Elena Ferrante, the author of the most dazzling and compulsively unblinkered literary oeuvre of our times had zealously guarded her anonymity. But Claudio Gatti’s revelation that she might be Anita Raja, a translator of German Jewish origin, has provoked outrage on behalf of both author and reader. Revealing Ferrante’s identity seems a violation of her rights. It violates her desire for privacy, to live a life unencumbered by the burdens of publicity, and to craft a relationship between the author and work that is marked by freedom, not the compulsion of identity. The revelation seemed to violate our rights as readers. It was refreshing not to have a celebrity author overshadow the writing. More extravagantly, those who wonder about such questions as what kind of a persona can produce such exactly thought-through literature could claim their own freedom, at least to speculate. But the author’s identity did not matter. This was the closest we could come to literature in itself, a literature that could not be reduced to personality, location or social circumstance. By depriving us of material for reductive explanations, Ferrante let the novel and its characters just be.
The immediate fear Gatti provoked was this. Ferrante had warned that she would cease to write if her identity was revealed. We hope this threat does not come to pass. It is unlikely that revelations about her identity will change the reading of her novels, any more than the consciousness that George Eliot was really Mary Ann Evans, changes the protean power of Middlemarch. It might provide some fodder for tedious literary criticism or social history. But it will scarcely change the way we meet her richly imagined world and characters.
Adam Kirsch, in The New York Times, made the argument that the revelation that Ferrante was not of Italian origin might restore the claims of literature. As he wrote, “In telling the story of poor Neapolitan girls like Lina and Elena, Ms Raja was claiming the right to imagine the lives of people quite unlike herself. In doing so she was able to write books in which millions of people found themselves reflected.” In short, the revelation reinforced the claims of great literature as embodying this elementary truth. This has of late been rather obscured by a reductive instrumentalism about literature, and a particularly obtuse refusal to give the imagination, in the best sense of the term, its due.
Ferrante’s novels, like all great literature, will exceed any attempt to contain them in any reductive frame, or use them for this or that literary theory or purpose. These are, to use the term, great feminist novels that constantly run up against the mutual implication of desire and power. But their power comes from the expansiveness of their moral psychology. Like all works that venture into that mercurial realm of moral psychology, her books will not resolve or console. But they will force an acknowledgment of that which you did not think existed in you. Sentence after sentence is sculpted to capture that rarest of things: What it might mean to lead a life from the inside. Each emotion, including the darkest, is captured precisely. There is vividness with which she makes us feel other people, even people whose dilemmas we cannot share, whose circumstances we cannot experience, let alone people we could not possibly imagine becoming. She understands that the greatest civil wars are within the soul, caught between competing impulses, rational control and unacknowledged motives, desire and freedom, meaning and elusiveness. There is no danger this will be obscured.
Therefore, the outrage Gatti provoked has less to do with literature. It has more to do with its revelations about our world. Gatti’s tone was mean and petty. There was great condescension in the suggestion that Ferrante’s husband might have shaped the work. He argued she was a public person and hence forfeited her rights. This claim is importantly false: She is not a public person in the way a politician is. Besides who had anointed Gatti the arbiter of public interest?
But more importantly, the impossibility of protecting Ferrante points to the fact that we no longer have important freedoms. There is something suffocating about our world; to appropriate Ferrante’s phrase “it tightens around our neck like a noose”. The revelation was a matter of time. We would like to control the narrative about ourselves, or not want a narrative at all. But this desire will become hostage to someone else, accessing some fact. Even the most ardent attempts to obscure identity fall prey to the material traces we leave.
Gatti implied that Ferrante invited outing because she said she would not reveal the truth about herself. Only the most obtuse moralist would use this argument. But his unmasking revealed the dangers associated with the will to render everything transparent. What happened to the protective “lies” that are necessary to protect feelings in benign acts of love? Where is the bright line between the curiosity that is natural to us, and the imperialising will to power, that is now manifest in the entitlement that everything about everyone’s life is fair game for exposure?
We thought Ferrante’s anonymity was an artistic choice. Gatti implied it was nothing of the sort. It was a cynical marketing ploy. This charge is irrefutable. We don’t know the “real” motives. But we live in an age that confuses character with celebrity, success with commodification. In this world it is hard to even imagine that someone might value the freedom that privacy brings, someone might want to sincerely escape the trappings of being recognised. Authors have often disguised their persona. In some cultures claiming artistic creation was usurping God’s power; some have done it to avoid disadvantages of social location; others like Pessoa, ceased believing in a stable self. But the idea that publicity might be seen as a loss of freedom has become alien to us.
Ferrante’s powerfully torn characters are haunted by two anxieties: The fear of being used, and ways in which longing for freedom ends up in unexpected forms of bondage.
There is no escaping this. Only Lila, a character with an effortless obscure force, seems to realise that being written about is a loss of freedom. She warns her friend not to write about her. And she also seems to realise that appearances of freedom are often illusory. It is at best accessed fleetingly, often through sheer whimsicality. Even that may not be possible. In a cynical, commodified, prurient world, we shall always remain hostage to the will of others, the facts they chose to reveal.