On the sidelines: on the pleasures of reading and writing is a slim new volume by Elena Ferrante, consisting of three lectures and an essay on Dante and Beatrice entitled “Dante’s Rib”. The lectures were to be given in person, but Covid hit and the elusive Ferrante was represented by beautiful actress Manuela Mandracchia in November 2021 at the Teatro Arena del Sole in Bologna. The writer who had for so long protected her identity was ready to appear on the front stage in public and share her thoughts on identity, literary influences and her glittering career, but a pandemic intervened and sent her away. in the wings. It seemed like a fitting twist of fate.
Its subtitle includes the word “pleasures”, but the first lesson is called “Pain and Pen” and its reflections contain at least as much pain as delight. Writing, for Ferrante, was a struggle. She was a good student and a quick learner, and she was well taught, but her novels convey a sense of peril and risk. This was partly due to her perception of herself as a female writer, and her thoughts on women’s writing, as on feminism, are under siege. For a long time, she tells us, she tried to follow male models, and did not succeed in freeing herself from the cage of the male precedent, and from the formula dictated by the primary school notebook with its straight lines and its fixed margins (two pages from Ferrante’s book of childhood exercises are reproduced here). Cages and margins become extended metaphors for her, and she includes a breathtakingly long line from Samuel Beckett. the nameless: “I am in words, made of words, the words of others… born in a cage then died in a cage, in a word like an animal, in one of their words…”
The tradition of women’s writing in Italy is very different from that of the Anglo-Saxon model and does not seem to offer Ferrante a sense of openness. And yet, she too had her possibilities. While still in high school, she saw these highland vistas in the work of the famous Renaissance poet Gaspara Stampa, but Stampa at the same time provided her with the language of abjection. She quotes Stampa’s Sonnet VIII: “If, humble and abject woman, I can carry within me such a sublime flame…” This sounds even more abject in Italian (which this text does not give, although it gives us Dante in Italian). Be a “abietta and vile donnais a difficult fate, even if expressing that fate makes you immortal.
[See also: “True cinema trusts in images”: Elena Ferrante on Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter]
Perhaps the English novelists did not feel this feeling of degradation? Jane Austen strikes the reader with her supreme self-confidence, and George Eliot may have taken a man’s name, but she showed no sense of any innate inferiority. In his essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”, Eliot proclaimed “No educational restriction can exclude women from the materials of fiction”, and his work in itself proved that nothing could prevent women from claiming the heights of literary success. Ferrante does not mention Eliot, but explores the splintered and multiple identities of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, and contrasts them with Hemingway’s conventional masculine sentimental narratives. His praise of Stein The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas revisits this amusing and provocative experience, from which I had mainly retained the commentary of the cook Hélène on Matisse as an unwelcome guest. (“I won’t make an omelette but I’ll fry the eggs. It takes the same number of eggs and the same amount of butter but it shows less respect, and he’ll understand.”) But, as Ferrante shows, there is more to the book than that.
Ferrante perhaps underestimates the value of entertainment. She is a very serious reader and a very serious writer, and one gets the impression that she may have been paralyzed at times by her familiarity with literary theory. In general, one could say that English writers tend to be paralyzed by irony, continental writers by theory. But Ferrante makes his way out of that cage – and in at least one instance has been offered a surprising escape by theoretical work. Reread (she is strong in proofreading and reflection) an “extremely important Italian feminist text”, Sexual difference by Adriana Cavarero, published by the Women’s Bookstore Collective of Milan, she rediscovers the story of the friendship between Amalia (“an excellent natural storyteller”) and Emilia, who carries the text of her own life written by Amalia “forever in her purse”.
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Here we find one of the seeds of the long, intense and fluctuating relationship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo in the Neapolitan novels, their intertextuality, their interdependence, their necessity for each other – the first novel s’ originally titled “My Necessary Friend”, do not my brilliant friend. In these lectures, Ferrante shows us behind the scenes of her finished compositions, confirming as some of us had surmised that she had toyed with the idea of trying to create Lila’s own songwriting. She clearly shares what I once somewhat pretentiously described as Elena’s “extreme ontological insecurity”, and yet at the same time she has found the confidence to reveal the confused nature of the genesis of what she described (in a word borrowed from Woolf) as his “scribble”.
Ferrante vividly describes the liberation that came from deciding to write in the first person, in the voice of Elena, a discovery that came, somewhat oddly, from writing an extended proposal for the book. to a hypothetical publisher. She shows us other epiphanies: sometimes a single word seemed to move her forward. As an illustration, she suggests taking the word “cyanotic” from the dictionary to describe the aquamarine ring on her mother’s finger. It’s not a very pretty word in English, with its connotations of sickness and printing ink, and one might prefer its other rejected choices: “sky-blue light”, or “pale celestial aquamarine”. But “cyanotic” seemed to offer him a way out of “the boring story of a real family”. It was a false glow, she finally decided, leading to a “dark, almost gothic tale” from which she retreated into a form of “slow realism”. (She writes insightfully about the speed of prose versus the speed of thought, a subject too complex to paraphrase here.)
[See also: Elena Ferrante’s world of interiors]
This passage on the ring reminded me of Doris Lessing in The golden notebook, when Anna Wulf wrote at the height of her depression: “Words. Words. I play with words, hoping that a combination, however fortuitous, will say what I want. And I remember the feeling of immense relief that came over me when, in one of my novels, I thought of renaming Muswell Hill to Cantor Hill. The false name allows the writer to tell the truth.
It is also good to discover that in Ferrante’s first novel, The days of abandonment, she as the author claims to have had no idea what the role played by the gentle-minded German Shepherd Otto meant, or why “the door to the apartment does not suddenly open and opens suddenly”. Readers clearly remember these details, but these are things that just happened to the writer, who also didn’t know what they meant.
In the Neapolitan novels, Ferrante transposes her mother’s ring into a silver bracelet, an image that she evokes with insistence (perhaps too much). For example: “I displayed my achievements as if they were my mother’s silver bracelet.” I reacted very personally when I read his discussion of the ring in his second lecture, “Aquamarine”, because I tried for two or three years to write a memoir, the working title of which was for a some time “Opal Ring”, named after my mother’s opal ring, which is now on my finger. I’ve dropped that title now, but the ring retains powerful symbolic and biographical significance.
Now, reading about Cyanotic Aquamarine, I wonder if I chose this opening image under the influence of Ferrante? The dates match, but they don’t match. In the novels, we talk about a bracelet, not a ring. Did I transpose the bracelet into the ring, or did I arrive at this image of the mother’s heritage independently? Do all women have such relationships? Memory has links that we can never trace.
On the sidelines: on the pleasures of reading and writing
Elena Ferrante, very Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions, 172pp, £12.99
[See also: The misrepresenting of Monica Jones]