National Post

Who is Elena Ferrante? Behind the ‘unmasking’ of an author sworn to anonymity

Mike Doherty, Special to National Post | March 18, 2016 1:01 PM ET

The cover image for Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, with a faceless woman — much like the author herself.

“Who Is Elena Ferrante?” asked Milan newspaper Corriere Della Sera last weekend, and their guess at the real identity of the bestselling, pseudonymous author went viral over the course of the week. But a better question might be, “Why should we care?”

It’s one Ferrante herself would likely pose. In an email interview with the Financial Times last year — conducted via her publisher — the publicity shy writer wondered, “Who would be interested in what remains of me outside my books? The attention paid to them seems too much already.”

She may be falsely modest about her writing: The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth novel in her Neapolitan Quartet, has just been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, and her psychologically intense exploration of female friendship has made her one of the most widely praised authors of our time.

But she’s right to ask why we should need to know about her as a person — especially as nobody’s suggesting she would be as captivating as one of her characters. Rather, in an age where oversharing is the norm, we are curious about her very desire to retain a truly private life.

Europa Editions

Europa Editions

It’s also something of an accomplishment, given that privacy is becoming ever more difficult to maintain. Although the press has long pried into private lives, it’s gone into social media-fuelled overdrive.

Earlier this month, Matrix series co-director Lilly (formerly Andy) Wachowski felt compelled to come out as transgender after being doorstepped by a journalist from the Daily Mail. And a few days before, a widely publicized report purported to have uncovered the secret identity of guerrilla street artist Bansky by using a geographical profiling technique the researchers suggest could be used to catch terrorists.

As if the use of surveillance tools to catch out reticent artists wasn’t bad enough, it’s now de rigueur for all creative types, no matter how introverted or inept at self-promotion, to be constantly on social media, selling themselves and their work, as well as setting out their stalls in person at concerts, art fairs and festivals.

Ferrante’s publisher, Sandra Ferri, has said Ferrante wrote to her in 1991, “I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love (her first novel, published in 1992), anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it.” If this was a brave stance 25 years ago, it would be viewed as the height of entitlement now.

It wasn’t always thus. In his 2007 book Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature, John Mullan tells us, “The very word ‘anonymous,’ used to describe a literary text, dates only from the 16th century, as if it took print to make the absence of an author’s name an important fact.” Only in the middle of that century did title pages become common in books.

We’re inevitably drawn to the books themselves, which we must interpret without the crutch of an author’s persona. This seems a good result for a work of art

For centuries thereafter, authors often hid under assumed names — or no names at all. Anonymity could help an author whose writing might be accused of being seditious (an unmasked Daniel Defoe was pilloried in 1703 for mocking the Anglican Church), deflect attention from one’s private life (as in the case of Mary Anne Evans, a.k.a. George Eliot, who was cohabiting with a married man) or simply signify authorial modesty (Jane Austen’s novels were attributed to “A Lady,” although Mullan notes that people found out anyway, and her meeting with her publisher was “a step that could be of great symbolic importance for successful women writers in the 19th century”).

Ferrante has expressed admiration for Austen: in an introduction to Sense and Sensibility published last year, she claims her predecessor’s stories “are not reducible to her; rather, they are written from within a tradition that encompasses her and at the same time allows her to express herself.” The narrator of the Neapolitan Quartet is called Elena, and perhaps Ferrante feels freer to delve into issues of gender (as did Austen, who Ferrante says “describes the ferocity of the male world”), class and vexed political history when using a pseudonym.

But Ferrante is also playing a literary game with a long history: Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was published as “by himself,” and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as “by Lemuel Gulliver.” Both authors aimed to suspend readers’ disbelief in their tall tales. In Ferrante’s case, her novels come across as potentially autobiographical.

Indeed, Corriere Della Sera’s attempt to unmask her involves an analysis of historical and geographical details in the novels. The person they’ve pointed to, a Neapolitan history professor named Marcella Marmo, has denied she’s Ferrante, and for all we know, the newspaper has fallen victim to elaborate authorial misdirection.

Might Ferrante be secretly enjoying the speculation, just as Fanny Burney did when she published Evelina anonymously in 1778? Her novels’ covers themselves play games; her publisher has admitted to using “kitsch” cover art, because “vulgarity is an important aspect of the books, of all that Elena (the narrator) wants to distance herself from.” In other words, the cheesy photos are meant as commentary on cheesy photos, although with no knowledge of this, one might take them at face value.

Ultimately, Ferrante’s anonymity forces us to take nothing for granted in her work — or should it be “his work?” After all, back in 2006, another Italian newspaper used computer analysis of her style to surmise that Ferrante is, in fact, author Domenico Starnone — something he continues to deny, with increasing exasperation.

Because we don’t really know Ferrante, we’re inevitably drawn to the books themselves, which we must interpret without the crutch of an author’s persona. This seems a good result for a work of art.

What’s more, as the cult of personality grows in politics and elsewhere, it’s refreshing to find someone who’s in a position to be famous but doesn’t want to impose, or to have us impose on her. Here’s hoping our newfangled surveillance tools don’t kill the golden goose.