Review: Incidental Inventions by Elena Ferrante

Towards the end of her new book Incidental Inventions, Elena Ferrante reflects on the importance of storytelling: “An individual talent acts like a fishing net that captures daily experiences, holds them together imaginatively, and connects them to fundamental questions about the human condition.” This statement could be applied to the work as a whole, a collection of weekly columns the author wrote for The Guardian from January 2018 to January 2019 in response to questions provided by the newspaper’s editors.

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, the acclaimed translator of Ferrante’s novels, the essays span a vast array of themes, which include fear, motherhood, climate change, and love. Ferrante is best known for her novels, most notably The Days of Abandonment (Europa, 2005), Troubling Love (Europa, 2006), The Lost Daughter (Europa, 2008), and the four-book Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child, Europa 2012-2015). Her weekly contributions to The Guardian, she admits in the collection’s introduction, represent a literary format with which she was initially completely unfamiliar. She writes, “I didn’t want to hide—especially from myself—their nature as incidental inventions, no different from those with which we daily react to the world we happen to live in.”

Taken individually, each short essay, each fragment, finds the author focusing with engaging immediacy on the intricacies of a single detail or a long-forgotten memory, before broadening the scope of her examination. The essay “The False and the True” begins with a hypothetical idea for a story about a woman locked in a shower cubicle. As Ferrante considers the choices she makes in shaping her narrative, based on a true story related to her by a friend, she wonders, “Why do I say it was winter when, in fact, it was summer, why do I say the hot water was used up when it wasn’t?” As she continues to question these decisions, Ferrante arrives at the conclusion that within the framework of writing, fact and fiction are inextricably linked. “Because writing is innately artificial,” she claims, “its every use involves some form of fiction.” In “Happy Childhoods,” Ferrante describes the experience of looking at photographs and videos of her friends’ and relatives’ children. In observing these images, she remarks on the nature of identity, and the impossibility of capturing a person’s entire essence within a single snapshot. “‘Me’ who?” she asks, while considering a photograph of herself at the age of two. “We’ll always know too little about ourselves,” she concludes.

Much like Frantumaglia, a compilation of Ferrante’s letters and essays published in 2003, Incidental Inventions is a multilayered work that sheds light on Ferrante’s thoughts about the writing process, and on her appreciation for the literary efforts of others. In the essay “Linguistic Nationality,” Ferrante expresses her admiration for literary translators. “Translators transport nations into other nations,” she writes. “They are the first to reckon with distant modes of feeling. Even their mistakes are evidence of a positive force.” Ferrante’s own infectious excitement at the prospect of writing, no matter the subject, shines through the entire collection. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t write about,” she says. “In fact, as soon as I realize that something has flashed through my mind that I would never put in writing, I insist on doing so.”

The veracity of her comment is proven by the wide-ranging scope of these essays. This collection offers a series of snapshots, considerations that are at once both timely and deeply personal. What emerges from this varied assembly of considerations is a portrait of an acclaimed storyteller’s bold and singular voice.

About the author

Ottavia Brey is a writer based in New York City, currently pursuing an MFA in nonfiction at Columbia University.

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