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from the March 2022 issue

Elena Ferrante’s “In the Margins”: Crafted Layers of Truth

Reviewed by Maris Kreizman

Elena Ferrante's essay collection examines the pleasures of reading and writing with the author's characteristic flair for violent honesty.

“For me true writing is that: not an elegant, studied gesture but a convulsive act.” Elena Ferrante has regularly used violent imagery to describe her writing process, so this sort of visceral language in her craft book, In the Margins, is not entirely unexpected. Her 2016 collection Frantumaglia contains decades of her letters and interviews in which she asserts again and again that turbulence is fundamental to her process, and the book’s title echoes the theme: “The frantumaglia is an unstable landscape, an infinite aerial or aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self.” More bluntly, in 2020 Ferrante told the Guardian that writing is “twisting the knife in the wound, which can hurt a lot.”

Honesty, brutal honesty, is Elena Ferrante’s brand, the quality that a global audience has come to expect from her novels about messy women living complicated lives in a violent world. In the Margins is a cool, slim volume that ventures to reveal how Ferrante does it, how she wields the pen like a blade to puncture the flesh of the page. From the chunks of glass a man discovers in a dish of pasta in the novel The Days of Abandonment to the hatpin stab to the gut in the novel The Lost Daughter, Ferrante frequently, and not unintentionally, draws blood.

In the Margins is comprised of three lectures on the craft of writing commissioned by the University of Bologna, plus an essay on Dante’s Beatrice that feels a bit tacked on at the end. In 2021 an Italian actress played the role of the notoriously enigmatic writer with the pen name of Elena Ferrante and presented the first three lectures to the public (a Dante scholar later delivered the fourth at a conference devoted to Dante).

Consider the strangeness of such a spectacle for a moment: Ferrante is a master of pulling the mask off of polite society and exposing the unseemliness beneath, yet she chooses to present herself with near-total artifice. Think of Ferrante giving readers beautiful insights into how she translates her own thoughts into written works. Then think of her Italian to English translator Ann Goldstein, who once again has gracefully taken Ferrante’s words and turned them into an art of her own. Finally, think of the actress translating Ferrante’s prose into a spoken-word performance in which she embodies an author whose physical appearance remains mostly unknown. It’s the most exquisite game of Telephone: every whisper gives you goosebumps, but it’s hard to know what’s real.

What is real throughout In the Margins is a dilemma that Ferrante says she’s learned to forego after early failures in her attempts at writing realism, in which she was too bogged down in detail. Inspired in part by her reading of Denis Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, she had a realization: “Trying to tell the thing as it is can become paralyzing,” she writes, so “I will therefore try to tell it as I can, and, who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky and tell it as it is.” If reality will always be influenced by the storyteller’s own experiences, then subjectivity requires the writer to value what is true over what is real. In other words: what is true?

In Elena Ferrante’s world, truth and ugliness are intertwined: “Beautiful writing becomes beautiful,” she writes, “when it loses its harmony and has the desperate power of the ugly.” Which is not to say that Ferrante rejects the idea of proper form. In the Margins details the joys of reading (Ferrante is as well-read as you’d expect her to be) and the necessity of broadening one’s understanding of what literature can do. 

Countless writers have expressed a similar sentiment: that you must understand the rules of craft before you can joyously break them. But Ferrante unleashes her beautiful violence on even the most trite writing advice, which makes it thrilling: “We have to give up the idea that writing miraculously releases a voice of our own, a tonality of our own: in my view that is a lazy way of talking about writing,” she writes. “Writing is, rather, entering an immense cemetery where every tomb is waiting to be profaned.” If this quote doesn’t inspire you to start a draft of a new novel, you’re probably not a writer, or at least not a writer who majored in English.

So, true writing, according to Elena Ferrante, requires discipline and planning and knowledge of craft, but also an impulse to forsake polish in favor of chaos: “For much of my life I’ve written careful pages in the hope that they would be preliminary pages,” she writes. “And that the irrepressible burst would arrive, when the writing I from its fragment of the brain abruptly seizes all the possible I’s, the entire head, the entire body, and so empowered, begins to run, drawing into its net the world it needs.” The ideal state for a writer, then, is one in which she loses all self-consciousness and gives free rein to the voice inside her head. This irrepressible burst is Ferrante’s holy grail of writing, the spark of inspiration that allows her to turn off the cautious parts of herself and aim to deface and deform all that has come before. I like to believe that this is what writers mean when they say things like, “The characters just spoke to me” or “the story wrote itself.”

Ferrante’s conception of true writing as a kind of id-versus-ego endeavor may not be unfamiliar to a vast audience of readers who’ve found themselves blithely stricken with Ferrante Fever over the past decade. But In the Margins makes explicit an idea that readers of the Neapolitan Novels might have suspected, or at least one that I had suspected, but never confirmed until now: that Elena and Lila are the absolute embodiments of their creator’s ideals and frustrations about writing. Perhaps no two characters in literature map so directly onto the writing process of their author, with each woman representing an opposing side of the problem. Elena, also known as Lenù, is a model of discipline and study. She has a proper regard for the classics and a great work ethic, but she’s plagued by the self-doubt with which so many writers, including Ferrante, must contend. Lila, on the other hand, is all impulse and dazzling genius, a born truth-teller who defies norms and fucks people up without thinking twice. Lenù and Lila work best as a team, with each one acting as a moderating influence on the other’s weakest qualities, much as how Ferrante’s conflicting writing styles require balance. 

Now think back to the actress playing the role of the author delivering the lectures of In the Margins. Such elaborate obfuscation in presenting a book as “candid” as this one reveals two contradictory impulses (the Lenù and the Lila, if you will) that seem to linger at the heart of Ferrante’s work: the desire to be intimately known and to not be known at all. Such a paradox makes Ferrante’s decision to remain anonymous throughout the successes of her career all the more understandable and yet still mysterious, even troubling.

I’m not suggesting that Ferrante must reveal herself, or that any author should be beholden to the marketing of their books, receptive to all journalists and bookstores and fans and, even worse, available on social media. I imagine the literary world would be a much better place if the job of the author contained more privacy and less shilling, more time for writing and less time for worrying about how they present themselves to the world. But In the Margins is a strange work to consider for this very specific reason, as it examines the desire to tell the truth by functionally losing control of boundaries. It’s a precise, academic, often brilliant book that contains very little of the brutality that we come to Ferrante for. But perhaps when we turn to a book on the writer’s craft, we’re looking more for a gentle nudge than a forceful push.

© 2022 by Maris Kreizman. All rights reserved.

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