Why can’t we just leave Elena Ferrante alone?
The reclusive Italian author – Elena Ferrante is her mellifluous nom de plume – is one of the world’s most popular writers at the moment.
Last year you couldn’t move on public transport, in parks, at the beach, on social media, without spotting someone reading one of the novels that make up her Neapolitan quartet, following two best friends and the way their lives intermingle in mid-century Naples.
The Ferrante Fever was real: publishers scrambled to re-release her novellas, the Italian film adaptations of her earlier novels found themselves being streamed constantly online, every cool girl on Instagram was binge-reading and then recommending My Brilliant Friend and this November a collection of her non fiction – Frantumaglia (Text) – will be released. It includes correspondence with her editors, selected interviews, scant biographical detail and letters to and from fans.
The anonymity of Ferrante has always been an integral part of her allure. The writer was able to work on her stories without people constantly poking and prodding her about whether or not they were biographical (the eternal struggle of the female author). Readers were allowed to connect with the books separate from any authorial identity. It was all part of the “fun” of reading her.
This week, The New York Review Of Books has published an expose Ferrante’s identity after a “months long investigation”, combing through bank statements and real estate properties for clues to the author’s identity. They make a compelling case that Ferrante is a specific Italian woman, and present several facts they feel confirm their hypothesis. It’s a woman who works for Ferrante’s Italian publisher as a translator, and whose name is most frequently linked to Ferrante’s when speculating on her identity. But what Claudio Gatti, the journalist who worked on the reveal, did is to essentially stake out the real-life woman and rake through her private life in the pursuit of a story most people didn’t really care all that much about. According to Gatti, when you use anonymity as a publicity stunt, you deserve to be exposed.
“… Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown. Indeed, she and her publisher seemed to have fed public interest in her true identity.” - Claudio Gatti
What is going on with the world? First Kim Kardashian gets robbed and people blame it on the fact that she wears diamonds. Now Elena Ferrante, a woman just trying to write her books, is unmasked and her private life exposed online and in one of the literary industry’s most prestigious publications.
The Internet, homeground of her biggest fans, were not amused.
For those of you wondering if all this outrage is warranted, here’s the thing: Ferrante was always clear about why she wanted anonymity. Like many female writers before her, she wanted a void to open up between her dual identities as a woman and as a writer. She didn’t want her personal life to influence her work. She didn’t want to be asked ad nauseum about being a mother, wife, daughter, sister – the kinds of questions that female writers get asked all the time, and which suggest that “[the media’s] idea of a woman is mother, daughter, girlfriend, friend not writer, artist, public person.”
And can you blame her? Especially when the biggest revelation from Gatti’s investigative piece – other than the fact that her Roman apartment has seven rooms in it – were the biographical similarities between Ferrante and her real-life counterpart: that her daughter went to the same “elite” university in Pisa that Lenu attended, that she worked as the head of a prestigious library in Rome (and libraries are, after all, so important in My Brilliant Friend) and Nino, Lenu’s paramour, is also the nickname of her husband. Groundbreaking stuff.
It’s easy to say that we would subject all anonymous authors to the same kind of scrutiny. But in recent memory the greatest unmasking of an author other than Ferrante was also about a woman: the revelation that the critically well-received, yet under performing crime novelist Robert Galbraith was in fact the most famous author in the world… J.K Rowling.
And to what end? Now we can’t read about Cormoran Strike without noticing similarities to Harry Potter, without scouring the text for the etymological clues that reveal the ghost in the machine. Which was exactly why Rowling didn’t want her name on the damn thing in the first place.
We can speculate about why Elena Ferrante wanted her anonymity all day. I suspect it’s a combination of wanting to separate herself from her reputation as a successful translator in her own right, and the fact she is, actually, quite shy. “I was frightened at the thought of coming out of my shell,” she told the Paris Review in a recent interview.
But that’s not the point. The point is that nobody wanted to know who Elena Ferrante was anyway. Most of her readers were content to take the work on face value, and enjoy it for what it was: almost-perfect ruminations on female friendship.
“She’s not a member of the Camorra, or Berlusconi. She’s a writer and isn’t doing anyone any harm,” Sandra Ozzola Ferri, Ferrante’s publisher told the New York Times. “If someone wants to be left alone, leave her alone.”
Is that too much to ask?