Unmasking Elena Ferrante

I imagine you have heard of it already, billed as both a great piece of investigative journalism and a terrible crime against literature: the presumed unmasking of the hitherto unknown Elena Ferrante, an Italian writer of style whose essential feature, whose animating influence, had been anonymity. She could have been anyone. That was the thrill; that was a serious attraction.

Not that, ever the artist, she had not constructed a story for herself, as affecting as any in her books. She had lived in Naples, she said; she had ‘run away’. And she had made a name for herself, as it were, in both the physical and the literary senses, despite using the name of another.

That takes some doing. And her works, in the original Italian and in translated versions, sold well; they sold excellently. And where success is, interest is soon to follow: interest in her life, in her work, and, most importantly, in her identity. People want to know, and that public appetite galvanised journalists and literary scholars to try their hand; they wanted to get there first and to unmask the novelist. They wanted to be as famous, even briefly, as she had become.

Interest led to questions; questions led to serious inquires; and these have led to the latest attempt to discover her identity: a dual article by Claudio Gatti, originally published in the Italian Il Sole and syndicated around the world, in which he did some digging and gave what he took to be the real name of the woman without one.

This was good journalism by any standard; it was suitably investigative and lateral; it used records of Ferrante’s publishing house to investigate the payments it made to its employees. No one had done that before; they were too busy attempting to put examples her style through algorithms and computer programmes, attempting to synthesise a kind of writerly smoking gun. People have been named as Ferrante before; one was an obscure academic, quickly thrust into the spotlight. That looked a little unlikely; this conclusion, which I will not elucidate, does not.

But as a work of literature – or rather a work sympathetic to literature – this was a failure; despite its high flown aspirations and stylistic skill, Gatti’s story is not of a literary character. It’s a fairly mundane and prosy interruption of a more poetic and subtler thing. In an ineffable way it isn’t literature, and it never could be.

Cyril Connolly wrote in Enemies of Promise that a true writer must never publish anything that will not be reprinted; there is no lasting literary greatness in that. He was half right. These pieces of Gatti’s were reprinted, but they are still devoid, on an elemental level, of literary value.

There is something good about adopting names to write; there is something liberating about it. From Eric Arthur Blair to Michael Foot to Connolly himself – he wrote The Unquiet Grave under the name Palinurus – the early twentieth century was a golden age of assumed names. But let us not forget Mark Twain, whose nom de plume may not be the name derived from slang of the Mississippi steamboat pilots he once moved among, but it sticks because there is something of value in it.

Writers can name their characters to create impressions; some, like Dickens, are famous for doing so to great effect. Why not allow them to extend the same intention to themselves?

There was and is both real pleasure and genuine usefulness of publishing under a nom de plume; and it is worth noting that, despite the initial satisfaction in finding out, or reading about, the real identity of such people, it is more than likely that such information was kept from popular view for a reason.

Kanan Makiya wrote Republic of Fear, a book chronicling the horrors of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil. He is free to use his own name now, but it would have been unthinkable then. For such people, anonymity is the only safeguard; it’s the only protection they have. Naming authors may be interesting, it may be thrilling, but that cannot but frighten people like Makiya, people whose stories need to be told in their own words and under the names they choose.

This act of Gatti’s is necessarily unfortunate, and though it is what newspaper readers want – minor scandal, detective work, hidden truths – we must recognise such things have limited real value and can do real harm. Essentially, however, and zooming out, this is a short term response to a wider and longer literary question; the stories Ferrante wrote really ought to be the focus of attention, rather than what motivated Claudio Gatti to undertake his investigation, and thereafter made the public read the thing.

And in any case, it seems clear that the stories that Ferrante wrote and will continue to write really ought to be the focus of attention, rather than who, under the necessary artifice of an assumed name, she might be.

A version of this piece was originally published in The Cambridge Student.