Book Review - In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing

In this slim volume of four essays, Elena Ferrante, best-selling author of the Neapolitan Quartet (published in English between 2012 and 2015), explores her art and influences. In the Margins illuminates the themes that characterise her novels: intense female friendships, mother-daughter relationships and betrayal.

Ferrante’s true identity has been fiercely debated for years — with some suggesting that she is, in fact, male — but despite journalist Claudio Gatti’s 2016 “revelation” that Ferrante is the literary translator Anita Raja, the author continues to use her pseudonym and claims that everything you need to know about her can be found in her fiction.

Three of these essays were presented at the University of Bologna last year as part of the Umberto Eco Lectures series. In “Pain and Pen”, Ferrante recalls the notebooks she used in elementary school, the two vertical red lines denoting margins, and likens them to “a cage” encouraging “neat narratives, orderly, harmonious, successful”. Later, she learnt, there are two types of writing “the first compliant, the second impetuous”. For Ferrante, writing is beautiful “when it loses its harmony and has the desperate power of the ugly”. Of her characters, she says: “I become passionate about them when they say one thing and do the opposite.”

From an early age, Ferrante was a voracious reader drawn to literature written by men, which she tried to imitate, while yearning to find her own style. Now she understands that “diligent writing” is inseparable from prose that spills over the margins. The first contains the other.

A sonnet from Rime di Madonna Gaspara Stampa, a collection of works by the pre-eminent female poet of the Italian Renaissance, affected her profoundly:

If, a lowly, abject woman, I

can carry within so sublime a flame,

why shouldn’t I draw out at least

a little of its style and vein to show the world?

Ferrante recognised that she was waiting “for something to erupt . . . for the lowly abject woman I am to find a means of having her say.”

What makes the Neapolitan Quartet so memorable is Ferrante’s depiction of the two central characters, Lenù and Lila — their love and distrust, rivalry and envy — and how they shape one another through a friendship lasting six decades.

In “Aquamarine”, Ferrante suggests that she was partly inspired by a 1987 Italian feminist text titled “Sexual Difference: A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice”, which describes an encounter between two women, Emilia and Amalia, who take a writing course together. “Amalia is an excellent natural storyteller . . . [with] the urge to write the facts of her friend’s life and to make her a gift of the text.” But of Emilia, Amalia notes: “This woman truly understood things: she wrote a lot of sentences that were disconnected but very true and profound.” Italian philosopher and feminist Adriana Cavarero would later describe this scene as the “narrative character of female friendships”.

It also provides the central conceit of the quartet’s first volume, My Brilliant Friend: Although Lenù worries that she cannot replicate Lila’s “convulsive talent”, they feed off each other’s talents. Ferrante links their differing styles to her concept of “diligent” prose and writing over margins. Their interwoven narrative, she believes, captures the wider story of the women’s lives.

In “Histories, I”, Ferrante explores the need to move beyond “bad language” (by which she means old images that become jaded with time) in order to write truthfully about a changing world. Ferrante continues her exploration of the art of writing in “Dante’s Rib”, written for the 2021 conference Dante and Other Classics. Here she celebrates the poet’s “boldest creation”, Beatrice, who perhaps best expresses her own aspirations: “an unquestioned authority, deliberately mixing the feminine and the masculine”.

Despite her determination to keep her identity secret, Ferrante drops clues in these essays, implying an author whose cultured background has shaped her writing. If there’s any lingering doubt about Ferrante’s gender, this homage to female talent, impeccably translated by Ann Goldstein, suggests otherwise.

Originally published by the FT