Poor Elena Ferrante. The hunt to “unveil” her identity is on, now that the mainstream media appears to have discovered who she is after her recent long-listing for the Man Booker International Prize. Though she has a head-start of writing anonymously for 24 years.
And poor Elena Ferrante’s translator. I switched on the television a few days ago to hear a desperate news item on the pseudonymous Italian novelist, with a newscaster talking to the translator of her Neapolitan novels series. The last question left her visibly taken aback: “Are you Elena Ferrante?” What could she say to that? I half wish she had said yes, with others following suit, so that it could have led to a Spartacus moment.
We can’t seem to leave these things alone. There has been a sudden eruption of speculative stories about the writer; Marcella Marmo, a history academic in Naples has been fingered. Ferrante’s age – she must be in her sixties – has been guessed. Some have “figured out” that she must be a man. Articles with headlines such as “Will the Real Elena Ferrante Please Stand Up?” are a new form of sport.
In some ways, she is something of a Slim Shady. The dark, resistant side of the publishing industry who bites her thumb at us. A writer who won’t conform to our current climate of self-exposure, self-confession, self-promotion.
There has historically been practical need of an alias, by the likes of George Eliot and the Brontës who were transgressing the gender conventions of their day. Or for someone like Anne Desclos, who wrote the sadomasochistic Story of O under a fake name in the conservative 1950s.
The reasons for anonymity have changed since. Authors simply look for privacy now. The pressure is on for novelists, however shy, to “reach out” to their audience. Last year, Jonathan Freedland proved the case by saying that he would no longer be writing as Sam Bourne because: “My publishers explained that readers now want to engage directly with an author,” he said. “Unless you’re dead, they expect you to be on Twitter or Facebook. And a pseudonym gets in the way.”
Following the announcement of Anita Brookner’s death this week, we heard her publisher talking about the novelist’s ambivalence to her Booker success in 1984; if you looked at her face on the night that she won the prize for Hotel du Lac, it was apparently filled with horror.
From Brookner to Ferrante, we see our impulse to claim these timorous writers as personalities who will talk to us in life as well as in their books. The desire is fuelled all the more by a perverse thrill – to seek someone who wants to hide.
We just had to know who Banksy was, and Belle de Jour, and anyone else who hides behind the blanket of anonymity. Yet once the Daily Mail apparently revealed Banksy to us some years ago, we seemed to stick our fingers in our ears and pretend we hadn’t heard. There was definitely something anti-climactic about the uncovering of Belle de Jour too. Oh, she was a research scientist called Brooke Magnanti. Oh well. Could we have the old, mysterious Belle de Jour back now, please? Robert Galbraith is the one anomaly, and that is only due to JK Rowling’s ever voracious fan-base.
It serves to remember that we are nearly always disappointed by the chase when we win it. I hope we never do with Ferrante. I hope she is in some bunker, having a new illegal passport cut, so she will forever remain the Scarlet Pimpernel of literary fiction.