppose, is even more difficult to win.

Here, then, is my message: good wishes. For the time being, Ill settle for beginning with a caper bush. Beyond that, I dont know. I could inundate you with recollections, thinks, universalising sketches. What does it take? I feel capable of writing to order on the youth of today, the abominations of TV, Di Giacomo[ 3 ], Francesco Jovine[ 4 ], 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? Arrived by tomorrow and Ill give you a tale entitled The Ashtray. A wonderful anecdote.

But how and when does the opportunity to write become necessity? I dont 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 kind, without literature, that my congratulations are true and heartfelt.
Until next time,

Napless Caracciolo promenade: a zone of Naples unknown to the characters Lila and Lena, who have have never seen the sea. Photo: Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

In one of the many homes where I lived as small children, 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 globe. But that caper bush, especially, grew and flourished so proudly, and yet with colours 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 soothe 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 explosion anew with its first shoots. So I hope that Edizioni E/ O have continued 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.

1 Luce Irigaray( 1932 -) is a Belgian feminist, philosopher, linguist, psychoanalyst, sociologist, and cultural theoretician.
2 Luisa Muraro( 1940 -) is an Italian feminist, philosopher, and historian.
3 Salvatore Di Giacomo( 1860 -1 934) was a Neapolitan poet, songwriter and playwright.
4 Francesco Jovine( 1902 -1 950) was an Italian novelist, journalist, and essayist .

Letter to Sandra Ozzola, March 1995. Hypothetical laconic interview in response to questions sent by journalist Annamaria Guadagni about Troubling Love .

Dear Sandra,
Im sorry to say that I cant answer the questions from Annamaria Guadagni. Its a limitation not of the questions, which in fact are good and profound, but of mine. Lets resign ourselves and from now on to avoid promising interviews that I wont give. Maybe in time Ill learn, but I take it for granted that in time no one will have the desire to interview me, and so their own problems will be resolved at its root.

The fact remains that every question makes me want to gather notions, rummage in favourite books, use old notes, annotate, digress, associate, confess, argue. All things that I like doing and that in fact I do: they are the best part of my days. But in the end I realise that I put together material not for an inter- opinion , not for an article( as Guadagni also, politely, proposes) but for a story-essay, and naturally I lose heart. What does a newspaper do with at least 10 dense pages for every question of the interview?

So, since Im stubborn, I set everything aside and try to find a few brilliant sentences that clearly express the meaning of the pages Ive accumulated in the meantime. Soon, however, the sentences seem to me not at all brilliant but at times fatuous, from time to time pretentious, for the most part stupid. As I result I let it go, very depressed.

Maybe interviews should be of this type 😛 TAGEND

Q. Is it incorrect to think that the mother in Troubling Love is one with Naples?
A. I dont think so.
Q. Did you flee Naples?
A. Yes.
Q. For you is the imperfect the true dimension of writing?
A. Yes.
Q. Does confusing oneself with ones mother in fact entail losing ones identity as a woman, losing oneself?
A. No.
Q. Is Troubling Love the need to possess the mother?
A. Yes.
Q. Is it your distorted gaze that gives us the impression of travelling in a hallucination, amid unreal bodies?
A. I dont know.
Q. Doesnt it seem to you that your volume, once on the screen, might make something between a mystery film and a horror film?
A. Yes.
Q. Did you help Martone with the screenplay of his film?
A. No.
Q. Will you go to see it?
A. Yes.
But what would Annamaria Guadagni attain of an interview of such types? And then it is enough for me to reread the yeses, the nos, the I dont knows to start again from the beginning. For example, the I dont knows, if you dug deep enough, might reveal that I know a lot or even too much. And some yeses, by force of debate, might become I dont knows. In other terms, dear Sandra, lets drop it, and in such a way that Guadagni will forgive me and I apologise, to you and Sandro, for the way I complicate your editorial life.
Until next time,

Letter of January 2002. After the publication in Italy of Elena Ferrantes novel The Day of Abandonment , she gave three interviews between 2002 and 2003. The questions were sent to her through the publisher .

Wash day in Naples, 1956. Photo: Keystone Features/ Getty Images

Dear Sandro,
You say its are required to do interviews, at the least, and thats penalty, youre right. Tell Fofi to send me the questions, Ill answer. In these 10 years I hope Ive grown up. In my own defence, however, I will say only this: in the games with newspapers, one always aims up lying and at the root of the lie is the need to offer oneself to the public in the best form, with thinks suitable to the role, with the makeup we imagine is suitable.

Well, I dont at all hate lies; in life I find them useful and I resort to them when necessary to shield my person, feelings, pressures. But lying about books makes me suffer; literary fiction seems to me stimulated intentionally to always tell the truth.

Therefore I care deeply about the truth of The Days of Abandonment . I wouldnt would like to speak about it meekly, complying with the high expectations implicit in the interviewers questions. The ideal for me would be to obtain, through short answers, the same effect as literature, that is, to orchestrate lies that always tell, strictly, the truth. Lets consider, in other words, what Im capable of. I feel Im in good shape, I tend to tell true lies even if Im writing a note of congratulations. As soon as you have the questions, send them to me.

This interview with Paolo Di Stefano appeared in the Corriere della sera on 20 November 2011, under the title Ferrante: Felice di non esserci ( Ferrante: happy not happening there) and with the following introduction: My Brilliant Friend is very different from Elena Ferrantes earlier novels. Its a wonderful Bildungsroman , or, rather, two, or more than two its the histories of a generation of friends-enemies. An interview with Ferrante requires the mediation of her publishers, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola. The questions are asked by email and answered by email . Di Stefano: Elena Ferrante, how did you attain the transition from one type of psychological household fiction ( Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment ) to a fiction that, like this, promises to be the first of a trilogy or a tetralogy, and which is in plot and in style so centrifugal and, at the same time, so centripetal ?
Ferrante: I dont feel that this novel is so different from the preceding ones. Many years ago I had the idea of telling the story of an old person who intends to disappear which doesnt entail die without leaving any tracing of her existence. I was fascinated by the idea of a tale that demonstrated how difficult it is to erase yourself, literally, from the face of the Earth. Then the tale became complicated. I introduced a childhood friend who served as an inflexible witness of every event, small or big, in the life of the other. Finally, I realised that what interested me was to dig into two female lives that had many affinities and yet were divergent. Thats what I did. Of course, its a complex project, as the tale covers some 60 years. But Lila and Elena are made of the same material that fed the other novels. The two friends whose childhood tale is say, Elena Greco, the first-person narrator, and her friend-enemy Lila Cerullo, are similar yet different. They endlessly overlap just when they seem to be growing apart. Is it a novel about friendship and how an encounter can determine a life? But also about how attraction to the bad example helps develop an identity ?
Generally, a person who had asserts his personality, in doing so, makes the other opaque. The stronger, richer personality obliterates the weaker, in life and perhaps even more in novels. But, in the relationship between Elena and Lila, Elena, the subordinate, gets from her subordination a kind of magnificence that disorients, that astonishes Lila. Its a motion thats hard to describe, but for that reason it interested me. Let me set it like this: the many events in the lives of Lila and Elena will show how one describe strength from the other. But beware: not only in the sense that they help each other, but also in the sense that they plunder each other, stealing feeling and intelligence, depriving each other of energy. How did memory and distance( temporal and perhaps spatial) influence the development of the book ?
I think that putting distance between experience and tale is something of a cliche. The problem, for the writer, is often the opposite: to bridge the distance, to feel physically potential impacts of the material to be narrated, to approach the past of people weve loved, lives as weve find them, as theyve “ve been told” to us. A tale, to take shape, needs to pass through many filters. Often we begin to write too soon and the pages are cold. Merely when we feel the tale in each of its moments, in every nook and cranny( and sometimes it takes years ), can it be written well. My Brilliant Friend is also a fiction about violence in the family and in society. Does the fiction describe how a person manages( or managed) to grow up in violence and/ or in spite of violence ?
In general, one grows up warding off blows, returning them, even agreeing to receive them with stoic generosity. In the case of My Brilliant Friend , the world in which the girls grow up has some obviously violent features and others that are covertly violent. Its the latter that interest me most, even though there are plenty of the first. On page 130 theres a wonderful sentence, about Lila: She took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to terms. And then on page 227: The voice set in the writing overwhelmed me It was completely cleansed of the dross of speech. Is that a statement of style ?
Lets say that, among the many methods we apply to give a narrative order to the world, I favor one in which the writing is clear and honest, and in which when you read about the events the events of everyday life they are extraordinarily compelling. There is a more sociological thread: Italy in the years of the boom, the dream of prosperity that reckons with ancient enmities .
Yes, and that thread runs through to the present. But I reduced the historical background to a minimum. I favor everything to be inscribed in the actions of the characters, both external and internal. Lila, for example, already at the age of seven or eight, wants to become rich, and drags Elena along, persuades her that wealth is an urgent objective. How this intention works inside the two friends; how its modified, how it guides or confuses them, interests me more than standard sociology. You seldom yield to dialectal colouring: “youre using” a few terms, but you usually favor the formula he/ she said in dialect. Were “youve never” tempted by a more expressionistic colouring ?
As a child, as an adolescent, the dialect of my city frightened me. I prefer to let it echo for a moment in the Italian, as if threatening it. Are the next instalments finished ?
Yes, in a very provisional state. An obvious but necessary question: how autobiographical is the story of Elena? And how much of your literary passions are in Elenas readings ?
If by autobiography you entail drawing on ones own experience to feed an invented tale, almost entirely. If instead youre asking whether Im telling my own personal tale , not at all. As for the books, yes, I always cite texts I love, characters who moulded me. For example, Dido, the Queen of Carthage, was a crucial female figure of my adolescence. Is video games of alliteration Elena Ferrante Elsa Morante ( a passion of yours) suggestive? Is any relationship of Ferrante to Ferri( your publishers) only imaginary ?
Yes, absolutely. Have “youve never” regretted choosing anonymity? Reviews tend to linger more on the mystery of Ferrante than on the qualities of the books. In other terms, have research results been the opposite of what you were hoping for, in emphasising your hypothetical personality ?
No, I have no sadness. As I see it, extracting the personality of the writer from the tale he offers, from the characters he sets onstage, from the landscapes, from the objects, from interviews like this in short, from the tonality of his writing wholly is simply a good way of reading. What “youre calling” emphasising, if its based on the works, on the energy of the words, is an honest emphasis. Whats very different is the medias emphasis, the predominance of the authors image over his run. In that case, the book functions like a pop superstars sweaty T-shirt, a garment that without the aura of the star is totally meaningless. Its these sorts of emphasis I dont like. Does the suspicion that your work is the product of several hands bother you ?
It seems a useful example for the conversation were having. We are accustomed to deriving a body of works consistency from the author , not the authors coherence from the run. That particular female or that particular man has written the books and that is enough for us to consider them elements of a journey. Well speak with assurance of the authors beginnings, of successful books and others that are less successful. Well say that he instantly discovered his way, that he has experimented with different genres and styles, well trace recurring themes, circumstances, an evolution or an involution. Lets say instead that we have available House of Liars and Aracoeli , but not a writer named Elsa Morante. We are so unused to starting from the works, to attempting in them consistency or difference, that were immediately confounded. Accustomed to the supremacy of the author, we end up, when the author isnt there, or is removed, watching different hands not only in the development from one volume to the next but even from one page to the next.

So will you tell us who you are?
Elena Ferrante. Ive published six books in 20 years. Isnt that sufficient?

Frantumaglia by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, is published by Europa Editions( 16.99 ). Click here to buy it for 13.93

Elena Ferrante: a life in novels

Troubling Love ( 1992 )
Ferrantes debut novel follows Delia, who seeks to uncover the truth about their own families secret past in Naples after her moms demise. The New York Times wrote: The fury, tormented voice of the author is something rare. In 1995 the book was turned into a film by Mario Martone and screened in competition at Cannes. The Day of Abandonment ( 2002 )
Published a decade subsequently, Ferrantes follow-up tells the story of Olga, a woman who is abandoned by her husband and left with their two children. Meghan ORourke in the Guardian wrote that the book has a mythic quality, reminiscent, from time to time, of Sylvia Plaths image-drenched poems. The Lost Daughter ( 2006 )
The novella, about a divorced academic who sees herself morbidly drawn to a family she sees on the beach, prefigures many of the themes of the Neapolitan novels, including female relationships, motherhood and class. The Boston Globe wrote: This piercing novel is not so easily dislodged from the memory. My Brilliant Friend ( 2011 )
The first instalment of Ferrantes Neapolitan novels introduces us to Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, two girls who live in a deprived neighborhood of Naples. Publisher Adam Freudenheim wrote in the Guardian : These feminist novels are the best modern portrait of a female friendship Ive come across in literature. The Story of a New Name ( 2012 )
Lila and Elena grow up in increasingly different social realms, against a background of the culture and economic divide between northern and southern Italy. The New Yorker described the book as artfully written and absorbing. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay ( 2013 )
Although Elena becomes geographically and emotionally remote from Lila and Naples, the link between them remains present. In her New York Times review, Amy Rowland wrote: Nothing you read about Elena Ferrantes run prepares you for the ferocity of it. And with each new fiction in her revelatory Neapolitan series, she unprepares you all over again.

The Story of the Lost Child ( 2014 )
The final part of the quartet completes the double Bildungsroman which has spanned the best part of 60 years. Alex Clark in the Guardian wrote: I am not sure I have a read a more frightening account of friendship, or a more unsentimental opinion of the uses that human being have for one another, even in the presence of reciprocal attachment.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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