I started Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy all jumbled up. A book store had a special order of the Europa editions of her novels in English translation, their fabulous covers being an immediate draw. The final book was not yet out in English, and as is my habit when attracted to an unread series, I started with the second book. (Don’t ask.) It also helped that the editions had cover flaps. (A big takeaway from endless conversations with other readers is that we are divided irreconcilably into two groups, those who adore cover flaps, and those who hate them. I’m a life member of the former, smaller group.) Having judged the books by their covers, and been won over by the endorsements printed within, it seemed that all I needed to know about the writer was on the back flap of the book, The Story of a New Name: “Elena Ferrante was born in Naples. She is the author of…”.
Clues about identity
Having read — inhabited actually — her Neapolitan saga thereafter, it remained just a curiosity that Elena Ferrante was a pseudonym, that she had managed to protect her (some speculated his, arguing that these feminist novels of love and friendship were written by a man) identity through so many books and such success. For the new Ferrante reader, such speculation is diversionary, as you are compelled to swing from one book to the next, till you have read them all, and have in the process become protective about her privacy. Coincidentally, when I finished the books, I was offered a potential interview (it didn’t happen). Excited, I went back to reread her books as homework, and now I could not shake off the temptation to keep a keen eye out for some telling detail so that I could frame questions to get never-before-elicited clues about her identity.
In the time since, an Italian journalist has claimed to have conclusively identified the ‘real’ Ferrante, a well-regarded Rome-based translator called Anita Raja — but back then that second reading was disconcerting, as if the opportunity to interact with Ferrante had taken me away from the deeper reading of her fiction that had been so nourishing. Reading Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey (Europa Editions), a collection of her interviews and letters just out in English translation, it’s interesting to see how persistently, almost to the exclusion of much else, she is questioned on identity, and how patiently she answers the question each time, year after year.
She told a Turkish journalist in 2015: “One need only glance at the publishing history of my books to realise that it’s not the absence of the writer that has produced their success but their success that has made the subject of my absence central… what has been surprising is the discovery that those who became aware of the books later, at times as a result of the media attention, at least here in Italy, encounter them with an initial distrust, if not hostility, as if my absence were an offensive or culpable type of behaviour.”
At one point another interviewer asks, “Who is Elena Ferrante? How would you define her?” Ferrante replied: “Elena Ferrante? Thirteen letters, no more or less. Her definition is all there.”
It’s a wonder how many different ways Ferrante answers questions about her resolve to keep her identity secret — there is no resort to stock answers, there is no evasion. As she takes on the question from different angles, interview after interview, it becomes clear that there is more than vanity here in choosing to publish a collection of interviews and writings on her refusal to reveal her identity. To be “Elena Ferrante” is for the author of these beloved novels essential to her craft.
An essential separation
She tells an interviewer in 2002: “I’ve always had a tendency to separate everyday life from writing. To tolerate existence, we lie, and we lie above all to ourselves. Sometimes we tell ourselves lovely tales, sometimes petty lies. Falsehoods protect us… Instead, when one writes one must never lie. In literary fiction you have to be sincere to the point where it’s unbearable, where you suffer the emptiness of the pages. It seems likely that making a clear separation between what we are in life and what we are when we write helps keep self-censorship at bay.”
Who knows what the Italian investigative journalist who went after the income details of writers suspected to be Ferrante really wanted to out. But the fact that so many of her readers were disturbed by this “outing” shows that they — we — had internalised, however incoherently, the need for a separation that made her books possible. Hearing her explain it, interview after interview in one volume, helps.