For 24 years now the bestselling writer of My Brilliant Friend and other acclaimed Neapolitan novels has evaded detection
The ego of a novelist can be an odd thing. A writer’s drive to express herself in fiction, and so impress her vision of the world on the reading public, is frequently coupled with improbable shyness.
In Italy, as the tireless hunt for the true identity of the bestselling author Elena Ferrante continues, it is hard not to applaud the success of this subterfuge. For 24 years now, the novelist behind My Brilliant Friend and three other celebrated Neapolitan novels has evaded detection. Last week, it was claimed she was Marcella Marmo, a professor at a Naples university. But both the academic concerned and Ferrante’s publishers have since flatly denied it. The American translator of the books, Ann Goldstein, also recently had to disappoint literary sleuths. Goldstein said she feels she knows Ferrante well and suspects she is an educated, middle-class woman. But it is not her.
Historically, the requirements of gentility have been justification enough for adopting a nom de plume. In times when nice women were not trusted with a pot of ink Jane Austen signed herself “A Lady” and the Brontë sisters famously swapped genders, styling themselves Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. For George Eliot, real name Mary Evans, the male moniker stuck, arguably giving a muscular gloss to her subtle narrative sensibilities, while for Joanna Rowling the game was up pretty soon on her second attempt to mask the fact she was female. Burdened with worldwide fame, JK called herself Robert Galbraith, in search of a sincere reaction to her 2013 thriller, The Cuckoo’s Calling.
But the best excuse for deceit is what happened to Charlotte Brontë once she was unveiled to London’s literati. Everyone called her Jane Eyre and assumed her sensational book was simple autobiography.
Rachel Cusk opted instead for the total honesty of the memoir when she published intimate accounts of motherhood and divorce, but was subjected to grim attacks. She suggested that since novelists are always talking about themselves really, they might as well admit it.
Lots of authors claim to hate making public appearances, so anonymity must have a strong appeal. This might be especially the case if their popular works fall short of the gravitas of another literary or learned persona, or are perhaps rather sexually revealing, like Anne Desclos’s 1954 erotic landmark, The Story of O, which she wrote as Pauline Réage.
Whatever the motivation is for writing fiction, there is proof that some novelists, even if widely acclaimed, still do genuinely prefer to skulk away into the shadows: witness Thomas Pynchon and the late JD Salinger.
Yet in the alleys of Naples, the search for Ferrante goes on regardless. So the question remains: why do we want to know? Is it the petulance of a child denied something without good explanation? Let’s hope Ferrante’s fans are better than that and that this is just a straightforward desire to see the novels in their proper context. Delighted by Ferrante’s talent, the world demands the full picture.
Although surely, after two decades of international praise, we can assume that if she, or he, would rather not be known, there must be a mightily compelling case.
• This article was amended on 21 March 2016. An earlier version wrongly referred to the late Thomas Pynchon and JD Salinger. Thomas Pynchon is very much alive, Salinger died in 2010.