What’s Really Behind Our Obsession Over Unmasking Elena Ferrante? 

by Stassa Edwards

What's Really Behind Our Obsession Over Unmasking Elena Ferrante? 

Ever since so-called Ferrante fever struck, there’s been a cottage industry dedicated to unraveling the true identity of the pseudonymous Italian novelist. “Who is Elena Ferrante?” is a question that understandably haunts fans of the novelist and her complex rendering of her female protagonists. And yet, Ferrante herself makes a convincing—and for many of us, final—argument for why the question shouldn’t be answered. She has repeatedly declined to reveal her identity, arguing instead for a kind of radical death of the author, building a rather impenetrable wall between reader and writer and between the writer’s life and her work.

In interview after interview, Ferrante insists on maintaining this barrier, saying that she didn’t choose “anonymity” so much as “absence.” “The structural absence of the author affects the writing in a way that I’d like to continue to explore,” she told the New York Times in a 2014 interview. And despite the fact that it’s a statement of purpose for Ferrante to remain little more than a ghost in her own novels, the guessing continues (a phenomenon that Ferrante herselfdismisses as a “banal media game”).

There have already been a handful of suggestions as to Ferrante’s true identity. Some wonder if Ferrante herself might be a purely fictional identity created by another writer. The writer Fabrizia Ramondino has been suggested, as have two men: Domenico Starnone and Goffredo Fofi. The last two are, perhaps, the most memorable; the suggestion that Ferrante is really a man is seemingly ridiculous, even taking into account that a man writing under a woman’s name would be a historical reversal. Ferrante has also confirmed her gender, and its centrality in her novels, in multiple interviews.

The latest addition to the canon of Ferrante speculation comes from the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. Over the weekend, the paper published an article, with accompanying video, by the novelist and professor Marco Santagata who suggested that Ferrante might be Marcella Marmo, a professor in Naples. TheNew York Times reports:

[Santagata] based his analysis on a close reading of passages in parts of one of Ms. Ferrante’s novels set in the 1960s in Pisa, where one the book’s protagonists, Elena Greco, studied classics at the prestigious Scuola Normale. Both Mr. Santagata and Ms. Marmo studied at the Normale in the 1960s.

“I created a profile — I didn’t say it was her,” Mr. Santagata said in a telephone interview, adding that he had never met or been in touch with Ms. Marmo. He said he had determined that some street names in the books were changed in Pisa after 1968, suggesting that the author must have left Pisa before then. Looking in Scuola Normale yearbooks, he found she seemed to be the only Neapolitan woman at Pisa in the mid-1960s who had become an expert in the contemporary Italian history that is the backdrop to Ms. Ferrante’s Naples books.

Santagata, a philologist by academic training, told the Times that he drew from that background in order to name Marmo; treating Ferrante’s novels as ancient texts in need of attribution. Essentially, Santagata took the experiences of Elena Greco, the fictional narrator of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, and matched them to a real life woman. Both Marmo and Ferrante’s editors deny that she is Ferrante.

Santagata’s suggestion is simultaneously alluring and frustrating. The idea that the Neapolitan Novels are autobiographical, that Ferrante is simply drawing from common frustrations, rendering a real female friendship with all of its strife and joy, speaks to a kind of kinship we often want to believe exists between reader and writer. And certainly all six of Ferrante’s novels—each narrated in first person—invite this kind of reading. As the New Yorker’s James Wood notes, Ferrante’s novels are “intensely, violently personal” and their relentless sincerity lends them a familiar intimacy with the reader. In Wood’s estimation, Ferrante’s absence gives her the protection to navigate what are essentially confessional novels; exploring themes motherhood and gender with a certain savagery that would otherwise welcome moral censure.

And yet, Ferrante herself has coyly distanced herself from the “I” of her novels. Though she has acknowledged that the “I” in her her books is a “woman writing,” she draws a line between autobiography and what she calls “fictional truth.” In a recent interview with the Paris Review, she said:

Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to ­impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it. It reanimates, revives, subjects ­everything to its needs.

Ferrante is right to be coy with the “I” of her novels. The “I” in fiction, that omniscient narrator, is rarely perceived as a neutral figure. Its gaps are filled with the author’s identity; women, more often than not, are perceived to be writing a lightly fictionalized memoir, with a few names changed for the sake of decency. In this line of thought, Villette’s Lucy Snowe becomes interchangeable with Charlotte Bronte.

And here is a certain stripping of authorial creativity: women write what they know and they know the small voice of domestic truths. Fiction is thus reduced to the autobiographical. We don’t trust women to wade into the authenticity or the sincerity of a certain kind of fiction without being engulfed by the memoir.

That seems to be one of the many reasons Ferrante distances herself from what she calls the “writer-hero,” bound as such an image is to a set of stereotypes of the lone (male) author frenetically working through the difficult concepts of human existence. Yet, as Ferrante told the Paris Review:

[…] There is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence. We wrongfully diminish this collective intelligence when we insist on there being a single protagonist ­behind every work of art.

That the writer Elana Ferrante wants to separate herself from the person Elena Ferrante seems, at this point, a monumental undertaking. The hunt for Ferrante doesn’t seem to be abating, and yet, the search seems, at this point, more about the need to connect with an idea of a writer rather than an actual flesh-and-blood woman. That Ferrante’s finely rendered characters—with their unfettered rage and frustration—isn’t enough certainly says something about our ideas and expectations of a woman writer in particular.

The continued search for the real Ferrante brings to mind Charlotte Bronte’s words to George Henry Lewes, the critic who revealed that Currer Bell was Bronte’s masculine pen name. “I imagine you are both enthusiastic and implacable, as you are at once sagacious and careless,” Bronte wrote to Lewes in a letter dated January 19, 1850. “You know much and discover much, but you are in such a hurry to tell it all you never give yourself time to think how your recklessness may affect others; and, what is more, if you knew how it did affect them, you would not much care.”