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20 April 2022updated 21 Apr 2022 5:14pm

Fate and freedom in Elena Ferrante

In a candid set of essays, the Italian novelist reveals her literary process and how she’s overcome her insecurities.

By Margaret Drabble

In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing is a slim new volume from Elena Ferrante, consisting of three lectures and an essay on Dante and Beatrice called “Dante’s Rib”. The lectures were due to have been delivered in person, but Covid struck and the elusive Ferrante was represented by the handsome actress Manuela Mandracchia in November 2021 at the Teatro Arena del Sole in Bologna. The writer who had for so long protected her identity was willing to appear centre stage in public and share her thoughts on identity, literary influences and her brilliant career, but a pandemic stepped in and returned her to the wings. It seemed an appropriate twist of fate.

Her subtitle includes the word “pleasures”, but the first lecture is entitled “Pain and Pen” and her reflections contain at least as much suffering as delight. Writing, for Ferrante, was a struggle. She was a good student and a quick learner, and she was well taught, but her novels convey a sense of peril and risk. Part of this was due to her perception of herself as a woman writer, and her thoughts on women’s writing, as on feminism, are embattled. For a long time, she tells us, she tried to follow male models, and failed to free herself from the cage of male precedent, and the dictating formula of the elementary-school notebook with its ruled lines and fixed margins (two pages of Ferrante’s childhood exercise book are reproduced here). Cages and margins become extended metaphors for her, and she includes a heart-stopping paragraph-long sentence from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable: “I’m in words, made of words, others’ words… born in a cage then dead in a cage, in a word like a beast, in one of their words…”

The tradition of women’s writing in Italy is very different from that of the Anglo-Saxon model, and did not seem to offer Ferrante a sense of openness. And yet it too had its possibilities. When still at high school, she caught sight of these upland vistas in the work of the celebrated Renaissance poet Gaspara Stampa, but Stampa at the same time provided her with the language of abjection. She quotes from Stampa’s Sonnet VIII: “If, a lowly, abject woman, I/can carry within so sublime a flame…” This sounds even more abject in the Italian (which this text does not give, though it does give us Dante in Italian). To be an “abietta e vile donna” is a hard fate, even if the voicing of that fate renders you immortal.

[See also: “True cinema trusts in images”: Elena Ferrante on Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter]

Maybe English women novelists did not feel this sense of degredation? Jane Austen strikes the reader with her supreme self-confidence, and George Eliot may have taken a man’s name but she showed no sense of any kind of innate inferiority. In her essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”, Eliot proclaimed “No educational restrictions can shut women out from the materials of fiction,” and her oeuvre in itself proved nothing could stop women from claiming the heights of literary achievement. Ferrante does not mention Eliot, but she explores the splintered and multiple identities of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, and contrasts them with the conventional male sentimental narratives of Hemingway. Her praise of Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas makes one look again at this entertaining and provocative experiment, from which I had chiefly remembered the cook Hélène’s comment on Matisse as an unwelcome dinner guest. (“I will not make an omelette but fry the eggs. It takes the same number of eggs and the same amount of butter but it shows less respect, and he will understand.”) But, as Ferrante shows, there is more to the book than that.

Maybe Ferrante underestimates the value of entertainment. She is a very serious reader and a very serious writer, and one feels she may have been at times paralysed by her familiarity with literary theory. As a broad generalisation, one might posit that English writers tend to be paralysed by irony, continental writers by theory. But Ferrante makes her way out of that cage – and in one instance at least, was offered a surprising escape by a theoretical work. Rereading (she is strong on rereading and second thoughts) an “extremely important Italian feminist text”, Sexual Difference by Adriana Cavarero, published by the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, she rediscovers the account of the friendship of Amalia (“an excellent natural storyteller”) and Emilia, who carries the text of her own life as written by Amalia “forever in her purse”.

Here we see one of the germs of the long, intense and fluctuating relationship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo in the Neapolitan novels, their intertextuality, their interdependence, their necessity to one another – the first novel had originally been entitled “My Necessary Friend”, not My Brilliant Friend. In these lectures, Ferrante shows us behind the scenes of her finished compositions, confirming as some of us had surmised that she had toyed with the idea of trying to create Lila’s own writing. She clearly shares what I once somewhat pretentiously described as Elena’s “extreme ontological insecurity”, and yet she at the same time has found the confidence to reveal the muddled nature of the genesis of what she describes (in a word borrowed from Woolf) as her “scribbling”.

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Ferrante vividly describes the liberation that sprang from deciding to write in the first person, in Elena’s voice, a discovery which came, somewhat bizarrely, from writing an extended proposal for the book to a hypothetical publisher. She shows us other epiphanies: sometimes a single word seemed to lead her onwards. She offers as illustration pulling the word “cyanotic” from the dictionary to describe the aquamarine ring on her mother’s finger. It’s not in English a very pretty word, with its connotations of illness and printing ink, and one might prefer her other rejected choices: “sky-blue light”, or “pale celestial aquamarine”. But “cyanotic” seemed to offer her a way of leaving “the dull story of a real family”. It was a false gleam, she eventually decided, leading towards a “dark, almost gothic tale” from which she retreated into a form of “slow realism”. (She writes with insight about the speed of prose compared with the speed of thought, a subject too complex to paraphrase here.)

[See also: Elena Ferrante’s world of interiors]

This passage about the ring reminded me of Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook, when Anna Wulf is writing at the height of her breakdown: “Words. Words. I play with words, hoping that some combination, even a chance combination, will say what I want.” And I remember the feeling of immense relief that overcame me when, in one of my novels, I thought of renaming Muswell Hill as Cantor Hill. The false name enables the writer to speak the truth.

It is also good to discover that in Ferrante’s earlier novel, The Days of Abandonment, she as author claims to have had no idea of the meaning of the role played by the meek-spirited German shepherd Otto, or why “the door of the apartment suddenly won’t open and suddenly opens”. Readers remember these details clearly, but they are things that just happened to the writer, who didn’t know what they meant either.

In the Neapolitan novels Ferrante transposes her mother’s ring into a silver bracelet, an image that she evokes insistently (perhaps too insistently). For instance: “I displayed my successes as though they were my mother’s silver bracelet.” I reacted very personally when I read her discussion of the ring in her second lecture, “Aquamarine”, for I have for two or three years been trying to write a memoir, of which the working title was for some time “Opal Ring”, named after my mother’s opal ring, which is now on my finger. I’ve abandoned this title now, but the ring maintains a powerful symbolic and biographical significance.

Now, reading about the cyanotic aquamarine, I wonder if I chose this opening image under the influence of Ferrante? The dates fit, but they don’t fit. In the novels, we read of a bracelet, not of a ring. Did I transpose the bracelet into the ring, or did I arrive at this image of the mother’s legacy independently? Does every woman make such connections? The memory has links that we can never trace.

In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing
Elena Ferrante, trs Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions, 172pp, £12.99

[See also: The misrepresenting of Monica Jones]

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder