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In the autumn of 2020, novelist Ella Ferrante was invited to give three lectures at the University of Bologna on three successive days. Open to the entire city, these lectures followed a storied tradition established by the stellar novelist Umberto Eco, in his then capacity as the Director of the Scuola Superiore di Studi Umanistici. However the COVID-19 pandemic combined with the stringent social distancing norms, put paid to the hopes of the city listening to Ferrante. Thus in November 2021, Italian actress Manuela Mandracchia delivered the three lectures at the Teatro Arena del Sole in Bologna, in the guise of Ella Ferrante. “In The Margins” is the published collection of the three lectures.
The essays themselves are a glorious exposition of writing and reading. “Of Pain and Pen”, alludes to the synchronicity as well as repelling between two types of writing. Even though resembling conjoined twins, the two styles are more chalk and cheese than joined at the hip. Compliant writing is one that is true to the margins. Similar to the cursive writing notebooks in school where transgression into the space occupied by the left and right margins in a page is deemed a sacrilege, compliant writing is correct, compact and never careering out the mores of convention. There is justifying all justifications and ironing out all the creases. As Ferrante writes beautifully, the habit of sticking to the margins becomes ingrained in so inconspicuous a manner that conspicuous manifestations of the same are deemed ordinary. Thus the instinctive scramble to align the lines, sentences and paragraphs in a digital document. A crying need to justify the justifications. Ferrante was no exception to the norm of leaving untouched the space reserved for the margins. All women authors for that matter were, due to an extraordinary lack of encouragement and an apparent prevalence of misogyny forced to abandon the margins. Follow the path trodden by the menfolk. Divergence is impermissible. Defiance leads to despondence.
Then Ferrante came across “Rime” by Gaspara Stampa. One sonnet in Stampa’s work induced a paradigm shift in Ferrante’s style as well as attitude. The opening lines of the sonnet, “If a lowly abject woman, I can carry within so sublime a flame, why shouldn’t I draw out at least a little of its style and vein to show the world?” made an immediate impact on Ferrante and there was born the second type of writing: Impudent. Rebellious and iconoclastic, this writing dissolved the margins and the taboos associated with them. Ferrante would no more be the author malleable to convention. She would freely, nay rampantly not just make incursions into and beyond the margins, but effectively conquer them. She found an able ally in Virginia Woolf. As Woolf explained in “A Writer’s Diary” she was 20 people and not just Virginia Woolf when it came to writing. Ferrante will also transmogrify into dozens of personalities, each one different from the other and all different from Ferrante, the author. She will in the course of her writing, “stumble, disarrange, delude, mistake, fail, and soil.” “The bildungsroman seems to me on the right track when its clear that no one will be built. Beautiful writing becomes beautiful when it loses its harmony and has the desperate power of the ugly.”
In the second essay titled ‘Aquamarine”, Ferrante wrestles with the dilemma of sticking strictly to and with realism (expressing things solely for what they are and how they are viewed) as against adopting a mix of realism and a license to experiment. Again she has as her trusted confidante a few books to show her the most judicious strategy. In Denis Diderot’s “Jacques the Fatalist and His Master”, the protagonist Jacques is ordered by his master to “tell the thing as it is.” Jacques, responds, “That’s not easy…Tell the thing as it is, you say!…That might not even happen twice in one day in the whole of a large town. And is the person who listens any better qualified to listen than the person who speaks?” The astounded Master grasping the import of Jacques’ justification, exhorts him to “Say nothing, hear nothing, believe nothing! Just tell the thing as you will, I will listen as I can and believe as I am able.”
The final essay in the book “Dante’s Rib” has iridescent shades of feminism adorning the pages. Keeping Dante as the focal point of her piece, Ferrante informs her readers on a spectacular transformation that upended Dante’s views on Beatrice, his beautiful muse. Transcending the sexual, Dante accords Beatrice an intellectual status and stature rarely (if at all) bestowed on a woman during his times. The initial Beatrice-obsessed Dante phase was characterised by a free flowing, frivolous and frolicking amalgam of light-sounding words such as inluiarsi (enter into him); intuarsi (enter into you) and inmiarsi (enter into me). Dante never deemed it appropriate to supplement these adventurous infiltrations with the notion of inleiarsi (enter into her). However, an enlightened Dante in his second phase not just ameliorates this defect but more than makes up for it with a brilliant and searing homage to Beatrice. Casting off the sexual purposes but securing the classification of dignified and gracious women of not just beauty, but eloquence of language, magnificence of thoughts and total assimilation of knowledge, Dante deified his Beatrice by placing her on a pedestal which few individuals, let alone women could lay claims to.
Dante finds in Beatrice, qualities that distinguished the lives and lessons of St Augustine or Boethius. “Her authority as the lady of heaven is such that she can legitimately bestow on that first-person narrator, after a journey lasting some sixty-four cantos, the same name as the author: Dante.”
“In The Margins” is a phenomenal writer at her blistering best! An absolute and unmissable treat for her fans.
(In The Margins by Ella Ferrante is published by Europa Editions and will be available for sale from the 15th March 2022)
Thank You Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy