The recent “outing” of the Italian author, or authors, who work under the name Elena Ferrante has sparked a furious discussion in the literary world. For two decades no one knew who was writing Ferrante’s hugely popular books—until this month, when Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti announced that their creator was Anita Raja, a literary translator living in Rome. Anger followed, not at Ferrante but at Gatti, for revealing what many readers didn’t want to know.
Some, including Jeanette Winterson, argue that the revelation in the press was driven by sexism: why was Ferrante, writing under a woman’s name, exposed when male counterparts like Thomas Pynchon and (presumably) the graffiti artist Banksy have seen their privacy protected for years?
Others debate the value of biographical information: do we need to know the identity of the author? Ferrante herself says no. In (written) interviews she argues that literature should be valued for itself, not for the writer. “Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter,” she told the Paris Review, adding, “The demand for self-promotion diminishes the actual work of art.”
Still others see Ferrante in terms of identity politics and the problem of writing about characters outside one’s own group. Ferrante has said that her books are autobiographical, but Gatti claims they aren’t based on her own experience. Unlike the narrator of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, Raja is not a child of the postwar Neapolitan slums: her father was a judge in Rome, her mother a Polish-Jewish refugee.
One question now is what the disclosure means for the reader. Many Ferrante fans have said they would rather have held on to a mystery they enjoyed. Others see the revelation as justified by Ferrante’s fame: a writer is by definition a public figure.
Another question is what the revelation might do to Ferrante as a writer.
Ten years ago I published the biography of a writer who worked under a pseudonym. James Tiptree, Jr. gave written interviews and even corresponded, pre-internet, with fellow writers, all of whom assumed they were getting letters from a man. It wasn’t until he had been publishing for almost ten years, 1967-1976, that it was revealed, through accident and half an hour’s detective work, that the mysterious writer was in fact a 61-year-old academic researcher and onetime CIA analyst named Alice Sheldon. Sheldon had chosen a pseudonym, not to protect herself from her readers or the press, but to conceal the embarrassing fact that she was writing science fiction, and also to keep her writing separate from her daily life.
This last reason is a common one, shared by a number of Dutch writers who have used a nom de plume. They include Multatuli, Willem Elsschot (who worked in advertising), poets Anna Enquist (a psychoanalyst) and M. Vasalis (a psychiatrist who also wanted a genderless name), and Nescio, who wrote pragmatically, “My pseudonym serves primarily to keep my employers out of my private life and ensure that I’m not drawn into one or another literary clique.”
But for Alice Sheldon the pseudonym had an unexpected side effect. She became a man as a joke, then discovered that the Tiptree name enabled her writing. It gave her creative freedom. It allowed her to say and even think things she’d never been able to write as “herself”: about her depressions, or the love for women she felt she couldn’t express in her daily life. Even certain biographical details, like her army service in the Second World War and her three years in the CIA, seemed more plausible when she signed her letters as a man. Tiptree, she once wrote, was “magical manhood, his pen my prick. I had through him all the power and prestige of masculinity, I was—though an aging intellectual—of those who own the world.”
As a woman Sheldon didn’t feel that power. When her mask came off, it seemed to her that her authority went with it, and it took her several years to start writing again. She later said, “My secret world had been invaded and the attractive figure of Tiptree—he did strike several people as attractive—was revealed as nothing but an old lady in Virginia.”
Some writers would never have published without the protection of a pseudonym, so closely can a new name be intertwined with the act of writing itself. In Ferrante’s case we have no way of knowing the real reasons she chooses to write under another name. She told the Guardian that she chose the name Elena for her main character as well as herself because “the fictional treatment of biographical material…is full of traps. Saying ‘Elena’ has helped to tie myself down to the truth.” Whose biography? Which truth? It’s been suggested that Raja might be part of a writing duo with her novelist husband, Domenico Starnone, who does come from Naples. I’m hoping that part turns out to be true. Tiptree taught me to question the whole idea of writing and authenticity, and I always enjoy it when assumptions about “masculine” and “feminine” writing styles get turned upside down.
In “The Story of the Lost Child,” the final book of the quartet, which has just appeared in Dutch, a central theme is intellectual and creative freedom, plus all the ways in which that freedom can be threatened, economically, socially, and personally. The main characters, best friends Elena and Lina, have multiple identities: as women of the lower classes, as Neapolitans who switch between dialect and Italian, as married, divorced, and working women, as mothers. Elena, who has escaped her upbringing by becoming a novelist, resists the way people are classified into categories. She comments that the world expects ”the workers to work…the intellectuals to speak nonsense, blacks to be black, women to be women. But at times I felt the need to say something truer, genuine, my own.”
In all kinds of ways a pseudonym can be an enabling strategy. Considering the importance of freedom in “The Story of the Lost Child,” I’d say “Elena Ferrante” is someone who may have had to fight for their creative liberty, and who might resort to unusual measures in order to hang onto it. To take that away from a writer, without knowing why it’s necessary or how it makes the work possible, shows disrespect not only for the writer’s privacy, but for the writer’s art.
Trouw, October 15, 2016.