The unmasking of the true identity of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has caused a massive outcry among her fans. One of them, Lucy Alexander, asks why they are so upset.
The hugely popular author Elena Ferrante was “outed” on Sunday in the New York Review of Books by an investigative journalist claiming her real name is Anita Raja.
A backlash against Claudio Gatti’s scoop is now gathering force as thousands of critics, fans and fellow writers take to the internet to defend an author’s right to anonymity.
“He thinks he has put us out of our misery, but no-one really wanted to know the identity of Elena Ferrante,” writes Frances Wilson in the Times Literary Supplement. “It was a puzzle we enjoyed, and now Gatti has waded in and spoiled the game.”
Anonymity gave Ferrante’s readers a hard-to-define pleasure – it left them with a precious space in which to fantasise about her. Even the London editor of her own publisher, Europa, had mixed feelings about wanting to find out her real name: “I want to know who Ferrante is, but I also don’t want to know,” Daniela Petracco once said.
“Ferrante fever” reached its height last year when the author’s Neapolitan quartet became a bestseller. The first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, tells the story of lifelong friendship between two women from a poor neighbourhood of Naples. It was a literary phenomenon and Ferrante’s books have been sold in more than 40 countries, with sales of one million books in Italy and 2.6 million in English alone.
But she was very private and guarded her anonymity closely.
In the past she has written that what began out of reticence evolved into a point of principle and then became essential. “Anonymity lets me concentrate exclusively on writing,” she told The Guardian earlier this year.
“I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful,” she said to Vanity Fair.
Her success, inevitably, brought intense speculation about her true identity.
One story – the one that had previously caused most outrage among Ferrante’s vociferous fans – was that the author must be a man, with the subtext that no woman could have written such books. Ferrante’s supporters leapt to her defence. Only a woman, they felt, could write about a female friendship with such force, and to suggest otherwise was patronising and misogynistic. In their thousands, fans and critics supported Ferrante’s right to remain anonymous and continue to give herself to the world through her books. Her words were enough for her readers.
Gatti’s expose has stopped all the speculation, but at a cost. It seems the move may silence Ferrante – according to past reports, she has implied that she would continue to write but would never publish again if she couldn’t maintain her anonymity.
So why did Gatti do it? His says Ferrante lied in her journalistic writing in the Frantumaglia – a book of essays first published in Italy in 2003, which will be released in English with new material next month. Ferrante put it together it after her Italian co-publisher, Sandra Ozzola, suggested she provide her readers with a few autobiographical details in the form of non-fiction articles.
Gatti takes issue with Ferrante writing that her mother is a seamstress, that she has three sisters and grew up in Naples. He accuses her of inventing a back story to provide, “crumbs of information seemed designed to satisfy her readers’ appetite for a personal story that might relate to the Neapolitan setting of the novels themselves.”
He told the BBC’s Today programme, “She lied about her personal life. I don’t like lies, and I decided to expose them.”
Ferrante’s attitude toward lying also angered him – she has previously quoted Italo Calvino, the most translated Italian writer before herself, who once said to an interviewer: “Ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth, of that you can be sure.”
Gatti says that, after months of investigation, he is certain that Elena Ferrante is a woman called Anita Raja, who lives in Rome and has worked for Europa Editions as a German translator.
Raja is married to one of Italy’s best known authors, Domenico Starnone – when people were speculating that Ferrante was really a man, Starnone was the top suspect.
It is, as has been widely pointed out, ironic that a man has outed Ferrante. There is something misogynistic about Gatti’s behaviour, say his critics. “Gatti tears off Ferrante’s clothes, removes her cloak of invisibility in something approaching a sexual act. Perhaps it was titillating for him,” says retired psychoanalyst, Fiona Sinclair. She asks whether an Enrico or Emilio Ferrante would have been pursued in the same way – would Gatti have been driven to rip the veil off an anonymous male author?
Whatever his motivation, Gatti has almost definitely caused Ferrante, who has written so much about violent relationships and the many ways in which men humiliate women, considerable pain. The protagonists of the Neapolitan quartet, Elena and Lila, are in a constant power struggle – intellectual, business and sexual – with men. Ferrante has called this the “arduous and almost always unhappy adjustment to men”.
In the Guardian Suzanne Moore writes: “This literary doxxing by this self-appointed arbiter of ‘truth’ is a nasty violation.” Moore was one of the first to speak of a violation, a response that has been widespread on the internet.
Her anonymity was generous, allowing her readers the freedom to imagine her as both the protagonist and the authorFiona Sinclair, psychoanalyst
“It’s appalling. It’s shocking. His attitude is so aggressive. It’s as if he feels justified in shaming her,” says Olivia Santovetti, lecturer in Italian at Leeds University, who is chairing a discussion on Ferrante fever at next week’s Ilkley Literature Festival. “What is he accusing her of? What is he making her pay for? What has he achieved by shaming her in this way?”
The outrage at Ferrante’s exposure reveals how much readers gained from her secrecy. “Ferrante’s anonymity was akin to the analyst’s blank screen,” says Fiona Sinclair, referring to Freud’s belief that by placing himself behind the couch, out of sight, his patients were able to think freely on a blank screen or tabula rasa.
“We all have a tabula rasa when we read a book, a private world that we create, and Ferrante doubled this effect with her anonymity,” she says.
“Ferrante, or Raja, gave us a fantasy world that was twice as powerful as the one that usually exists between the page and the reader. Her anonymity was generous, allowing her readers the freedom to imagine her as both the protagonist and the author.”
Just as the film of a favourite book can jar, because nothing is quite how you imagined it, Anita Raja may fear that her flesh and bones will inevitably disappoint her readers. She had left all to their imagination, clasping her cloak of invisibility around her. Gatti has ripped this off, and, in so doing, destroyed one of contemporary literature’s greatest fantasies.