The most intriguing literary whodunnit in a generation has taken a new twist this week with an astonishing claim: it was the Neapolitan professor, in her study, with a laptop.
An investigation by an Italian historian-turned-sleuth has suggested the real identity of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous author of the “Neapolitan novels”, a quartet of international bestsellers that have been embraced passionately by readers, critics and those who love a bookish parlour game.
As sales of Ferrante’s books have raced past 350,000 in the UK and 1 million worldwide she has attracted fans ranging from the author Zadie Smith and the critic James Wood to Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon and Jeffrey Archer, who says Ferrante “does for Naples what Dickens did for London”.
Her popularity has sparked guesswork and gossip about her identity of a kind not seen since Joe Klein hid behind the “Anonymous” to write Primary Colors, the thinly veiled account of Bill Clinton’s campaign to become the 1992 Democratic presidential candidate.
The Neapolitan quartet tells the story of two girls, Elena and Lila, growing up in a poor Naples neighbourhood. Early on, they are separated by education — one continues at school, the other doesn’t — yet as their lives diverge, the friendship continues. The novels have been hailed for their detailed and deep depiction of female friendship. The women love, hate and use one another, but despite the resentments and rivalries they remain tied by their early friendship.
Now, after close textual analysis of the second in the quartet, which is partly set in Pisa, Marco Santagata, an expert on Dante, has concluded that Ferrante is Marcella Marmo, a 69-year-old professor who lives in Naples and has an interest in many of the subjects that appear in Ferrante’s novels. Despite denials from Marmo and Ferrante’s publisher, the investigation, published in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, is likely only to intensify the hunt for the real Ferrante.
This probably won’t amuse the author. In 1991, before publication of her first novel, she wrote a letter to her Italian publisher informing it them that she would not be collaborating with the publicity department. “I believe books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not they won’t.” She added: “Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house, I will spare you even my presence.”
Over the past quarter of a century she has been true to her word. She conducts occasional interviews, but only via email. She has said she is anonymous to protect her privacy and that of the Neapolitan community she grew up in, but also from a “wish to remove oneself from all forms of social pressure or obligation. Not to feel tied down to what could become one’s public image. To concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies.”
Even her English language translator, Ann Goldstein, the head of the copy department at The New Yorker, has never met her and has exchanged emails with the author only a couple of times.
Ferrante’s first book, Troubling Love, was turned into a film, which ensured media attention that she has said was partly responsible for her taking ten years to produce a second novel. She has written nine novels, all of which have been translated into English, but her international reputation really soared with the publication of the Neapolitan quartet, published in English from 2013, which she regards as a single novel, published in parts for the convenience of the reader.
We know that Ferrante is from Naples, that her childhood was probably in the 1950s, that she studied classics and that she earned her living with a job other than writing that is “orderly and quiet, and when necessary . . . retreats and leaves me time”. Asked whether the intense friendship described in the books was inspired by an actual friendship she has said: “It comes from what I know of a long, complicated, difficult friendship that began at the end of my infancy.”
Pressed on why she has chosen to remain anonymous despite her literary success, she has questioned the fascination so many of us have with the real lives of authors. “The person who has created the writing is, beyond the writing, so redundant, so fragmented, that often she cannot account for the book other than in an approximate, changeable way,” she has said.
“When readers today think they are meeting the author, in reality they’re meeting a man or woman, rich or poor in humanity, but who has already left their role as author. The author — and his capacity to develop the quality of the linguistic material to which he resorts — is present only in the works.”
If all writers adopted her view that writers don’t have a role in public life, the entire literary festival and event world would collapse. “Physical absence from the public sphere makes the writing absolutely central,” she believes. The presence of an author becomes coherent in his or her writing. “The rest is uninteresting private life.”
She says she never considered using a male pseudonym like George Eliot or the Brontë sisters, telling an interviewer: “The time to transform ourselves into men is over.” Many have wondered if she is really a man; the Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone has said he is tired of being asked if he is Ferrante. Ferrante, not entirely resolving the issue, has said: “My sex can be found in my writing.” She has, however, appeared to indicate in interviews that she is a mother. She certainly has children and her writing “often came into conflict with my love for them, especially with the obligations and pleasures of taking care of them”.
Santagata examined scenes in The Story of a New Name where one of the characters studies at the Scuola Normale. His “philological work” included looking at street names, some of which have subsequently changed, that suggested to him that the author was familiar with the city in the 1960s. Records showed that the only Neapolitan to have been at the institution during that period was Marmo.
According to the The New York Times, Marmo is interested in subjects that are key to the books, such as Neapolitan organised crime, the history of capitalism and Italian social classes. Marmo said she “wasn’t Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” but that “one always has more than one identity”. She added though: ““I’m not Elena Ferrante.” Ferrante’s publisher, Sandra Ozzola Ferri, said Santagata’s claim was “nonsense”.
Ferrante said in one of her email interviews recently that she finds all the fuss so hard to bear that she doesn’t even like to see displays of her books in shops. “I carefully avoid such spectacles. Publication has always made me anxious. My text reproduced in thousands of copies strikes me as a form of presumption, makes me feel guilty,” she told the Financial Times.
If she really doesn’t want to be revealed to the world, perhaps it is best for her — and, in the end, her fans — if she is left to her mysterious anonymity. However, it is likely that the detective work will continue and she will continue to be dismissive of it. When it was suggested to her last year that literary journalists would consider it a scoop to unmask her she was scathing. “A scoop? What nonsense,” she replied. “Who would be interested in what remains of me outside my books? The attention paid to them seems too much already.”
This month The Times book club is reading My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neopolitan Novels. Join our live online discussion on April 4 at 8pm.thetimes.co.uk/bookclub
What to say about the Elena Ferrante novels
By Melissa Katsoulis
It’s not only a women’s book
It is male readers who are driving sales. If you’ve ever been a girl, had a high-maintenance best friend, stressed about cropped cardigans v ponchos or given birth, you will already know everything that Ferrante reveals about women. If you are a man, these books are the ultimate crib guide into the workings of women’s minds, wardrobes and relationships.
Italian guys are dreamy? Think again
Never marry an Italian guy! Yes, Ferrante’s male leads tread a theoretically irresistible line between the academe and the picket line. Yes, they like doing it on beaches and in the bathroom and, as far as we can tell, all look like a combination of James Franco and a young Marlon Brando. But they will shag your cleaning lady as soon as you leave for work, even though you chose an especially corpulent and boot-faced one as insurance against this. Turns out these red-blooded Italian stallions soon tire of elegant, Fendi-clad babes and will turn their attention to whoever is bent over scrubbing their floors.
The vicissitudes of 1960s union politics will tell you everything you need to know about the making of modern Italy in a post-Marxist paradigm
Don’t get a job in a sausage factory. Perhaps, like Lila, you are such a right-on leftie and covert political genius that you reckon it would be more honest and useful to forgo a career in academia and just roll up your sleeves and make salsiccia for a living. Wrong! It’s grim and stinky and populated by randy, sexually repressed weirdos who will try to have their way with you in the curing room.
Wouldn’t Naples be lovely for a mini-break?
Only if you like half-finished underpasses, hazardous building sites and syringe-strewn courtyards. Also, those little espresso bars where you imagine yourself chucking back the morning ristretto and sucking pistachio ice cream out of a brioche are, as Elena discovers, just fronts for money laundering and prime locations for grisly assassination attempts. Plus they’re really cramped and reek of fags.
What’s in a name? Eleven famous noms de plume
By Robbie Millen
The Brontë sisters (1816-1855)
The genteel daughters of a country parson couldn’t possibly write fiction under their own names, especially novels bursting with insanity, violent love, broken marriages and alcoholism. So Charlotte, Emily and Anne wrote respectively under the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.
They managed to keep the secret for only two years. They outed themselves when Ellis and Acton’s publisher put it around that Acton and Currer were the same person in the hope that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne/Acton’s second novel) might benefit from the success of Currer/Charlotte’s Jane Eyre.
Currer’s publisher demanded an explanation; he was more than a little surprised when two ladies appeared in his office in 1848. Charlotte wrote to Elizabeth Gaskell that her “chief reason for maintaining an incognito is the fear that if she relinquished it, strength and courage would leave her, and she would ever after shrink from writing the plain truth”.
Walter Scott (1771-1832)
Waverley (1814), Scott’s most famous novel, a piece of historical romance centred on the Jacobite uprising, was published anonymously. Writing novels was regarded by the snobby Edinburgh Society as beneath the salt for a clerk to the Court of Session. It was not until 1826 that Scott revealed himself as the author of this bestseller.
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Snobbery and sexism meant that Sense and Sensibility (1811) was written simply “By a Lady”. Pride and Prejudice (1813) was written “By the Author of Sense and Sensibility”.’ Her next novel, Mansfield Park, was — no prizes for imagination — described as being by “The author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice”. Her identity remained unknown among the reading public until after her death.
George Eliot (1819-80)
Mary Ann Evans wrote Middlemarch using a nom de plume so as not to detract from her serious writing (her big project was translating Spinoza) or to advertise her marital status (a freethinker, she lived with a married man). There may have been a whiff of prejudice too: she wrote an anonymous article, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, forWestminster Review in 1856 in which she dismissed most female writers as “the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic”.
CS Lewis (1898-1963)
A Grief Observed, a collection of CS Lewis’s reflections on bereavement following the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, was published in 1961 under the pseudonym NW Clerk. Its candour about his own despair in part explained the reluctance of Lewis to go public. It was republished posthumously in 1963 under his own name.
George Orwell (1903-50)
Eric Blair wished to avoid embarrassing his parents so wrote Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) under his new name. He had also considered the bylines PS Burton, Kenneth Miles and H Lewis Allways. “Allwaysian” doesn’t quite have the ring of “Orwellian”.
Anthony Burgess (1917-93)
The author of A Clockwork Orange and Earthly Powers was born John Burgess Wilson. He wrote in his memoir that “when I published my first novel [in 1956] I was forced to do so in near disguise. I was an official of the Colonial Office at the time, and it was regarded as improper to publish fiction under one’s own name.”
Patricia Highsmith (1921-95)
The crime writer Patricia Highsmith wrote her second novel The Price of Salt (1952) under the name Claire Morgan because of its semi-autobiographical lesbian content. It was republished as Carol in 1990 under Highsmith’s name and was turned into a movie of that name last year.
John le Carré (1931-)
Foreign Office officials were forbidden to publish under their own names, so David Cornwell wrote under an assumed name. The success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold(1963), led to a press hunt to reveal his identity. In 1964, our man in Hamburg was unmasked and was forced to quit MI6.
Cornwell has also claimed that his resignation was not to do with the furore but was prompted by his accountant, who had been instructed to send him a telegram when his book earnings reached £20,000. His son Nicholas writes thrillers under the pen name Nick Harkaway.
Stephen King (1947- )
Reader fatigue can set in if a writer is too prolific. Stephen King got round this by also writing as Richard Bachman. When his second identity was revealed, King said that Bachmann died from “cancer of the pseudonym, a rare form of schizonomia”.
Brooke Magnanti (1975-)
Brooke Magnanti worked as a call girl while studying for her doctorate. Her blog (and books), Belle de Jour: Diary of a London Call Girl, naturally enough caused some excitement when it first appeared in 2003. Her identity was revealed — after the books had appeared in the bestseller lists and were turned into a TV series — in 2009 when The Sunday Times outed her.