literary journalism

Elena Ferrante’s ‘In the Margins’

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.

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 color 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’s 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 sixteenth-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…

Read the full review online in the Irish Times

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