A review of In the Margins by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
In our world of instant celebrity, Elena Ferrante is something of an anomaly. For three decades, she has been publishing – with wild success – under a pseudonym, her true identity known only to her Italian publisher. Though she could certainly be deemed prolific, she appears not to make much of her fame, rarely granting interviews and giving away as little as possible about herself. Accordingly, the recent appearance of In the Margins, a slim volume of essays, is cause for great excitement among Ferrante fans, offering insights into her writing practice and allowing us to come even a little bit closer to the keen intelligence behind novels such as The Lost Daughter and the Neapolitan Quartet.
Originally conceived as a series of lectures to be delivered in autumn 2020, In the Margins contains three essays on writing composed specially for the University of Bologna, followed by a detailed reading of Dante penned for the Association of Italianists. In each of them, Ferrante displays her characteristic care with words, layering meaning into her sentences and adopting a flowing rhythm that seems to take the reader by the hand and lead them deep into the text. At the same time, however, there is something less finely developed about these works: on occasion, they seem a little breathless, written perhaps more from the heart than from the head. The voice that emerges – ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Ferrante’s long-time collaborator – is both wise and unassuming, reserved yet full of warmth, confident and, charmingly, at times a touch uncertain.
In ‘Pain and Pen’, Ferrante takes us back to her school days, to the torment of learning to write neatly in copybooks, keeping her letters between not only the horizontal lines but also the red lines of the margins. These exercises have shaped her profoundly, she tells us – giving her neat handwriting, for one, but also making her associate writing with ‘the satisfaction of staying beautifully within the margins and, at the same time, with the impression of loss, of waste, because of that success’. Writing, she goes on, is about harnessing the energy of disorder with established forms and structures, about trying to create something that ‘fills the gap between pain and pen’. Here in particular, she sounds sometimes disarmingly unsure of whether she has achieved such a thing herself – or, indeed, if it is possible at all.
She goes on to detail what she calls her ‘struggles’ with writing: her early and continuing attempts to find words with which to capture real life and render it true to the reader, and the ways in which she allows her characters and their stories to develop on the page. ‘Aquamarine’ is as near as we come to a close reading of her own novels – in particular The Lost Daughter, Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment – or a description of how she goes about writing (Ferrante, one gets the feeling, is far above such a thing as sharing her ‘writing techniques’). Meanwhile, ‘Histories, I’ looks specifically at the Neapolitan Quartet, how to read like a writer, and what it is to write as a woman. Throughout these essays, she makes copious textual references to Samuel Beckett, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein and Adriana Cavarero, to name but a few – the admiration with which she engages with their work is infectious, in itself a powerful lesson in how to let reading flow into the written word.
The final essay in the volume, ‘Dante’s Rib’, is a dense, fiercely intellectual and feminist reading of Dante, a major influence whom she advocates reading and re-reading. This essay is written ‘out of love’, she says, and despite its complexity – Ferrante is nothing if not thorough – it does indeed contain such enthusiasm, a sense of such boundless awe, that even a reader unfamiliar with the great man cannot fail to be inspired. Dante too, Ferrante tells us, shares her sense of writing as a dangerous balancing act between success and failure, an act that is compulsive but also to be feared, very often remaining in the margins of what it is actually trying to achieve. Her fellow feeling is powerful, making the reader want to reach for a pen or a volume of Dante – or, perhaps better, both. Here, reading and writing combine to go somehow deeper than what the book’s subtitle would suggest: ‘On the pleasures of reading and writing’ does not, it turns out, refer only to positives.
‘I loved and love Dante’s words but am exhausted by their force,’ writes Ferrante – a sentiment she transfers to her own readers with admirable intensity. In the Margins is carefully fashioned yet full of life, revealing much of its author while still holding back, the kind of book that ought to inspire one to read or write with renewed vigour. Conveying confidence even as it betrays some of its author’s wrestling with her own texts, this book is a hymn to the written word that succeeds in being both: ‘an elegant, studied gesture’ and ‘a convulsive act’.
In the Margins by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, is published in the UK by Europa Editions. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.