A Writer By Any Other Name

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Naples, Italy

The literary world is abuzz with the news of the unveiling of the identity of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian author of the tremendously popular and successful Neapolitan quartet of novels. The person responsible for unmasking the reclusive and private author is Claudio Gatti, an Italian investigative journalist who used Ferrante’s financial and real estate records to reveal her real name. Not only has his conduct been viewed as an intrusion of the artist’s privacy but as a sexist act of violation by her millions of fans around the world. I will respect her wishes and not divulge her name in this post. Her identity had been shrouded in mystery for many years and needless to say piqued the curiosity of many readers. Some speculated that the author was a man writing under the name of a woman while others thought that there were two writers and even made the assumption that she collaborated with her husband in writing the books. Why did the author feel the need to conceal her identity in this day and age when it is very difficult to stay away from the public eye?

Many authors have written under assumed names including male authors like Stephen King, Voltaire and George Orwell to name a few. Often writers wish to distance themselves from their previous work and take on a different pen name while attempting a new genre. The works of women writers have historically been viewed as inferior compared to the writings of their male contemporaries prompting many of them to either remain anonymous or to take noms de plumes in order for publishers to think they would be a commercial success. Virginia Woolf, in her essay, A Room of One’s Own explains how the patriarchy has suppressed women and states: “Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” The Brontë sisters wrote initially under the pseudonyms of three brothers, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell and only revealed their identity when they were confused with Jane Austen. Colette, the highly acclaimed French author, published her first four novels of the Claudine series under Willy, the nom de plume of her first husband. And then we have the two Georges of the 19th century, George Eliot and George Sand whose real names were Mary Ane Evans and Amantine-Lucile-Aurore- Dupin, respectively. We don’t even have to go back that far for examples. Even in our contemporary era, we have J. K. Rowling who dropped her first name Joanne and made it an initial to become less gender specific. She also wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling under the name Robert Galbraith to make the work appealing to both boys and girls but it didn’t take long for her identity to be uncovered. Interestingly, Elena Ferrante assumed a female pen name for writing her novels. She believed that her anonymity facilitated the creative process and she shunned any kind of publicity whether in the form of book signings, interviews or a social media presence.

The fact that the protagonist- narrator’s name is Elena in the Neapolitan novels adds to the conjecture that the novels could be autobiographical or semi- autobiographical in tone. The four books in the series, in flash-back form, follow the trajectory of Elena and Lila, two friends growing up in the working class neighborhood of Naples in the fifties and sixties. Both girls are brilliant but couldn’t be more different than each other. Lila is bold, feisty and mercurial whereas Elena is more reserved and timid. Elena’s education allows her to break free from the confines of her restrictive upbringing whereas Lila cannot escape the neighborhood of their childhood. I’ve read My Brilliant Friend, the first book of the bildungsroman quartet, translated by Ann Goldstein who deserves as much if not more praise as Ferrante herself for creating ‘Ferrante fever’ with readers all over the English speaking world. My Brilliant Friend is the story of an intense and enduring friendship. But it is not just a sweet and touching account of friendship. It is also a complex and antagonistic relationship fraught with jealousies and insecurities. It is definitely not chick-lit but a dark and disturbing book. Early on in the novel, Elena says “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.” With searing honesty and passion, she describes dysfunctional families with their macho culture, sexual harassment, family feuds and class conflict amidst the poverty and violence of post- war Naples. It took me a while to get into the book. For one, there are too many characters with multiple names. Secondly, reading a book in translation however well-rendered requires a little bit more of an effort from the reader. The unexpected cliffhanger of a denouement and the fact that my friend urged me to be patient with the first book made me eager to read the next book in the series. The writing is raw and brutal, almost visceral in parts which I suspect led many to believe that the author might be a man. Somehow my instinct told me all along that Ferrante was a woman but does that even matter?

Do you think a work of art should be an entity by itself or seen in relation to the author? I personally like to keep the author separate from the book. A reader’s relationship is with the book and not the author. I have trouble reading Ezra Pound or Hemingway objectively after reading so much about their lives and exploits. With living authors it is even harder to separate the person from the work. Readers tend to interpret everything as autobiographical especially if it is a female author. According to Gatti, knowing the identity of an author is important to understand the fiction. He feels Ferrante misled her readers in La frantumaglia , a collection of letters, essays and fragments where she describes herself as a daughter of a Neapolitan seamstress and believes that he did a favor to her readers by exposing the truth about her. It is very difficult to be anonymous these days and an author who is deliberately mysterious will always ignite curiosity. Was Gatti right in ‘outing’ her under the guise of unveiling the truth? If she has consciously sought privacy, then why unmask her? Before the publication of her debut novel, Ferrante wrote to her publisher: “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.” Let’s leave Elena Ferrante alone. She deserves a room of her own.

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One thought on “A Writer By Any Other Name

  1. I certainly agree. I definitely read for the material and rarely get into much about the author. I almost think of the two as separate entities….strangely with the exception of autobiographies 😉

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