The timing of Elena Ferrante’s Incidental Inventions is impeccable – it offers us an aperitivo before we can delve into her new novel scheduled to come out in English translation in June 2020. While we wait, we can flip leisurely through the pages of Incidental Inventions, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, and already in bookstores. As the title suggests, we need not consume the content all at once, but rather savor it in small doses, perusing its short essays in order or at random. In Incidental Inventions, Elena Ferrante continues the project of her 2016 collection of non-fictional writing Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey – the assembling of narrative fragments as constitutive parts of the writer’s identity. In other words, she proceeds with her self-invention through fragmentation. Unlike Frantumaglia, which originated in 2003 as a thin volume of Ferrante’s miscellaneous correspondence, interviews, and unpublished narrative excerpts, Incidental Inventions is a more coherent and cohesive mapping of the writer’s inner world and quotidian life – her desires, fears, ambitions, failures. Ferrante peeks, as it were, from behind the curtains-pages pictured on the book cover, revealing a sliver of herself.
As the opening chapter explains, the book contains the weekly columns Ferrante wrote for The Guardian over the course of a year, from January 2018 to January 2019. It is a collection of essays written in response to specific questions supplied by The Guardian. Born out of the weekly obligation to respond to a prompt, they are, in Ferrante’s words, “governed by the random collisions between the editors’ subject and the urgency of writing” (10). In Frantumaglia Ferrante at first decried this kind of “writing on command” (21), but then artfully deployed her newly-found capacity to do so. This paradigmatic incident of “writing to order” (Frantumaglia, 21) is elevated in Incidental Inventions to a structural principle.
With titles such as “Fears,” “The False and the True,” “Pregnant,” “Odious Women,” “Bad Feelings,” “Daughters,” “Addictions,” “Insomnia,” “Works of Art,” “Mothers,” “Women Who Write,” “Creative Freedom,” and “Jealousy,” the essays in Incidental Inventions chart the writer’s mundane experiences and reflections on a range of issues. These titles do not appear in the original columns in The Guardian – and hence can be considered additions, ways to attribute unity and structure to the book’s contents – a self-construction from fragmentation. Importantly, these titles provide an abridged vocabulary – or a phrase book – for approaching her literary world. We find many of Ferrante’s conceptual and thematic topoi in a condensed form – childhood memories, the trials of motherhood and daughterhood, strong emotions, gender violence, friendship between women, and women writers and artists, among others. In this sense, Incidental Inventions can be read as a sequel to Frantumaglia, the next installment in the discursive creation of Elena Ferrante.
The first edition of Frantumaglia came out in Italy in 2003, when Ferrante had published two novels, Troubling Love (L’amore molesto, 1992) and The Days of Abandonment (I giorni dell’abbandono, 2002). It functioned as an exegesis of sorts, as an exploration of her narrative mechanisms, feminine imaginary, and creative process. In fact, I would argue that Frantumaglia was the first scholarly monograph on Elena Ferrante, a detailed (self-)study of her poetics drawing on a repertory of Western literary and philosophical texts while also offering its own theoretical framework. The 2003 original edition was followed by two expanded ones, in 2007 and in 2016. The 2016 volume, almost 400 pages long – the length of a novel, included a number of interviews Ferrante had given after the global success of her tetralogy My Brilliant Friend or the so-called Neapolitan Novels (2011-2014). And now we can add the thematic essays in Incidental Inventions to the scaffolding bolstering Elena Ferrante’s authorial identity.
Incidental Inventions came out in Italy in May this year, in time for the Salone del Libro in Turin, Italy’s most important book fair. The book contains Andrea Ucini’s imaginative, incisive illustrations that accompanied Ferrante’s column every week. Suffice it to say that the illustrations alone are a visual tour de force worthy of their own review. The book’s original Italian title, notably employing the singular form, L’invenzione occasionale, gestures towards the art of self-invention as a unified and definitive form of authorial expression. The plural of the English translation of the title, on the other hand, offers an ingenious commentary on the piecemeal, textual nature of Ferrante’s presence as a series of “incidental inventions,” narrative fragments, bits of information dispersed throughout her books. Ann Goldstein deserves full credit for this inventive rendering. Ferrante too credits translators as bearers of meaning across national and linguistic borders.
In one of my favorite essays in the book, “Linguistic Nationality,” Ferrante discusses what it means to her to be Italian. She is clearly responding to modes and practices of cultural stereotyping, but in the process she also outlines a vision of linguistic nationality “as a point of departure for dialogue, an effort to cross over the limit, to look beyond the border – beyond all borders, especially those of gender” (24). Borders and boundaries belong to Ferrante’s literary, conceptual, and gender lexicon – from Ferrante’s maternal word frantumaglia which connotes a feminine psychical fragmentation or collapse to Lila’s harrowing experiences of smarginatura, a semantic neologism which Goldstein translates as “dissolving margins” or “dissolving boundaries.” But in this book Ferrante pays tribute to translators as the real border-crossing artists capable of dissolving boundaries:
Thanks to them [translators], Italianness travels through the world, enriching it, and the world, with its many languages, passes through Italianness and modifies it. Translators transport nations into other nations; they are the first to reckon with distant modes of feeling. Even their mistakes are evidence of a positive force. Translation is our salvation: it draws us out of the well in which, entirely by chance, we are born. (24)
Here Ferrante articulates a theory akin to what today we understand as world literature – the circulation of literary texts, by way of literary translation, beyond their national linguistic boundaries. I would suggest that this definition, along with Ferrante’s self-reflexive eulogy of translation, applies to the status of her own works as world literature.
Like Frantumaglia, Incidental Inventions provides insight into the writer’s world and partakes in the construction of her authorial identity – and thus it sheds light on Ferrante’s fictional works as well. In one of the book’s last essays, titled provocatively “This is Me,” Ferrante admits she doesn’t like to be photographed. (This essay could have been titled “This is a Photograph of Me,” after Margaret Atwood’s feminist ekphrastic poem.) When Ferrante finds an old photo of herself at 17, she displays it on a bookshelf, for it preserves an image which does not coincide with her idea of herself (108). This is a maneuver we have already seen on the pages of her Neapolitan Novels. On the last page of The Story of the Lost Child Elena Greco arranges the two long-lost dolls, Tina and Nu, against the spines of her books. This spatial and symbolic alignment of photographs, dolls, and books, inside and across Ferrante’s texts, offers the reader a snapshot – an incidental invention – of the writer’s literary and visual poetics. But it also asserts the intertwining of her fictional and non-fictional writings in the creation of the writer “Elena Ferrante.” In fact, as “This is Me” implies, Ferrante’s presence is constituted by fragmentary glimpses and narrative fragments, paradoxically predicated on her absence: “It’s a ‘me’ showing off the best of myself, thus escaping my usual physical appearance” (108). It is this escape, her withdrawal from the prying public eye, that grants us access to the fullness of her better, literary, textual “I.”
Ferrante concludes Incidental Inventions by stating that writing a weekly column has put her on display through the “permanent exposure of fragments of myself” (114). Framing by fragmentation is a creative, authorial move her characters perform as well. In the second volume of the Neapolitan Novels, The Story of the New Name, Lila destroys her photograph as a bride by fragmenting her image into a modernist collage which foregrounds not her body or wedding dress, but her eye. We can describe Incidental Inventions as a catalogue of similar verbal and visual collages, facilitated by Andrea Ucini’s marvelously discerning pictures. Like Lila, Elena Ferrante conceals and reveals, framing the way we see her, inviting us to open the pages-curtains and look.
Ferrante, Elena. Incidental Inventions. Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions, 2019.
Stiliana Milkova is associate professor of Comparative Literature at Oberlin College and the author of numerous scholarly articles on Elena Ferrante and the book Elena Ferrante as World Literature (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).