In the early hours of Sunday, October 2nd 2016, The New York Review of Books published a piece by Italian journalist Claudio Gatti in which he revealed what he believes to be the true identity of the bestselling novelist Elena Ferrante (though it has yet to be confirmed by the author or her publisher).
His piece was also released simultaneously in Italian, French and German publications. This was to be the no holds barred “outing” of a writer who, for the past twenty years, has adamantly insisted that her privacy means everything to her and to her writing process.
As this news popped up all over the internet, it caught my attention because it caused a storm of reactions. While some were pleased with Gatti’s revelation that Elena Ferrante is, in fact, Anita Raja, a Naples-born, Rome-based translator and the wife of Italian novelist Domenico Starnone, others were outraged and appalled.
The strangest thing for me is that though she’s been published regularly since 1992 in Italian and since 2005 in English, Elena Ferrante’s work only came to my notice some time last year, when The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final novel of her brilliantly successful Neapolitan series, was finally published in English to strong reviews which I seemed to be stumbling onto every time I browsed literary sites.
In spite of this, I passed on reading her work. In part, it’s because I’m already so busy that I didn’t want to take on a series of four novels (I know myself: I’m sure that once I’ve read one, I’ll want to read all the others). But if I’m perfectly honest, my veto had as much to do with first impressions as any other reason.
I dislike the covers of the English language Europa editions. They put me off with their washed out, photonovel style that screams chick lit (a term and genre that make me uncomfortable) and suggest that these are novels written by a woman for women.
I was wrong of course.
I’ve come to realize just how impressive her body of work is and found some consolation after reading a prescient December 2014 piece in the New York Review of Books by Rachel Donadio, who writes:
“Like many, I came rather late to Ferrante. Reading her for the first time this year was revelatory.”
It turns out that interest in her was sufficient to warrant Claudio Gatti’s investment of months of his life in the analysis of the financial and accounting records of the author, her husband and her publisher.
Reading up on Ferrante’s work has helped me to better understand the possible repercussions of Gatti’s invasion of her privacy. Those of you who have read her will have a much keener understanding of the stakes, but I wonder if unmasking the author wasn’t more of an outright attack on a female writer than it was an ethical piece of journalism.
Describing the acute realism of The Story of the Lost Child and delving into its themes, Joan Acocella writes in The New Yorker that “[…] it is the exploration of the women’s mental underworld that makes the book so singular an achievement in feminist literature; indeed, in all literature.”
Ferrante’s very tight, very personal and intimate novels are ferocious examinations of the lives of women—in this case, Neapolitan—that are often so visceral and so honest that they surely come from a deep well within the author.
Joan Acocella writes that:
“All of Ferrante’s books lack humor. Nothing in them will ever make you laugh, except perhaps a dark, uncomfortable laughter. “Books don’t change your life,” Ferrante told the Financial Times in September. “At most, if they are good, they can hurt and bring confusion.” That is the cumulative effect of reading her work. These novels all head terrifyingly quickly to a very deep place.”
To which Rachel Donadio adds:
“In many ways, Ferrante’s pseudonym operates as a kind of witness protection program. Her books, especially the first three novels […] which are tighter and less plot-driven than the Naples trilogy, carry such an electric charge that even the slightest bit of detail about the author’s own experience might cause acute emotional pain to anyone involved. In the absence of information, the questions multiply in the mind.”
The controversy surrounding the unmasking of Elena Ferrante has triggered a debate about an author’s right to privacy—even complete anonymity—that extends into the blurred area where fiction meets non-fiction: that place of separation between the writer and his or her creation.
Most authors welcome media attention. Publishers like their authors to make the rounds giving readings in bookstores and granting interviews, as well as putting their photos on the jackets of their books; and social media act as accelerators of this process.
When she made the protection of her identity a sine qua non and refused to promote her books in any way that might reveal her to the world, Ferrante took an enormous risk, but it’s one that I think I understand.
In a passionate essay that appeared in The Guardian just days after the unmasking, Jeanette Winterson wrote:
“And I go on calling Elena Ferrante Elena Ferrante because that is who she wishes to be. She has been very clear about why she has chosen to be two people—one of whom can be known through her books, and one of whom cannot be known at all. Writing is an act of splitting—like mercury. Writers are multiple personalities. This is clear when we create other characters—it can be confusing when the character we create is ourselves.”
Even in the very modest and circumscribed public sphere within which my own writing exists, I’ve bumped up against this problem. There’s an internal tension between what I can reveal of myself in my writing and what I can create that extends far beyond me, and about what I’m willing to send out to the world and make known of my interior life. And I have none of the talent or the audacity of Ms Ferrante, who believed that her fiction required her remaining hidden in plain sight. Who are we to challenge this?
Near the end of her defense of the author, Jeanette Winterson writes that:
“By forcing us to concentrate on biography and bank accounts, on the writer and not the work, Gatti has invaded the space that belongs to the work. He has swivelled the lens so that we are looking at the writer through his eyes instead of looking at the work in its own right.”
Does knowing more about an artist’s personal life illuminate his or her work in a truly meaningful way?
And if so, then how much information is enough?
Do we have any right to demand this of artists?
I wonder if writers aren’t the most imperiled by this century of ravenous and pervasive media and celebrity culture. Writing is such a profoundly intimate medium of creative expression.
In her furious response to the Gatti piece she fired off on October 3rd (the first one I read), Alexandra Schwartz of the New Yorker writes:
“Like many—maybe most—enthusiastic Ferrante readers, I have no interest in knowing who the writer who publishes her novels under the name Elena Ferrante is. I don’t care. Actually, I do care: I care about not finding out.
[…] To fall in love with a book, in that way that I and so many others have fallen in love with Ferrante’s, is to feel a special kinship with its author, a profound sort of mutual receptivity and comprehension. The author knows nothing about you, and yet you feel that your most intimate self has been understood. The fact that Ferrante has chosen to be anonymous has become part of this contract, and has put readers and writer on a rare, equal plane. Ferrante doesn’t know the details of our lives, and doesn’t care to. We don’t know those of hers. We meet on an imaginative neutral ground, open to all.”
It would be cynical indeed to view Elena Ferrante’s desire for the privacy of anonymity as some sort of publicity ploy.
An uncomfortable period of waiting now lies ahead for the millions of readers who have loved and connected to her novels. Will the outing of the writer impact negatively on the writing? Time will tell.
NOTES TO READERS:
A) To know about Elena Ferrante’s choice of anonymity, in her own words, see this piece in The Guardian
B) Almost all of Ms Ferrante’s work is available at the Library. Here are her novels, in chronological order:
The Neapolitan novels series:
- My Brilliant Friend
- The Story of a New Name– Book 2
- Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay– Book 3
- The Story of the Lost Child– Book 4