The New York Times

Who Is Elena Ferrante? An Educated Guess Causes a Stir 

As her following grows, so does the mystery surrounding the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan novels on the lifelong friendship of two women have become a global phenomenon.

Figuring out the identity of Ms. Ferrante, who has never been identified, has become one of the literary world’s favorite guessing games, and on Sunday Italy’s leading daily, Corriere della Sera, delivered its latest twist: Ms. Ferrante might be a professor in Naples named Marcella Marmo.

Ms. Ferrante’s publisher, Edizioni E/O in Rome, swiftly denied the report, as it has every other stab at unmasking Ms. Ferrante over the years.

“It’s nonsense,” said Sandra Ozzola Ferri, half of the husband-and-wife team that runs the publishing house. Ms. Marmo, a professor of contemporary history at Federico II University of Naples, also denied the assertion. “I’m not Elena Ferrante,” she said, in a telephone interview on Sunday.

Over the weekend, Ms. Marmo had been responding to an article in Corriere della Sera’s Sunday literary supplement and an accompanying video, in which Marco Santagata, a novelist and university professor, argued that Ms. Ferrante fit the profile of Ms. Marmo. He 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.

“I did philological work, as if I were studying the attribution of an ancient text, even though it’s a modern text,” added Mr. Santagata, a philologist by training and an expert on Petrarch and Dante who teaches at the University of Pisa.

Ms. Ferrante has published under a pseudonym since her first novel, “Troubling Love,” appeared in Italian in 1992. Her author notes say simply that she was born in Naples. In recent years Ms. Ferrante has given interviews, including one with The New York Times, but always via email through her publishers.

Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri of Edizioni E/O, Elena Ferrante’s publisher.CreditChris Warde-Jones for The New York Times

Ms. Ferri said she didn’t think Ms. Ferrante would respond to Mr. Santagata’s essay. Or that she would reveal her true identity. “For now, I don’t think she has any intention of changing her position,” she said.

Published between 2010 and 2014, Ms. Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels — “My Brilliant Friend,” “The Story of a New Name,” “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” and “The Story of the Lost Child” — have rocketed the novelist from near obscurity to international fame since the first appeared in English translation in 2012.

Cinematic in scope, the novels trace the friendship of two women, Elena and Lila, from their childhoods amid the poverty of postwar Naples through the political and social changes that swept Italy in the ’60s and ’70s, to the present day. In “The Story of a New Name,” Elena, who is the books’ narrator and becomes an accomplished writer, studies at Pisa from 1963 to 1967. In a dramatic scene, she throws some enviably strong youthful writings by Lila, who does not fulfill her own writerly talent, off the Solferino Bridge in Pisa into the Arno one November.

In his essay, Mr. Santagata notes that the Solferino Bridge in Pisa was destroyed on Nov. 23, 1966 when the Arno spilled its banks in floods. The natural disaster isn’t mentioned in the novel, which otherwise hews closely to the backdrop of current events. “The silence about events of such importance suggests that if the memory of the narrator Elena Greco tells her to jump ahead to 1967, then that of the writer Elena Ferrante stops before the autumn of 1966,” he writes.

Reached by telephone at her home in Naples on Sunday, Ms. Marmo, 69, denied that she was Elena Ferrante. Of Ms. Ferrante’s novels, she said she had read only “My Brilliant Friend” and liked it. But she confirmed that she had studied history at the Scuola Normale in Pisa from 1964 until she decided to move back to her native Naples at the end of October 1966. “After my exam in moral philosophy,” she said. “Diderot,” she added. “It went well.”

Ms. Marmo said she had returned to Naples because she did not get on well with her thesis adviser in Pisa and because she had friends, family, and political connections in Naples. She was part of the center-left Nuova Resistenza movement founded by the anti-Fascist writer and painter Carlo Levi, who wrote “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” and she was married for decades to his nephew, Guido Sacerdoti, who died in 2013.

Ms. Marmo’s life and political and intellectual interests — Neapolitan organized crime, the history of capitalism, Italian social classes and industrialization in the Italian south — are also themes at the heart of the Naples novels. She spoke very quickly and energetically on a vast range of topics, and seemed to enjoy fielding questions. She said she wasn’t “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” but added that “one always has more than one identity.”

“I’m Neapolitan, Italian, a woman, a professor, a European and also a citizen of the world,” she said.

Mr. Santagata conceded that not including a flood, or using an older street name, may have been an artistic choice. “The fact isn’t that because the protagonist was at the Normale, the author had to be at the Normale, but from the novel it seems that the author was effectively at the Normale,” he said in the telephone interview. “It’s a specific case, not a rule.”

He said he had embarked on his analysis after spending time in the company — or rather the shadow — of Ms. Ferrante last year, when both his novel, “Come Donna Innamorata” (“Like a Woman in Love”) and Ms. Ferrante’s “The Story of the Lost Child” made the five-book shortlist for the Strega Prize, one of Italy’s top literary awards. Both lost to “La Ferocia,” (“Ferocity”) by Nicola Lagioia.