Her real name: on the unmasking of Elena Ferrante

The only thing you need to know about Elena Ferrante’s name is that it’s a homage to Elsa Morante, the author of La storia. This is the only literary kinship sought by Ferrante and it should suffice. But of course it never could. Not in a culture obsessed with celebrity, or rather with identity; a culture for which what matters are not the things you say or do but rather who you are.

It is not a great stretch to connect this obsession with the policing of national borders, which is the product of the same ideology, or to the entire apparatus of international surveillance. Even something as apparently innocent as our social networks would like you to use your ‘real name’, if only in order to correctly predict your future consumer decisions. However, when it’s a woman who makes such a decision, the challenge to the cultural order is that much more serious. For a woman who asserts the right to change her identity makes a play for greater autonomy, and female autonomy is always a threat.

There are so many ironies. The hunt for Elena Ferrante, which involved a journalist – Claudio Gatti – supported by four different international outlets, was conducted by ‘following the money’, that is to say tracking down the assets purchased by the suspect after the publication of Ferrante’s various novels, as well as the film adaptation of L’amore molesto. In the very same years, another Neapolitan author who achieved great international notoriety, Roberto Saviano, was using those same methods to track down the activities of the mafia, most famously in his ‘novel’ Gomorrah. As a result of this work, Saviano has had to go into hiding. His real face and name are known, his works have been translated into dozens of languages and adapted for both the small and the big screen, but he lives the life of a criminal.

Equally and painfully ironic is the justification given by editor Roberto Napoletano in publishing Gatti’s investigation for La Domenica, the weekly cultural supplement of the prestigious financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. (The translation is mine, the somewhat tortured syntax his.)

There is nothing quite like La Domenica – a cultural supplement in the heart of a financial newspaper – in the whole of Italian journalism, and it is not by chance that this investigation has been published here, in this home, where we combine economics with its rules and its culture, that is sustained by literary and scientific passions, the desire to dig, without ever being satisfied with superficial appearances. The decision to ‘follow the money’ is precisely the product of our history and knowledge.

He continues:

What struck me the most about Gatti’s work was his passion for the novels and how he delved into the story and its characters. Thus he discovered that Elena, also known as Lenù, the protagonist of the tetralogy of My Brilliant Friend, was the name of a beloved aunt of Ms Raja, while Nino, the name given to Lenù’s great love, is also how Domenico Starnone, the husband of the translator-author, is known to his family.

Bullshit. All of it. And not only because you could find a beloved aunt Elena in every second Italian family, nor because the thought of Ferrante naming Nino Sarratore after her own husband would strike anyone who has actually read the novels as an alarming choice. All of these pieces of evidence which we are supposed to believe were carefully and almost lovingly deduced from the novels are nothing but a post-facto attempt to aggrandise Mr Gatti’s work. The much more prosaic explanation is that he started his forensic investigation with the person who has been named most often over the years in literary circles as the ‘real Elena Ferrante’ (along with her husband, novelist Domenico Starnone – for the idea that a woman might have written such a successful series of novels sat awkwardly with many; and Gatti himself attributes in passing to Starnone a significant intellectual contribution to the cycle, for reasons that are best known to him).

What’s more, as Ferrante’s publisher pointed out in its response to Gatti’s story, over the last five years the weekly cultural supplement of Il Sole 24 Ore, in all its snowflake-like uniqueness, never bothered to review any of Ferrante’s novels, save for a recent short piece by venerable critic Goffredo Fofi. In other words, if this supposed veneration for Ferrante’s work actually existed, it was hidden rather well. This extends to the entire Italian literary establishment, whose reaction to the international success of the Neapolitan cycle has been tepid at best. We could blame this on the misogyny that Ferrante describes in her works, or point to something more nuanced and complex. I’ll merely note that sometimes the simplest explanations are the best.

I wrote earlier this year about Ferrante and her badly written men, in response to the charge by a Sydney Morning Herald reviewer that the male characters in her novels ‘are all needy losers whose recourse to action is either pleading, infidelity or violence’. I proposed that the lives of many women I have known in my own life and countless others would have been greatly improved if real Italian men with real names had behaved in more satisfyingly nuanced ways, making the work of authors like Ferrante (and Morante) truly seem like lazy social satires. Now, I find myself despairing at the plausibility of Claudio Gatti and Roberto Napoletano, and how well they could fit within Ferrante’s cycle, with their needy, greedy, narrow worldview, and their belief that they are naturally entitled to a woman’s life.

If it’s true that Elena Ferrante is who Napoletano and Gatti say she is – which it may be, in a sense that is all but meaningless to her readers – then it was never much of a secret. She would just be the person most people said she was from the beginning, and all we needed to do was respect her wish and never seek to find out for sure. This desire for definitive knowledge, too, is a form of violence that will be familiar to readers of Ferrante and to people who know women. It’s a final irony I wish we had been spared.


Image: ‘Puppet’ by Mario Mancuso / flickr

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Thank you, Giovanni. To her readers, Elena Ferrante is the author of the Neapolitan Quartet, and that’s that. As you say, the hunt for Ferrante’s “real” identity makes the men in her novels all the more believable.

  2. I think that treating the palaver surrounding the identity of Elena Ferrante as a ‘Women’s Issue’, as many are now doing, including here at Overland, is both naive and misguided, and here’s why.

    It’s all clever marketing. Nothing more. Wasn’t it always in the public domain that Elena Ferrante was a pseudonym, or reluctant to say who she was? Obviously the author and the publisher didn’t mind that being out there to sell more books by creating a little mystery around them. It creates an opportunity for gossip, for readers to imagine who the author might be and why he or she would want to hide their true identity. It’s all marketing to sell more books. The author and her publishers exploited the curiosity of readers, who have fallen naively. And there’s also the fact that the author has written in an ‘autobiographical’ first-person style, which only increases the likelihood of this exploitation.

    Of course, the author should be perfectly free to assume a pseudonym and hide his or her identity. But surely if you become that big, make that much money, people are going to want to know, especially when the success of the books is in part because of the author’s hidden identity. In fact, there would be the argument that a pseudonym and hiding one’s identity as a writer is only effective if you are successful and your books are a highly visible part of culture. If you’re a nobody whose book didn’t sell, no one is going to know who you are anyway.

    When the author of the Ferrante books was critical of the need to know who wrote them, criticising a culture in which, ‘it’s not the book that counts, it’s the aura of its author’ she wasn’t aware of the contradiction in her own thinking. By remaining anonymous and clearly stating the need for it throughout her career, she had in fact created an aura of the author and an increasing curiosity about who that author might be. Women writers who are lambasting the exposure on grounds that it’s a ‘violation’ reducing women writers to their personal lives, even to nothing more than their bodies, and so on, are being quite hypocritical. For they are often the same people who criticise male writers for being shits in their personal lives, while nonetheless writing great books, and who thereby refuse to engage with those books on the grounds that the author is a shit (he treated his wife badly, etc). That this has become a gender issue is deplorable, and is a distraction from the real issue: it was always a marketing stunt to earn a lot of money. All the talk of gender and ‘Women’s Issues’ surrounding Ferrante only defines her work more and more as ‘women’s writing’ , which can be read in terms of ‘Women’s Issues’. This, I think, is damaging.

    Now if the author happened to be revealed as a man he would be accused of many kinds of wrongdoing. Something like: ‘Here’s just another example of a Bad Man, this time exploiting and appropriating a woman’s name and experiences.’

    Lastly, in her article in The Age, Ann Deslandes says that, ‘In “exposing” Elena Ferrante, Claudio Gatti has denied a woman the right to disappear.’ But this is pure fantasy. There is no world without men. Perhaps there is between the covers of a book. That might be one space. But it is a fiction. A fantasy. It is not the real world. So why expect the real world to mimic fiction? We don’t always want fiction to reflect the real world (though many today are saying it should, in terms of diversity and countless ‘isms’.)

    If Ferrante’s books are at all remembered, it will be as a sociological phenomenon, as entrepreneurial. Which is actually endemic of what writing has become in our culture — mere commercial possibility.

  3. “It was always a marketing stunt to earn a lot of money.”

    Thank you for informing us of this fact. Ferrante has used the pseudonym since 1990, and nary a mention was made at the time of that first novel that the author was even using a pseudonym. But I guess she was just playing a really long game, knowing that 20 years later she would write a mega best seller.

    I’m glad you came along to finally clarify this.

    1. ‘nary a mention was made at the time of that first novel that the author was even using a pseudonym.’

      Point taken. I get it. But that’s because no one gave a shit who he or she was because the books were hardly a commercial enterprise.

      And if you go back and read what I said, rather than just reacting, you’ll find this: ‘there would be the argument that a pseudonym and hiding one’s identity as a writer is only effective if you are successful and your books are a highly visible part of culture. If you’re a nobody whose book didn’t sell, no one is going to know who you are anyway.’

      And to the other point made here (by Rhea), that ‘Is it just me or is “Cindy” a bit mansplainy?’ Which just proves my point of using a pseudonym. You couldn’t help yourself. I caught your curiosity. You speculate. You want to know more. And calling it ‘mansplainy’ is just a lazy dismissal. But it also points to the idea that you think you can deduce from the words I’ve written whether I am male or female. Your assumption is that I’m male. How interesting. Is there, then, a female kind of writing, Rhea?

      1. I am struggling to figure out whether you are deliberately missing the irony of your declaring that this is not about gender and then saying things like “there is no world without men”, or are genuinely oblivious.

        Regardless, your point that Ferrante’s pseudonimity is a craven commercial strategy is simply belied by the facts. She chose to hide her identity before she even started and in spite of the fact that it would likely hurt her sales because in the current environment authors – and especially beginning ones – need to go out there and promote their work. So even if there was some mystique attached to fact we don’t know who she is now, she made that decision at a time when it could only hurt her fledgling career.

        Beyond that, I doubt this mystery is helping her sales. The books sell well because they read well. I did an event with Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein, at the Auckland festival, and nobody asked who Ferrante was. None of her actual readers actually care. Gatti’s own caring, once you dispense with the journalistic grandstanding, is entirely greed-based. He sold the story to four international publications. Good on him. But let’s not pretend it is anything other than a ploy to profit from the success and value of somebody else’s work.

        1. Thanks, Giovanni. But I don’t take it to be ironic. Obviously it is about gender because people have made it so. I can’t disagree with that. But I was saying that it is perhaps a mistake to make it solely so. To clarify, then:

          The Ferrante saga is one thing. It exists in the realm of opinion and speculation. On the other hand, to say, as I did, that there is no world without men is rather a statement of fact about human existence. The two are quite distinct. At least I would argue they are. And it’s probably a pedantic point to make anyway..But have we now reached a point where no fact is not gendered?

          Anyway, no offence meant. You write very well. I was just trying to debate the issue. As I said. I am all for the author using a pseudonym. And Yes I believe the ‘unmasking’ is ridiculous. Obviously the NYRB wanted a little cultural capital. All I was trying to say is that there are other reasons behind this, which are not solely ‘His’ or ‘Her’ reasons, and for everyone to rush in with the gender card seemed to me a bit over the top. And I’m a cynical Cindy. So be it.

          1. “All I was trying to say is that there are other reasons behind this, which are not solely ‘His’ or ‘Her’ reasons, and for everyone to rush in with the gender card seemed to me a bit over the top.”

            You do realise that the novels are about two women fighting against constant attempts by men to take control of their lives and make decisions on their behalf, don’t you? And so, when a real life man decides that the real life woman who wrote the books is not entitled to her privacy, isn’t this pretty much begging to make the connection with the over-arching theme of her work? How is that over the top?

  4. “Now if the author happened to be revealed as a man he would be accused of many kinds of wrongdoing.” Is it just me or is “Cindy” a bit mansplainy?

  5. Thanks Giovanni. Yes I get the themes of the novel, etc. And I respect the writer for wanting to remain anonymous and let the writing speak for itself. But that real life man, the ‘unmasker’, could easily have been a women. What then? One woman unmasking another. What then? The author’s reasons for anonymity weren’t about her gender, but the unmasking of her identity has become a gender issue. In fact, I see the unmasking as problematic whether it was a man or a woman, which is also to say that it isn’t really a gender issue as well. The unmasking shouldn’t have happened. Anyway, I was just putting an alternative view out there. All the best.

    1. Sure, the journalist could have been a woman and the editor of Il Sole 24 Ore could have been a woman we might be having a slightly different conversation. But they weren’t, and perhaps it isn’t a coincidence. And even if the were, the media industry they worked for wouldn’t cease to be run by men.

      1. Yes. That is very true. Very true. Debate is wonderful isn’t it? Bravo Giovanni. Onwards and upwards for you!

  6. Interesting line of discussion, for sure – the way it ends though says the most about gender and power.

    1. But a bit one sided that debate eh? A friend in Italy told me last month that he read Ferrante is a man. But he’s reading them tho – possibly because I gave them to him

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