31 October 2016 ¦ Paulina Drėgvaitė
In A Room of One’s Own, first published in 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote about the importance of space – both physical and metaphysical – to the undertaking of writing. This lack of space often prompts female writers to use a nom de plume or opt for anonymity in order to avoid scrutiny, or, in the past, to be published at all. The reasons for this are numerous. In many cases, the reception of literary work produced by women is locked within the framework of their gender and assuming a male persona allows it to transgress that boundary: think Mary Ann Evans choosing the comfort of naming herself George Eliot, think Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin opting for George Sand and the Brontë sisters publishing under masculine pseudonyms.
In the case of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonym of a best-selling Italian novelist who has been published under that name for over 20 years, anonymity was (and I emphasise the past tense here) a crucial aspect of her literary persona: it gave her the necessary privacy and space to write in peace. Ferrante is perhaps most well-known for her four-volume work known as the Neapolitan Novels, detailing the coming-of-age of two Italian girls, struggling to survive in a city marked by poverty and violence. These novels offer such intimate insight into the realities of poverty-struck, post-war Naples that a lot of the readers operated under the assumption that she was indeed a native Neapolitan.
In numerous interviews, usually conducted via e-mail, Ferrante expressed the desire not to be tied down to a social image and public obligations. One might argue that in our post-structuralist understanding of literature, Ferrante’s anonymity enabled the readers to experience her novels without the intrusion of the author. Indeed, the writer wanted – perhaps naively – to speak and to be known through her novels since once one is identified as an author, endless duties begin: interviews, book tours, cover photos, book fairs, and, most importantly, the never-ending scrutiny of one‘s personal life and, in the case of a woman, one‘s appearance. It is no wonder that Ferrante threatened to quit writing should her ‘true identity’ be outed.
Ferrante’s wishes for anonymity have often been disregarded, numerous inquiries being launched into her identity over the years, various hypotheses being raised but never confirmed. However, this October saw the most abhorrent attack on the writer’s privacy so far. The New York Review of Books published an article titled “Elena Ferrante: an Answer?” by Italian journalist Claudio Gatti, who took it upon himself to examine years and years’ worth of financial records, including real estate transactions and royalty checks to unmask Ferrante’s ‘lies’ and to out the writer behind the pseudonym.
Gatti concludes his article by stating “In an age in which fame and celebrity are desperately sought after, the person behind Ferrante apparently didn’t want to be known. But her books’ sensational success made the search for her identity virtually inevitable. It also left financial clues that speak by themselves”. His line of inquiry and his infuriatingly patronising tone showcase a complete disregard to Ferrante’s endlessly expressed desire for anonymity and, most importantly, positions her identity as a riddle to be solved. Gatti’s claim that this search was ‘virtually inevitable’ is a muddled defence of a conscious prolonged effort to unmask and expose. If Ferrante has claimed that such exposure would result in her abandoning writing, how is one to view this but as an effort to silence and punish?
The NYRB is complicit in this effort, providing Gatti with a platform to showcase his findings and legitimising such invasions of privacy as high-class journalism. Since the publishing of the article, numerous readers and writers have expressed their outrage and disbelief in this turn of events. Perhaps most notably, the Times Literary Supplement’s editor Stig Abell persuasively argued against such literary scoop, rightly asking: who benefits from this exposure? Certainly not the readers, many of whom expressed their support of Ferrante’s anonymity through various online platforms.
Gatti however seems to believe that readers are entitled to the knowledge of Ferrante’s true identity, that her refusal to provide these details constitutes a crime. He patronisingly attempts to mansplain his way through this literary phenomenon: to reduce Ferrante’s writing to ‘women’s writing,’ an expression of her gender, neatly shelved under romance and chick-lit. Had Ferrante opted for a male pseudonym perhaps Gatti would deem her worthy of his respect. Indeed the adoption of nom de plumes by contemporary male writers such as Thomas Pynchon or J. D. Salinger have granted them not only respect but a distinct mystique and allure.
The publishing of Gatti’s inquiry has showcased the persistence of the suspicion regarding female authorship. The personal is indeed the political, this unmasking being not only a violation of privacy but an expression of a patriarchal lens that is both exposing and punishing those who attempt to transgress imposed gender boundaries. I can only hope that Ferrante refuses to be silenced by such deplorable tactics and continues to define her own.
About Paulina Drėgvaitė
Paulina is currently studying for her MSc in Film, Exhibition and Curation at the University of Edinburgh. She previously studied Theatre and Performance studies at the University of Warwick. Her main research interest is the variety of the relationships between gender and film. She is also an enthusiast of theatre, cats and literature.
Abell, Stig. “Why the TLS would not have named Elena Ferrante”. The Times Literary Supplement. The Times Literary Supplement, 03 Oct. 2016. Web. 30 Oct. 2016. http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/tls-not-named-elena-ferrante/
Gatti, Claudio. “Elena Ferrante: An Answer?” The New York Review of Books. The New York Review of Books, 02 Oct. 2016. Web. 25 Oct. 2016. http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/10/02/elena-ferrante-an-answer/
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin, 2000. Print. Penguin Classics.