The Question: How much must readers know about authors?
The unmasking of Elena Ferrante undermines the relationship of readers and writers
English-language editions of Elena Ferante’s “Neapolitan Novels”. Photograph: Chris Warde-Jones/The New York Times
What’s in a name? One of literature’s most famous questions took on a new resonance this week when one of the great modern literary mysteries took a new and surprising turn.
Elena Ferrante is the pseudonymous author of the hugely successful “Neapolitan Novels”, a quartet of books detailing a lifelong friendship between two Italian women from childhood to adulthood. The books evocatively recreate postwar Naples.
As Ferrante’s work has become ever more acclaimed, her true identity has become the pre-eminent literary puzzle of recent years, assuming the space once occupied by reclusive legends such as JD Salinger and Harper Lee.
But mysteries cannot go unsolved, it seems, and so Italian journalist Claudio Gatti took it upon himself to unmask Ferrante, ultimately suggesting that she is a Rome-based translator called Anita Raja. Gatti’s exposé was simultaneously published in the Italian, German and French press, as well as the New York Review of Books, demonstrating the scale of interest in the Ferrante mystery.
Rather than being acclaimed as masterpiece of sleuthing, there was a decidedly negative reaction to Gatti’s investigation. Most people felt that Ferrante’s multi-decade anonymity had been unnecessarily violated, and crucially without her consent.
Given that a recurring theme of the Neapolitan novels is the difficulty women face in maintaining control over their bodies and lives, and the ways in which men impose their authority over women, Gatti’s unmasking demands to be seen as a continuation of the author’s thematic concerns.
The author had previously explained at great length that her anonymity was a critical part of her artistic process. Ferrante, after all, is operating in a long tradition of female writers assuming pseudonyms. She was partially insulating herself from the cult of the “writer-hero”, as she described it, the tendency for publishers to promote an author at the expense of the text.
Ultimately, of course, even if we know an author’s real name, and details of her biography, we don’t actually know the author. At best, our “relationship” is with some crude bio of an author, rather than the writer herself.
Ferrante’s pseudonymous career has served only to highlight the artifice of that relationship. Now that she has been exposed, will readers approach her work differently?