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In the Margins by Elena Ferrante

I do not confess to be an expert, or a particular fan, of the mysterious Elena Ferrante. I have ventured into one of her four Neapolitan novels. It may have sold over forty million copies, but it is not to everyone’s taste. What does interest me is when writers talk about their inspirations and what they have learnt from other writers. We all have different opinions and reactions to books or works of art and I love to hear what others saw which I may have missed.

This short book is a collection of four essays. Ferrante was due to deliver the Umberto Eco lectures at the University of Bologna on three successive days. They were open to the entire city, but the pandemic prevented them being performed. Instead they have been collected in this book and a fourth essay added. While the subtitle ‘On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing’ suggests a gentle meander through some good books, the reality is rather more intense. This is probably not a book for avid Ferrante fans, but more for those who are interested in writing and literature.

The first essay, Pain and Pen, begins with a fascinating memory of writing paper given to school children. Vertical lines at either side of the page contain the writing and get closer to the edge of the page as the child ages. Ferrante develops her thinking about being a woman writer. Allow me to quote that train of thought:

“At this point – I was around twenty, I think – a sort of vicious circle established itself clearly in my mind: if I wanted to believe that I was a good writer, I had to write like a man, staying strictly within the male tradition; although I was a woman, I couldn’t write like a woman except by violating what I was diligently trying to learn from the male tradition. From then on, for decades, I wrote and wrote, locked in that circle.”

She talks about Virginia Woolf, who saw writing as camping out in her own brain, without getting lost in the numerous interruptions of everyday life, and Ferrante develops this idea when looking at her own way of working:

“My work, in fact, is founded on patience. I start from writing that is planted firmly in tradition, and wait for something to erupt and throw the papers into disarray, for the lowly, abject woman I am to find a means of having her say. I adopt old techniques with pleasure; I’ve spent my life learning how and when to use them.”

In the Second essay, Aquamarine, Ferrante starts with a rule she developed for herself at the age of sixteen or seventeen:

“The writer – I wrote in a notebook I still have – has a duty to put into words the shoves he gives and those he receives from others.”

She talks at length about the aquamarine ring her mother wore and how she tried, unsuccessfully, to describe it in her writing, until it evolved into the Neapolitan mother and her dialectal voices that she was constructing in her head.

Ferrante frequently refers to the book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein and how she failed to understand it on the first reading. How Stein writes her own life story, making it told by another; by Alice, her friend, partner and lover. Both autobiography and biography superimposed on one another. It allowed Stein the ability to call herself a genius, through the mouth of Alice, and set herself alongside the only others she recognised, Picasso and the philosopher Alfred Whitehead.

Ferrante returns to the topic in her next essay, Histories, I, saying:

“…if Gertrude Stein were continuing to apply the old form, she would have to present as true the invented autobiography of some character of her creation. Instead the form receives a blow that deforms it. Gertrude Stein, a real person, calls herself the author -author- of an autobiography written by Alice Toklas, a person not invented but real, in which the autobiographical “I” talks largely not about herself but about someone else, that is Gertrude Stein, a brilliant real person.”

“…she treats the “I” that is writing about itself – Alice B. Toklas, the source of the biographical truth – as a fiction, as a woman whose “life and opinions” must be written about in the form of autobiography, as a Huckleberry Finn is written by the pen of Mark Twain. But, having done that, she inserts a dizzying, disruptive element of fiction, which comes from the true Alice. Toklas is the real typist of Stein’s texts, she helps correct the proofs. She is therefore – as she says in the text – the reader who knows Stein’s writing most thoroughly. And, indeed, in the fiction she continuously gives the impression she’s correcting, adding, clarifying, annotating, to the point where the fake autobiography seems like a text that the two women have in fact written, one beside the other, one dictating, the other at the typewriter, pausing, remembering, reflecting.”

There is plenty of gold to mine in these thoughts, when set alongside the Neapolitan novels and Ferrante’s own anonymity. She proceeds to give some thought-provoking advice:

“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. Writing it getting comfortable with everything that has already been written – great literature and commercial literature, if useful, the novel-essay and the screenplay – and in turn becoming, within the limits of one’s own dizzying, crowded individuality, something written. Writing is seizing everything that has already been written and gradually learning to spend that enormous fortune.”

I enjoyed this little bit of reflection about the dynamic nature of cliché – that thing that all writers are striving to avoid, but not always succeeding:

“True sentences, good or epochal, always seek a path of their own within clichés. And clichés were once true sentences that dug a way out among clichés. In this chain of works great and small, in every link large or small, there is hard work and accidental illuminations, effort and luck.”

Ferrante goes on to reflect on the arduous journey of the writer. One of her struggles was with the use of Neapolitan dialect in her novels. She notes that as soon as dialectal vocabulary and syntax are written down they start to sound false. “Once written, besides, Neapolitan seem sterilized. It loses passion, loses effect, loses the sense of danger it often communicated to me. In my childhood and adolescence it was the language of course male vulgarity, the language of men calling to you on the street, or, contrarily the sugary-sweet language with which women were taken in.”

The final short essay is called Dante’s Rib. It may not be to everyone’s taste or interest. Ferrante talks about what she took from reading Dante, and also Dante’s invention of Beatrice, ascribing her knowledge and learning which for many centuries we had failed to see in the female’s role in the Middle Ages. It feels a long way from the forty million sales of My Brilliant Friend but it is a fascinating insight into the author.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson



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