Can a writer, practitioner of the most narcissistic of arts, develop a phobia of the pronoun I? It’s a strange coincidence that two collections should be released this fall by writers who make just that claim. It’s Hard to Talk About Yourself (University of Chicago), a transcript of two 1990 radio interviews with Natalia Ginzburg, reveals the Italian writer’s fear—at times, downright terror—of using the first person: a serious dilemma for a woman who felt equally unable to write in what she calls the “true” third person. She decided to stop writing novels for 10 years and instead wrote plays in which she could use I “in a way that was not autobiographical.” Later, she found a different solution in writing epistolary novels.
In The Afterlife (Counterpoint), a collection of Penelope Fitzgerald’s reviews and essays, readers discover that her early novels had strong autobiographical elements—At Freddie’s (1982) was inspired by her days as tutor to child actors—but it’s an impulse that gave way to “the temptation . . . to take what seems almost like a vacation in another country and above all in another time.” What followed was her historical fiction, most notably The Blue Flower (1995), in which the German Romantic poet Novalis falls in love with a 12-year-old. It’s to Fitzgerald’s credit that this story of the logic-defying force of love reads as if it had been written by a contemporary of Novalis—that is, she achieves the best in first-person erasure.