Elena Ferrante’s ‘Unmasking’ Wasn’t the End of the World

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Photo: Richard Davis/Getty Images

Elena Ferrante is no longer just Elena Ferrante. Now, as we learned over the weekend on the New York Review of Books website, she is probably also Anita Raja, a translator and German-born daughter of Holocaust survivors who’s lived most of her life in Rome. This revelation, the work of Claudio Gatti–an Italian investigative reporter who used Ferrante’s publishing house’s royalty payments, along with a look at some of Raja’s real-estate moves, to reach his conclusion–has been greeted on the literary and feminist internet with unhappiness and accusations: What right do journalists have to intrude upon writers?

The objections start with the idea that the true identity of the writer isn’t newsworthy enough to justify violating her requested privacy. In part, this seems to be a reaction to a perhaps overly blunt few lines in the NYRB piece: “[B]y 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.”

Gatti’s logic here is not exactly airtight, and does have an unfortunate whiff of “she was asking for it.” But Ferrante’s true biography had long been an object of interest in newspapers and magazines; literary scholars have tried to track her down by analyzing the text and the biographies of various possible Ferrantes. The problem here seems to be that Gatti actually got it RIGHT. Part of the Ferrante phenomenon a sensation that I don’t think it’s crass to call massively profitable was driven by the mystery of who the author was. People are naturally curious about the people who make the culture they consume, especially when it’s culture that they feel as strongly about as they do about Ferrante. And especially when the books themselves seem to invite a conflation between narrator and author. Despite her anonymity, Ferrante has given plenty of interviews, especially recently. If the pseudonym allowed us to encounter her work in a specific way initially, the status of the work has changed in the last several years: Enormous success comes with burdens as well as benefits, but it certainly makes her identity more newsworthy than it was when she first started writing under a pseudonym.

Which brings us to some of the more complicated objections. Ferrante consistently venerates the creative space that anonymity affords her. She has spoken of shyness, and even said she’d consider not writing again if exposed. In a long Twitter essay, the critic Lili Loofbourow contends that anonymity is an act of feminism: “Naming IS reductive. Naming affects how you’ll receive a thing and the prestige and authority you grant it … The fact is, we have a LOT more experience naming and reducing women — and their aspirations, and their behaviors, and their authority. We’re really good at reducing female artists to their names & associating their artistic efforts w/the horrible language of ‘branding.’” According to the current conventional wisdom, the exposé was a kind of emotional violence, both against the writer and the readers; further, goes this thinking, there is a particular roughness inherent to a male reporter unmasking a female author who has asked for privacy. The New Yorker’s Twitter account uses the language of consent: “In his apparent unmasking of Ferrante — the journalist does not explain why he felt free to take her ‘no’ as his ‘yes.’” As does Charlotte Shane, a writer and co-founder of TigerBee Press, who tweeted, “Leave it to a goddamn man to decide that the tremendous gift that is Elena Ferrante’s writing needs to repaid with senseless violation.” In The Guardian, Suzanne Moore writes that “those who love Ferrante’s work are appalled, partly of course because she writes so well about the ways in which men humiliate women.” “Ban men,” concludes Roxane Gay.

It is true that, thanks to the searing portrait of male cruelty her novels paint, the mere mention of Ferrante’s name might get many of us in the mood to discuss a generalized terribleness of men. And yet this all seems to me both an almost-insulting underestimation of the fortitude of the author, and a severe overestimation of the harm that might be done by connecting universally praised work to its actual creator.

Then there is the question of whether we are degrading the work itself by connecting a real flesh-and-blood person to it. At n+1, Dayna Tortorici writes that “The persona of the author is an intrusion on the solitary psychic space of a novel. By protecting her privacy, Ferrante protected ours. ” The New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz lays out her case with the metaphysical focus and fervor of a religious acolyte whose deity is under attack.

Like many — maybe most — enthusiastic Ferrante readers, I have no interest in knowing who the writer who publishes her novels under the name Elena Ferrante is. I don’t care. Actually, I do care: I care about not finding out. There are so few avenues left, in our all-seeing, all-revealing digital world, for artistic mystery of the true kind — mystery that isn’t concocted as a publicity play but that finds its origins in the writer’s soul as a prerogative of his or her ability to create. That kind of mystery has a corresponding point in the soul of the receptive reader. To fall in love with a book, in that way that I and so many others have fallen in love with Ferrante’s, is to feel a special kinship with its author, a profound sort of mutual receptivity and comprehension. The author knows nothing about you, and yet you feel that your most intimate self has been understood.

The experience Schwartz has just described — an “imaginative, neutral ground” — is the experience of … reading. I too felt recognized in Ferrante, addicted to the fierceness of the book’s emotional intelligence. Did her anonymity enrich my experience? Maybe! Ferrante could seem like an additional primary character in her novels, as unknowable as Lila but still as proximate as Lenu. (And the breadcrumbs of probably-false biography she scattered through interviews and her collected nonfiction, out soon in English, only fueled that.) I understand some wistfulness. But all books have authors, and having access to that knowledge and context doesn’t have to take anything away from the text. The Bible didn’t come directly from God, and Shakespeare maybe had some help, and George Eliot wasn’t a dude, and Joe Klein was more than a Newsweek reporter, and Raymond Carver had an editor with a very heavy pen. Ferrante herself said not long ago in an interview, “If the books don’t contain in themselves their reasons for being — questions and answers — it means I was wrong to have them published.”

Yet according to the New Inquiry’s Aaron Bady, there is something inherently squalid about the corporeal reality of Raja. “They want to make her small, by making her a real person with a real history and real name and real background. They want to assert control over that person, and what it represents, by revealing it.” This is a real leap, to assume that knowing someone’s name and a few biographic details can erase the sum total of their work. Being attached to a specific, limited, actual person — rather than an airy abstraction — is only damning if you think there’s something lacking about being an actual person. All of which seems contrary to the very humane sensibility of Ferrante’s books.

I suspect part of what’s going on, below the surface, is disappointment in who Ferrante has turned out to be. She’s not a self-taught peasant who has lived closer to the bone than the rest of us. For all the intimate femaleness of her work, she may or may not have asked her Naples-born husband to (at the very least) fill her in on some of the details of life there. She’s an intellectual, and a novelist, not a Knausgaardian diarist. She is not a literary or feminist pinup upon whom you can project your wildest fantasies. She’s a middle-aged woman who has spent a lifetime observing human frailty and strength and figuring out the best way to tell us what she’s learned — reaching the conclusion that the specifics and stories of people’s lives (as imagined, confidently, by her) are the best form. I’m delighted by that. I’m also delighted to hear she got a very nice country home in Tuscany out of it. Lenu would approve.