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the Complete Review
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In the Margins

Elena Ferrante

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To purchase In the Margins

Title: In the Margins
Author: Elena Ferrante
Genre: Essays
Written: 2021 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 111 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: In the Margins - US
In the Margins - UK
In the Margins - Canada
I margini e il dettato - Italia
En los m├írgenes - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing
  • Italian title: I margini e il dettato
  • Translated by Ann Goldstein

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Our Assessment:

B : a solid introduction to this writer, and her evolution as a writer

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 11/3/2022 Lucy Popescu
The Guardian . 16/3/2022 Katherine Hill
New Statesman . 20/4/2022 Margaret Drabble
The NY Times . 16/3/2022 Molly Young
The Observer . 20/3/2022 J.Thomas-Corr
Sunday Times . 13/3/2022 John Walsh
The Times . 12/3/2022 12/3/2022 Sarah Ditum
TLS . 4/2/2022 Chiara Marchelli
The Washington Post C 16/3/2022 Maureen Corrigan

  From the Reviews:
  • "In the Margins illuminates the themes that characterise her novels: intense female friendships, mother-daughter relationships and betrayal. (...) If there's any lingering doubt about Ferrante's gender, this homage to female talent, impeccably translated by Ann Goldstein, suggests otherwise." - Lucy Popescu, Financial Times

  • "Together, these four essays are the closest Ferrante has come to an articulation of her literary methodology. (...) The portrait of the artist Ferrante offers here is at once earnest and devious. She is both less aggressive and less elusive than she appears in her interviews, laying out her ideas in a straightforward manner, defining her terms and identifying her sources, both personal and literary. In her apparently uncoded words, and in the traditional form that they take, we feel a writer chasing authenticity. But we also feel, as in everything Ferrante writes, a brilliant subterfuge." - Katherine Hill, The Guardian

  • "Maybe Ferrante underestimates the value of entertainment. She is a very serious reader and a very serious writer, and one feels she may have been at times paralysed by her familiarity with literary theory. As a broad generalisation, one might posit that English writers tend to be paralysed by irony, continental writers by theory. But Ferrante makes her way out of that cage" - Margaret Drabble, New Statesman

  • "As much as In the Margins is a philosophical monograph on the nature of writing, it is also a practical manual. Ferrante furnishes tips. She doesn’t present them as such -- there’s no prescription, only an outline of what she’s learned and how it’s helped her (and by implication, how it might help anyone else). (...) She cites Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Denis Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and His Master as “books that discuss how difficult it is to tell a story and yet intensify the desire to do it.” This collection, brief and clear as it is next to those other volumes, does the same." - Molly Young, The New York Times

  • "Their subject ? Ostensibly, the “pleasures” of writing and reading -- though it rarely sounds that pleasurable. (...) The standout lecture of the book is Histories I, in which Ferrante explains how she sees her writing as a kind of “deforming” of existing literary forms. (...) The book feels uneven, tantalising in places, opaque in others. Her ideas can be distilled down into: powerful prose emerges from dutiful prose; all writing is built on the shoulders of great literature; the paradox of realism is it requires truthful lies; and it’s a real bitch to get what’s in your head on to the page. Ferrante can’t help but arouse intrigue and admiration, but I was left wanting more -- ideally fiction." - Johanna Thomas-Corr, The Observer

  • "The gap between literary theory and actual writing remains unbridged. (...) I margini e il dettato is a book filled with suggestions and musings that try to extract the elusive meaning of writing. Fierce sentences (...) recall the voice to which Elena Ferrante has accustomed her own readers and reflect the scorching intentions, if not revelations, in which these essays are steeped. For those who like it hot." - Chiara Marchelli, Times Literary Supplement

  • "There’s a whiff of the graduate school seminar room, especially about the first three lectures here. (...) Granted, these lectures were written to be delivered to scholars and other strains of intellectuals, but they feel dated, as if they were written in the late 1970s or early ‘80s, when literary theorists were still parsing the epiphanies of Roland Barthes’s famous 1967 essay, The Death of the Author, and exposing the internal contradictions of literary form. (...) For those who can’t get enough of Ferrante, even the pedantic Ferrante who prevails here, the first lecture, called “Pain and Pen” is the best of the lot (.....) The other three lectures In the Margins should only hold the attention of those fans who will read anything and everything by that manufactured construct known as “Elena Ferrante, author.”" - Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In the Margins includes the trio of Eco Lectures that were presented in 2021, as well as the essay 'Dante's Rib', presented at the 2021 ADI conference, Dante e altri classici: da Petrarca a Soyinka. (As Ferrante prefers to remain pseudonymous, all four lectures were performed by others: Manuela Mandracchia presented the Eco Lectures, and Tiziana de Rogatis presented 'Dante's Rib'.)
       In the Eco Lectures Ferrante speaks of her own experience in becoming a writer, from childhood writing exercises in which she found it difficult to remain within the margins (which, in her elementary-school notebooks, were on both left and right side of the page, as an illustration helpfully shows):

The writing was supposed to move between those lines, and those lines -- of this I have a very clear memory -- tormented me.
       The lectures offer considerable insight into her process and influences -- and how she has changed and adapted them over the years, noting some of the shifts and how they came about. Along with numerous specifics, she also shares the broadest strokes of her techniques:
I start from writing that is planted firmly in tradition, and wait for something to erupt and throw the papers into disarray, for the lowly, abject woman I am to find a means of having her say. I adapt old techniques with pleasure; I've spent my life learning how and when to use them.
       The evolution to her finding her own way is a long and arduous one; particularly noteworthy is how intensively she relied on models and imitation, noting that from a young age: "I felt that someone was telling me what should be written and how". Unusual is her admission of continuing to accept these bounds, at least in the initial stages of writing, rather than simply moving beyond them, as many writers (like to think they) do. Hers is an approach that begins by staying within the margins, as it were, before finally blowing past them. As she explains:
I got in the habit of using traditionally rigid structures and working on them carefully, while I waited patiently to start writing with all the truth I am capable of, destabilizing, deforming, to make space for myself with my whole body. For me true writing is that: not an elegant, studied gesture but a convulsive act.
       She speaks of 'convulsive writing' several times, part of the necessary freeing approach in which she found herself and her style. (Nevertheless, she also insists that: "Writing inevitably has to reckon with other writing", always also seeing and positioning hers in some relation.)
       Among the things she had to overcome was being too obsessed with trying to capture the world as is, as she came to find:
my passion for realism, stubbornly pursued since adolescence, at a certain point became a statement of incapacity. I didn't know how to get an exact reproduction of reality. I wasn't able to tell the thing as it is.
       These lectures are very much about Ferrante-as-writer, and of greatest interest as such -- not least with some of the work-specific insights she offers. So, for example, it's interesting to learn that:
Significant passages of Troubling Love and even of the Neapolitan Novels were written in dialect, but in the end I either eliminated them or transformed them into an Italian with a Neapolitan cadence. This is because dialectal vocabulary and syntax, as soon as they're written, seem even more false than Italian.
       The final piece in the collection, 'Dante's Rib', is rather different, but also provides some insight into Ferrante's own writing, as she discusses her experiences with reading Dante, and what particularly draws her to his work -- beginning with the greatest of influences, Beatrice.
       In the Margins is a slim volume, but certainly of interest and appeal to those who want to know more about the writer behind the Ferrante-name. Ferrante also offers a fine little chronicle of the evolution of a writer -- unique, in its details, but also covering general ground and difficulties faced by many other writers.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 March 2022

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In the Margins: Reviews: Elena Ferrante: Other books by Elena Ferrante under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Elena Ferrante is the pen-name of a popular Italian author.

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© 2022 the complete review

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