As the fame of the Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay author grows, so does the guessing game about her identity
Lizzy Davies in Rome
Elena Greco knows what it is to be a writer with a public face. She knows the thrill of her name in print and the satisfaction of telling the doubters back home: I did it. But she also knows the pitfalls of tying one’s identity to a tell-all novel: the facile media, the unkind critics, and the cringing embarrassment of old friends trawling through the “dirty bits” with raised eyebrows and judgmental zeal.
Greco, however, is a fictional character, the narrator of a three – soon to be four – novel series about the lives of two young women in postwar Italy. In stark contrast to her fictional heroine, the writer who created her shuns the limelight completely, to the extent that no one, except a handful of people close to her, knows who she is. Over the past two decadesElena Ferrante – a pseudonym, of course – has become one of her country’s most exciting and compelling contemporary literary voices. And, as her celebrity grows, so too does the guessing game surrounding her identity.
Amid a slew of new, overwhelmingly positive pieces in anglophone publications, including the New Yorker, following a new English translation of Storia di chi fugge e chi resta (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay), the mystery was reignited, in faintly farcical tones, in Rome this week when a prominent male novelist, who for years has been touted as “the real Ferrante”, was forced again to deny he was the elusive writer.
“Put yourself in my shoes,” pleaded an exasperated Domenico Starnone, who, like Ferrante, was born in the southern city of Naples. “I have an idea [for a book]. And because everyone thinks I am Ferrante, I am supposed to ditch my idea?” He was challenged by a journalist interviewing him for La Repubblica to explain why, given the rumours, he would choose to write a novel with “unequivocal” similarities to Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment (I giorni dell’abbandono) in which she recounts, in the first-person, the despair of a woman left by her husband for a younger woman.
“Mrs Ferrante is not the only one to have written about abandoned women, you know,” Starnone was quoted as saying. “Why are we not talking about the link between Starnone and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina?”
For almost a decade both he and his wife have been whispered about as the real authors of Ferrante’s works, including her celebrated Neapolitan novels. But, beyond their shared roots in Naples, Starnone insists there is nothing to link them. “Let’s say I am Ferrante, or that my wife is,” he said. “Explain to me one thing: given that it is so rare, in this mud puddle that is Italy, to have international reach, why would we not make the most of it? What would induce us to remain in the shadow?”
Starnone is not the only one irritated by the persistent association of their names. On Twitter last month journalist Costanza Rizzacasa d’Orsogna fumed at “the ferocious sexism of thinking that, as she is so good, Elena Ferrante must be the pseudonym of a man”.
In a letter to her editor, Sandra Ozzola, in 1991, Ferrante explained why she would not be doing any publicity for her first novel, L’amore molesto, published in 1992 and in 2006 in English as Troubling Love. “I’ve already done enough for this long story: I’ve written it,” she said.
“If the book is worth something, it should be enough. I will not participate in debates and conferences, if I am invited. I will not go to accept prizes, if I am given any. I will never promote the book, above all on television, in Italy or, should the need arise, abroad. I will only participate through writing, but I will also try to keep this to the bare minimum.”
While her desire for anonymity may seem incomprehensible to some writers, it is understood perfectly by others. At the Rome international literature festival in June, the Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri took centre-stage at an event devoted to Ferrante, who may – or may not – have been present in the mostly female audience.
“How wonderful it is that you are a writer able to communicate with the world through your words only, your literature only. If I had had the same courage, I would also have liked to pursue my literary career in the same way,” said Lahiri, reading from an open letter to Ferrante in the Italian she set about perfecting after reading The Days of Abandonment.
She continued: “To those who consider you an absent writer, I would say: anything but. Despite your elusiveness, I detect a door that is more open than closed. As I myself now feel too much in the public eye, I try to close the door, limit the amount of contact I have with the public. By avoiding that completely, you seem to me, in some ways, a more transparent writer. Thanks to the mask that makes you invisible, you are able to write and reveal anything.”
Her approach is also appreciated by writers who have chosen, in varying ways, to avoid baring all. Donna Leon, an American writer based at the other end of Italy from Naples, in Venice, has seen her Commissario Brunetti detective novels published around the world – but she refuses to let them be published in Italian for fear it will spoil her relative invisibility.
“I’m real famous in Germany … and I don’t think it does anybody any good,” she told the Guardian. “I was 50 when this happened to me and I had the good sense to realise that it would be better in a little place [like Venice]. No Italian has ever said anything bad about the books; no Italian has ever opposed anything I’ve said in the books or been offended by it, which makes me very happy. But I don’t think it’s good to be famous. I’ve never seen a case where it is.”
In her 1991 letter, Ferrante joked to Ozzola – who, with her co-editor husband, Sandro Ferri, is one of the very few people who know her true identity – that she would be “the cheapest author in the publishing house” (Edizioni e/o]) because of her no-publicity stance. Cynical observers might argue that, in fact, Ferrante’s refusal to reveal herself has proved a most effective PR tool.
“More than in her books, Ferrante’s strength lies in her not being here, her huge distance from everything,” wrote Paolo di Paolo in La Stampa this week. Arguing that there was something disproportionate in the adulation reserved for Ferrante compared with the limp reception usually given to Italian authors by anglophone critics, he said there was a cluster of contemporary talents who were just as deserving of praise but who lacked an accompanying authorial mystery.
“Some will object that in literature the game of pseudonyms is fair play. Yes, but it is rare they last for more than 20 years,” he said. “And anyway … it’s far less interesting than a life, a face, a real experience.”