April 2022

Arts & Letters

A writer unfolded: Elena Ferrante’s ‘In the Margins’

By Helen Elliott
In an essay collection, the mysterious author of the Neapolitan novels pursues the “excessive” to counter patriarchal literature’s dominance

How daring. Commissioning the most famous incognito writer in the world to give a series of public lectures at one of the most famous universities in Europe. In 2019, the University of Bologna commissioned Elena Ferrante to give a series of lectures discussing “her work as writer, her poetic, her narrative technique, or anything else she wants” and stipulated that it be accessible to a “broad, non-specialist audience”. Her lectures were part of an ongoing series established in 2000 by the late Umberto Eco, celebrating the Italian and international world of culture and ideas. Elie Wiesel gave the inaugural address. Luciano Berio, Julia Kristeva and Orhan Pamuk have also contributed, all presenting in person, all reading their own words.

But Ferrante? The writer who has never been confirmed to exist in a single or, according to some, even female body? In November last year, Elena Ferrante – the name itself is invented – was performed/interpreted by an actor, Manuela Mandracchia, giving three lectures on successive days. A hall of mirrors, a beautifully transparent sleight of hand. Fortunately, Ferrante’s publishers have gathered the lectures to create In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing. It also features an idiosyncratic essay on Dante, which is of less general interest unless you have an Italian education where Dante starts at preschool and concludes at death. Probably not even then.

These lectures are a revelation. This is how a writer becomes/invents herself: transforming from a child who was “excessive” to a writer whose truths have upended lives. The lectures are also a rebuke to the critics who refuse to acknowledge her standing, who seem unable or unwilling to see what she is doing. “Her Italian is bad,” an esteemed critic told me. Of course it is. She’s loitering in the language. With violent intent. And your bad is not her bad; in fact, she says that your good is her bad.

Simultaneously direct and opaque, clear and mysterious, basic and erudite, these essays catch Ferrante in process, unfolding as a writer. They explore why she writes. And, most essentially, they interrogate what she would like her writing to do. It is all about doubleness: “I” the narrator and Ferrante the author.

The opening to the first lecture, “Pain and Pen”, states: “I’m going to talk to you about the desire to write and about the two kinds of writing it seems to me I know best, the first compliant, the second impetuous.” Thrilling. Here are the Neapolitan novels’ two dazzling characters: Lenù, compliant in every way; Lila, impetuous in every way. And what follows is an explanation of the way children learn to write between the blue lines on the clean page, and a point about the praise they get for never straying beyond the red line that defines the margin. Praise is perhaps what we most want when young. The first affirmation of being here and being yourself.

“I believe that the sense I have of writing – and all the struggles it involves – has to do 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.” If we assume there is only one acceptable way to write, we stain the edge of the page with tiny shots of panic; if we go into the margins we might be excessive. But why is excessive not considered literature? Because it is emotional, hysterical, unruly and, above all, anti-rational. Is it female?

“Excessive” is not deserving of praise, not just in writing but in every way. Remember Simone de Beauvoir’s observations: a woman wasn’t born contained; she learns it. Or else what? In Beauvoir’s case, suffering Camus telling her she made French men look “ridiculous”. (Camus’ lip makes me reach for Beckett: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”) Ferrante makes a case for finding the source of creative power in the margins, not on the page. Precisely here, in the excess. She demonstrates. Look at the adjectives. Look at “unpleasant” and “violent”. Does violence connote energy and masterfulness when from a male, but become mealy-mouthed and “unpleasant” when from a female? She talks later of wanting to write things that are unpleasant. Why not, she asks. She uses the female body – the collection of cells, nerves, skin, blood that hangs together to create that thing most spectacularly desired by men – both as metaphor and reality, to define what is disgusting and unpleasant.

And she emphatically rejects irony because of the way it distances the reader from emotions in play. Jane Austen’s observations of men were often expressed, in the famous words of critic D.W. Harding, in a form of “regulated hatred”. Austen is merciless in her depiction of fathers, brothers, suitors, but the extracting emotion of hatred is cooled by the poise of her wit. Irony – distant and lofty – belongs to the regulated page, not the margins. Closer to home (in many ways), the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg wrote in a 1949 essay that until she realised she didn’t want to write like a man, with “irony and nastiness”, she could not be truthful about her real life.

Readers of the Neapolitan novels will instantly recall Lila and her traumatic episodes of “dissolving margins”. They might also recall the instability and uncertainty of life in Naples, of children being hurled from windows, of adolescent girls being taken for rides in cars with young men, of men being knifed and of children disappearing forever. Nothing is fixed. Naples is a physical volcano shaped by a physical earthquake. Inconsistent as it is, it nevertheless mirrors the internal realities of its inhabitants. Life, as it is lived, has no red or blue lines, no margins at all. It is unmappable as it is uncontainable.

A translator and editor before she was a novelist, Ferrante has the sense of a language alert to the beat of a moment in process. A language twisting, flying, fully alive, and felt before it can be expressed. (Volcanoes. Earthquakes.) And what obsesses Ferrante is how this language – she calls it a double language – carries the lives of women. With it she can capture the bodily response of a woman for long enough to explore, or at least indicate, her emotional state. It is a method that is dynamic, shifting and, perhaps above all, contradictory. Yet this luminous capacity – derided within the patriarchal language as one thing: emotional – has traditionally been dismissed as unworthy of seriousness.

Ferrante talks about her own understanding of the power of language, and how this was intimately connected to the voices of men. When she was young, the books she liked most were written by men, and in her own writing she tried to imitate the voices she admired. “Literary patrimony is essentially male and its nature doesn’t provide true female sentences.” Something was out of kilter, so Ferrante berated herself that she had a “congenital slowness” with her “woman’s brain”. To write with the power of these great male writers seemed impossible. In every line she wrote there was self-censure, fear of the patriarchal eye cast across the page.

Ferrante was around 20 when she came across Gaspara Stampa, a poet who died in 1554 aged in her early thirties. Stampa seemed to be directly addressing her:

If, a lowly, abject woman, I
can carry within so sublime a flame,
why shouldn’t I draw out at least
a little of its style and vein to show the world?

The essay title “Pain and Pen” comes from Stampa. The revelation for Ferrante was Stampa’s identification of the disparity between the poem, a conventional work of art itself, and the subject matter, which was love. Valueless as an artist because she is female, and suffering in a way that cannot be expressed with the conventional (male) tropes, how can a woman – lowly, abject – show herself in her own words to the world?

For years Ferrante tried to write in the other language – for her, the “bad language” – because she wanted praise, she wanted to succeed. Shades of Lenù. Compliant. But, Ferrante explains, as she writes she becomes aware of a different language that “advances insolently, without tiring, without pausing, careless even of punctuation, strong only in its own vehemence. Then suddenly it leaves me.” Is this how Lila writes? We never see Lila’s writing, and Ferrante touches on this: she wrote chapters and chapters of writing that she thought could demonstrate Lila’s brilliance. All discarded. Some things must be left to the imagination.

Ferrante, gloriously at ease in world literature, reads in several languages. “Writing is entering an immense cemetery where every tomb is waiting to be profaned.” Within that massive cemetery, a woman writer must adapt and disturb. Virginia Woolf, an early and constant foothold for Ferrante, when asked how a novel was going, replied: “Oh, I put in my hand and rummage in the bran pie.” That pie is everything that ever passed through Woolf’s head, consciously, maybe forgotten, but still absorbed. Ferrante enjoys the idea of Woolf “camping out in her own brain”.

Woolf is a great novelist of friendship, and Ferrante is her natural inheritor in forging both style and content. In the second lecture, “Aquamarine”, she is explicit about the genesis of Lila and Lenù, and the writing they share (and don’t), the trajectory of two entire lives, the jealousy on both sides but also the transformative sense of a creative, narrated friendship. She refers to a significant story from a publication of the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, written in the 1970s and concerning ordinary working women involved in (idealistic) courses on self-development through trade unionism. In it, Amalia is an excellent and natural storyteller who initially finds Emilia boring because she keeps saying the same things. But when Amalia starts to listen deeply, Emilia’s words make her weep. So she writes her friend’s story and gives it to her as a gift. Emilia keeps it with her always. Ferrante writes: “I imagined that Amalia, with her ability to write, had tamed Emilia’s fragments, and that Emilia, the necessary other, was happy precisely about that taming.” It is a recognition of individual capability, as the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum defines it in her work on emotions. Capability is the source that enables human dignity and therefore the possibility of flourishing as a human being.

And, critically, Ferrante mentions “patience”, or waiting. Ferrante’s elusive power, captivating and enlarging readers even in translation, has its genesis in patience. She found her own astonishing suppleness in the collapsing of demarcations between “high” and “low” writing. Her habit is using the traditional rigid structures, the old language, and waiting patiently before she’s ready to “start writing with all the truth I’m capable of, destabilizing, deforming, to make space for myself with my whole body. For me true writing is that: not an elegant, studied gesture but a convulsive act.”

But how, then, do you speak about “the inner life”, this “permanent flashing in the brain that wants to take shape as voice, as writing”? Ferrante speaks with eloquence and humility about those times when she thought she had captured the very thought, the essence, of the tale she urgently wanted to fix on paper. Yet the moment the unique thought appeared on the paper, it slipped away, altered. And in altering, even in the most nuanced way, it became jarring to her. This seemed to be a failure of both technique and of language.

She is speaking about her dissatisfaction with the dissonance between the thought and the work of art. It has to do with the necessity of using the old language, the bad, to adapt to a new way of thinking. Her writing jars others in a different but direct way because the fact of her anger is always disturbing. Austen and Woolf have the same anger, the same serious criticisms, but, working as they do behind a façade of polish and class, their anger can be too nuanced, or too deflected to penetrate in these more raucous times. Ferrante, with her anger, is severely in the present.

Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins disturb in the same way: Why do they have to be so angry? Can’t they tone it down? Get some manners! An angry woman unsettles most men and some women. Patriarchal literature labels an angry woman a harpy or a fury, instead of a recorder of her experience. The synonyms for an angry male – impassioned, irate, stormy – don’t carry the same lip-curling dismissiveness. Yet anger is sublime because it distils. The creativity is in the distillation.

In the final essay, “Histories”, Ferrante calls on Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein and Ingeborg Bachmann, showing how they all methodically started taking back the language, the patriarchal words and methods, and began dismantling the form that had been imposed. Feminising it. Ferrante takes this further; Lila, consistently ugly/beautiful in her fury, her energy and creative power, is a woman to emulate. Later, in The Lying Life of Adults, there is the astonishing Giovanna. Brilliant and educated, she has the confidence and unruliness to become an adult “as no one ever had before”. This is the last line of the novel. Considering that the lives of all the women Giovanna knows have been predicated on and maybe destroyed by men, this is a leap. In her grasp of the world, Giovanna, unruly Giovanna, knows who she can be. Alone and female, she feels exultant, not cowed, not needing to dissemble. Giovanna can live in a new language, as the main character in her own life.

In the Margins is a small book of huge ideas. Ferrante wants nothing less than to change History, that dusty showcase for men. We will do it, she says, if we join the female “I” to history. Exhausting and exhilarating. Exactly what you might expect from a writer who seems to be directly addressing you.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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