A scene from the film adaptation of The Lost Daughter.

Writing outside the box

Elena Ferrante’s essay collection is an exploration of the delights and constraints of form

Artillery Row Books

If asked, most Italians will remember being at school and learning to write within the margins of a grid of black and red lines, on pain of a bad grade. Elena Ferrante — pseudonymous author of My Brilliant Friend — is still haunted by those lines that threaten potential failure and its consequences. Her new essay collection, In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing, is nothing if not a meditation on learning how to use freedom within the constraints of form. 

In her third essay, Ferrante cites Samuel Beckett’s line from The Unnamable: a human is nothing but a “caged beast born of caged beasts born of caged beasts born in a cage and dead in a cage”. Cages — like the constraints on writing — enforce division, and simultaneously inspire a desire to break through. This fascination with the double-edged nature of any constraint is embodied in Ferrante’s description of her writing process: it is a continuous act of building and destroying. 

Form, genre, and plot are carefully wrought only to be ravaged or deformed. When writing a novel about love, Ferrante only begins to feel satisfied when moulding it into a novel about falling out of love; a detective story begins to absorb her when she knows that no one will find out who the murderer is. Most of all, she believes that writing becomes beautiful when it loses its harmony and has the desperate power of ugliness (“la forza disperata del brutto”). This kind of impulsive and compulsive writing — which comes to her in brief spells and is deaf to invocation — is the realisation of what Ferrante, quoting from Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist, describes as her rule of thumb: to say something as it is (“dire la cosa com’è”), without too many embroideries.

In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions, £12.99)

 But in letting her writing flow freely and “convulsively”, in the way that most closely imitates the purity of thought and feeling — so elusive, but also so much truer when unconstrained by the limits of language — Ferrante exposes herself to the sharp tongues of stylistic purists. Certainly, this is what happened upon publication of My Brilliant Friend, when, amid stacks of raving reviews, the odd put-down popped up here and there of Ferrante’s writing as ridden with “poor lexical choices’ and “odd constructions”, “stereotypes’ and “easy metaphors”; as “lacking nuance”; and even as being “too melodramatic”. 

If by “too melodramatic”, these reviewers mean so alive and visceral that it penetrates the stomach and twists it with the shock of recognition (forgive me if I say it as it is, rather unstylishly), then I’m reluctant to disagree. At odds with the controlled ways of writers such as, say, Nabokov and Woolf, Ferrante has less interest in crafting a pretty sentence than in baring the thing raw, bones and all. If I give due deference to the former two writers, I get real pangs of yearning for the voice of the latter.

Dante’s writing, too, Ferrante says (is there the tantalising possibility that she expressly picked he pen name to rhyme Italy’s greatest poet?), is at times ugly. As she reads some passages from the Comedy, Ferrante finds herself thinking that Dante “leaves behind not just his sense of what’s beautiful, but ours too; we are used to reading and writing with too much caution, we are cowards; he wasn’t, he knew that one can write poetry even as one denies poetry” (my translation). 

Ferrante’s essay collection is not for everyone

Ferrante admires Dante’s courage, but also his ability to come out of himself and identify with his characters. This is, of course, a trait Ferrante shares with her predecessor. As she created Delia, Olga and Leda, the protagonists and narrators of Ferrante’s first three novels, she also created herself, the author: “I am their autobiography just as they are mine” (my trans.). Fabricating her identity as an author allowed her to eschew self-censorship; to tell “the most unsayable of truths with the utmost honesty”. 

What emerges throughout the four essays is Ferrante’s profound preoccupation with truth — not with true identity, which dominates discourses on authenticity in fiction nowadays, but with the freedom to delve into the darkest, ugliest sides of humanity with courage, irrespectively of external pressures and expectations. 

But what Ferrante loves about Dante above all things is Beatrice, his “most audacious creation”. Beatrice is the first woman in Italian literature (and for a good while, also the last) with the gift of speech (“favella”); and not simply speech, but authoritative speech, which Dante grants her much like God does Adam. For years, Ferrante was convinced that authoritative speech was an exclusive prerogative of men. While still forming herself as a writer, she felt constrained by a double cage: that of a literary tradition imbued with male language and ideas, and that of her womanhood, that doomed all writing by women to sound too feminine to be fit for universal consumption. Now, Ferrante thinks that if women’s writing is to build its own tradition, the work of each is needed, good and bad: “not a line should be lost in the wind”. 

Ferrante’s essay collection is not for everyone: even her most hardened fans might be put off by the exclusive, at times slightly repetitive, focus on the ins and outs of reading and writing. The pleasure I took from it is much akin to that I take from foraging LitHub’s Craft of Writing newsletter — admittedly, a bit of a niche pastime. Still, those fascinated with the struggles and joys of creation might find in it quite a few treasures — even allusions and connections to all from Samuel Beckett to Francis Bacon to the Divine Comedy. 

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