Elena Ferrante’s Naples could not be further from the romantic version of Italy seen on cooking shows or in travelogues — all high fashion and Fiat convertibles, heaping plates of pasta and afternoon appetizer. Instead, it is a place to be hardened. In Ferrante’s new essay collection, “In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing,” Naples is a place of struggle, work, hunger and, all too often, disappointment.
For men, she writes of an environment defined by performative masculinity—striving, providing and holding power, especially over others. For women, it is an existence bereft of options, a place where role models are in short supply. Women are allowed to be dutiful or beautiful, though any gains they experience from the latter always come at a price. Education, even for very young girls, is considered not only a waste but an affront: In one harrowing scene, one of the young protagonists of Ferrante’s defining novel, “My Brilliant Friend,” is tossed from a window for the crime of asking to stay in school.
Ferrante is notoriously mysterious (though she will acknowledge Naples as her birthplace). Her authorial name of her is a pseudonym, her identity of her unknown and much discussed. She is the author of 10 novels including “Days of Abandonment,” “The Lost Daughter” (recently made into an Oscar-nominated film) and most famously, the four volumes known as the Neapolitan Novels (of which “My Brilliant Friend” is thefirst).
“In the Margins,” out Tuesday, March 15, is her second book of nonfiction and takes the form of three short essays derived from a series of lectures Ferrante wrote for the University of Bologna in 2020. Given the author’s chosen anonymity, however, the lectures were presented to the public not by her but by the actress Manuela Mandracchia, in a theater.
Her anonymity also gives her a freedom in her fiction that is missing from her nonfiction work, which feels a bit circular and self-reinforcing. Still, we see glimpses of the shame, disappointment and struggle in these pages, albeit at a lower temperature. It is not at all surprising to discover the title of “Pain and Pen.” If we are correct in assuming that Ferrante’s novels draw her from her own life, it stands to reason that pain is a defining force.
It also makes sense that this essay delves into her struggle to find her voice from under so many male writers. “At this point — I was around twenty, I think — a sort of vicious circle established itself clearly in my mind: if I wanted to believe that I was a good writer, I had to write like a man.”
This book is short, just 100 pages. Throughout, Ferrante delves into the many challenges she has faced in creating her work: how to build a structure for it, figuring out what it means to write about “real life,” addressing the dilemma of whether to write in dialect or Italian (all of her books have been translated from Italian into English by the same talented translator, Ann Goldstein).
It’s not that these essays aren’t intriguing; it’s just that Ferrante’s fiction is so compelling, often shocking in its intensity, that these lectures feel like, well, lectures. I did appreciate the way she seems to sum it all up in the end: “The challenge, I thought and think, is to learn to use with freedom the cage we’re shut up in.”
In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing
By Elena Ferrante
(Europe Editions; 112 pages; $20)