We May Know Who Ferrante Is, But Have We Learned Anything?

Elena Ferrante was a mystery that didn’t need to be solved

It’s been almost 50 years since Roland Barthes proclaimed the “The Death of the Author,” but readers have never stopped gawking at the corpse. If anything, readers demand ever more of authors today, expecting social media interactions and increasing access (even as author incomes have dwindled). In this environment, Elena Ferrante’s desire to remain anonymous feels almost radical. Even as she grew to international literary stardom, Ferrante refused to provide the reader with anything more — beyond an interview here or there — than the text. The words are all you need.

But readers rarely care about the wishes of authors much less dead French literary critics, so, along with magazines, they have been speculating about Ferrante’s true identity for years. Over the weekend, an article by Claudio Gatti in the New York Review of Books (and other newspapers around the globe) announced the most plausible case yet: Anita Raja, a translator who has worked for Ferrante’s Italian publisher Edizioni E/O and whose earnings and real estate holdings have skyrocketed alongside Ferrante’s international sales.

The reaction in the literary world — at least here in the US — was near universal condemnation. In the New Republic, Malcolm Harris questioned the journalistic value of the outing: “To report on a private person without invitation isn’t just unseemly, it’s poor journalism.” At Lit Hub, David L. Ulin wished we would just “leave Elena Ferrante alone”: “She’s not a superhero — or, for that matter, the presidential nominee of a major party who refuses to release his tax returns.” In the New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz looked at the gender politics of a male journalist defying a female author’s wishes:

Certainly Gatti does not explain why he feels so free to interpret Ferrante’s “no” as his “yes.” But he has hit on something crucial to the whole debate: the question of an author’s right not to be known, and the particular resonance of that question when the author concerned is, presumably, female.

In less measured tones, my own social media feeds were filled with adjectives like “disgusting” “reprehensible” and “unethical,” and threats to never read New York Review of Books again. I only saw a handful of people defend the article, most of them qualifying it by saying that while it is a little slimy it was inevitable: Ferrante and her publisher openly used the mystery of her identity to further sales, stirring interest in unmasking her.. For my own part, I wrote back in spring about how we should leave well enough alone with Ferrante: “If anonymity helps Ferrante create the books you love, maybe that’s reason enough to let her be.” Nevertheless, I am surprised at the overwhelming condemnation of the article. This is hardly the first time in literary history that a pen name has been unmasked, nor the first time that holes in an author’s non-fiction — Gatti’s article references the forthcoming translation of her autobiographical essays, interviews, and essays — have been exposed. Moreover, Anita Raja has long been a leading candidate for Ferrante’s real identity and Gatti’s piece is far from the first time an outlet has claimed it was her.

“If anonymity helps Ferrante create the books you love, maybe that’s reason enough to let her be.”

The articles I link above delve into the ethical questions with the outing better than I can. I encourage you to read them. What strikes me the most about the whole kerfuffle is the question of what readers hope to gain from knowing.

Does Knowing Let Us Know Anything?

Despite agreeing that Ferrante should have just been left alone, I have to admit I was at least heartened by the revelation (assuming Gatti is correct) that the Neapolitan Novels are — shock! — actually works of fiction and not memoir with a different label. Gatti notes that Raja is not the daughter of an Italian working class family who grew up in Naples, but rather the daughter of a German-born mother and Neapolitan magistrate who has lived in Rome since she was a toddler.

The particulars of Raja or Ferrante’s life don’t matter to me, but I’m just glad that this strikes a blow to the persistent believe that fiction — especially important literary fiction — is really non-fiction.

This principle has guided past literary detectives who tried to expose Ferrante. Earlier this year, many of the same venues now condemning Gatti’s article reported on the claims by an Italian professor that Ferrante was really a Neapolitan history professor named Marcella Marmo. His evidence? Pretty much just that Marmo and the fictional character Elena Greco the same very rough biographies.

In my essay earlier this year about the Marmo claim, I noted how odd it was for Americans in particular to care about the identity since the answer was certainly to be some Italian academic or writer that they’ve never heard of before. Ferrante was never going to secretly be Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. In short, the “gossip” factor of the revelation was inevitably going to pretty much nil for anyone not living in Italy (and probably for most living there too).

So what is gained from learning her “true” name is there isn’t even really any salacious value? What does knowing let us know? Well, the answer is, I think, that so many people still have a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that fiction is, well, fiction. They think that learning the author’s identify will help them understand the work. Certainly that is the literary scholars argument in favor of revealing her identify.

Non-writers would likely be surprised at how often people assume that a work of fiction — especially one that is realist in any way — is thinly veiled autobiography. This impulse isn’t limited to readers. I’ll give you two examples from my own modest career. Twice, I have had editors ask me if they could publish my short stories as memoir instead, assuming my stories were actually “true” (they weren’t at all). Another time, a professor of literature taught a critical essay I wrote about David Shields’s Reality Hunger — a literary manifesto arguing for blurring the lines between non-fiction and fiction — and had his or her students email me to ask me about my childhood and how that could explain why I disliked Shields’s arguments. (What my childhood could possibly have to do with a literary criticism book about the definitions of “fiction” and “non-fiction” is beyond me). Both of those instances are amusing, but far from unusual. Many authors I know have told me about readers or editors making the assumption their work was non-fiction, and, it is probably worth pointing out here, that this assumption is especially common for women writers. There is a sexist belief that men can write from their great imaginations while women must only write about their lives.

Even when we don’t assume fiction must secretly be, in some sense, non-fiction, people believe that understanding the details of the author’s life will allow them to decode their art. Sure, Kafka didn’t really turn into a bug himself, but surely his relationship with his father or his romantic failures or his Jewishness or this or that must explain the true meaning of art. I have no doubt that critical essays on Ferrante will in the future shift arguments, perhaps saying that it wasn’t her class consciousness that inspired Elena Greco’s life but Raja’s feelings of being an outsider as a German-Jew in Italy or some such. But as plausible as these interpretations might be, they will all be limited ways to read the books and will shrink instead of enlarge our understanding her work.

Sure, Kafka didn’t really turn into a bug himself, but surely his relationship with his father or his romantic failures or his Jewishness or this or that must explain the true meaning of The Metamorphosis.

What Barthes was getting at back in the 1960s is that what (should) matter is the work of art itself. The author’s biographical details don’t explain art, all they do in Barthes’s mind is “impose a limit on that text.” Yes, it’s much easier to teach a limited, biographical view of art, but that isn’t the best way to experience art. Great fiction has multiple meanings, it isn’t a puzzle box that you can unlock with some biographical key. Art is not a mystery to be solved. Art is supposed to open up the mysterious inside you.

“I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors,” Ferrante has said. The mystery of Ferrante’s identity also served to shield her books from those limiting impulses. It served to expand the books in her readers’ minds, to open them up to meaning. Even if it was inevitable that her secret would shattered at some point, it’s a shame to see it go.

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