By ELAINE BLAIR
A Writer’s Journey
By Elena Ferrante
Translated by Ann Goldstein and others
384 pp. Europa Editions. $24.
On one side, we have Claudio Gatti, an investigative journalist with a strong sense of vocation. On the other side, a novelist who, under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante, has written some of the most arresting fiction of the last 25 years — seven novels, including the four volumes of the best-selling Neapolitan Quartet, about the love and rivalry of two childhood friends unfolding over 60-some years in postwar Italy. The novelist keeps her identity private. That’s right — a piece of information is being deliberately withheld from the public. Gatti goes to work. After months of investigation, he comes up with the name of a private citizen very likely to be Ferrante, an Italian woman living in Rome who is not available for comment. Elsewhere, scattered across the globe, are Ferrante fans. They are furious — not only has Gatti supposedly violated the novelist’s right to privacy, but he has brought the grubby methods of journalism to their literary seminar. The person Gatti names as the writer behind Ferrante’s work, the translator Anita Raja, was in fact the leading suspect of critics, but they arrived at their conclusion by studying the novels, not by poring over property records, which everyone knows is unsporting. Leave Ferrante alone, they tell Gatti, and go investigate some criminals. I do, Gatti points out, telling The New York Times, “I’d have loved to see the same passion for some other investigations of mine — on human trafficking from Africa to Europe, or on bribes paid by Western companies from Algeria to Nigeria.”
Such was the drama that unfolded last month when Gatti, a reporter for the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, made the most convincing case to date for Ferrante’s identity. In the middle of it all was “Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey,” a collection of press interviews, editorial correspondence and other ephemera — a modest volume that has ended up playing an unexpectedly pivotal role in Ferrante’s career, for it seems to have led to her unmasking. “I think it could be a good idea to bring out for Christmas a ‘book of reflections’ by Elena Ferrante,” Ferrante’s editor wrote fatefully to her back in 2003, when the idea of publishing the collection first surfaced. Ferrante was skeptical (“Why . . . add so much of my chatter to the two novels?”) but ultimately agreed, at least in part for diplomatic reasons: “I have to admit that I’m quite tired of always saying no to you — you’ve really been very patient over these 12 years,” she replied to her editor.
And so the collection was published, first in Italian a little more than a decade ago, and now in a greatly expanded edition in the United States. The American publication of “Frantumaglia” seems to have been the occasion for Gatti’s investigation. He cites the book in the opening of his article: “She has been an oddly public figure in recent years, granting numerous interviews through her small Rome-based publisher, Edizione e/o, and gathering together a volume purporting in part to outline her family background, ‘Frantumaglia.’ ” For Gatti, there is particular interest in the discrepancies between Anita Raja’s own past and the working-class Naples upbringing that Ferrante has given her narrators and seems to claim for herself in a few of the letters in “Frantumaglia.” But for admirers of Ferrante’s work who are not particularly interested in a biographical reading of her fiction, “Frantumaglia” offers something else: a chance to consider her strange, spectral presence in the world of letters.
As “Frantumaglia” makes clear, Ferrante really has been a public figure. Not only has she given interviews all over the world — to The Paris Review, Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly, to newspapers across Europe and an abundance of Italian publications — but she has also published essays and a collection of her correspondence with the Italian director Mario Martone, who made a film based on her novel “Troubling Love.” Taken together, the interviews and the correspondence offer a chance to ask, beyond the question of her government-issued ID, who is she?
For one thing, she is a high-strung, admittedly “neurotic” writer who finds her daily work an immersive, exhausting, physical process: “The labor of writing touches every point of the body. When the book is finished, it’s as if you had been rudely searched, and you desire only to regain integrity, to return to being the person you usually are, in occupations, in thoughts, in language, in relationships.” Ferrante declines to go to a screening of the film based on “Troubling Love” because “I’m working intensely on a new book, . . . and every morning I start writing with the anxiety of being unable to go forward. I know from experience . . . that any accident can weaken the impression of necessity in the pages I’m writing; and when that impression fades, it’s the work of months that vanishes.” I’ve always preferred Ferrante’s short novels, especially “The Days of Abandonment” and “The Lost Daughter,” to the Neapolitan Quartet, for the companionability of those cleareyed, precise, unsentimental narrators who can describe even their own nervous breakdowns with a hard-won self-possession. You can hear something of their voice in Ferrante’s thoughtful simplicity. “There are some experiences that are difficult to use, that are elusive, embarrassing, at times unsayable, because they belong to us so intimately. I am in favor of stories that are fed by these kinds of experience.”
Nearly all of Ferrante’s interviewers ask some version of the obvious question: Why write under a pseudonym? At first, Ferrante says, it was a matter of “timidity” — “I was frightened of the possibility of having to come out of my shell.” She has been writing for her entire adult life, Ferrante explains, but only with “Troubling Love” did she feel she had finally written a book worth publishing. Using a pseudonym seemed a natural extension of having written in obscurity for years. In a way, she was protecting her future work by not becoming emotionally caught up in the promotion of her present work.
Later, she came to resent the superficial media coverage of authors and books. It’s not only that she wants to defend her novels from reductive comparisons to her own life. She’s afraid that she herself, under the pressure of a confrontation with a journalist, will oversimplify or otherwise betray her own work. “In the games with newspapers one always ends up lying, and at the root of the lie is the need to offer oneself to the public in the best form, with thoughts suitable to the role,” she writes to her editor after the publication of her second novel. “I care deeply about the truth of ‘The Days of Abandonment,’ I wouldn’t want to talk about it meekly, complying with the expectations implicit in the interviewer’s questions.” (Her fear of “complying” — of polite social accommodations — comes up several times, and indeed it may have been just such an act of friendly compliance with her editors that led to the publication of “Frantumaglia.”)
Ferrante often points out that readers don’t need authors to explain the work. But by participating in all of these interviews, Ferrante notably retained the ability to comment on her work and regularly did. (Her discussion of her books and her artistic influences makes for some of the most absorbing parts of “Frantumaglia.” Her exchanges with Martone about his screenplay for “Troubling Love,” in which she offers deep interpretations of the book’s narrator, Delia, are particularly interesting, as is a letter to the Italian magazine Indice in which she quotes excised passages from her first two books and explains why she ended up cutting them.)
What she denied the media was any outside observation of her person, or her personality. No journalist could describe her clothes or the way she walks or what she orders in a restaurant. No childhood friend could gossip with a reporter about the young Ferrante. For 25 years, Ferrante retained sole authorship of the character “Elena Ferrante.” She found a way to speak to readers through the press entirely on her own terms — literally and exclusively in her own words. This is a rare, maybe unique, achievement. It’s not surprising that a member of the press would eventually be provoked to turn the tables.
In order to do it, Ferrante was willing to forgo personal credit for the novels: She has long made the case to incredulous interviewers that some experiences are even more gratifying than being a celebrity. “I don’t want to accept an idea of life where the success of the self is measured by the success of the written page,” she explained in a letter to a magazine editor in 1995. “It’s not a small thing,” she told an interviewer from La Repubblica in 2014, “to write knowing that you can orchestrate for readers not only a story, characters, feelings, landscapes but the very figure of the author, the most genuine figure, because it’s created from writing alone.”
Creating the figure of the author, Ferrante gave us a small handful of biographical facts: She was from Naples, she had a day job, she had raised children. In her interviews, she seems impatient with any second-guessing of these facts; she bristles at the long-running rumors that she is more than one person, or a man, seeing in them a sexist assumption that women can write only in conventional women’s genres. “If there’s no author photo of a woman,” she tartly tells Vanity Fair, “then the game is up: It’s clear, in that case, that we are dealing with a man or an entire team of virile male enthusiasts of the art of writing.” A different sort of writer — a trickster by temperament — might take pleasure in knowing that her identity is open to all sorts of outlandish speculation. But Ferrante wants us to take her word for the facts she’s given us and turn our attention to the novels.
Yet how could we help noticing that anything she said about herself was open to question, simply because it couldn’t be verified? It’s this uncertainty that I’ll miss if the mystery of Ferrante has been definitively solved. Most likely she was a working woman with grown children from Naples, we could think, but it was all delightfully unprovable; if Ferrante were a man, she would obviously not be the first male novelist to write intimately from the perspective of a woman. We will probably not have another mysterious, pseudonymous author soon, not least because so many writers depend on teaching jobs and grants based on their résumés and therefore have little choice but to publish under their own names. We will continue to have Ferrante’s novels, but we will lose the fascinating ambiguity of that other character, no less the writer’s creation than Elena Greco or Lila Cerullo: the character of Elena Ferrante, author.