Sunday, 6 November 2016

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

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 book, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, a selection of her letters, interviews and reflections, which is published this week by Europa Editions.

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

Dear Sandra, During the meeting I had recently with you and your husband, which was very enjoyable, you asked me what I intend to do for the promotion of Troubling Love (it’s good that you’re getting me used to calling the book by its final title). You asked the question ironically, with one of your bemused expressions. There and then, I didn’t have the courage to answer you: I thought I had already been clear with Sandro; he had said that he absolutely agreed with my decision, and I hoped that he wouldn’t return to the subject, even jokingly. Now I’m answering in writing, which eliminates awkward pauses, hesitations, any possibility of compliance.

I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient. I won’t participate in discussions and conferences, if I’m invited. I won’t 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 case may be, 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 my family. 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 immediately, and I don’t want to cause trouble. If you no longer mean to support me, tell me right away, I’ll understand. It’s not at all necessary for me to publish this book. To explain all the reasons for my decision is, as you know, hard for me. I will only tell you that it’s a small wager with myself, with my convictions. 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. 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 sort 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 a child. I went to bed in great excitement and in the morning I woke up and the gifts were there, but no one had seen the Befana. True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known; they are the very small miracles of the secret spirits of the home or the great miracles that leave us truly astonished. I still have this childish wish for marvels, 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 mistaken; 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, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the publishing house’s least expensive author. I’ll spare you even my presence.

Warmly, Elena

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

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 yours. 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 neighbour 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 [1] and Luisa Muraro [2]. 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.

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