|Elena Ferrante’s slim book, In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing (2022), 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 serves 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. |
[Read Alice Elliott Dark’s essay on “Pain and Pen,” the first essay from In the Margins.]
Here is how the second essay, “Aquamarine,” begins. “Today I’d like to begin with a rule I made for myself at the age of sixteen or seventeen. The writer—I wrote in a notebook I still have—has a duty to put into words the shoves he gives and those he receives from others.” I have chosen this song to illustrate the quote. Lindsey and Stevie pushed and shoved each other. Almost worth it for this song.
The quote is her lead in to a discussion about her early determination to capture the world exactly how it is, in words. Reality without an ism. “I wanted to be a mirror.” She writes of first writing naturally, but gradually going to war with herself. She had that problem that flummoxes early writers; how to choose, how to judge. It was all big and confusing. Her self awareness around this is wonderful to read. Here she discusses trying to describe the aquamarine her mother wore on her finger. “It was a very real object, and yet there was nothing more variable in my mind.” The gap between an object and the blunt instrument of language that might show it to a reader grows wider. “Even if I could isolate it in a description—how much I practiced descriptions—and gave it a “sky blue light,” in that formulation alone the stone lost its substance, became an emotion of mine, a thought, a feeling of pleasure distress, and turned opaque, as if it had fallen in water or I myself had breathed on it. That opacity wasn’t without consequences; it tended almost imperceptibly to raise my tone, as if in that way I could restore luster to the stone.”
Oh brother! It’s hard to believe anyone survives this stage. It’s so painful. You could be out taking a walk and picking flowers instead. She’s intensely sensitive to her word choice, second guesses herself over and over, and generally drives herself nuts. She can’t get the ring right. She chooses a word that destroys the entire story. “So I retreated in a hurry….But I had already lost faith: the now true ring, which as a true object of my true experience should have given truth to the writing, seemed inevitably false.”
It hurts to read this. I remember these feelings so well, the bewildering failure, the coming up against the vastness and the limits of language. No matter what, no matter how well she describes it, it’s not her mother’s ring. Lighten up, Elena, I want to say. You’re going to end up writing a seminal work of 21st c. literature! But she’s not feeling it yet. She despairs. (I imagine these efforts resemble the notebooks Lila gives Lenu in the beginning of The Story of a New Name. The “I’ve been writing all along” notebooks that come as a shock to Lenu. The pages and pages of practice descriptions.)
The effort, the work. Something’s got to give. This level of ambition toward arresting the world in its tracks and reproducing it with an irreproachable and objective verisimilitude…is not possible. Not to mention the pain perfectionism causes. Creativity and invention are fun at first. To work oneself into a state of pain and despair over not being as good as you imagine it’s possible to be is ultimately untenable. What is this grand ambition to capture life as it is? What would be gained by doing so? There is a psychological component to this that goes unexamined. Or maybe it’s physical…a longing to eat and digest the world, to metabolize it, or to embrace it, or to become its equal partner, bonded by something like sex. My brother and I used to spin in circles until we got so dizzy we fell into the dewy grass. Once was enough for him but I did it over and over until I was bruised. I was looking for a portal that would bring me closer to the world. Even lying on the cold ground soaked to the bone wasn’t close enough. I wonder if animals feel close enough, if the sense of separation is a human frailty. I do think art comes into this space between and can fill it—depending on whether or not one can relax about the limits.
Elena shifts her perspective after reading a sentence in Jacques the Fatalist and His Master. (Again I will point out that these essays proceed on the conceit that her development depended on finding messages in books. The argument is carefully constructed and sharply limited.) The message she picks up is this: “Just tell the thing as you will, I will listen as I can and believe as I am able.”
In other words, subjectivity is intrinsic to the project. Yowsa! That changes everything! It enables her to write a book she feels good enough about to submit for publication. Yet when she goes to submit it, “I thought of sending it with a very detailed letter in which I explained how the story had come to me, what real persons and events had nourished it.”
Unsurprisingly, the letter becomes a fraught effort and very, very long. “The more I immersed in the subject, the more complicated the truth of the cover letter became. There was me, me, me. There was my urge to exaggerate defects, minimize virtues, and visa versa. Most important I glimpsed, I think for the first time, the hazy area of what I could have written in that book but would have hurt me to write, and so I hadn’t done it. Eventually I got tangled up and stopped.”
She has made progress, though. “… I would venture to say that, if I made a certain number of small discoveries—somewhat naive, perhaps, but for me fundamental—I owe it to a milder aesthetic imperative (tell the thing within the limits of the possible) and to that draft of a self-reflective letter.”
Nothing like a self-reflective letter, shared.
Here are the discoveries she reveals.
1. She enjoyed writing in the first person of the letter and wants to try it in her fiction.
2. The sense of reality in fiction depends on tricks and not on capturing the thing as it is.
3. Narrators can only reflect a subjective reality.
4. “Almost without realizing it, from an aspirant to absolute realism I had become a disheartened realist, who now said to herself: I can recount “out there” only if I also recount the me who is “out there” along with the rest.”
5. “Literary work couldn’t seriously force the whirlpool of debris that constituted the real into any grammatical or syntactical order.”
This letter and these discoveries lead her to write her novels of first person narrators, women under duress. She lets go of the idea of portraying a realistic “out there” through what is now called world building and instead “I dipped into the warehouse of literary expression, taking out what I needed—different genres, different techniques, effects, and why not, unpleasant effects—without indicating boundaries between high and low. I moved on not to a narrative voice—no voice, no imitation of voices—but to a female first person who is all writing and, writing, tells how in certain circumstances, deviations, unexpected jolts, erratic leaps occurred, which had been able to upset the solidity of the chessboard on which she was castled.”
I’m going to stop here as this post is long already. This represents the first half of “Aquamarine,” and I’ll finish up in the next post. As I reread the lectures I admire them and how they are presented as a history with writing, of how practices and ideas accrue, and from what sources. It braces me to read about Ferrante’s determination to get on top of it. To have parameters and aims beyond storytelling. I love how she writes about giving up trying to represent “out there.” What all of it says to me is that she wanted to and had to find her own way. That was central. The “out there” of the quotes and books she refers to are aligned, it seems to me, with the tricks she learned to take the place of being able to reproduce the work as it is. The truth is, she wrote masses amounts of pages until she figured out who she was as a writer. But the sense of a journey is pleasing.
Back to Stevie Nicks. Here she is as a young genius artist, figuring out her way. Pure joy. If the lectures are any indication, Elena Ferrante wasn’t singing as she had her hair done when she was a young writer. I hope she’s singing now.
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.