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In defense of Elena Ferrante's anonymity


Last Sunday the New York Review of Books published on its website an article claiming to reveal the real identity of the celebrated Italian novelist who writes under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. The article was written by Claudio Gatti, an Italian investigative journalist. In multiple anonymous interviews, Ferrante has stated in the past that her anonymity is essential to her ability to write her frank, unsparing, often brutally honest books.

Gatti’s “doxing” of Ferrante has been greeted with almost universal condemnation by the English-language literary press, who have called it a cheap ploy for page views and a misuse of the techniques of investigative journalism. One of the most eloquent defenses of Ferrante’s anonymity comes from Dayna Tortorici at the n+1 website. Read an excerpt below or the full piece here.

Many attempts have been made to locate the “true” identity of Ferrante, some more aggressive than others. For more than a decade, Italian newspapers have argued that Ferrante was the novelist Domenico Starnone, citing thematic and stylistic resemblances between his fiction and hers. One academic called on researchers to use quantitative analysis, in the style of Franco Moretti, to substantiate the claim. After Ferrante was nominated for the prestigious (and rigged) Strega Prize for literature in 2015, the gossip blog Dagospia wrote, “Even the stones know that Elena Ferrante is Anita Raja,” Starnone’s wife. The prevalence of this rumor hasn’t stopped the latest unmasking from feeling like a fresh discovery. The investigative journalist Claudio Gatti’s “months-long investigation” into public real estate records in Rome makes the compelling case that Ferrante is, as the stones knew, Anita Raja. Gatti’s previous subjects include JP Morgan Chase and Silvio Berlusconi—targets more deserving of his skills. The article was rolled out in multiple languages simultaneously, like the NSA leak: “in English by NYR Daily, in Italian by Il Sole 24 Ore, in German by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and in French on the investigative website, Mediapart,” as the footnote read. Reporting on the reaction to Gatti’s story, the New York Times reached Ferrante’s publisher, Sandra Ozzola Ferri, for comment. “If someone wants to be left alone, leave her alone,” she said. “She’s not a member of the Camorra, or Berlusconi. She’s a writer and isn’t doing anyone any harm.”

Ferrante’s readers were quick to denounce Gatti’s revelation. I myself was irritated. Even the stones know that Ferrante is Ferrante, and that’s the way her readers want it. More than Ferrante herself, her readers have benefited from her choice, spared so much extradiegetic noise. We are as invested in her anonymity—and her autonomy—as she is. It is a compact: she won’t tell us, we won’t ask, and she won’t change her mind and tell us anyway. In exchange, she’ll write books and we’ll read them. The feminist defense of Ferrante’s privacy was especially swift. It’s difficult to read a man’s attempt to “out” a writer who has said she would stop writing if she were ever identified as anything but an attempt to make her stop writing.

Gatti’s self-defense was muddled. “The financial data not only suggest a solution to the long-running puzzle about the real Elena Ferrante but also assist us in gaining insight into her novels,” he wrote, though it’s unclear why speculation alone could not suffice: surely some enterprising readers of Raja’s work, building a similar case but limiting themselves to literary evidence, were scooped by Gatti’s snooping. Gatti further argued that “by announcing that she would lie on occasion”—fabricating biographical details to throw off the scent—“Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown.” But since when has a novelist’s right to privacy depended on her promise never to lie? Writers are not politicians. Their work does not hinge on the perfect alignment of what they say about themselves and what biographers, journalists, and tax specialists may uncover through public records. Nor are they memoirists, who owe it to their readers—and to their writing—to be who they say they are. There is no identity ventriloquism here, no cowardice in her “hiding.” Gatti’s justifications held no water, in a way.