Lessons on writing from Elena Ferrante

frantumagliaLast week I attended the London launch of the latest book by the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. Frantumaglia (a ‘family word’ of Ferrante’s mother meaning ‘jumble of fragments’) is a collection of occasional writings – mostly correspondence with her publishers and written interviews – ranging from 1992, when she published her first novel, Troubling Love, to 2015.

Its arrival comes hot on the heels of the unmasking of the ‘real’ Ferrante, who has always written under a pseudonym and kept her identity private, by an Italian journalist, and naturally this issue dominated some parts of the evening, in which I joined Rosie Goldsmith, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Kate Young and Robin Lustig to read from and discuss Ferrante’s books.

Having the read the new book, however, in preparation for the event, I was struck by how much of it was not about the particular personality of Ferrante, or whoever she might be, but about writing in general. It is full of insights into how she approaches fiction writing – although to be fair these are often filtered through a discussion of her books, so would be most useful to anyone who has read them.

Here are some of my favourite excerpts:

Q: Do you write down your dreams?

Ferrante: The rare times that I seem to remember them, yes. I’ve done so since I was a girl. It’s an exercise that I would recommend to everyone. To subject a dream experience to the logic of the waking state is an extreme test of writing. A dream has the virtue of showing us clearly that reproducing something exactly is always a losing battle.

Which is not to say, I would guess, that dream sequences in fiction are a good thing. They very rarely work. I’ve often wondered why that is? I assume it’s because prose fiction is already akin to a dream. Writing a character’s dream may be going deeper in terms of their psychology, but in terms of the reading experience, it’s duplication, redundant.

Q: You have been praised for your spare, muscular prose. There are no pyrotechnics, the language never draws attention to itself, and the effect is powerful. Do you start in this more spare and dialled-back register, or is the work in earlier drafts messier and more emotional?

Ferrante: I tell stories about middle-class women who are cultivated and capable of governing themselves. They have the tools to reflect on themselves. The slow, detached language I use is theirs. Then something breaks and these women’s boundaries dissolve, and the language with which they are attempting to say something about themselves also is loosed, unbounded. From that moment, the problem – a problem that is, above all, mine, as I write – becomes how to rediscover, step by step, the measured language they started with and, with it, the kind of self-governing ability that stops the characters from falling into depression, into self-degeneration, or into dangerous feelings of revenge, aimed at themselves or at others.

This is particularly true for the first three Ferrante novels: Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter, all of which feature protagonists who are women not on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but fully inside it.

Q: Do you think that fiction writing always involves some sense of guilt.

Ferrante: Absolutely yes. Writing – and not only fiction – is always an illicit appropriation. Our singularity as authors is a small note in the margin. The rest we take from the repository of those who have written before us, from the lives, from the most intimate feelings of others. Without the authorization of anything or anyone.

This is one of the hardest things to teach, I find, especially at undergraduate level: the confidence to appropriate experience, your own and other people’s. If you’re a good writer then by the time you’re finished with it, it will probably be unrecognisable to the person you stole it from – and hopefully scarily familiar to plenty of others with no connection to it at all.

Jonathan Gibbs

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