“Aquamarine” Is an Excerpt from Elena Ferrante’s New Book, "In the Margins"
Craft essays are all the rage, but one author soars above a crowded field.
Elena Ferrante, the doyenne of Italian literature, is renowned for her bestselling Neapolitan quartet and The Lost Daughter, adapted by Maggie Gyllenhaal into an acclaimed film starring Olivia Colman. (Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, including My Brilliant Friend, have sold 4 million copies in North America and over 8 million globally.) With In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing (Europa)—four sparkling pieces based on a series of lectures—she brings out her toolbox, dissecting the creative process, her grand themes, and indelible characters while paying homage to authors and books that have shaped her. Reinvention, she discovers, is the name of her game.
In this excerpt from “Aquamarine,” an Oprah Daily exclusive, she reflects on her mother’s ornate ring, a talisman from her childhood. “I’d like to take a small example that I found in my notes of long ago: the aquamarine on my mother’s finger,” she notes here. “It was a real, very real, object, and yet there was nothing more variable in my mind. It shifted between dialect and Italian, in space and time, along with her figure, which was sometimes clear, sometimes murky, and always accompanied by my loving or hostile feelings.” Like our interior lives, writing shape-shifts—it’s a joy to read a master who pivots off that insight in so many directions.
"Aquamarine" is adapted from In the Margins, by Elena Ferrante, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein and published by Europa Editions. Some changes from the original text have been made for brevity and clarity. —Hamilton Cain, contributing editor, Oprah Daily
I rummaged in the dictionary and pulled out cyan, the color of cyan—then, why not, cyanotic. That seemed effective: cyanotic aquamarine, aquamarine with a cyanotic light. But the light of the cyanotic aquamarine—or the cyanotic light of the aquamarine—was expanding, along with the images it evoked, into the story of my mother, into the prototype of the Neapolitan mother I was constructing, violently clashing with her dialectal voice. Was it good, was it bad? I didn’t know. I knew only that that little adjective would now make me leave the dull story of a real family and enter into a dark, almost gothic tale. So I retreated in a hurry, but reluctantly. Goodbye “cyanotic.” But I had already lost faith: the now true ring, which as a true object of my true experience should have given truth to the writing, seemed inevitably false.
At that point, by chance—which is the case with almost everything, and so also with the books that are truly helpful—I happened to read Jacques the Fatalist and His Master. I’m not going to talk about what’s important in Jacques; I would have to begin with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which precedes and influences it, and I would never end, but, if you haven’t read them, believe me, these are books that discuss how difficult it is to tell a story and yet intensify the desire to do it. I will confine myself here to observing that reading Jacques enabled me, after many years, to restore to its context the phrase cited by my teacher:
“Tell the thing as it is,” the master orders Jacques the fatalist. And he answers: “That’s not easy. Has not everyone his own character, his own interests, his own tastes and passions according to which he either exaggerates or attenuates everything? 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? No. Which is why in the whole of a large town it can hardly happen twice in one day that someone’s words are understood in the same way as they are spoken.” The master replies: “What the devil, Jacques, those principles are enough to outlaw speaking and listening altogether. 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.” (trans. by Michael Henry)
I had read a lot of books on these subjects, including pointlessly complex passages, and here, plainly expressed, I found some consolation. If every novel I wrote, hefty or slim, turned out to be far from my aspirations—I had boundless ambitions—maybe the reason was not only my incapacity. Telling the real, Jacques emphasized, is constitutionally difficult; you have to deal with the fact that the teller is always a distorting mirror. So? Better to give up? No, the master answers, you don’t have to throw everything away: it’s arduous to speak truthfully, but you do your best.
Both kinds of writing are mine and, at the same time, Delia’s, Olga’s, Leda’s. I write people, places, times, but in words that have been inspired in me by people, places, times, in a dizzying mixture of creators with created, of forms with forms. That is, this writing is the always random result of how Delia, Olga, and Leda are recorded in the registry office of fictions, and of how I, the author—a fiction forever incomplete, molded by years and years of reading and the desire to write—invent and disrupt the writing that has recorded them. I am, I would say, their autobiography as they are mine.
I was trying to get out of the dead-end of The Lost Daughter by drafting a new story of mothers and daughters—a crowded, expansive story, that, in my intention, would span some seventy years—when I picked up Cavarero’s book again. It seemed new, a book I had never read, starting from the use she makes of Karen Blixen and the story of the stork, recounted in Out of Africa. But what kindled my imagination was an expression: the necessary other. It serves as the title of an entire chapter, is set up by a complex dialogue with Hannah Arendt, skirts the theme of narcissism, and arrives, finally, at the following definition:
The necessary other is... a finitude that remains irremediably an other in all the fragile and unjudgeable insubstitutability of her existing. (trans. by Paul A. Kottman)
I had read Sexual Difference many years earlier and hadn’t really noticed Emilia and Amalia. But Cavarero extracted those pale figures of women from the two pages or so that concerned them and spoke about them with great sensitivity and intelligence. She wrote about the “narrative character of female friendships.” She wrote—listen to this—about “the intersection of autobiographical narrations that insure the result of the reciprocal biographical activity.” She wrote: “At work... is a mechanism of reciprocity through which the narratable self of each woman passes to auto-narration so that the other may know a story that she can in turn tell others, certainly, but, most important, again tells the woman who is its protagonist.” She summarized: “Put simply, I tell you my story in order to make you tell it to me.” I was enthusiastic. It was what I—not putting it simply—was trying to write in my draft of an endless novel centered on two women friends who weave together the stories of their experience, in a less edifying manner than Emilia and Amalia.
I picked up Sexual Difference again. The pages where Emilia and Amalia figured became important to the story I was drafting. I even found a passage that Cavarero hadn’t quoted directly, but that fired my imagination. Amalia, the good writer, at a certain point says of Emilia: “This woman truly understood things: she wrote a lot of sentences that were disconnected but very true and profound.” I immediately liked that “truly.” I liked that “true and profound.” I felt that Amalia, who loved to write and knew she was good at it, had an uncontainable admiration for Emilia’s attempts to write. It seemed to me that I could even perceive a feeling like envy in the face of a result that, though she was good, Amalia knew she couldn’t achieve.
Cavarero, I must say at this point, doesn’t use that term in relation to Emilia: she uses it about Alice B. Toklas, the person whose autobiography—note: autobiography, not biography—is written by Gertrude Stein. All right: decades earlier, I had utterly misread The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. I reread it, in the phase when I was writing my long draft, taking off from the pages that Adriana Cavarero devoted to it. And I would like to say that I had understood nothing: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is a great book, in structure, in execution. I will copy some of Cavarero’s passages which inspired me to look at it again:
The autobiographical and biographical genres are superimposed upon one another.... Gertrude writes her own life story making it told by another: by Alice, her friend and partner, her lover.... The gigantic egotism of Gertrude Stein succeeds in thus producing a literary fiction of stories that intersect where she herself stands out and where Alice—the lover, the friend—still appears as the other who watches her and as the other who tells her story.
Rereading The Autobiography sent me even farther in that direction. It seemed to me that the book had turned out so well because in the writing—and maybe also in reality—Gertrude’s egotism, as Cavarero calls it, is satisfied through a double function: that of the author, Gertrude Stein, who signs the work, and that of the character to whom the author gives her own name, printed on the cover, Gertrude Stein. But note: if you read or reread the book, follow the development, line by line, of Alice Toklas. In her guise as first-person narrator, she takes the lead, emerging in full relief. Not coincidentally, in the splendid final passage, when, with Alice unable to make up her mind, Gertrude promises to write her friend’s autobiography, the promise is formulated like this: “I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe.” That is, I will write about you, my dear friend-lover-wife, in the only possible way one can write the autobiography of someone else: by making it a first-person fiction, you the first-person protagonist, a Robinson, not a Friday. Besides, although a wife, and assigned to write about the wives of geniuses, how could Alice, within the structure of the text and without the necessary literary stature, recognize and represent with true ability not only the wives of geniuses—which among other things she does very well—but a genius wife, Gertrude, described in the third person amidst genius males?
In this connection I want to end by citing a famous passage in which Alice writes about meeting Gertrude for the first time:
I was impressed by the coral brooch she wore and by her voice. I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead.
I would point out here only one thing. I found it amazing that a woman, the woman who was on the cover, boldly defines herself, through the mouth of her “necessary other,” as a genius and, setting herself beside two men, puts herself first. She seemed to have an incomparable immodesty, and I felt like laughing, a laugh of sympathy. I can’t swear to it, but I think it was then that, after having for a certain period called my draft The Necessary Friend, I began calling it My Brilliant Friend. But I will return to this next time.
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