I remember the words of my professor, Suzanne Menghraj: “Art is something that makes me think how it was made.” That sentence changed me in fundamental ways and all my encounters with art or writing, film or music, have since involved questions about materials, matter, combinations, creations and formulations.

Elena Ferrante’s new book, In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing, is an answer to some of the questions that scholars and readers presumably ask about her work. But I’d rather call it a book that remedies the inherent suffering, anguish and anxiety which often accompany reading and writing.

Through a series of lectures – three of which were delivered at the Teatro Arena del Sole in Bologna by the actress Manuela Mandracchia, and the fourth delivered by the critic and scholar Tiziana de Rogatis to close the 2021 conference “Dante and Other Classics” – Ferrante elaborates on her chain of influences and her fair share of apprehensions and adventures in reading and writing.

And yet, I cannot help but think of this book as another guise, yet another cunning trick. Allow me, please, to spill over: here I am, struggling to write after a sophomore slump and a period of illness, onslaughts of words refusing to be disciplined. I recently wrote my first short story and am finding it nearly impossible to return to poetry, a form that I understand and write impetuously, lovingly.

Loving Ferrante too much

So I approached this book cautiously and with some sense of being exposed or answered. But these pages, which inevitably contain the genius of a writer like Elena Ferrante on full display, leave me, as do the rest of her works, further tormented in some ways.

In her first lecture titled “Pain and Pen”, Ferrante outlines the two kinds of writing she knows best: the compliant and the impetuous. It is the impetuous writing that is an “irrepressible burst,” that “open[s] fire” (a phrase that reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun,” although that merits a discussion of its own), that deforms the fictions that cage one’s writing.

It is, at least for me, the kind of writing that I believe Ferrante is so masterfully and uniquely capable of, that it is hard to believe her when she says that it “easily eludes [her] grasp and is lost,” even if that happens occasionally in her case.

Perhaps I believe in Ferrante, or love her too much. Perhaps I ought to exercise restraint over my own self. Perhaps I was born at a better time or in better circumstances because, unlike Ferrante, I never had to imagine the possibility of “becoming male but at the same time remaining female,” a sentiment that for her, thankfully, “disappeared almost completely with the end of adolescence.”

Perhaps I have the capacity to dedicate myself to her fully without having to solve, for my own sake, the problem of finding a language for my body (not of my body – that remains a struggle) that can speak the truth. I am, however, in the search for “[deforming] the form” that I have “been laboriously given, and from those dents and distortions and injuries [squeeze] out other, unsuspecting possibilities,” entangling myself in my own stories.

This is the threat of writing: it requires the unmaking of oneself in order to make something. My professor’s statement which opens this essay demands attention because investigating the making of something also requires one to imagine its non-presence, the ruins and materials that existed before its birth.

An immense centenary

But as a recovering anorexic, there is nothing more destabilising and difficult to embrace than this surrender to disorder, these repeated threats to one’s rigid outlines. It is hard to return to imaginings of lack or absence when one’s body has just survived a famine, a period of self-induced starvation. In a way, my present struggle to write during this phase of life consists precisely of what Ferrante outlines as a patient wait to write with “all the truth I’m capable of…to make space for myself with my whole body.”

There’s nothing more appropriate to expand on this notion than the metaphor Ferrante goes on to employ: “Writing is, rather, entering an immense cemetery where every tomb is waiting to be profaned.” This metaphor reminds me of Julia Kristeva’s idea of abjection as described in Powers of Horror, and tempts me to ask if writing is what makes me think how a story or a voice is abjected, how something becomes that “necessary other.”

This is another possibility within the domain of “making”. But Ferrante’s writing does something all the more radical: it gives voice to the thought-vision of how a narrative is made from the perspective of her women. Ferrante admits to this herself: “I took that trajectory because I’d become convinced, in recent years that every narrative should include, within itself, the adventure of its writing, what gives it form.”

In a way, a narrative must reflect on its own “real” life, its own irreducible vitality, its own raw material. Narratives become through exposure, not through masking themselves. This is a sentence that could bury a woman’s body within its cage, a woman’s “I” that encompasses the necessary “excess” to give something form, the capacities to exercise the unmaking or making of another, that provides both form and matter.

I agree with Ferrante when she talks about a woman’s “I” and describes the idea of “bad language” in relation to Ingeborg Bachmann’s Frankfurt lectures. I recently noticed how my own “bad language” exists when I tried to journal in Hindi at a difficult time, and when I re-read Domenico Starnone’s Trust for a book club meeting.

In a conversation with another woman who was present at the meeting, I said, “It’s been a while since I’ve read a male author or perspective, you know, and it felt so strange, like I was reading a text I had to translate yet again in my mind. I felt like I didn’t understand the words somehow, or what was written on the page because it was coming from a male protagonist.” I noticed her as she paused and pursed her lips, as if to express a shared and confused sense of regret and resignation.

Invisible ellipses

My own “I” forces me to confront in my writing the deformed and ugly ideas of the women who’ve written before me. Perhaps that’s why I feel like twisting myself when discussions about Ferrante’s works, sooner or later in most cases, turn to her writing about the “unspeakable truths”of womanhood. It is this relegation of bad language to the realm of the “unspeakable” that seems rather ignorant and lazy to me, that seems like a lie or a fiction we tell ourselves.

Ferrante only catches that bad language, traps that part of it that intuits itself and turns that seizure into sentences. She doesn’t spill the truth as much as she performs the function of truth, fulfilling my own desire, as the similar desires of other readers, to narrate and be narrated through a story.

Like the narratives of many women, Ferrante leaves some writing hidden behind invisible ellipses, her book peppered with phrases such as “and other things that I don’t have time to discuss,” with most of her lectures ending with the sentences: “but we’ll talk about this and other things next time,” “but I will return to this next time.” She leaves something in anticipation of being expressed.

I was almost reminded, after a long time, of the ellipses in Sibilla Aleramo’s Una Donna. And I ought to admit that reading Ferrante in the original Italian gave me a more pronounced sense of that anticipation. I was reading the book slowly, like a good student who takes on an assignment, who marks words she is uncertain of or formulations she hasn’t employed often in speech or writing.

I was reading in the margins, in ways that would earn me praise or give me a sense of footing. I was waiting, in other words, for the translation to make the reading more impetuous, to give me these sudden irrepressible bursts of thoughts so that I could pen down my own thought-visions, so that I could read and think through the force of my bad language.

Yet, there is something about the way that Ferrante ends her third lecture, “Histories, I” that provided me some form of reprieve. She writes, and I must quote it all:

“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. For a long span of time we’ll have to give up the distinction between those who make only average books and those who create verbal universes. 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. We can do it.”

I apologise for spilling over again, but these sentences moved me to tears. I feel as though I am in the midst of the experience Ferrante underwent when she read Dante. In her final lecture, she writes the following about Dante: “I racked my brain and said to myself: he’s left behind not only his sense of the beautiful but also ours; we are used to reading and writing too cautiously, we are cowards. Not him, he’s seeing if one can make poetry even with the negation of poetry.”

In these lectures, Ferrante has revealed to us that this, precisely this, is her operation: to tell a story, to contain it by distorting its container, genre and patterns. Ferrante is the writer who doesn’t only write in her private, “bad” language but also reads in it, through it. I must, before ending, hover on her choice to write “make poetry.”

Etymologically, “poetry” comes from the Greek, poiein, which means something “made,” unlike fiction that comes from imagination, invention, fabrication. For reasons I don’t have time to discuss now, it might be time for me and you to “make” poetry, the thought-vision of “raw” life, something told as it is, with its materials exposed. Perhaps it is time we read through the lens of our private, bad languages, and ask how writing is made to be.

Perhaps what readers can take from In the Margins is solidarity, above all, from a writer who shares both the anguish and pleasures of reading and writing in real life, without the choice of inhabiting a body or voice that is, for better or worse, not our own with all our truth.

In The Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing

In The Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing, Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions.