Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet: female=crazy? #1

Earlier in December, I had an episode lasting 36 hours, the name of which I have just learned: marginature. I found it near the end of Frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante’s collection of letters and interviews. Or as Lila in My Brilliant Friend explains it – dissolving boundaries. I would not have described it her way. Nicola Lagioia uses marginature in one of her emailed interview questions to Ferrante.

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, which the Italian woman, who chose it, uses to separate herself from her books. Only her family and her publishers know her to be the author. Thus all interviews are by email. https://115journals.com/2020/12/15/elena-ferrantes-neopolitan-quartet-a-personal,
https://115journals.com/2020/12/18/elena-ferrantes-neopolitan-quartet-a-personal-reflection-2/

To quote Lagioia, At ‘crucial moments…the world comes unglued before Lila’s eyes, ..goes off its axis, appearing in its unbearable nakedness, a chaotic, shapeless mass …without meaning’.

In my own case, I was suddenly struck by the idea that the universe was without meaning and whatever had brought it into being had done so without purpose. Indeed, was very likely sadistic. Not such a surprising conclusion on a short, dark day in the midst of an 8-week Covid lock-down as the leader of the free world tried to destroy democracy. I had suffered depression before and took medication to prevent it, but this was of another order altogether. It was way past suicidality.

Lila first reports that condition to Elenu, the narrator of My Brilliant Friend, on New Year’s Eve in Naples just as rival fireworks begin to break into gunfire.

Frantumaglia, the name of Ferrante’s book of letters, etc., is not an Italian word. It is a dialect word meaning a jumble of fragments. Ferrante’s mother used the word to describe emotional and mental suffering that had no obvious cause, a debris field of muddy filth, a ‘sense of loss’ as everything that seemed stable and anchoring slips into the debris. This feeling led Ferrante’s mother to leave the pot on the fire and wander out of the house, to sing tunelessly, to weep, to talk to herself. And it is just such frantumaglia out of which Ferrante draws her best writing, her most authentic narratives.

Readers of A Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment, two novels that preceded the Quartet, will see that Delia and Olga also suffer from this state of mind, a kind dissociation or a fugue state brought on in both cases by shock. I believe the same is true of The Lost Daughter, which has been loaded onto my iPad, but which I have yet to read. These titles, in fact, seem to be recurring themes in Ferrante’s work. The central story is of female friendship and the struggle to achieve that between mother and daughter.

I remember that I talked to my sister -on the phone – see Covid lock-down- first about my marginature, aka my depression deeper than death. It horrified her. She wouldn’t allow herself to go there and she didn’t want me to either. “I was always luckier than you,” she said, “I believed what Aunt Mae taught us.” Aunt Mae, who ‘saw’ the atomic bomb before August 1945′ taught that whatever happened was for the best. Death, even of large numbers, was no big deal. That line of reasoning was a bridge too far for me in that muddle. So I consulted my daughter on the other side of the continent. She knew depression better than most.

I had stopped keeping a journal by then, so I have no record of what we talked about, although I do know that she- Julia – told me that my 92-year-old friend, Clara, her mother-in-law was declining rapidly. I had modeled one of the characters in my book Hour of the Hawk on her. I loved Clara. Perhaps, having a concrete grief focused my mind. Julia, although she was my daughter, like the teenagers who were my students, had taught me to clarify my thinking. Over more than 30 years, we had worked on our relationship deliberately until we had forgiven each other.

In the first post I wrote about the Neopolitan Quartet, I speculated that Ferrante had children. Frantumaglia affirms that idea; she has daughters. Although she doesn’t say so, she has been divorced. One of her central issues is abandonment and she shows a keen understanding of a man who, out of the blue, betrays a woman by the revelation of a secret other life. She returned to Italy from years of living in Greece and says she no longer had responsibilities there. She has always taught and refers to teaching as her real job. I speculated in that first post that she had not been psychotic, but frantumaglia sounds as good as. She says it wipes out linear time, leading women into a vortex of dizzy suffering. Delia and Olga tell their stories in the midst of that whirling.

Why do women whirl?

My whirling in December 2020 doesn’t seem as if it was particularly female in its origin. From what I read on Twitter men have been whirling too. George Conway, for example. But I am familiar with that other kind. My attempt to be a housewife and mother of toddlers didn’t go well. It was the early 60s. I had got an education and spent 2-years in a career. The mythology of the time suggested forcefully that I should let hubby earn the dough and enjoy Mom and Tot classes, learn bridge and nurture babies. Hubby worked 3 jobs and we barely made ends meet. When we finally sat down to try to pull my fragments together, Hubby asked what would you do now if you could do anything.” “Put on my blue suit,” I said. “Where would you go?” he asked. I named the nearest high school. By bedtime, we had a plan, 1 job each and a carefully chosen nanny. My mother-in-law had always worked, so my husband thought it was the natural order of things. Unfortunately, it turned out that he also thought a job would cool down my craziness.

1 thought on “Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet: female=crazy? #1

  1. Pingback: Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet: female=crazy? #2 | 115 journals

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