Review: In the Margins

Having read a number of books both by and on the mysterious Elena Ferrante, I’m always intrigued when something new appears.  No fiction, alas, but we do get to hear from the reclusive writer on her own literary preferences, as well as being granted some glimpses into the work process.  In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing (translated by Ann Goldstein) is a collection of Ferrante’s essays on, reading and writing.  The first three, interestingly enough, were written for a series of public lectures at the University of Bologna (the Eco Lectures!), while the fourth is an added bonus, coming from a conference on Dante held in 2021.  The performance honours for the first three essays went to actress Manuela Mandracchia, while Tiziana de Rogatis delivered the Dante talk to the conference. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot to like about In the Margins.  It consists of four short essays written in a style recognisable to anyone who has tried Ferrante’s other non-fiction work.  While light and breezy in places, this belies a keen intellect and a vast knowledge of certain areas of literature, together making for an eminently readable and enjoyable set of texts. The first of the Eco Lectures, ‘Pain and Pen’, starts with childhood anecdotes, in which the writer reflects on school handwriting lessons: But I was easily distracted when I wrote, and while I almost always respected the margin on the left, I often ended up outside the one on the right, whether to finish the word or because I had reached a point where it was difficult to divide the word into syllables and start a new line without going outside the margin.  I was punished so often that the sense of the boundary became part of me, and when I write by hand I feel the threat of the vertical red line […]