Alice Elliott Dark explores “Pain and Pen” from Elena Ferrante’s recent essay collection IN THE MARGINS (Pt. 1 in a series)

Alice Elliott Dark, New York, March 10, 2022.
Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

Elena Ferrante’s slim book, In the Margins, is a collection of three lectures that were commissioned pre-COVID by the University of Bologna for their series of lectures inaugurated by Umberto Eco—the Eco lectures. They were delivered by an actress in November 2021 and collected into this book, along with an essay on Dante. In aggregate they move from a place of individual effort and self-doubt through a series of specific influences, each of which serve to spark a fresh stage in her thinking, finally arriving at the stirring conclusion in the final essay that all women’s voices are needed to hear a women’s language.

The first essay is called “Pain and Pen.” She begins by saying,

there are two kinds of writing I know best…the impetuous and the compliant.

This remains a binary for most of the book, but her inquiries and experiments break the binary down and open it out. The compliant writing plagues her until she comes to terms later with the necessity of form, which she accepts after reading a passage from Beckett. (I don’t know what’s meant to be funny, but that is.) She tells about watching a child she is fond of who is laboring to form letters and who is more concerned with forming the letters than with positioning them conventionally on the page. She then thinks back to her own efforts to write between the margins of her school paper but having trouble in the early days. She wrote on what looks to be that soft cream-colored paper with black horizontal lines and red vertical lines indicating the margins. In her earliest writing she was unable to stay within the margins and ran over the right edge repeatedly, which caused her great stress. Eventually she learned how to predict how much she could write before she’d run up against the red line, and she’d move to the next horizontal line by either breaking a word properly or writing it on the next line. She never says this in the book, but I felt she experienced a feeling of great loss in learning to make this calculation. She was no longer writing in the present moment, solely concentrating on forming the letters. She had learned to think ahead, and this awareness, with the self-consciousness it brings to the act, replaced what had been a direct experience of page and pen. She is ever after trying to locate a similar uncontrolled writing, which she calls impetuous.

…the sense I have of writing—and all the struggle it involves—has to do with the satisfaction of staying beautifully within the margins, and, at the same time, with the impression of loss, of waste, because of that success. (p. 21)

I really loved all this. I can’t remember having that same exact thought, but I do remember early efforts at manipulating a pencil and a paintbrush and how difficult it was. I remember having a sense that there was a door to be unlocked somehow, and that people who could write and draw well had opened that door and passed through it smoothly. My sense of struggle was situated in my hand and trying to make it move with more precision. It seemed to have a wild mind of its own and would veer off on a tangent, leaving a line flying across the page that I wasn’t aware of having wanted to make. I watched other girls form their letters and draw trees and learned by imitation. Ferrante doesn’t seem to yet—that comes later. As I said, she never claims a grief for losing her pure orientation toward the page of not knowing where she is going, yet that is what she later craves. However, it’s not the same, as she craves what she calls going beyond the margins in a broader sense that depends on experience way beyond a child’s. I’m still thinking about this.

She then reflects on becoming stuck inside the margins, primarily because she believes men’s writing is the real writing. Those are her examples, and she is aware of the limits bequeathed to her as a girl writer in a male literary world. This affects her so deeply that she doubts her capacity to write anything great. Yet she writes and writes a lot, mostly stories that she discounts. She is a natural writer whose sense of her own potential and future is thwarted by the cultural conditions into which she was born. She begins to question the idea that men are intrinsically more suited to writing when she comes across a stanza written by Gaspara Stampa that asks, if I feel the same level of passion as a man, can’t I find a language for it coming out of my own experience, between pain and pen? The stanza that jumped out at her begins,

            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?

As she contemplates this poem, over time she comes to understand it to not just be thinking about the same old quandary of how to express the immeasurable pain of love in writing, but she was doing something new—she

grafted onto it something unexpected: the female body that fearlessly seeks, from the “mortal tongue,” from within her own human flesh, a garment of words sewn with a pain of her own and a pen of her own. … here was Stampa saying to me that the female pen, precisely because it is unexpected within the male tradition, had to make an enormous, courageous effort, five centuries ago, as today—to employ “uncommon skill” and acquire “style and vein.” (p. 27)

She is twenty when she gets this point. Yet she is stuck with trying to write within the male tradition. She starts out a piece feeling that the writing is hers, but as she moves forward, she loses that sense, and the male margins impose themselves. This goes on for decades.

When I finished a story I was pleased, having the impression that it had come out perfectly; and yet I felt it wasn’t I who had written it, not the excited I, ready for anything, who was called to write, and who during the entire draft seemed to be hidden in the words–but another I, who, tightly disciplined, had found convenient pathways solely in order to say: look, what fine sentences I’ve written, what beautiful images, the story is finished, praise me. (p. 28)

The dutiful schoolgirl, the ambitious female writer hoping to crash the gates of the male writing world, developing the skills to produce praiseworthy work yet having the sense that she has done so in bad faith, untrue to her authentic self. She says she still feels this unhappiness.

I feel cramped, uncomfortable, in the well-balanced, calm, and compliant writing that made me think I knew how to write. (p. 29)

What strikes me here is the tamping down of her initial excitement, having it wither in the course of writing a story until she finds the result good but not her. This draining away of excitement does feel like a great part of the struggle for women. Our excitement, whether it be intellectual, sexual, emotional, or creative, has not exactly been welcomed, valorized, promoted, or protected by men. Historically, it has been the other way around. What woman reading this has not been criticized and corrected for being too excited about an idea, an event, a feeling? Even now, when we have passed through many liberation struggles, both internal, external, and political. The resistance to female excitement (hysteria, anyone?) still exists. This external inhibition does affect our creative work. What do we do about that? I am tempted to add to the category of women here all those who feel inhibited about their excitement, but that may be making too excited a reach. Please, speak for yourselves and let me know your perspectives.

Ferrante fervently wants to break out of her careful writing.

It’s one thing to plan a story and execute it well, another is that completely aleatoric writing, no less active than the world it tries to order. (p. 30)

Good line!

She turns to Virginia Woolf to get at the origin of writing that eludes her. She shares two excerpts from Woolf’s writing that influenced her. The first is the famous quote from a conversation with Lytton Strachey.

“And your novel?” (he asks.)

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

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

“Yes, I’m, 20 people.” (p. 30)

In the interest of promoting dictionary use, I’m not going to reveal what a bran pie is for those who don’t know. I will say it isn’t a pie. What Ferrante gleans from this is that Woolf doesn’t write from a singular sensibility and that writing tempts fate. She interprets her as meaning that when she writes, even she doesn’t know who she is, nor does she want to. Her second Woolf quote further supports the idea that everyday Virginia is not the writing sensibility that pulls from the bran pie. Ferrante loves this conception of a writing self that is autonomous and separate from the self moving through the world, but she doesn’t in the end buy into it. As she examines herself further, she finds that she can’t separate her two kinds of writing. The first, the usual, contains the second. If I deprived myself of it, I couldn’t write at all. (p. 33) She observes that by doing this kind of in the margins writing that she learned at school that she is laying the groundwork for something wild and unplanned.

My work, in fact, is founded on patience. I start from writing that is planted firmly in tradition and wait for something to erupt and throw the papers into disarray, for the lowly abject woman I am to find a means of having her say. (p. 33)

She has a method, but she still wants to explode this and do something radical and free. (Who doesn’t?) But she is reminded by Beckett that everything in life needs form. She quotes a passage from him that ends with an image she relates to, about being one in a long chain of caged beasts seeking words that are also caged beasts…grim, but she likes it. It brings up another image of what writing is, what her mother called a frantumaglia, a whirlpool of fragment words, how her mother described what went on inside her own head. This frightened the child Ferrante, naturally.  Yet as an adult developing an understanding of what her writing is, she combined the two, putting the frantumaglia inside the cage…the careful notebooks with their lines with the occasional breaking through of the discordant clamor in (her) head that finally persuades her to publish books. Over time, writing has come to mean giving shape to a permanent balancing and unbalancing of myself, arranging fragments in a frame and waiting to mix them up. She seeks to subvert convention.

Beautiful writing becomes beautiful when it loses its harmony and has the desperate power of the ugly. And characters? I feel they are false when they exhibit clear coherence and I become passionate about them when they say one thing and do the opposite. “Fair is foul and foul is fair” say those extraordinary narrators who are the witches in Macbeth as they prepare to hover through the fog and filthy air. (p. 38)

I love all this. It’s not possible to know if it’s an actual intellectual history or a constructed facsimile, with examples, of how she developed as a writer over time. Her pseudonymity has led me to question all her self-representation. Either way it is the beginning of a cogent and quite beautiful argument about the impossibility of writing in a vacuum or out of individual impulses. This is meaningful to me, particularly after having taught a course called Literary Fan Fiction for several years. I grew up thinking I had to be original, that all my writing had to be sui generis. I bristled when I read scholars discussing influence and argued for the possibility that writers and painters come up with ideas themselves. This feeling was based on how I was taught and also on plain ignorance. It’s too bad, because I wasted many years hating my own sentences and being all tied up in perfectionism. Now I am interested in how writers talk to each other across time, often in the form of a book responding to another book, and that is so lovingly reflected in In the Margins. She never ascribes her advances in thinking to her own cogitation, but always frames them as responses to the triggers of reading the writing of another. There is scant egoism in this book. Just desire, and doing it justice.

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Alice Elliott Dark is the author of the novels Fellowship Point and Think of England, and two collections of short stories, In The Gloaming and Naked to the Waist. Her work has appeared in, among others, The New Yorker, Harper’s, DoubleTake, Ploughshares, A Public Space, Best American Short Stories, and Prize Stories: The O.Henry Awards. “In the Gloaming” was chosen by John Updike for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century and was made into films by HBO and Trinity Playhouse. Her nonfiction reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many anthologies. She is an Associate Professor at Rutgers-Newark in the English department and the MFA program.


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