In the Margins: of the pleasures of reading and writing by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante has always said that once a book is written it has no further need for its writer. She has never been seen in public. Some have even suggested that she could be a man, but the general consensus is that ‘Elena Ferrante’ is a pseudonym for an unknown female writer.

This slim volume of essays is a very personal attempt to put into words what happens when a writer writes and a reader reads. No mean task. The first three were presented in November 2021 at the Teatro Arena del Sole in Bologna, Italy as the 2021 instalment of the Eco Lectures produced by Umberto Eco International Center for Humanities. They were read by the actress Manuela Mandracchia ‘in the guise’ of Elena Ferrante. The fourth and last essay, Dante’s Rib, concluded the conference Dante and Other Classics in April 2021 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. It was read by the scholar Tiziana de Rogatis.

Ferrante vividly reimagines her early school days when she was compelled to write on black lined paper but between two vertical red lines, one positioning the left margin, the other the right. She was diligent to recognise the ease to honour the left margin but recognising “that if your writing didn’t stay between those taut lines you would be punished,” she found the right margin difficult to obey.

I was punished so often that the sense of the boundary became part of me, and when I write by hand I feel the threat of the vertical red line even though I haven’t used paper like that for years.

There is, and always has been, a mysterious element to the creation of fiction. If you as a reader are surprised by what someone does or what someone says in a book, the writer probably was too. Most writers are pantsters: they fly by the seat of their pants. You can begin a scene not knowing where it’s going until you get there.

By mysterious I mean that which makes a writer re-read yesterday’s work and think, ‘Did I write that? Where did that come from?’ When a writer is in the heat of creativity and the keys (or pen) are jumping with energy and excitement, and the little black marks – typos misspellings galore – are coming lickerty-split onto the pale background there isn’t time to think, ‘What did Stephen King say about this situation?’ ‘Passive or active here?’ ‘Maybe I should re-read that Ferrante lecture’ and ‘I’d better ask what’s-his-name? that YouTube guy’. No, there isn’t time. If I stop I’ll lose it. One has to hope-to-god that all that advice, those corrections, mistakes, answers, instructions, and trial & errors have somehow, by osmosis perhaps, made it into my subconscious and are now flowing creatively through my fingertips shoving those little black marks all over that pale background and will coalesce into something worthwhile, giving me a rich and productive resource on which to later manipulate, via several drafts, into a good book. What is that magical force? (muse? imagination? the holy spirit? creative fire?). I don’t think we’ll ever know, because it’s an amorphous product of our imagination that our measly 26 man-made letters – no matter in what order we put them – are just too limited, or too few in number, to give it meaning we can understand.

She quotes Virginia Woolf, from A Writer’s Diary (1953):

“And your novel?

“Oh, I put in my hand and rummage in a bran pie*.”

“That’s what’s so wonderful. And it’s all different”

“Yes, I’m 20 people.”

*a bran pie = a tub full of bran in which treats are hidden: a lucky dip.

Ferrante believes there are two kinds of writing, the first compliant, the second impetuous; the first from the ‘outside’, the second from the imaginary ‘inside’ which is by its nature fleeting.

The thought-vision appears as something in motion – it rises and falls – [it’s not unlike watching TV in your mind] and its task is to make itself evident before disappearing.

And fleeting it certainly is. Many times between being hit by an exciting idea and racing to my nearest device with its Note App – it’s gone! And when I try to retrace my thoughts to whatever it was that sparked the thought train in the first place – the caption on a photo, a news article, a phrase – it’s nowhere to be found. Many writers have expressed this mysterious aspect of fiction writing:

Alexander McCall Smith: (writing fiction is) allowing the sub-conscience to escape.

Wole Soyinka: (writing fiction is) a kind of creative reportage.

John Irving: writing a movie is like swimming in a bath and writing a novel is like swimming in the ocean.

D. H. Lawrence: I am doing a novel which I have never grasped …there I am at page 145 and I’ve no notion what’s it about.

Jonathan Safran Foer: when writing non-fiction I always know in the morning what I’m going to work on; when writing fiction I get up in the morning NOT knowing what I’m going to work on.

Virginia Woolf again: writing is camping out in your brain.

There are quotable quotes in almost all of Ferrante’s paragraphs, ideas that will spark your own thought trains. If you are interested in this stuff please read it and re-read it as re-reading is wonderfully necessary; it will delight, amuse, and amaze you. If you’re not, don’t bother.

You can buy the ebook or hard cover edition here.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

 

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Elena Ferrante is/might-be the pseudonymous name of an Italian writer. Publicity shy, she only accepts interviews by email. There are no photos of her online. James Wood, The New Yorker critic has deduced … a number of her letters have been collected and published. From them, we learn that she grew up in Naples, and has lived for periods outside Italy. She has a classics degree; she has referred to being a mother. One could also infer from her fiction and from her interviews that she is not now married…In addition to writing, “I study, I translate, I teach.”

the story of the facts has to reckon with filters, deferments, partial truths, half lies: from it comes as arduous measurement of time passed that is based completely on the unreliable measuring device of words.

That … what are writers stuck with? … the unreliable measuring device of words.

Every tone of voice, every possible meaning of words spoken, every possible meaning of words unspoken, the way they dress, walk, cry, smile, serve the pasta, look, and stand; all are analysed by Elena, the first-person narrator, in her attempt to understand what’s going on. It’s a Brugel-esque landscape of feelings colouring the lives of the Neapolitan working class in the 1960s and all seen through the eyes of Elena Greco  -“always fearful, always subordinate, always pleasingly willing”, the unmarried, bookish one with glasses.

Elena Greco:  I said to myself every day: I am what I am and I have to accept myself; I was born like this, in this city, with this dialect, without money, I will give what I can give, I will take what I can take, I will endure what has to be endured. This could easily be Lina’s creed too.

The title refers to Elena’s brilliant friend, Lina Cerullo and her new name now that she’s married, her married name, Lina Carracci, and, of course, Elena can’t be everywhere, especially in Lina and Stephano’s hotel room on their disastrous wedding night, but we get the scene, in the third person. Ferrante doesn’t need to justify how the narrator, Elena, knows what happened, she does (Lina told me) and clumsily so. However, there are other instances when the narration slips from the first to the third person unannounced. It’s OK. It’s a legitimate literary device, unnoticeable if attention is not drawn to it. It allows a flow of action or insight. This inconsistency is something the editor should’ve picked up. Ferrante is usually masterful at using these literary tools. Quotation marks, and ‘he said’, ‘she said’ are abandoned at times in the frenzy of verbal, sexual, or social violence giving the scene a filmic quality, making the action jump out of the flat page. This is good stuff, but doesn’t need justification.

The story is about Lina’s marriage that fell apart at the wedding at the end of Book One and how it continues on its downhill slide while Elena continues to bump against her upbringing and pursue an academic life, free – she thinks – from her stifling Neapolitan history; but Elena by this book’s end still believes Lina, despite her choices, is the more beautiful, the more intelligent.

Thank god there’s a glossary of families and family members at the front of the book. Ten families and their intra and extra familial relationships make up the fodder of the story and the glossary is well needed; and don’t be afraid to use it (no-one will know). Things get complicated especially with diminutives, family nicknames, and similarities; Alfonso, Antonio, Lina, Linu, which is a diminutive of Elena, not Lina whose real name is Raffaella. See? And don’t skip over the Italian family names, Cerullo, Cappuccio, Scanno, Solara. Say them out loud! You need to be familiar with them all and if you say them, you’ll be saying them a lot, right from the beginning so it won’t take long before you’re at one with the family, families. You’ll be in among them all. That’s the best bit.

The worst bit is the fate of the women. Not only are they treated like shit by all of the men – except when they want something, usually sex – their worst enemies are the other women: mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, and  friends. Shame, gossip, inference, innuendo, treachery, lies, superstition, and pride are all weapons these Neapolitan women use against their own. And Elena sails bumpily, battered and bruised, but defiant, through it all, but ultimately aware that she is a woman and people see her more clearly, listen to her more intently, talk to her more respectfully, when she is on the arm, even metaphorically, of a man. Have things changed?

And then the story splits: Elena goes to study in Pisa, and Lina’s messy life of deception, abandoned commercial success, and personal war-mongering continues to engulf everyone in her circle of destructive intent and selfishness. Here I wanted to hear more about Elena, but I had to wait.

And then this:

One morning I bought a graph-paper notebook and began to write, in the third person, about what happened to me that night on the beach near Barano. Then, still in the third person, I wrote what happened to me on Ischia. Then I wrote a little about Naples and the neighborhood. Then I changed names and places and situations. Then I imagined a dark force crouching in the life of the protagonist, an entity that had the capacity to weld the world around her, with the colors of the flame of a blowtorch: a blue violet dome where everything went well for her, shooting sparks, but that soon came apart, breaking up into meaningless gray fragments. I spent twenty days writing this story, a period in which I saw no one, I went out only to eat. Finally, I reread some pages, I didn’t like them, and I forgot about it.

This is Elena Greco explaining herself, describing what changed her life, but it is more; it is a confession from Ferrante: how to write a novel. It’s finding the ‘dark force’ that’s the tricky bit. However, it’s this notebook, hand-written, unedited, that she gives as a gift – despite “I reread some pages, I didn’t like them” – and it’s this notebook that finds it’s way into literary circles, someone types it and shows it to a publisher and …

When Elena and Lina finally re-unite it’s in the most unlikely of places; two women, one about to be hoisted aloft, the other about as low as she can go but united by a shared intellect, history, and belief in the other, no mater how sorely that belief is tested. One ignored the upbringing they both had no control over; the other gave in to it. And like the end of Book One, My Brilliant Friend, this, Book Two, has a sting on the last page that compels you, no matter what you might think, to move on as quickly as possible to Book Three, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Ferrante is a reading experience like no other.

You can purchase the book, in various formats including the ebook, here.

Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

Female-silhouette
Elena Ferrante is the pseudonymous name of an Italian writer. Publicity shy, she only accepts interviews by email.

        The abandoned woman has a long tradition in classic poetry and literature with Dido, Queen of Carthage during the Trojan war as the most famous example; a time when virtuous heroes where meant to choose duty over love. Abandonment, and the courage to put up with it, became a romantic womanly duty.
        Not so for Elena Ferrante in her most famous novel, Days of Abandonment, 2002, (courageously translated by Ann Goldstein): her protagonist, Olga, who is told by her husband, Mario, a man of “quiet feelings” that he is leaving her because he was having “terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice” and “he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him” leaving Olga “turned to stone beside the sink.”  At first she thinks it is just a phase, he will be back,  but when she finds out the real reason for his departure she is enraged, she becomes violent, obsessed, deranged but determined.
        Told in the first person, the prose is robust, strong; I can understand why some readers think Ferrante is really a man: it feels masculine and has a rowdy momentum that could sweep away any male equivalent like bulls before a train. But this is its strength. It certainly makes you turn the page. I’ve never read rage like this from a writer of either gender. It’s mesmerizing. And her attempt to redeem herself by adopting a man-ish attempt at seduction is funny, sad, distressing, messy, and humiliating all at once.
        The action culminates in a single hot August day: the kids are on summer holidays; there’s no money to entertain them, besides the lock on the front door is faulty and they are trapped. There is sickness, outrage, potential violence and indifference, an annoying brat, and ants. It is exhausting and exhilarating. Great stuff. But if you hate reading strong language stay away!
        It is a war, an internal war between the woman she was and the woman she’s become. Her senses become distorted: time stretches, her spacial understanding convulses and she no longer knows the usual spaces of her own home; they’ve become “transformed into separate platforms, far away from each other.” She loses her balance and can no longer trust her eyes to tell her what is there, her ears what is said, and her past what is true.
        Convoluted but fascinating discourses on love, her past, the world, and relationships – “what a complex foamy mixture a couple is” – sways her brain away from her responsibilities which she fears will unseat her; she employs her daughter to jab her with a paper-cutter. She is losing it but she knows she is losing it.
        She is also an outsider, from Naples, in Italy’s south but living in the northern city of Turin where a common saying peppers local conversation: North Africa starts at Rome. This would put her origins, in the minds of her neighbours, as somewhere in the southern Sahara, as remote as their imaginations could muster. They already think she is a little mad; maybe she is.
        What you think could happen in a locked apartment during a hot summer’s day doesn’t prepare you for what does. The ending will be for you to discover but Ferrante’s point is unexpected, politically incorrect, but perspicacious, and once you read it, digest it and realise what she means, that last line will stay with you for a very   long    time.

the-days-of-abandonment film pic
Margarita Buy as Olga in the 2005 film directed by Roberto Faenza who co-write the script with six other writers.

        You can buy the ebook at Amazon, Kobo, and Europa Editions and if you haven’t read it you should.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
When we watch a film we have to assume that everything we see is what the film-maker wants us to see: that dreadful yellow coat the woman on the left is wearing in the airport scene is delibate; the bad hair on the star in the night-club scene is also deliberate. This book reminded me that the same assumption applies to books.

My Brilliant Friend begins with a series of events, reminisesces by the narrator, Elena, about her friend, Lila, the ‘brilliant friend’ of the title. They are scenes like, ‘I remember one day when she …’ and ‘and then one evening when we were six she ….’ Ferrante is colouring a picture which isn’t going anywhere. There is no clear narrative, no feeling of time passing. I was getting impatient and a little frustrated; and then the teacher in me was getting annoyed at the sloppy grammar, the confusing pronouns, and the profuse scattering of seemingly random commas, as if from a sloppy pen: comma splices proliferate like ants.

And then on page 74 I came across this line …

“Trained by our school books to speak with great skill about what we had never seen, we were excited by the invisable.”

I found this line profound. I read it again. Thought about it and read it again. That’s when I was reminded about the veracity of the above assumption. I was forced to find a reason for the grammatical sloppiness and such a reason wasn’t hard to find. The voice is extremely informal, like a mate sitting with you over a coffee latte telling you a story. It’s very conversational and, I eventually conceeded, intentionally so. In fact about half way through the book Elena eventually receives a longed for letter from Lila and describes it thus,

“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; it had the vivid orderliness that I imagined would belong to conversation if one were so fortunate to be born with the head of Zeus.”

This description of Lila’s writing as ‘vivid orderliness’ as if from the gods put Ferrante’s writing into focus as ‘the dross of speech’ and ‘the confusion of the oral’ and I understood that the sloppy grammar and punctuation had a purpose; it was a writerly technique designed to create the conversational tone and the confusion of the oral just as Lila’s letter wasn’t.

My Brilliant Friend is about self awareness and female friendship told by an elderly Elena Greco looking back at her lifelong friend, Lila Cerullo, from 3 years old to 16 years old, childhood and adolescence. Elena is the third-person narrator but very much part of the action; it feels like an autobiography.

Lilia’s family, like all the families in this book, is scarred with fillial violence. “What do you mean by love?” Lilia murmured to her brother, “what does love mean for our family?” Love seems to be at the heart of everything but it’s rarely visable. The Neapolitan characters, especially the men, wear their arrogance and ego so confidently and so visably but when it is challenged even ever so slightly they react as if such confidence and ego were tissue-thin: a side-ways glance is responded to as if a stab in the back; a smirk, a snide remark, as if a throat is cut, a eye gouged out and revenge is metered out ruthlessly.

This threat of violence is ever present, and terrifying since when it erupts it is life-threatening; not just between husband and wife but between father a daughter, brother and sister and usually over the purpetrator being made to feel foolish by circumstances that no-one has control over. It is the women who suffer the most. The blame, when its origins are unclear or undefinable, is always planted on a woman: a truely mysoginistic culture. Ferrante describes it as common-place, like doing the washing up and putting out the garbage. It is part of the fabric of their lives.

Despite what I said at the opening of this review the seemingly anacdotal descriptions give way to a narrative and a time-line slowly evolves and towards the end of this book, the first of a trilogy, tension and narrative builds slowly but firmly to Lila’s wedding day, at the age of sixteen, as a final act threatens to explode everyone’s lives. You don’t get the explosion, just the gasp, as someone who shouldn’t be there walks into the room, sits, crosses his legs, shows off his gleaming new shoes; the explosion, we assume, must open book two in the series. What a cliff-hanger!

We know that Elena Ferrante was born in Naples, and that’s about it. If you google images of her you get several pictures of Italian looking women which, if you pursue them, lead nowhere or to women who have written about Ferrante. However on ‘her’ website I found this …
” … guesswork around Ferrante’s identity proliferated, with reviewers speculating that “she” might be a mother, a man, or a sentient cabal of fire-ants,” says a reviewer Katy Waldman in her article for Slate (an online journal) heralding the Paris Review’s coup at gettng the first in-person interview with Elena Ferrante; in their Spring 2015 issue. So, soon, we may find out more about this intriguing writer that no-one has up until now seen and no-one up until The Paris Review has seemingly spoken to.