This review was first published in the Summer 2022 issue of Plough Quarterly.
“Writing with truth is really difficult, perhaps impossible,” Elena Ferrante confesses. Her female characters, whom we encounter in moments of crisis, grapple with an age-old tension: the gap between our desire for a story and our imperfect ability to convey in language the truth of what has happened. In Ferrante’s globally recognized novels, which include My Brilliant Friend and The Lost Daughter, this tension is further complicated for women, who struggle to express themselves in a language governed by men.
In the nonfiction essays In the Margins, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, Ferrante reveals the thought behind her work. At the center of the four essays is “the desire to write,” a mercurial force, sometimes “compliant,” sometimes “impetuous,” with which Ferrante has reckoned since childhood. “The sense I have of writing,” she claims, “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.”
Staying within the margins is a metaphor for elegant (“compliant”) prose that wins literary prizes. It also reminds us of the historically marginal position of women writers. “Women’s writing” emerges here as a contested category, almost a contradiction in terms, where writing has historically been the purview of educated men. For Ferrante, a painful “impression that my woman’s brain held me back, limited me” must be continually refuted to produce a literary language capable of expressing female experience. Pain and pen, she argues, are fused together in the “impetuous” attempts of women writers across generations and national borders to move from the margins of literary culture onto the published page.
Alongside writing and “all the struggles it involves,” In the Margins also models sensitive and perceptive readership. Ferrante’s praise for Dante Alighieri in “Dante’s Rib,” one of many literary inspirations explored in the collection, is a lesson in how the ways we are transformed by what we read need not deter us from gentle and charitable criticism. Without sharing Dante’s conviction about Christ as divine, Ferrante acknowledges the arresting beauty of the Divine Comedy and, especially, of the poet’s muse and guide, Beatrice. As a woman created from man, drawn from Dante’s pen as Eve is drawn from Adam’s rib, Beatrice becomes an emblem of women’s secondary position in the canon. At the same time, she remains a precocious example of “a woman who has an understanding of God and speculative language,” a shining tribute to “the gift of speech.”
In the Margins addresses longstanding feminist debates around gender and writing, while showing how the problem of representing the world is universal, an “insufficiency of language in the face of love, whether love of another human being or love of God.” The final margin to which we must lend attention is therefore a deeply human one: error. This should not depress us, but rather propel us to contemplation, for it tells us that we can always express ourselves better and more fully.