“In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing” by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein; Europe Editions (112 pages, $21.95)
There is a moment in Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend” when Elena, the narrator and possibly the author’s alter ego, reacts to a letter she has received from the book’s other main character, Lila. “The voice set in the writing overwhelmed me, enthralled me even more than when we talked face to face: it was completely cleansed of the dross of speech, of the confusion of the oral.”
The lucid, well-formed essays that make up “In the Margins” are written in an equally captivating voice, one that is also free of “the dross of speech.” All four were presented last year as lectures by two Italian women, an actress and a scholar, each of them standing in for the recluse, anonymous Ferrante. Now they have been translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Although a slim collection, there is more than enough meat here to nourish both the common reader and the Ferrante aficionado.
The first piece, “Pain and Pen,” takes the form of a learning curve. Ferrante reveals how as an adolescent and apprentice writer she only read male authors and as such she came to imitate them. Eventual exposure to female writers like Virginia Woolf and poet Gaspara Stampa taught her how to break free of “the male tradition” and turn out writing which is both “compliant” and “impetuous.”
In “Aquamarine,” Ferrante explains that in her earlier years she was gripped by a “mania for realism.” She wanted to “circumscribe, inscribe, describe, prescribe, even proscribe, if necessary” but she was never able to faithfully replicate reality. She expounds on five “fundamental” discoveries gleaned, in part, from close-readings of “essential” books, all of which altered her writing approach and helped her emerge from her creative dead end.
Ferrante’s third essay, “Histories, I,” examines female literary influences and the challenges faced by female authors who are committed to producing “writing of truth.” The last essay, “Dante’s Rib,” sees Ferrante reflecting on the Italian poet and “his boldest creation of him,” Beatrice.
Every essay here is a blend of deep thought, rigorous analysis and graceful prose. We occasionally get the odd glimpse of the author (“I’ve never had much courage — it’s my cross”) but mainly the focus is on the nuts and bolts of her writing and Ferrante’s practice of her craft.
The essays are at their most rewarding when Ferrante discusses the origins of her books, in particular the celebrated Neapolitan Novels, and the multifaceted heroines that power them. As she says of characters in general: “I feel they are false when they exhibit clear coherence, and I become passionate about them when they say one thing and do the opposite.”
These essays might not bring us any closer to finding out who Ferrante really is. Instead, though, they provide valuable insight into how she developed as a writer and how she works her magic.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.