Incidental Inventions collects 52 short essays written by the much-loved and famously reclusive Italian novelist Elena Ferrante for The Guardian over a year. Ferrante describes the project as “a collaboration” – having agreed to write this column only under the stipulation that the subject of each piece be suggested by a Guardian editor – and the topics range from the personal (fears, pregnancy, staying late at parties) to the overtly political (nationalism, climate change), to questions of craft (including delightful pieces on exclamation marks and ellipses) and her own development as a writer. The resulting collection is wide-ranging and curious, often “charged with feeling” and always underscored by a sharp and careful intellect. It’s a beautiful object, too – illustrated by Andrea Ucini, whose images balance whimsy and darkness, and offer interpretations that are wonderfully allusive and surprising, rather than literal.
In the essay “Poetry and Prose”, Ferrante discusses writing style, arguing that poetry, “or, if you prefer, beauty”, should keep “strictly to a form of expression that is effective and clear”, and it’s this sense of Ferrante as a writer – her crisp and careful sentences, her simple but dense descriptions, all impeccably translated by Ferrante’s long-time translator, Ann Goldstein – that is the true joy of the book. There’s a deceptive modesty to Ferrante’s prose, despite her claims that these pieces were written “without having scrupulously considered every word” because of her weekly deadline.
The best pieces are those that are explicitly feminist, dealing with the problems of our patriarchal literary tradition – its historical lack of female characters and heroes, its circumscription of female creativity (“We’ve been inside the male cage for too long”), the scarcity of male writers who will admit to being “in any way indebted to the work of a woman writer”. Here, the essays hum with energy and indignation. Where the pieces are weaker, it’s because of a tendency to tie them off with a line or two of condensed wisdom, which at times gives an artificial sense of gravity or feels repetitive.
Overall, though, this is a collection of vigour and verve, and it is insightful and instructive. Ferrante is, after all, a “writers’ writer”, and Incidental Inventions is very much a masterclass in style: direct and clear, and all the more resonant for it.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 14, 2019 as "Elena Ferrante, Incidental Inventions". Subscribe here.