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 even though I haven’t used paper like that for years.
‘Pain and Pen’, p.20 (Europa Editions, 2022)
Of course, this can be taken both literally and metaphorically. Here Ferrante explains how she feels trapped between the lines, wondering what she’s missing out on by not daring to transgress.
If ‘Pain and Pen’ touches on multiple personalities and daring to let the other Elenas trapped inside out to play, ‘Aquamarine’ continues on that theme with a new twist. In this essay, the writer moves on to ponder the difficulty, impossibility, even, of writing reality. She uses the examples of her early fiction to show how her work developed.
These novels are all inhabited by women who follow the rules, living by numbers, until one day their lives fall apart. In a nice touch, Ferrante shows how as the protagonists unravel, she allows her other, more primal, style of writing to emerge and take over.
‘Histories, I’ continues the writer’s issues with writing real life, a task as impossible as it is necessary. She addresses her issues with dialect, the way it sparkles and crackles in the streets, but turns to dust on the page.
There’s also a shift in focus from the lone protagonists of the early novels to the symbiotic duo of Lenù and Lila in the Neapolitan Novels. Where the earlier women were closed in, only seen from the inside, the interaction between the two heroines of the later novels had them effectively writing each other, forcing them to reflect on their own character, too.
A notable feature of the essays is Ferrante’s desire to discuss other writers, her inspirations. To justify this, she claims:
We have to accept the fact that no word is truly ours. We have to give up the idea that writing miraculously releases a voice of our own, a tonality of our own: in my view that is a lazy way of talking about writing. Writing is, rather, entering an immense cemetery where every tomb is waiting to be profaned.
‘Histories, I’, p.72
And whose grave is Ferrante herself robbing? Well, there are glowing mentions of Italo Svevo, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett and Ingeborg Bachmann, but it’s Gertrude Stein that plays the largest role here. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas has had such an effect on Ferrante that she works it into prominent positions in two of the first three lectures, lauding its playful mix of autobiography, biography and fiction.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that Ferrante should enjoy that particular book as it reminds us of the writer’s own games. It’s unfortunate that recent events have cast doubt on the writer’s identity as it’s almost impossible to read In the Margins without having the suspicions as to her identity at the back of your mind.
In ‘Pain and Pen’, Ferrante paints herself as a woman who taught herself to write like a man, needing courage to let her female writer emerge. However, it’s difficult to take this at face value when the opposite may well be true…
Moving on from those conjectures, we finish up here with the final essay/talk, ‘Dante’s Rib’, discussing a writer Ferrante raises above all others. There is a link back to the earlier pieces here when she returns to the theme of writing real life:
But if I had to name what really struck me as a teenager – and not so much as a student but as a fledgling reader and aspiring writer – I would start with the discovery that Dante describes the act of writing obsessively, literally and figuratively, constantly presenting its power and its inadequacy, and the provisional nature of success and failure.
‘Dante’s Rib’, p.93
Much of this essay explores her obsession with Beatrice, and the way the great poet rethinks, reimagines, the role of women. It’s all intriguing in its own way, but again you can’t help but notice the possible irony of this revelation.
In the Margins is a fairly quick read, but always of interest, one in which an accomplished author discusses her own writing and some of her favourite things to boot.
Ferrante found her voice by daring to step outside the margins immensely.