In the Margins by Elena Ferrante

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Translated by Ann Goldstein

Review by Anna Hollingsworth

There’s something fascinating about writers writing about, well, writing and reading. I care more about writers’ preferred pens and books on their bedside tables than about what surgeons think when they cut into flesh or even politicians being honest about their career aspirations. On Desert Island Discs, it’s writers whose allowance of one book I pay most attention to. So, the subtitle to Elena Ferrante’s In the Margins, ‘On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing’, meant instant excitement —and I can imagine I’m not alone among bookish Ferrante fans.

Don’t be fooled, though, because there are no simple pleasures; it’s not the kind of list newspapers do on what authors are reading at moment. Rather the collection of essays covers everything from learning the physical act of putting letters on the page to the psycho-social burdens that come with writing creatively in a broader sense. Three of the essays, Pain and Pen, Aquamarine and Histories I are based on The Eco Lectures (Eco after Umberto, not ecological) at the University of Bologna. The fourth, Dante’s Rib, was given at the invitation of the Association of Italianists. (And no, Ferrante’s identity has not been revealed; the lectures were delivered by other people.)

Pain and Pen describes Ferrante’s balancing act between two kinds of writing. One is a kind of well-balanced writing that at school would win praise from teachers, but makes her feel uncomfortable in compliance to norms; the other is an impetuous kind of writing that appears seemingly randomly and is never sustained for long. Aquamarine looks at Ferrante’s yearn for realism and her fights with authenticity. Histories I tackles writing in relation to other people’s writing. Finally, Dante’s Rib is written “out of love for Dante”, a kind of reflection on Ferrante’s relationship with the author.

There’s a high degree of intellectualism running through the essays, with plenty of literary and cultural references. Ferrante situates her thoughts among other writers — Virginia Woolf, Alice B. Toklas, Samuel Beckett — and reflects on their commonalities. But she does so with a humbleness and openness about her own struggles; there is never a feeling of namedropping or showing off. Of her Neapolitan novels, she says: “I don’t know if they’re successful or not, I don’t know that about any of my books.” For a lecture-turn-book, it is remarkably followable.

In addition to professional introspection, Ferrante’s stories receive the same reflective treatment. The background to the Neapolitan series is particularly interesting. It’s more often than not billed as a depiction of female friendship, love and jealousies, but here Ferrante puts writing and how it determines Lenù and Lila’s relationship at the centre. Their now iconic story builds on the concept of the necessary other, and how it’s used in an Italian feminist text Sexual Difference: A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice. There, the relationship between two women, Amalia and Emilia, is mediated through writing; Amalia is a natural storyteller who finds Emilia boring as she always says same things. However, eventually Amalia finds an interest in Emilia’s fragments of text. It’s easy to see how Lenù and Lila have grown out of Amalia and Emilia.

Another prominent theme is that of the patriarchy and what it is like to write in it. Ferrante presents her struggles with complete openness. She grew up reading male texts, and her writing became marked by a vicious circle:

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.

For someone writing like Ferrante, I found this confession surprising but refreshing in its honesty.

In the Margins offers a deep-dive into a writer’s mind through a combination of personal struggles and theoretical discussions. The essays are worth reading more than once, because something will necessarily be missed in the richness of Ferrante’s musings. At the end of it, I very much wanted to call Ferrante my brilliant friend.

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Anna is a journalist and linguist.

Elena Ferrante, In the Margins (Europa Editions, 2022). 978-1787704169, 172 pp., hardback.

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