All the world loves a good mystery and really there’s none better than discovering who really is Elena Ferrante, the pen name of the author of My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a Lost Child. Gargi Gupta finds out more on the famously reclusive author who refuses to divulge ‘her’ name
Literary circles the world over are agog over one question these days, “Who is Elena Ferrante?”
Some things about Ferrante we know – that it’s the pen name of an Italian writer whose latest book, The Story of the Lost Child, has been short-listed for the Man International Booker Prize 2016, and the Best Translated Book Award; that in the past 25 years Ferrante has written eight other books that have been critical and commercial successes; that she’s been called the “most important Italian writer of her generation”; that she has made it toTime magazine’s list of 100 most influential people for 2016.
But there’s a lot we don’t know either. No one, barring her publishers, knows her real identity, not even Ann Goldstein, who has translated six of her books into English. In fact, it’s not even known for sure that Ferrante is a woman. The Italian media has tried to unravel the mystery surrounding her and attempted to substitute truth with speculation where they failed. For instance, in early March, an article in the Italian newspaper Corriera Della Serra argued that Ferrante was actually a professor of history in Naples University called Marcello Marmo. The piece of gossip was repeated by everyone from the New York Times to The Times of India but was later denied by both Marmo and Ferrant’s publishers.
All that’s now written of Ferrante in her author bio — that she was probably born and grew up in Naples, but doesn’t live there now, has a degree in classics, and is, or was, married, and a parent – is speculation from what she lets on in her novels.
All the world loves an enigma, especially one that’s as closely guarded as this one.
Back at the time of her first book’s publication, Ferrante had written a letter to her publisher to explain, “I believe that 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 … Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.”
In Fragments (2003), she elaborates further on what she calls her ‘private timidity’: “The media, especially when it links photographs of the author with the book, media appearances by the writer with its cover…abolishes the distance between author and book, operates in such a way that the one is spent in favour of the other, mixes the first with the materials of the second and vice versa….. The editorial marketplace is in particular preoccupied with finding out if the author can be used as an engaging character and thus assist the journey of his work through the marketplace. If one yields, one accepts, at least in theory, that the entire person, with all his experiences and his affections, is placed for sale along with the book.”
It’s a devastating insight into modern publishing, implying a criticism of the marketing jamboree that accompanies a new release, akin, almost to the launch of a new car, or clothing line – elaborate launches, promotional tours, appearances at literary festivals, interviews in the media, book sign sessions – and also of authors who are complicit in it. In a sense, Ferrante’s quixotic refusal to “promote” her book sets her apart. Ironically, it’s also what feeds the frenzy of media interest surrounding her.
This media frenzy and the millions of copies her books have sold constitute a compliment to her success that even Ferrante has not been able to resist. And so, unlike at first when she declared that she wouldn’t take part in conferences or discussions, wouldn’t go to accept prizes, if any were awarded, she has consented in recent years to be “interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum”.
The first of these was a long interview which she gave to Sandro and Sandra Ferri, her publishers, which was published in The Paris Review in spring 2015. Vanity Fair interviewed her via email in August 2015, The Financial Times in December 2015, The Guardian in February 2016, and so on. There’s now also a website, the handiwork no doubt of her publishers, which aggregates news articles and reviews of her books to appease somewhat her fans desire to connect with her.
Now if we only knew who she really is.
‘Men’ of many letters
Pseudonyms or pen names are fairly common in the annals of literary history – think of Saki, Lewis Caroll, Herge, Mark Twain, O Henry, and closer home, Gulzar and Premchand.
Women writers, especially, have tended to take on masculine-sounding names because they perceive a male bias among publishers and readers. Think of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), or the Bronte sisters who wrote first as Currer (Charlotte), Acton (Anne) and Ellis (Emily) Bell. But a famous and recent example of this is E.L. James, Erika Leonard in real life, who took on the gender neutral initials because she felt that Fifty Shades of Grey‘s sexual content would be better accepted coming from a male writer.
Similarly, J.K. “Joanna” Rowling has said that she felt young boys, her intended readers, would not read an adventure story by a woman. Rowling took on yet another pen name, Robert Galbraith for her crime novels. This time it wasn’t gender but her need to mask her Harry Potter persona so it didn’t get in the way of readers’ response. Ironically, however, theCormoran Strike really took off only after a newspaper expose revealed that Galbraith was Rowling.