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It’s hard to not feel just a little bit cheated after reading the first two dozen pages of Elena Ferrante’s new book, “Incidental Inventions.” After reading sensational Italian news articles about how a new novel, slated for release on Nov. 7, was in the works, it was an ever-so-slight let-down to receive “Incidental Inventions,” a compilation of Ferrante’s Guardian column that ran for all of 2018. The Nov. 7 release was not a fabrication, but Italian fluency is, unfortunately, a prerequisite. If you want to read it in English, you’ll have to wait until 2020.
Ferrante is an Italian novelist most famous for The Neapolitan Novels, a quadrilogy chronicling the lives of two women from childhood into adulthood. Ferrante is, however, equally famous for her anonymity and her refusal to reveal her actual name, despite the attempts of the paparazzi and the goading of those who simply don’t believe that a woman could have written such a poignant book series.
One lingering question readers of The Neapolitan Novels might have is how much of the story is autobiographical: After all, the main character’s name is Elena, after all. It’s unlikely the world will ever truly know, but after even quickly skimming one of the essays in “Incidental Inventions,” it’s clear that her fiction is undoubtedly stamped with her own voice.
This essay collection is a success, even though it isn’t fiction. Ferrante requested that her editors to ask her a question every week, to which she would respond and subsequently publish. The formula worked: Each column is its own stand-alone work, and though there is some thematic overlap, it cannot be said that she repeats herself unnecessarily.
Ferrante has an uncanny ability to remain detached from the very words she writes while managing to articulate the precise anguish of the human condition. Just like the listicles on Buzzfeed that round up the good news at the end of the week, Ferrante also finds beauty in the mundane: “I’m interested in the ordinary or, rather, what we have forced inside the uniform of the ordinary.” And, despite women’s thoughts on the pain of childbirth, she writes that “children are our body’s great, marvellous prostheses, and we will not give them literally to anyone, not to mad fathers, not to the country, not even to those machines that promise an inhumanly perfect humanity.”
Ferrante writes about the nature of being a woman, and the dangers of excess within this role: “The ‘too’ of a woman produces violent male reactions and, in addition, the enmity of other women, who every day are obliged to fight among themselves for the crumbs left by men.” Her writing is restrained and methodical, either due to the translation (not the skill of Ann Goldstein, her translator, but rather the nature of English as a more clinical language, especially compared with the emotional intensity imbued in Italian), or to her own style.
Indeed, Ferrante says in one essay that she “would like it if, on the entire planet, there were no longer any reason to shout, especially with pain. [She likes] low tones, polite enthusiasm, courteous complaints.” This discomfiting idea raises questions about whether life is complete enough without the rollercoaster of emotions that, at one point or another, threatens to overwhelm all people. Would humans be human without the peaks of joy and the valleys of melancholy? Perhaps, but to ask that reactions be subdued is to deny, on some level, one’s feeling.
Budding writers can find comfort in her thoughts on the elusive goal of originality. Put simply, new writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum and Ferrante shows that it’s okay to use an old cliché or to borrow from a favorite childhood novel. After all, “No author produces texts without debts. There are no works that make a clean break with the past, works that exclude it — no truly watershed works. Literary novelty … exists in the way each individual inhabits the magma of forms he is immersed in.”
This essay collection is subtle. Ferrante’s writing is akin to a whisper from one friend to another: It utters the truth one would rather not hear, but says it compactly and devastatingly. On jealousy, she quietly notes: “We shut the beloved up in a cage, preferring that he die spiritually and even physically—rather than expose us to the humiliating wound of his escape.”
—Staff writer Cassandra Luca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @cassandraluca_
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