This book is a gem! A collection of pieces from a reluctant journalist, who is much better known as a novelist - and a fantastic one at that. The 'Neapolitan novels' have made Ferrante's writing internationally regarded.
Elena Ferrante is also known to be a pseudonym for a novelist who values her anonymity. Ink has been spilled trying to identify her. But this collection of essays, first published as weekly columns in the Guardian, proves she also writes brilliant prose, joining the canon of Italian luminaries like Umberto Eco, Primo Levi and Italo Calvino.
Journalism, whoever the writer, can prove to be an irresistible temptation. Perhaps particularly for a writer like Ferrante, whose style is all about brevity and word choice and succinctness, the task to write 1000 words a week - no more! no less! - must have proven too hard to refuse.
Of course in comparison to fiction, it is a high-wire act, published as soon as the copy is filed. No time for reflection, no time for regrets, no time for repentance. This sudden-death aspect of journalism has intrigue for reader and writer, and can produce some very fresh responses.
Ferrante reports: "I'm used to looking on my own for a story, characters, logic, putting one word after another, often laboriously, eliminating a lot ... But the Guardian columns were governed by the random collision between the editors' subject and the urgency of writing.
"It was a new form of writing: every time I hurriedly dipped the bucket into some dark depth of my mind, I hauled up a sentence and waited apprehensively for others to follow." (p10)
Some pieces invite summary as a gentle syllogism: if this, then this - I was never afraid of thunder; But with climate change, the weather is now something to fear. I was once inside my mother; Now my mother is inside me. Some harbour surprising opinions, like criticism of the exclamation mark for fortifying the tweets of world leaders "with the profile of a nuclear missile". Some have very sudden endings, as though the author became disenchanted with the topic, or had to shake off the memory, or as though she ran out of time or wool.
There are spontaneous splashes of colour, highly concentrated phrases and much rich, aphoristic profundity. Reading Ferrante reminds me of the wonderful tradition of European essayism lying behind high journalism. Roland Barthes wrote for Les Lettres Nouvelles and Umberto Eco for l'Espresso magazine.
Not to forget the very womanly application of this style from Virginia Woolf to Annie Dillard, from Rebecca Solnit to Suri Hustvedt. Cascades of language become possible in their prose moments, where the writer must sketch something there and then, and capture an idea fresh on the page.
Incidental Inventions makes interesting observations on so many topics, but none more pointed than her comments on writing as a woman today, as a professional writer engaged in the world of literary production.
"Do men learn from women? Often. Do they admit it publicly? Rarely, even today." Ferrante is truculent, writing of the need for the male writer to "enter the worlds created by the woman writer" not bend her vision to his imaginative aim. This point is made particularly of translating novels to the screen, something of which she has a deal of experience.
Uncompromising writing of the kind in this book is precisely what it will take to open the literary world to the feminine zeitgeist. Ferrante is fiercely critical that women's writing remains a specialty to the side of literary history, while men "keep for themselves the literature that revolutionises", and reserve the "courage to go through the world fighting with words and deeds, street by street ..." (page 92) It seems men do not notice what women's writing work is contributing to the background, and in this way, it is maybe no different from other kinds of women's work.
There is almost nothing redundant in Ferrante's writing, so spare and yet so rich. Her journalism is revealed as consummate literary intervention. And while she may not repeat this high-pressure experiment, we have in Incidental Inventions a compact testament to the joy of journalism.
The illustrations by Andrea Ucini dreamily project the tone of wonder and artifice that permeates the writing into the space of the mind's eye. My review copy is a beautifully produced hardback, laid out in the best typographic tradition with the illustration above the title on the right hand page, and the remainder of the text run on overleaf. The impact of each new piece is optimised by this layout. Hats off to the ingenious editor who hatched the idea for this column collaboration! May s/he venture boldly to repeat the experiment.
- Robyn Ferrell is a writer and researcher: her author pages are at amazon.com and anu-au.academia.edu.
- Incidental Inventions, by Elena Ferrante. NewSouth. $29.99.