Elena Ferrante’s latest book of nonfiction offers a rare peek behind the curtain of the creative process of one of our most elusive authors. The book is comprised of four lectures: three on Ferrante’s influences – composed for the Umberto Eco lecture series, and Dante’s Rib – written at the invitation of the Association of Italianists. The lectures were delivered by an actress and a scholar, respectively, to protect Ferrante’s anonymity and have been faithfully translated by Ann Goldstein.
Having been brought up on a 'literary patrimony'... She worried that her 'female nature' would hinder her self-expression
In Pain and Pen, Ferrante recalls learning penmanship as a schoolgirl, likening ruled paper to a cage. Photos of her primary school notebooks show the letters formed neatly between the horizontal lines, but she struggled to fit her words within the vertical margins, delineated in red. Those lines “tormented me”, says Ferrante. “They were intended to indicate, by their colour as well, that if your writing didn’t stay between those taut lines you would be punished.” She describes her writing as vacillating between two poles – ordered and impetuous – but it is the latter, she says, that pushes her to publish books.
Having been brought up on a “literary patrimony”, in which even Austen and the Brontës were considered minor, as a teenager Ferrante believed that in order to write well one needed to “write like a man”. She worried that her “female nature” would hinder her self-expression until she came across a sonnet in Gaspara Stampa’s 16th-century Rime, in which the poet recounts being inspired to write by the pain of love, despite being “a lowly, abject woman”. If a woman has something to say, Ferrante wondered, “does it really take a miracle ... to dissolve the margins within which nature has enclosed her and show herself in her own words to the world?” Other female authors who illuminated Ferrante’s path to finding her voice include Ingeborg Bachmann, Emily Dickinson, María Guerra, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf.
For a long time Ferrante “stubbornly pursued” realism: “tell the thing as it is”, she logged in an early notebook – advice from Denis Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and His Master given to her by a teacher. The heroines of her first three novels (Troubling Love, Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter) were all autobiographical. As the persona of Elena Ferrante is itself a fiction, “I am, I would say, their autobiography as they are mine,” she writes.
It was a rereading of the Italian philosopher and feminist Adriana Cavarero’s Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood that prompted Ferrante to experiment with new narrative techniques. Cavarero’s concept of the “necessary other” allowed her to step out of autobiography and the reflections on the “narrative character of female friendships” helped Ferrante structure the relationship between the protagonists of My Brilliant Friend, the first book of the Neapolitan novels that brought her international renown. “In relation to the sealed ‘I’ of the three preceding books, the reciprocal inleiarsi, or entering into each other ...of Lila and Lenù was a giant step.”
Despite her desire to break free of constraints, Ferrante acknowledges the need for limits
In the final essay Ferrante addresses the influence of Dante, whose power of identification she considers unmatched. “A Dantesque description is never merely a description but is always the self transplanted, the heart hurtling swiftly – a few seconds – from inside to out.” Her love for his work is inexorably intertwined with her love for his “boldest creation”: Beatrice. Whereas the young Beatrice of his Rime and “a good half” of the Vita Nuova is appreciated only for her “beauty and silence”, later in the Vita Nuova, Dante attributes to her intelletto (understanding). “He ended his book resolving not to write about Beatrice anymore, until he had found a way to further distort the old forms and ‘say of her what had never been said about any woman’,” Ferrante notes. Beatrice reappears in the Commedia graced with the gift of speech. By bestowing on a female figure knowledge that Dante “gets from his studies, from his rib…[in that inleiarsi, so to speak, entering into, becoming her ] he ventures to imagine…what is possible for women”.
In the Margins is not a book on craft; I suspect it will hold limited interest for nonfans. But for those of us whose Ferrante fever runs high, it is nothing short of a thrill to have light shed on her magic. Despite her desire to break free of constraints, Ferrante acknowledges the need for limits: “even Samuel Beckett, the extraordinary Samuel Beckett, said that the only thing we can’t do without, in literature and any other place, is form”. In the Neapolitan quartet, Lila suffers repeatedly from an uncanny sensation of smarginatura (“dissolving margins”). We need margins, it seems, both to contain and to struggle against. The challenge, Ferrante concludes, “is to learn to use with freedom the cage we’re shut up in”.