Smarginature: Rebeginnings after the second reading of Elena Ferrante’s L’amica geniale and My Brilliant Friend, Storia del nuovo cognome and The Story of a New Name, Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Storia della bambina perduta and The Story of the Lost Child, La frantumaglia and Frantumaglia*, 2015/2016.
by Daniela Cascella
This text began, before its beginning, in a series of conversations held, before writing, between myself and Natasha Soobramanien**.
The first reading was the rush, the pull, the addiction to the story, the spell of sensuality and harshness, the inevitable similarities in life, the thin thin line between fiction and inflection: feelings, facts and emotions so close to life, and to the workings of memory.
On a second reading the pacing is slower, I know the plot, other threads begin to emerge. They are channelled and summed up in a short dialogue between Lenù and Lila, in the aftermath of the earthquake that they’ve experienced together:
Lenù: The world has returned to its place.
Lila: What place?
I want to speak between the questioning of place and the illusion of return, to draw my breath from the awareness that there is no belonging but a series of oscillations in time, in the movement between ‘my’ and ‘the’: in Italian the title My Brilliant Friend is L’amica geniale, literally translated as ‘the brilliant friend’. No possessive, the friend does not belong to anyone, it’s a friend, it is mine and yours and ours and nobody’s. Away from the plot, my reasoning stretches to the point where Lenù and Lila could actually coexist in the same person, could be both my friend and a friend and they could be me and I through you. As readers we contain both of them, intermittently. Or: Lila and Lenù are the poles that generate a magnetic field, a field with no boundaries that holds us as readers and moves us between a telling and a rebeginning, situating and displacing, again between:
The world has returned to its place.
I want to hold on to this oscillation between order and its questioning, the sense of being uprooted against the pull for consistency: to play with an emotional dial moving across all degrees of distance from coherent selves, selves disrupted, edged off, sidelined, unboundaried, told and untold through catastrophes and earthquakes of the city, of the mind and the body, never a self without an other, never a book without its erasure.
In this play I want to hear the elusive presence of the spoken word sounding, dissolving boundaries.
She said that on those occasions the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared.
Smarginatura is the term that marks the feeling of psychological, emotional, existential crisis that grips Lila with devastating force at crucial moments in her life throughout the story, the first time on New Year’s Eve 1958 when she’s fourteen years old: she feels that, literally, people and things lose their margins and they all merge into an overwhelming and threatening state of formlessness.
Smarginatura shakes Lila in and out of daily life as a repeated intermittent shock. It frightens her, like a despatch from a haunting parallel layer of existence which is always present but only manifests itself at specific times, an uncanny reminder of matter within and beyond self.
Lila lost Lila, chaos seemed the only truth, and she—so active, so courageous—erased herself and, terrified, became nothing.
Lila’s feeling of smarginatura is accompanied by ‘a nausea’. While reading the first description of smarginatura I heard echoes of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, the sudden perception of something material that breaks the edges of things and people and reveals itself, and of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos Letter depicting a crisis of language in which any coherence is disintegrated and the incompatibility of language and experience is revealed. Unlike Sartre’s philosophical nausea and Hofmannsthal’s crisis of language though, the sticky, jumbled, gluey reality experienced by Lila through smarginatura does not only echo in the mind, or in the text: it is in and of a body that is not at ease and that wishes to disappear, cut and erase itself.
On and off the page, smarginatura as dissolving body points at the disruptive effect of utterance and the implications of silence. As a teenager, Lila is fascinated by Samuel Beckett’s blind character Dan Rooney from All That Fall, who wonders if it would be better to also be deaf and mute—in Lila’s words, ‘so life would not be still more life, life without anything but life.’
All That Fall is a radio play, and the space of radio and of broadcast is that unique hybrid of uttermost privacy and broad public-ness, and radio does not represent bodies but disarticulates them and transforms them.
Disembodiment in radio is in fact an illusion, the bodies of radio are never entirely whole: smarginatura is not only a crisis of mind and language, but of body, life, presence, identity and voice.
Smarginatura, disarticulation, degeneration, mutation, disjointed signifier, broken circuit, noise, molecules, particles of radio play, small decomposed particles of language. Not meaningless but an excess of meaning.
She had often had the sensation of moving for a few fractions of a second into a person or a thing or a number or a syllable, violating its edges.
I am tempted to read the disappearance/silence in Lila’s smarginatura not only as a symptom of crisis, but as a way of stating that (her, not all her) female creativity does not necessarily have to be articulated through a body-as-evidence; and that what is left invisible, what is untold, can actually be present and significant without the need for biographical traces.
Smarginatura is translated in English by Ann Goldstein as ‘dissolving boundaries’. A string of words qualifies the term further in the Italian version of Ferrante’s book, although it does not appear in the English translation: Lila adopted the term smarginatura, Lenù writes, ‘forzando il significato comune della parola’, ‘stretching the common meaning of the word’. Such stretching, absent from the English, leads my thinking in and out of these pages in search of more stretching in and out of sense, leading me through senses into and out of languages.
The s- prefix in Italian subtracts from or slips off the margin of the meaning of a word. It’s a sibilant un-. It silently sounds the space of the reader in the condition of margin: sidelined. Sidelined is also the title of Elfriede Jelinek’s 2004 Nobel Prize speech that stretched the common meaning of the official public address into a compelling sequence of strong and ungraspable images, flashes of lucidity on and off writing, self, language. ‘My language calls over to me, over on the sidelines.’
I want to hold on to the necessity of being on the sidelines—for life and for language. In her speech, recorded on video and presented in absentia, Jelinek appears constantly on the edge of turning into a syllable, a particle of speech, as she voices a forty-minute long utterance that begins and rebegins, coils unto itself again and again and goes nowhere other than the sideline, always on the sideline. Its point is the un-point, the field with no boundaries, the statement of incoherence and its destabilising potency, the presence of speech rather than linearity, and presence through speech. Jelinek, who often writes for theatre and radio, is well aware of the fluid quality of the spoken word and of the necessity to reinstate its doing and undoing of meaning in a field of elements far beyond the demands of direct understanding; she voices instead ‘what always had to remain unclear and groundless… groundless but not without ground’. In this string of words that are at once all-too-quotable and impossible to underline because they are meant to be acquired through listening, language calls over to me, over on the sidelines, away from the pull of coherence, away from the violence of linguistic perfection, from the hegemony of writing ‘correctly’ in a language which is mine and not mine, me and not me, her not all her.
In Italian the common meaning of the word smarginatura, before it’s stretched by Lila, is ‘the cutting of the margins of a page before print’. Smarginatura also means ‘the bleed’: the area of a page beyond the printable area. Smarginatura: what is not kept or apparent in a text, and yet is there, around it, haunts it. That a term can hold so much across translation is incredible: that a term so strictly connected to page layout and printing also contains a bleeding, even more so. Then I’m not surprised that Lila-Lenù-Ferrante adopted this word: stepping in and out of the materiality of the page and its bleeding boundaries, never quite entirely in it, never quite entirely out of it.
The story of Lenù and Lila is held together by a telling, a ‘storying of us’, that stitches together margins and bleedings: we are never too far from an agonising body and a less-than-perfect text. From Lila and Lenù’s co-authored childhood tale La fata blu (The Blue Fairy) to Lenù’s awareness of Lila as editor, when the new version of something she’d written read as if ‘I had escaped from myself and now was running a hundred paces ahead with an energy and also a harmony that the person left behind didn’t know she had’, to the various episodes when Lenù painfully becomes certain that her writing voice wouldn’t be there without Lila’s, that her words would have very little currency if not sifted through Lila’s observations, smarginatura as bleeding-into-editing and edit-as-bleed is an undercurrent throughout the book, that resurfaces from time to time in the story and that shapes it from within even when it’s not manifested.
In the Prologue to My Brilliant Friend, aptly entitled To Erase All Traces, we become aware of Lila’s pervading presence through absence: she has cut herself out from all the pictures that her son had found after her vanishing. Erasure allows a stronger presence through the speech of an other.
At one key point of their story, Lila cuts herself out of the image in the poster for her husband’s and brother’s shoe shop. She does so in a frenzy, driven by a compelling urge to erase herself. Marcello addresses the outcome of the gesture with a word that is not quite correct in Italian, used by people who do not have a proper grasp of the language: ‘Ti sei scancellata per far vedere meglio la coscia e la scarpa’. ‘You have erased yourself deliberately… to show the thigh, to show how well a woman’s thigh goes with those shoes.’ The awkward-sound of the Italian ‘scancellata’ does not appear in the English translation. I remember teachers at school and parents would shame us as children if we used the verb ‘scancellare’. It’s not right. The correct Italian version is ‘cancellare’: just as in ‘smarginatura’, the ‘s’ plays a destabilising trick. In Marcello’s not too correct use of the word, the erasure is seen as coarsely and immediately connected to sexual instinct and to the logic of sales. Lila experiences it otherwise. As she erases herself out of the picture, the gesture becomes ‘an opportunity that allowed her to portray the fury she directed against herself, the insurgence, perhaps for the first time in her life, of the need … to erase herself’ as she precipitates and dissolves into the new surname, Cerullo in Carracci. A marking of un-identity.
Hélène Cixous writes in Coming to Writing: ‘I believed as one should in the principle of identity, of noncontradiction, of unity. For years I aspired to this divine homogeneity. I was there with my big pair of scissors, and as soon as I saw myself overlapping, snip, I cut, I adjusted, I reduced everything to a personage known as “a proper woman”.’ As she cuts herself off the picture, Lila does not want to become proper: she wants to be other, dissolve.
The day will come when I reduce myself to diagrams, I’ll become a perforated tape and you won’t find me anymore.
Later on Lenù writes an imaginary remark directed to her by Lila:
One does not tell the story of an erasure.
The story of Lila and Lenù is held together by this double thread of editing and erasing, of saying and unsaying, disappearing and committing. Lila is Lenù’s exceeding other:
Maybe I should erase Lila from myself like a drawing from the blackboard.
And her life continuously appears in mine, in the words that I’ve uttered, in which there’s often an echo of hers, in a particular gesture that is an adaptation of a gesture of hers, in my less which is such because of her more, in my more which is the yielding to the force of her less. Not to mention what she never said but let me guess, what I didn’t know and read later in her notebooks. Thus the story of the facts has to reckon with filters, deferments, partial truths, half lies: from it comes an arduous measurement of time passed that is based completely on the unreliable measuring device of words.
The untold, the magnetic field between the more and the less, the more of fiction and the less of forgetfulness, the less of absence and the more of fabulation, not one without the other ever: so much in this story is reported, alluded to but not directly there—phone calls, letters that we never read, diaries thrown in the river, conversations between Lenù and Lila that we never get to hear, facts kept secret or only half-told to each other. Lenù mentions ‘the unreliable measuring device of words’: she wouldn’t write, would never have written, if she hadn’t talked with Lila. No book and its edited bled pages can exist without the illicit and elusive traffics of speech, in the uncertain meter of words; no writing without conversation, without the awareness of someone who hears. The inaudible is present. Unheard language shapes the story as much as what is reported. Lila and Lenù’s long conversations, in person or by phone, are never disclosed entirely yet they constitute the substance of their relationship on the page. A record is never such unless it’s placed in life, and through time eroded by time: it can be a guess, a fertile approximation that prompts more thinking. Nearly, but not quite entirely there.
‘Quasi’, ‘nearly’, is a recurring adverb in Lenù’s narration through her formative years. It speaks inadequacy, the story of an identity perceived through degrees of ‘nearly’: she is never worthy or deserving, she is constantly measuring her inadequacy, be it in matters of knowledge, status, appearance, sex. She is always nearly. Until Lila shows her that in pretending to know, in inhabiting that ‘nearly’, you can actually learn, and become. Jelinek talks at length about the potential of such inadequacy, the feeling out of place, the glance from the sidelines: ‘But the inadequacy that enters the writer’s field of vision, is still adequate enough for something. … The gaze is well aimed. …Whatever is struck by this gaze says… exactly what had been better left unsaid, what always had to remain unclear and groundless … It is groundless, but not without grounds… The sidelines are at the service of the life, that precisely does not take place there.’ Even when she moves back to her childhood neighbourhood, Lenù is nearly there. This painful yet fruitful inadequacy toward what is expected and prescribed and canonical and model and traditional, mirrors the shift from language to speech, from canon to utterance, away from any claims for permanence or fixity and always through the other.
‘But it’s good to talk to other people,’ I murmured.
‘Yes, but only if when you talk there’s someone who answers.’
This short exchange between Lenù and Lila could have been written to illustrate the Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero’s book Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood. She writes at length of the desire for a life-story as only possible through an other: identity is not selfhood, there is no inner but through and with someone else. The title of the book in Italian, Tu che mi guardi, tu che mi racconti could be literally and awkwardly translated as: ‘You who look at me, you who narrate me’. Tellingly, Smarginatura can also be articulated through Cavarero’s reading of selfhood and storytelling for which there is no subject unless it is told by, spoken, formed and deformed through the other: she maintains that the subject is never narrated, but narratable, that it is not established in language, but in flesh and blood, revealed through a story. I wonder then if smarginatura could also be this: the moment when we realise we are narratable before we even know the story, or the end of the story. In this constant return to the desire for narration through and by another, the contact between Ferrante and Cavarero is at its closest. ‘Between identity and narration there is a tenacious relation of desire’.
In Cavarero’s text a shift occurs from text to speech, from text to a desire to hear, from a writing to a telling. The Telling is the title of a text by Laura Riding, that appeared in different forms between 1967 and 1972 after she’d ‘renounced poetry’ for twenty-one years and had embarked in a unique investigation to forge another language. Again a storying (a telling) of us, again a doubt of origin, and the ambiguous use of the term ‘utter’, extreme, and sounding:
 Our truth cannot be all-told, from the beginning told, unless we tell it to one another. But the memory-adumbrations of our utter, total origin have grown dim, dimmer, as we have on and on unanxiously promised ourselves that someone or otherone will some time or other time teach us what it wholly was.
This moment is tenuous, and crucial. Reaching out to another is articulated through speech, through air, it needs to hang on to other voices. Then it is written. In the Preface for a Second Reading that follows The Telling, Riding refers to ‘word-use’ rather than to writing: a shift is perceived from text to utterance, utterance as becoming. I am tempted to think of smarginatura / excess of meaning no longer in the singular but in the space of a plural word-use, the space of edit-bleeding.
In Frantumaglia, Ferrante writes at length about the eponymous word as it was often used by her mother, who would say that ‘inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments’ when she was racked by contradictory sensations. ‘Sometimes it would make her dizzy, sometimes it would make her mouth taste like iron. It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause.’ Appropriating the term from her mother’s dialect (idiolect?), Ferrante explains how she later came to think of frantumaglia (and I’d say, let her bleed into smarginatura) as ‘an unstable landscape, an infinite aerial or aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self … the storehouse of time without the orderliness of a history, a story. The frantumaglia is an effect of the sense of loss, when we’re sure that everything that seems to us stable, lasting, an anchor for our life, will soon join that landscape of debris that we seem to see. … A hum growing louder and a vortex-like fracturing of material living and dead.’ Frantumaglia is also the word that defines what Ferrante felt as a child, ‘shortly before language entered me and instilled speech: a bright-coloured explosion of sounds, thousands and thousands of butterflies with sonorous wings.’
And sometimes there is nothing to tell, nothing to write. These can be moments of breakthrough. At one very complicated time in her life, under pressure from her publisher to finally send the novel she maintained she’d been working on for years although she hadn’t, Lenù realises there is no novel. In a decision that takes less than a day to make, she sends an old manuscript that she’d not submitted many years earlier, following the advice of her mother-in-law and of Lila. The same manuscript, as it was, unchanged. The publisher loves it. The manuscript that had not been deemed valid years before, becomes something else, through time. The manuscript has not changed, the world around has, Lenù has, we have.
Riding’s unapologetic voice seems to capture the essence of the endless conversation, at times all-absorbing, compelling, draining, present, at times longed for, silent, subdued, reluctant, between Lenù and Lila:
 There is something to be told about us for the telling of which we all wait. In our unwilling ignorance we hurry to listen to stories of old human life, new human life, fancied human life, avid of something to while away the time of unanswered curiosity. We know we are explainable, and not explained. Many of the lesser things concerning us have been told, but the greater things have not been told; and nothing can fill their place. Whatever we learn of what is not ourselves, but ours to know, being of our universal world, will likewise leave the emptiness an emptiness. Until the missing story of ourselves is told, nothing besides told can suffice us: we shall go on quietly craving it.
Riding says that in writing The Telling she has not actually written: she has spoken to the page.
Jelinek: ‘This language must have forgotten its beginnings, I’ve got no other explanation… But I remain. But what remains, the writers do not make. What remains is gone… What should remain, is always gone. It is at any rate not there. So what is left to one.’
So what is left? As children, Lila and Lenù wonder about ‘the before.’ Initially it’s a site of attraction and mystery: to think that people in the neighbourhood older than themselves, actually lived and were there before they were born. Lila’s initial dream is to get over with it and start anew, in a way, to erase it and all the contradictions and pains and violence it brings. The relationship with the past changes throughout the story, as they find themselves unable to ‘escape the Before’. Toward the end, Lenù realises that ‘the memory was already literature.’
What literature though, and how do life and a memory of the past bleed into it, and how are they written? In How I Became a Philosopher, Bernard Stiegler writes of the past, not as origin, but as an array of residues and remains whose necessary truth (‘the truth of reminiscence’) can only be produced through the reiteration of ‘signifying practices’: sustained gestures of engagement that allow us to become us, yet always incomplete, our end ceaselessly fictioned. Lila’s memory as literature is an editing process, and it takes form before writing: signifying practices of reading and choosing to utter take shape before words are written. And the writing needs to reflect disorder, ‘to imitate the disjointed, unaesthetic, illogical, shapeless banality of things.’ Again Jelinek: ‘The writing, that deals with what happens, runs through one’s fingers like the time, and not only the time during which it was written, during which life stopped.’ To utter is to edit.
There is nothing absolute in this world, not even in the deepest depths of our biology… We are tornadoes that pick up fragments with the most varied historical and biological origins. This makes of us—thankfully—fickle agglomerations that maintain a fragile equilibrium, that are inconsistent and complex, that can’t be reduced to any fixed framework that does not inevitably leave out a great deal. Which is why the more effective stories resemble ramparts from which one can gaze out at everything that has been excluded.
On 23 November 1980 Lila and Lenù experience the earthquake together. The inner catastrophe of smarginatura is heightened by the catastrophe that occurs outside, and for some time it feels like the end of the world. ‘She emitted a sort of death rattle, eyes wide, she clutched herself, held tight… she uttered sentences without sense and yet she uttered them with conviction, tugging on me.’ ‘…she began to utter a profusion of overexcited sentences, sometimes kneading in the vocabulary of the dialect, sometimes drawing on the vast reading she had done as a girl.’
As I read of Lila and Lenù’s experience of the earthquake I am affected, exhilarated, disturbed, drawn to write: to speak to the page.
As I read this I find myself smarginata. Boundarieddissolvedself. Bledfromlanguage into writing.
Smarginata in the Italian female ending of the word: a, indeterminate article in English.
Smarginata away from the privileged places where the discourses of wisdom are held.
Smarginata in the nocturnal fringe and in the untidy residues left out of play by the analytic advance of intelligence.
Smarginata in shadowy depths of matter and other.
Smarginata, not a ‘writer in translation’ but trance-lating language across language, unstable and always stranger in this language mine not all mine, hers not all hers.
Ah what is the real world, Lenù, nothing, nothing, nothing about which one could say conclusively: it’s like that.
* All titles published by Edizioni e/o, Roma and Europa Editions, New York (translated by Ann Goldstein)
** During our residency at Lydgalleriet, Natasha pointed at Stiegler’s text and Jelinek’s speech, both central in this discussion.