In the essays in In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing, Elena Ferrante—perhaps the greatest living novelist—describes her formation as a writer and her views on writing. Although In the Margins may appeal most to Ferrante devotees like me eager to read about the ideas of fiction that led to novels like My Brilliant Friend and The Lost Daughter, the book will draw in anyone curious about literature and its creation.
Across the book’s four essays, Ferrante explores how writing begins, and often remains, in the containers and cages of language. The genre in which a writer writes, for instance, can constrain and shape her sense of what she can say. And the great writers of a genre can immobilize a writer with the force of their words. How could you write in the genre of the feminist novel without focusing on the relationship between the personal and the political? And when writing that feminist novel, how will you negotiate the influences of Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison (and, yes, Elena Ferrante)?
Although language can contain and constrain, writes Ferrante, it can also unsettle, boil over, and liberate. Echoing theorists of genre like Amy Devitt and Anis Bawarshi, Ferrante says it is the interaction of containment and destabilization that leads to powerful, unique writing. She states, “The novel of love begins to satisfy me when it becomes the novel of being out of love. The mystery begins to absorb me when I know that no one will find out who the murderer is. The bildungsroman seems to me on the right track when it’s clear that no one will be built. Beautiful writing becomes beautiful when it loses its harmony and has the desperate power of the ugly.” Life is neither perfectly settled nor unsettled, so writing must move in many different directions if it is to show anything of the world as it is.
So, who is allowed to unsettle the settled? Pursuing this question, Ferrante points out how men often use language to try to contain women and keep women from adapting language for their own ends. For example, writing about the Neapolitan dialect she grew up with, Ferrante writes, “In my childhood and adolescence it was the language of coarse male vulgarity, the language of the violence of men calling to you on the street, or, contrarily, the sugary-sweet language with which women were taken in.” After struggling to find ways of using dialect in her work, Ferrante says, she discovered she could use dialect “not as it typically is in the realist tale but as a subterranean stream, a cadence within the language, a subtitle, a disturbance in the writing that suddenly erupts with a few, usually obscene words.” And how great the disturbance is when men are cursed out in dialect by Lila Cerullo, the implacably unsettling force of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.
In a revelatory passage, Ferrante explains how she worked out the relationship between Lila and her friend Elena Greco by reflecting on theories of narration and reciprocity developed by the feminist thinker Adriana Cavarero. Well known in Italy, but underappreciated in the US, Cavarero argues that to discover who you are, you seek to hear your story told by another. Your sense of self depends on someone else’s narration of your story. Or, as Ferrante quotes Cavarero: “I tell you my story in order to make you tell it to me.” Reading Ferrante discussing Cavarero’s theories, I found new ways of seeing how, by reading and writing together and fighting over each other’s stories, Lila and Elena were each forming and reforming the other.
Crucially, Ferrante argues reciprocity in storytelling is important not just at the personal level, but also at the larger cultural and political levels. She writes, “I now think that if literature written by women wants to have its own writing of truth, the work of each of us is needed… Against the bad language that historically doesn’t provide a welcome for our truth, we have to confuse, fuse our talents, not a line should be lost in the wind.” When women write in relation to other women, sharing and reflecting each other’s stories, women can form themselves anew both as unique persons and as a cultural and political force that knows its power both to contain and to destabilize.
by Elena Ferrante
Published on March 15, 2022
Ross Collin is an associate professor of English education at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. He writes about the political and ethical dimensions of literacy education. His writing has appeared in The Journal of Literacy Research, English Journal, Changing English, and Teachers College Record.