Elena Ferrante is an Italian novelist in her 70s who has been producing published work for about 25 years. But it was only four years ago with My Brilliant Friend, a novel about growing up in a poor and sometimes violent neighbourhood in Naples, that Ferrante achieved international fame. At the heart of that story is a bond between two girls in which love and enmity mingle in constantly surprising ways. Three further novels have traced that relationship through adolescence and into adulthood. The last of this series, The Story of the Lost Child, was judged by The New York Times one of the 10 best books of 2015.
Ferrante is a pseudonym. What little is known about the author has been gleaned from interviews, and a volume of correspondence with editors which appeared in 2003. She insists on anonymity, explaining that she finds it necessary for her work. In an email interview with Vanity Fair in 2015 she said, ‘I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.’
In spite of this, two controversial attempts to unmask her were published during 2016. The first drew on internal textual evidence to prove that Ferrante was in fact Marcella Marmo, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Naples. The author of this paper, a Dante expert, said that he had conducted a philological analysis ‘as if I were studying the attribution of an ancient text’. Even in the face of such scholarly evidence, however, professor Marmo insists that it isn’t her.
An investigation by Claudio Gatti for the Italian newspaper Il Sole received wider circulation when it was reprinted in the New York Review of Books. Using investigative techniques that might be more usefully applied to exposing the corruption of politicians and corporate executives, Gatti followed a trail of payments from the publishers to a freelance translator of German texts, Anita Raja. Raja has also denied authorship.
Bizarrely, Raja’s husband Domenico Starnone, a screenwriter and journalist, has previously been identified as the real Ferrante, as has the male writer and critic Silvio Perrella, as if only a man could show such a confident grasp of late twentieth-century Italian social and political history. But to anyone who has actually read the 1,700 pages of the Neapolitan quartet – a slow-burning study of female friendship and rivalry and the struggle to achieve autonomy in a patriarchal society, punctuated by intense love affairs, abusive marriages and intimate explorations of the trials of pregnancy and motherhood – the idea that this is an extended act of male ventriloquism must seem implausible.
A recent convert to the Ferrante cult having just read this series, I find the author’s identity the least interesting question about it. Sprawling, loosely constructed, with too large a cast and too many tangled plot lines, it shouldn’t work but it does – magnificently. That’s a mystery worth investigating.