‘Incidental Inventions’ by Elena Ferrante (Review)

After an exhausting, if exhilarating, trip to Iran, and with a rather confronting encounter in Mexico ahead of us, now seems like a good time to take the second of my planned breaks in this year’s International Booker Prize longlist voyage of discovery.  However, that doesn’t mean that there’ll be a break from posting on the blog – far from it.  Instead, I’ll be using the week to catch up on a few review copies with a common theme, all in preparation for an upcoming release.  The writer?  Well, I think you may just have heard of them 🙂

As someone who has read and reviewed virtually everything Elena Ferrante has had translated into English (including her collected non-fiction musings Frantumaglia and the children’s book The Beach at Night), I’m looking forward to her first new novel in years, the enigmatically named The Lying Life of Adults (translated by Ann Goldstein, published by Europa Editions), which is due out, hopefully, on the 9th of June.  Yet as it turns out, there are a few books out there that I hadn’t managed to get to, and that will be rectified this week, with today’s post looking at another short book written by the author herself.

Incidental Inventions (again translated by Goldstein, illustrated by Andrea Ucini, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short work bringing together a series of even shorter pieces.  Back in 2017, Ferrante was asked by The Guardian newspaper in the UK to contribute a series of weekly columns, and after intially hesitating, having never done this kind of writing before, she eventually agreed, on the proviso that her texts were mere responses, with the newspaper providing her with prompts for each one. What followed were fifty-one short essays which appeared in the newspaper between January 2018 and January 2019, each accompanied by Ucini’s illustrations, tailored to the accompanying text.

The prompts chosen feature an interesting mix of topics, including such ideas as ‘Keeping a Diary’, ‘Odious Women’, ‘Insomnia‘, ‘Happy Childhoods’ and ‘Black Skies’.  Ferrante dutifully responds to each of these, knocking out a short text of around (at a guess) four- to five-hundred words.  With the same translator and a similar style to her fiction, these non-fiction texts are very familiar to anyone who has tried the writer’s novels, with the pieces even containing some of the same preoccupations as in her longer work.

Unsurprisingly, Incidental Inventions is at its best when the responses touch on Ferrante’s writing, providing insights into how and why she does it.  A nice early example here can be found in ‘Keeping a Diary’, as she discusses hiding her adolescent journals:

Why was I worried? Because if, in everyday life, I was so embrrassed, so cautious, that I scarcely breathed, the diary produced in me a craving for truth.  I thought that when one writes, it makes no sense to be contained, to censor oneself, and as a result I wrote mostly – maybe only – about what I would have preferred to be silent about, resorting among other things to a vocabulary that I would never have dared to use in speaking.
‘Keeping a Diary’, p.17 (Europa Editions, 2019)

Later, in ‘The False and the True’, she explores the origins of her fiction, as she uses ideas drawn from real-life recounts to plunge into a personal approach to writing, with these anecdotes eventually becoming stories or novels.

This idea is perhaps approached best here in ‘Digging’.  While accepting other writers’ preference of leaving things to the reader’s imagination, this just isn’t in her nature.  She feels the constant need to dig deeper and delve further into her characters’ behaviour and motivations, continuing to scratch away until a certain something, often rather ugly, is uncovered.  Yes, people often say that she should have stopped, that she’s gone too far, but it’s what she discovers by going too far that really interests her.

Of course, occasionally the shoe is on the other foot, and she finds herself the object rather than the subject of a critical gaze, and this is nicely covered in ‘The Book and the Film’.  Here Ferrante describes coming to terms with adaptations of her novels, and the strange sensation of seeing her work of art plundered, stripped bare.  While it’s a disturbing experience, she accepts the necessary mutilation that accompanies the transformation from page to screen (at which point I became very tempted to seek out the TV version of My Brilliant Friend…).

The tone that runs throughout Incidental Inventions is simple, disarming and almost naive in places.  I suspect most readers will consider the pieces a little too short as the length doesn’t really allow Ferrante to go into any great depth, and, inevitably, not all of the pieces are as insightful as those mentioned here.  However, if you’re expecting mere fluff for the most part, be warned.  As is always the case with Ferrante, the disarming air is all an act.  This is deceptively controlled writing, with the writer ready to pounce the moment the reader lets their guard down.

Of course, there’s also always the elephant of identity in the room (peering over your shoulder as you read), and many of the pieces are concerned with gender issues.  These are all interesting enough in their own right, and yet it’s almost impossible to go through them without the rumours as to the writer’s identity knocking about in the back of your mind.  For example, her dislike of ‘The Exclamation Point’ (or ‘exclamation mark’, as British readers would say) is rooted in its suggestion of a phallic display, which could be genuine, or simply an example of the writer trolling the reader.  The same is true for ‘Pregnancy’, a fairly standard text with nothing new or controversial, but (unfortunately) it’s hard to avoid wondering whether these experiences are actually second hand.

In ‘Women Who Write’, one of the better inclusions, Ferrante decries the male tendency to deny female influence in their work, but this sense of unease with identity comes to a head in ‘The Only True Name’, in the form of the writer’s musings on art and anonymous painters:

Ever since adolescence, I’ve liked the term “unknown”.  It means that all I can know of the person who made the painting is the work I have before my eyes.  I find it a great opportunity. I can devote myself to the pure result of a creative gesture, without worrying about a big or small name.
‘The Only True Name’, p.35

Here we see how the idea I alluded to earlier of simple, naive writing is far from the mark.  Whether Ferrante is who she says she is, or who others think she is, this piece is nothing less than a mocking reminder that she doesn’t want you to know, and doesn’t really care what you think about it…

Incidental Inventions is a book you can devour in an hour or so, or browse at your leisure (a coffee-table book if ever there was one), and I enjoyed the experience.  If you’re expecting great insights, though, I’d probably recommend Frantumaglia instead, which is a far longer, and more absorbing, collection of texts.  I’m not sure that anyone picking this up as their introduction to Ferrante will be immediately hooked, but it certainly makes for an entertaining read, and those who have made their way through the writer’s fiction will undoubtedly welcome the opportunity to hear more from her…

…while waiting for the new novel to appear, of course 😉

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