The woman who wouldn’t tell her name

As privacy increases in value, creative people who prefer to fly under the radar could acquire a special cachet.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: October 14, 2016 4:51 pm
What's in a name? Books by Elena Ferrante. What’s in a name? Books by Elena Ferrante.

The new Chetan Bhagat novel is in our midst, and one hears that the pre-orders stressed bookstore databases beyond design specifications. Bhagat gets a bad rep for failing to produce literature, which is a bit unfair, because that is not his project. He is celebrated for the numbers, turning evolving demographics so efficiently into revenue that one wonders if he writes in Word or Excel.

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In the world of letters, numbers matter. The Italian journalist Claudio Gatti has caused the readership of the New York Review of Books to spike rather dramatically with an article in which he may have outed the reclusive person behind Elena Ferrante, probably the world’s most successful pseudonym. Successful not only in fiscal terms, but also the long span of time in which she has kept her identity secret — her first novel came out in 1992. Italians are quite a garrulous nation, and it is a feat to keep a secret for almost a quarter of a century, especially after the Neapolitan Quartet made Ferrante known to an international readership. In comparison, the cover of Robert Galbraith, which JK Rowling had assumed to write for the crime market, was blown almost immediately. And the British are notoriously tight-lipped.

Gatti identifies Ferrante with the German-born translator Anita Raja (no South Asian angle here, sadly), and he isn’t breaking any new ground there. Raja has been regarded as a leading suspect for years, with major Italian publications, including Corriere della Sera, speculating on her candidacy. There was no certainty because the line of enquiry focused on stylistics, the sort of thing which is used to date classical texts, and which generates controversies and scholarly acrimony which can last for decades.

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Gatti has taken a different tack, discarding textual analysis in favour of playing the numbers, rather like the taxman does. He has tried to join the dots between outflows from Raja’s publisher in Rome, Edizione e/o, to appreciation in Raja’s assets, as reflected in properties purchased by her family. The pattern which emerges looks fairly compelling. Pardon me for getting personal, but I am a literary translator myself, and my tribe simply does not make that kind of money. Not even in Euros.

However, it doesn’t really matter if Gatti is right or not, because the focus of the story has changed since the NYRB published his story. While Ferrante’s identity has always been an intriguing question for her readers, Gatti’s choice of weapons in unmasking her has invited only contempt. This is surprising, but, perhaps, not unexpected. Privacy is the new gold of our age and hackers, corporations, governments and some sections of the media are out to encash its value. They will earn only opprobrium for their efforts.

As critics of Gatti and his editors have said, authors have several valid reasons for lurking behind a pseudonym, and rooting them out is an invasion of privacy. Most commonly, they keep various threads of an author’s creative life apart. It is rather weird to think of the author of Murder on the Orient Express writing soppy romance, so Agatha Christie took on the name of Mary Westmacott to get the job done. Stephen King wrote under the name of Richard Bachman to save his brand from devaluation by a supply glut — he wrote too fast for the industry. Eric Blair took on the pseudonym of George Orwell to keep his creative and political personas apart. Pseudonymous Bosch, one supposes, did it for a lark. Joe Klein wrote Primary Colours, the runaway bestseller of 1992 about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign under the brilliantly candid name of Anonymous, to shield journalistic sources.

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Pseudonymity has numerous motives, the most noble of which is privacy. When writers are turning themselves into performing fleas on the festival circuit, there is a certain dignity in keeping out of the spotlight. Indeed, as privacy increases in value, creative people like Ferrante or Banksy who prefer to fly under the radar could acquire a special cachet. And privacy is already rare enough to be appreciating.

A few days ago, surfing one of those anonymous meme boards inspired by DoCoMo in Japan, a pseudonymous man was complaining (men seem to complain more than women online) about the pervasive surveillance in his society. He wrote that government agencies had the mandate to join the dots between threads of his financial activities, that everything he typed on a keyboard could be legally logged and that, when he went out of doors, he was trailed by the ghost of Kejriwal abroad, by CCTV cameras which captured his car licence plates. Immediately, another pseudonymous guy on the board piped up: “Cheers, mate, I’m in Britain, too!” It’s heartening to see that the world’s most snooped upon society can be cheerful about its predicament.