One of the literary world’s biggest mysteries has been solved. That’s not necessarily a good thing.
On Sunday, Claudio Gatti published an article on the New York Review of Books’ website alleging that he had determined the identity behind the notoriously private Italian author who writes under the pen name Elena Ferrante. (Gatti also published versions of the same article on French, Italian, and German websites.) Ferrante, he alleged, is in truth Anita Raja, an obscure translator who specializes in translating East Germany’s women writers into Italian.
Uproar ensued immediately, and it was, in the English-speaking world at least, largely negative.
The New Inquiry called the article "a violation, and a desecration." The New Republic called it "perverse." Jezebel called it "grandiose and cruel," asking, "What the hell, guys?" And the Times Literary Supplement concluded, brutally, that Gatti’s piece was "not an important work of journalism: intellectually, ethically or artistically."
So why the outrage? What is it about Ferrante that compelled Gatti to launch a "months-long" investigation into her identity? And why has the unmasking caused such furor from the rest of the literary world?
Ferrante’s anonymity is a basic part of her artistic project
Ferrante has been publishing since 1992, when her novel Troubling Love came out in Italy. But in the US, she became famous with the English translation of her Neapolitan Novels, the first of which, My Brilliant Friend, came out in the US in 2012.
The Neapolitan Novels concern two women living in Naples. The narrator, like the author, is named Elena. She’s called Lenù, and the story she tells is the story of her best friend Lila, the surrogate sister/mother that Lenù alternately cherishes, envies, and despises.
The books were a smash success, picking up glowing reviews from the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, and even Rory Gilmore. Ferrante herself, meanwhile, remained a mystery. She chose the pen name Elena Ferrante when she published her first book, and ever since then her identity has remained unknown.
Initially, she told the Paris Review, she chose to use a pen name purely because she was nervous. "I was frightened at the thought of having to come out of my shell," she said. Later, she came to resent the publishing industry’s insistence on valuing authors who have "platforms" — giving actors, athletes, and celebrities book deals purely because of their fame — and the way publishing works with the media to create a persona for any author who doesn’t arrive to the industry with one ready-made: hence publisher-mandated Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, author blogs, and debut novelist profiles.
"It’s not the book that counts but the aura of its author," Ferrante said. "The media simply can’t discuss a work of literature without pointing to some writer-hero."
Over time, Ferrante’s insistence on anonymity developed away from sheer crankiness with the state of modern publishing and became a vital part of her artistic statement. "Removing the author — as understood by the media — from the result of his writing creates a space that wasn’t there before," she explained:
I’ll try to state it from the reader’s point of view, which was summarized well by Meghan O’Rourke in the Guardian. O’Rourke wrote that the reader’s relationship to a writer who chooses to separate herself, radically, from her own book "is like that which we have with a fictional character. We think we know her, but what we know are her sentences, the patterns of her mind, the path of her imagination." … It has become natural to think of the author as a particular individual who exists, inevitably, outside the text—so that if we want to know more about what we’re reading we should address that individual, or find out everything about his more or less banal life. Remove that individual from the public eye and, as O’Rourke says, we discover that the text contains more than we imagine. It has taken possession of the person who writes. If we want to find that person, she’s right there, revealing a self that even she may not truly know. When one offers oneself to the public purely and simply through an act of writing—which is all that really counts—this anonymity turns into part of the story or the verse, part of the fiction.
In other words, by writing behind a pen name, the author of the Neapolitan Novels has created another character, one that she calls Elena Ferrante. And Ferrante, in all her mystery and anonymity, is as vital a part of the work as the other Elena, the Lenù of the books. When we know nothing about who Ferrante really is, we realize that all we need to know about her is contained within her books, and then the books develop another, richer layer of meaning.
But for that meaning to exist — to preserve this veiled aesthetic effect that is fundamental to the pleasure of reading Ferrante, and to the experience Ferrante has designed — we have to maintain our ignorance. Ferrante must remain a mystery.
And now she isn’t anymore.
Claudio Gatti makes a convincing argument that he has discovered Ferrante’s true identity
To undo the mystery of Ferrante, Gatti spent months obtaining and sorting through accounting statements from her Italian publisher, Edizione E/O. With his findings, he establishes that the publisher is paying Anita Raja, who works as a freelance translator for them, far more money than could possibly be justified by her translations. She has also, he demonstrates, purchased more extensive and expensive real estate than could be supported on a normal translator’s salary (translating being a notoriously low-paid profession).
Additionally, the dates for Raja’s payouts line up with the publication of Ferrante’s novels, and her interests as a translator match Ferrante’s interests and influences as a writer. All told, Gatti makes an extremely credible case for the claim that Raja is indeed Ferrante.
So now the question becomes: What do we gain from learning that the person behind Elena Ferrante is an Italian woman you have probably never heard of? And is what we gain worth the destruction of the deliberate aesthetic construction Ferrante developed by hiding her identity?
Do we gain anything valuable from learning Ferrante’s identity?
Gatti argues that Ferrante and her publisher have, by hiding her identity so elaborately, really been asking for someone to come along and unmask her. He writes:
But by announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown. Indeed, she and her publisher seemed to have fed public interest in her true identity.
This is a slippery little piece of rhetoric, one that tries to obscure both its illogic and its sense of entitlement. It depends on the assumption that Gatti has the authority to determine Ferrante’s right to anonymity, that it is his right to decide her rights. It depends upon the usefully fuzzy phrase "in a way" to hand-wave the causality between "by announcing that she would lie on occasion" and "Ferrante has relinquished her right to disappear behind her books." How does the one lead to the other? You know: in a way.
It takes a rather wild leap to get from the fact that Ferrante and her publisher have both put in a great deal of work to keep her anonymous to the supposition that because of this work, the public is clamoring to know who Ferrante really is. If anything, the shock and outrage with which the public has greeted Gatti’s revelations suggests that much of the public most emphatically did not want to know who Ferrante is.
Gatti further argues that his discoveries about Ferrante’s identity will "assist us in gaining insight into her novels." However, he fails to offer any insights that might back up that claim. The most he can offer is that Ferrante’s interest in "images of crisis" might be linked to the fact that Raja’s mother was a Holocaust survivor.
But this profound insight — that, like many human families, Raja’s has experienced violence and tragedy, and that this might have led to Ferrante’s concern with violence, one she shares with many authors — appears to be primarily an excuse for Gatti to describe in some detail all the ways that Raja’s various relatives died in the Holocaust. It’s a salacious and tasteless move that does not pay off.
In destroying the Elena Ferrante persona, Gatti has resurrected the idea of the Author-God
We don’t seem to have gained much by dismantling the Elena Ferrante persona — and we have certainly lost one of the elements that Ferrante considered fundamental to her work.
Of course, you might argue, there’s no reason we have to listen to the author when she tells us how to read her work. It’s 2016, after all, and Barthes and his "death of the author" theory have been on college syllabi for decades. The author is dead! Who cares what Ferrante wants? It’s up to us to read her books as we see fit.
But the Death of the Author theory is designed to dethrone the author and the facts of their life altogether; to help readers realize that knowing when and where an author was born doesn’t really lead us to a more productive reading of their book. What Barthes wanted was to reject the idea that we read a book in order to decode a single message from the figure he thought of as "the Author-God" — and the Author-God is the very figure that Ferrante wanted to obliterate at the beginning of her career, when she decided to write privately, under a pen name.
Gatti’s investigation has certainly killed off the mystery of Elena Ferrante, but it’s not in accordance with the idea of the death of the author. Instead, it enshrines the Author-God in primacy: Gatti’s need to understand Ferrante’s biography so that he can properly decode her message trumps everything else.
As literary criticism goes, Gatti’s move is not a radical one. It’s regressive.
Ferrante may never write again
Ferrante has reportedly said that she would stop writing if her true identity were ever to be unveiled.
It’s not hard to see why. Ferrante’s artistic project was fundamentally about the creation of Ferrante, about developing this authorial persona that can supersede and destroy the idea of the Author-God or the writer-hero, that can add an unmatched level of aesthetic richness and layers to her books.
In learning that Anita Raja is most likely the woman behind Ferrante, we have, most likely, rendered that project impossible to continue. We have killed Elena Ferrante.
And it’s not clear that we’ve gained anything worth having in her place.