by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, illustrations by Andrea Ucini
Europa Editions, 112 pages
reviewed by David Grandouiller
“Me” who? We’ll always know too little about ourselves.—Elena Ferrante
Who is the Italian novelist we call Elena Ferrante? Since her first novel’s publication in 1992, she—with the help of her publishers—has carefully maintained the real author’s anonymity. Many readers have treated this guarded privacy as a playful challenge, making theories and guesses, particularly in recent years as Ferrante has become increasingly celebrated. The Italian philologist Marco Santagata, after analyzing her oeuvre, suggested she might be the writer Marcella Marmo (Marmo and her publisher denied this). More controversially, the journalist Claudio Gatti dug up financial records to claim that Anita Raja is the author behind Ferrante—others suggest it may be Raja’s husband. One can imagine the confirmation of one of these claims could incite a variety of reactions in Ferrante’s readership, but there’s a more fundamental question behind that of the author’s identity: why do people want to know?
What makes some readers so curious about a writer’s “real life”? Do we (because I’m one of them) want the fiction to absorb reality—to make a fiction out of the writer? Or are we trying to absorb fiction into reality? Maybe we feel alienated by the wall that is fiction—artists giving their eyes and minds and hearts and imaginations to the reader without having to give themselves.
“I refused to form a relationship in which I would be in a subordinate position,” writes Ferrante, “forced to yield to the enormous power of someone who is silent while you ramble on, asking you questions without ever really responding to yours, concealing from you his drives—while you reveal yours in the most vulnerable way.” This comes from Ferrante’s new book, Incidental Inventions, a collection of weekly columns written for The Guardian from January 2018 to January 2019, released in November from Europa Editions. In this passage, she’s talking about therapy, but the description could be applied equally to a readership, and the idea of her relationship with readers makes this book particularly striking—a pseudonymous fiction writer exposes to the reader a comparatively unmediated self. The wonder she expresses is presumably her own, the shame, the joy, the generosity, the fear, the pride.
I say, “comparatively unmediated,” because in nonfiction, the writer assumes responsibility for the narrator in a way the fiction writer doesn’t, but this is not to say the narrator and the writer are the same—there is always mediation. In David Shields’s collage manifesto, Reality Hunger, he quotes memoirist Patricia Hampl saying, “It isn’t really me; it’s a character based on myself that I made up in order to illustrate things I want to say. In other words, I think memoir is as far from real life as fiction is. I think you’re obligated to use accurate details, but selection is as important a process as imagination.”
I suppose Hampl’s distinction is slightly beside the point when it comes to Ferrante, who does not exist. If the writer’s relationship to the narrator is the defining difference between nonfiction and fiction, what does the term nonfiction even mean when the writer’s identity is unknown? Can I really call it “comparatively unmediated”? Can I say, “The wonder she expresses is her own?” Does it even matter? Does it make my encounter with this narrator less legitimate? In the new book, Ferrante goes further than Hampl and points out the artifice inherent in writing at all:
My effort at faithfulness [in writing] cannot be separated from the search for coherence, the imposition of order and meaning, even the imitation of the lack of order and meaning. Because writing is innately artificial, its every use involves some form of fiction. The dividing line is rather, as Virginia Woolf said, how much truth the fiction inherent in writing is able to capture.
Maybe this is all I should need from a narrator—an effort at faithfulness as she constructs a self on the page. This makes me think, too, of how much the writer’s work, in this respect, is the work of every social being, how identity is often performance, in life as much as in art. “I invent myself for a journalist,” admits Ferrante, discussing her practice of taking interviews only by correspondence, so she has time to consider and compose her answers, “but the journalist—especially when she is herself a writer—invents herself for me, through her questions.”
If I begin to think of all human intercourse this way, I’m free to stop thinking of the invented narrator, in fiction or nonfiction, as a wall between the writer and me. I can begin to understand intimacy as the goal of invention. The writer behind Ferrante can’t give herself to readers, because the self can’t be contained—what she can do is create an artificial container, pour as much of herself into it as she wants, then offer it to the world, printed and bound and accompanied by Andrea Ucini’s illustrations. Which brings me back to the book—I’ve put off discussing it directly for too long.
In the fifty-one columns that comprise Incidental Inventions, each around five hundred words, Ferrante responds to prompts presented to her by Guardian editors at her own request. “I had no experience with that type of writing,” she explains in her introduction, “and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it […] I told the editors I would accept the offer if they would send me a series of questions.” Her self-awareness and humility are attractive, and the title itself—Incidental Inventions—understates the sense of purpose with which the narrator navigates each topic. But these pieces aren’t the work of someone who’s just trying her hand. Short and tightly woven, each of them meanders the landscape of the writer’s memories and thoughts with a practiced nonchalance, driving all the while toward a kind of volta in the last few sentences, and ending, usually, in a punchy, epigrammatic final line: “What perhaps should be feared most is the fury of frightened people” or “We can be much more than what we happen to be” or “All in all, I’m doing fine.”
I wish the prompts had been printed with Ferrante’s pieces. I wondered, leafing through this calendar of idiosyncrasy, about her reactions to the editors’ questions, and also about how forward the editors had been, knowing how carefully Ferrante maintains her anonymity. How many questions did they ask that related directly to her biography, and did she resent it when they did, or did she take it in stride, being used to it by now? Do any of these columns answer the questions directly, or does she interpret them freely, wandering the open water once the coast is out of sight?
These are greedy questions, in some ways—the person Ferrante presents in this one-sided conversation is already so full and rich. We get reading recommendations, film recommendations, career advice. We learn about her first love and about the reasons she laughs when she does, about her fear of old age and her fear of letting her fear be seen. We learn why she admires her daughters and why she admires women who chose not to be mothers. We read some of what she thinks of Caravaggio, exclamation marks, religion, sex, Italian fascism, of lying and learning and change. She says a lot about writing—writing when you’re young and when you’re older, writing before bed or when you wake up, smoking while you write or writing after you’ve quit smoking.
And underneath all these things, providing the energy with which she propels each thought, is the wonder, “the wonder—the wonder of knowing how to read, to write, to transform signs into things.”
As I write about Incidental Inventions, I’m thinking of another book that I consider linked to Ferrante’s collection—In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, published in English in 2016. The books share many characteristics: both were written in Italian, both translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Both writers are women whose novels are internationally acclaimed but who, before these books, had published little nonfiction. Each of these books was conceived as a series of weekly columns for a periodical (Ferrante for The Guardian, Lahiri for Internazionale).
Lahiri’s book is more focused than Ferrante’s. It follows a progression: she learned Italian, moved to Italy, transitioned from writing in English to writing in Italian. But she strikes many of the same topics as Ferrante—the wonder associated with learning to read, for example, or their interactions with journalists. Each of the books has a chapter on writing in a diary, in which they both describe having outgrown the diary. Ferrante remembers having begun to invent things in her diary when she was young, to account for lost time or missed entries, and so she gave up journaling and wrote stories instead. Lahiri, as an adult journaling in a foreign language, says, “Writing only in a diary is the equivalent of shutting myself in the house, talking to myself. What I express there remains a private, interior narration. At a certain point, in spite of the risk, I want to go out.”
A diary is not totally unselfconscious or unmediated, but this going out is still a momentous turning point in the life of the writing. A more elaborate, more conscious performance by the narrator is necessary, or at least expected. This going out is what Ferrante’s and Lahiri’s writings have in common, an emphasis on establishing a consistent voice, a persona, a narrator to whom readers can attribute each thought and experience, so that we begin to fill out the image of a figure, even if it isn’t exactly the image of the writer herself. Ferrante speaks in similar terms about the accumulation of qualities which makes possible the idea of a film star she admires: “[Daniel Day-Lewis] is a sort of title by which I refer to a valuable body of work […] If he should suddenly be transformed into a flesh-and-blood person, poor him, poor me. Reality can’t stay inside the elegant moulds of art; it always spills over, indecorously.”
But maybe it’s exactly this indecorous spilling that some reality-hungry readers want. “Books are the best means […] of overcoming reality,” writes Lahiri, but maybe we want reality to overcome the book. Maybe we want the diary and not the story. Or the diary as well as the story. Is that possible? Where do we find it?
“Literary novelty,” writes Ferrante, “if one wants to insist on the concept—exists in the way each individual inhabits the magma of forms he is immersed in. Thus ‘to be oneself’ is an arduous task—perhaps impossible.” I think this is true, and it makes me wonder: how little advantage do most writers take of the diversity of possible forms available to them? And would employing a greater range of forms fragment the invented narrator in such a way that readers would get (maybe not a truer but) a different kind of insight into the person behind the persona?
I think a form that does this fragmentation well is the “crônica.” A giant in this tradition is the Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector. Her Selected Crônicas, published individually in the Jornal do Brasil between 1967 and 1973, is like an encyclopedia of short forms—they range in length from a single line to one or two thousand words; they are proverbs, parables, and myths, short stories, reflections, interviews, memoirs, bits of transcribed dialogue, brief scenic sketches. Lispector makes little or no distinction, across these columns, or even within each column, between the fictional and the real, though she uses both first- and third-person narration throughout. This wide range may not have been a transgression of genre, in Lispector’s context, since she was taking advantage of the freedom of the form, which her translator, Giovanni Pontiero, calls, “a genre peculiar to Brazil which allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone,” he says, “is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or weekly columns in the European or U.S. press.” But to bring her indiscriminate range into a different literary context could be transgressive, could be productive.
Ferrante’s columns are not generically transgressive, except inasmuch as the frame of anonymity produces a unique reading experience. They’re much more consistent, even conservative, in style and structure—which is certainly not a weakness. But I think it’s important to note, by way of comparison, the possible breadth of the form she’s working in, and to call the breadth good. Ferrante’s narrator maintains her integrity, her wholeness, however artificially. That’s a different kind of victory than Lispector’s, but all of these writers help revive in us “the wonder—the wonder […] vivid and lasting.”
David Grandouiller lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes about faith and religion, Christian education, film, cats, and music. He is a third-year candidate in the MFA in Creative Writing at The Ohio State University and the Nonfiction Editor at The Journal. His essay, “Holy Uselessness,” was a finalist for the 2019 Orison Anthology Award in Nonfiction, and a group of his essays won the 2019 Walter Rumsey Marvin grant from the Ohioana Library Association.
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