It was too good to last. But surely the most tantalising literary mystery of our time should have been revealed in a better way? Not “outed” like a common municipal scam by going down the money trail. Italian journalist Claudio Gatti believes he did the right thing by identifying Rome-based literary translator Anita Raja as the writer Elena Ferrante, who has been almost universally acclaimed for her Neapolitan novels. She had, he believes, “relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown”.
Ferrante did no such thing. As the writer of novels that have sold in phenomenal numbers in Italy, and around the world, Ferrante’s success did not – as Gatti believes – set her up for an exposé. She was fair game for a bit of speculation — and there has been enough of that in the Italian press. (As Gatti wrote in his story published in the New York Review of Books, “a decade ago, a team of physicists and mathematicians at La Sapienza University in Rome analysed Ferrante’s books with special text analysis software”.) But she definitely wasn’t asking for invasion of her privacy.
It is obvious, especially to journalists, why Ferrante’s decision to withhold her identity from the world, to respond to our questions with a blank authorial photograph, would rankle. By mapping an author’s life, many of us believe in good faith, we are joining the dots between the text and the reader. We are curious about the intellectual and material life — as well as the mysterious process — that produces a work of fiction.
“Mysterious”, though, is the key word. Very little of the unexplained survives in the endlessly networked, social media-saturated times we live in. The marketing machine trots out authors at literary festivals and launches, so much so that the consumption of writing is now a public event. Except that it is not. Both writing and reading are acts of the solitary being. The writer and her empty, blank page. The reader and the characters taking shape in her mind. Ferrante’s act of disobedience harkens back to that essential truth: I am the sum of my sentences, and nothing more. As she said in an interview to her publishers, published in The Paris Review, “This demand for self-promotion diminishes the actual work of art, whatever that art may be, and it has become universal. The media simply can’t discuss a work of literature without pointing to some writer-hero.”
The pseudonym, of course, is an old literary device that has come in handy to many women, from Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell to Mary Ann Evans and Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. It was once a way to be considered for publication by a male-dominated publishing and reading world. It might have been, for Ferrante, a way to take her personal, private life out of the equation of her assessment.
What else is making news
The common sense rebuttal to Gatti’s journalism is, of course, to point out that it serves no public good, nor does it deepen the reader’s appreciation of Ferrante’s work. If anything, it casts a grubby light on an author, who has done nothing more criminal than to invent a name for herself.
But, more importantly, a pseudonym is a counter to the stolid, unimaginative view that refuses the existence of multiple lives and multiple realities. “Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence,” said Ferrante in the interview.
Ferrante not only created the world of the Neapolitan novels, but, through her name and identity, a mini-fiction for her readers as well. Yes, it was a fabrication, but as writer Nayomi Munaweera recently explained, “a novel is a pack of lies that tells the truth”. And a novelist walks that thin line between reality and make-believe every day. No thanks for pointing it out.