“Right, because it’s the work that matters, no?”
I don’t care who Elena Ferrante is. I know some people really, really care, including some folks at The New York Times, which just published an article on the Italian author’s mysterious identity. Some people, it would appear, won’t let it rest until they know the name of the author behind the so-called Neapolitan series of novels, which has rocked the literary world on both sides of the Atlantic.
But not me. Every time it comes up, I think, “I don’t care.”
And it’s not because I’m only slightly interested in Italian literature. Oh no. Italian literature is my life. My idea of paradise is being in a room in Italy—any room—where I’m so surrounded by the Italian language, I feel submerged. I read the Ferrante books one after another in the original Italian. I even have a copy of the Italian newspaper article about Ferrante’s identity that inspired the article in The Times. (My partner happened to be in Switzerland the weekend it appeared in an insert to Il Corriere della Sera, and he brought it home for me).
It’s not because professional nosiness is foreign to me. I’m a journalist, in fact.
In other words, I’m someone who should care. And I simply don’t. For many reasons. Indeed, I wonder about the reasons others have for caring so much about her identity.
Here’s what I do care about: What she has written. And whether she will write anything again that has captivated me so thoroughly as The Days of Abandonment, The Lost Daughter or parts of the Neapolitan series. I’d prefer to see articles about that.
In the original article in the Lettura, we learn that an eminent professor, Marco Santagata, has “investigated” Ferrante’s real identity and concluded that it’s Marcella Marmo, a history professor at a university in Naples. She disputed this immediately—pretty convincingly. And so we’re back at square one.
As Daria Bignardi from the Italian edition of “Vanity Fair” wrote, “Is an author’s bio so important? Wouldn’t it be better not to know it?” She goes on to say that when she was younger, she began interviewing authors she’d idealized for years and found they weren’t all that charming or pleasant to talk to. Which might have been disappointing but Bignardi adds, “Why should they be charming?”
Right, because it’s the work that matters, no?
Other things I care about more than Ferrante’s true identity: finding other authors who write similarly smoldering Italian fiction. In particular, other Southern Italian females. Where are the authors who write prose like the scene where Olga attacks Mario in the street? (“You go girl,” is how I’ve put it in one academic—ahem—paper). Or how about the scene where Olga is so unmoored by the separation from Mario that she forgets to collect the children from school, and returns from walking the dog only to find they have brought themselves home from school?
Or the scene in the third book of the Neapolitan tetralogy where Elena squirms out of the arms of her child in order to run into the arms of Nino, pushing him into the bathroom to share an illicit kiss. Whoa, that was intense!
I’m eager to discover more writers who straddle the feminist era and the one that preceded it. Because they’re likely capable of creating characters, as Ferrante has, who are nuanced, compelling women. Ferrante’s female characters possess a combination of longing, ambition and anger that repels the reader almost as much as it attracts them.
Please more of that! From Ferrante or other up-and-coming Italian writers like Nadia Terranova whose novel Gli Anni al Contrario recently won a Bagutta award for a first novel.
To be sure, I’d love to know more about events that helped shape Ferrante’s worldview. But she can tell us that without revealing her identity. In fact in the wake of the publication of the Neapolitan series in English, she’s given email interviews to seemingly every major news outlet.
So why do I need to know if her name is Roberta Esposito, say, or Concetta Russa?
Is it just me? Or is it possible that other people are missing the point?
Speculation will only intensify now that Ferrante is a contender for the Man Booker prize. Should she make the prize’s short list, which will be released on April 14, my God, we could be inundated!
As Amelia Cartia wrote on the Il Fatto Quotidiano, “The identity of the goose who laid the golden egg of Italian literary production, seems to remain safely under lock and key, notwithstanding literary scholars. Lucky for Ferrante.”
I would add: “For now.”
To be sure, I guess you can say it’s all in good fun. A literary parlor game. A bit of gossip about a cutting-edge Italian writer; it almost makes you feel like you’re on an overseas holiday just to discuss it. Plus, I’m thrilled The New York Times has paid such close attention to Ferrante in particular and Italian literature in general (as someone born on Long Island, I consider it my paper of record).
And I must admit, having lived in Pisa, I was intrigued when Santagata noted in the Lettura piece that while the real Ferrante most likely attended university in Pisa in the 1960s, she doesn’t mention the 1966 flood of the Arno in her books. Hmmmm! That IS interesting.
Then there’s a television adaptation in the works of the Neapolitan series. Speculation about the series? Speculation about who will play Lila and Elena? I’m in! Let’s go!
But as I’ve said, while almost nothing about Italy bores me, one possible exception is the speculation over Elena Ferrante’s identity.
If for no other reason than the discussion in Italy has at times included those who question her gender and insist she (he!) is really Domenico Starnone (one name among several Italian male authors thought to be the “real” Ferrante).
When asked at a lecture at Bennington College about this aspect of the guessing game, The New Yorker critic James Wood said the supposition that Ferrante might be a man is nothing short of sexism. To my delight, Wood, largely credited with bringing Ferrante to the attention of the American literary world, dismissed curiosity about her identity as something that would probably not happen to a male writer (full disclosure: I’m a candidate for an MFA at Bennington and it was me who asked the question!).
Why be a part of that?
And is it really so odd that she would want to opt out of the spotlight? After all, she has what I think many writers want: the ability to publish her works with a very solid publishing company. An enviable relationship with publishers who adore her. Isn’t that enough?
Besides, Ferrante reasons that her books will find an audience if they merit them, making the act of slavishly promoting works through book tours and interviews unnecessary.
Mind you, we can all think of books we wish had a wider audience so perhaps la Ferrante is wrong. And yet how daring on her part—long before the success of the Neapolitan series—to gamble so much by standing on the merit of her works!
A better question, in my opinion, than who she is, again, is she going to write something else and what can her works teach us about publishing literature in translation? Her approach sure seems to be working, especially in the U.S. and the U.K where she is a cult literary sensation.
Why fiddle with what’s working?
To quote Daria Bignardi again, from the Italian edition of “Vanity Fair,” there are some literary heroes about whom we’ve learned entirely too much. For example, the recluse, J.D. Salinger. Using a term Ferrante herself employed to describe the old woman from Olga’s Naples childhood who was never able to overcome her husband’s abandonment (“poveraccia”), Bignardi notes of Salinger, “It’s not for nothing that the poveraccio tried to hide his whole life.”