December 1, 2016 | Feature
a literary scandal
elena ferrante’s true identity
I remember exactly what my father asked when he saw me reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling for the first time: “Do you know why the cover only has her initials?” I had no idea. He told me it was because her publishers thought that people wouldn’t want to buy books about a boy written by a female author.
That memory came rushing back to me as another masked female name—this time Elena Ferrante, the pseudonym of the author of the best-selling tetralogy The Neapolitan Novels—was revealed publicly and explosively on October 2. I couldn’t stop myself from clicking on the sensational New York Review of Books’ headline “Elena Ferrante: An Answer?” when it popped up on my Facebook feed at 1:00 a.m.. The article, written by Claudio Gatti, purported to reveal the real identity of Elena Ferrante as in fact Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator.
There has been a general outcry about the violation of the Raja’s wish for privacy. The revelation also brings up important questions of sexism, legitimacy, and belonging in the literary world as related to gender and one’s past. Her anonymity contributed to the experience of her books, as more than just a choice for privacy but also as a stylistic choice, and that has been stripped away as well.
The Neapolitan Novels are set in Naples and follow the friendship of two girls, Elena and Lena, as they grow up, from elementary school, to college, to marriage and beyond. The fervor around the books is intense. Fans have gone as far as to take pilgrimages to Naples and the surrounding sites mentioned in the books.
It is worth asking how much of a role sexism played in the reception of the books and the revelations. In a surprising twist of fate, Ms. Raja’s husband, Domenico Starnone, was suspected for a long time of being Elena Ferrante. It is a disturbing example of a man being given credit for a woman’s writing, ironically a book about female friendships. Raja’s identity was unmasked by a man, who saw her request for privacy as a challenge and believed he and others had a “right” to know, making it his mission to expose her.
Raja’s true identity changed the reception of the books through her past, or the non-existence of that past, in Naples. Under the name of Elena Ferrante, she had published supposedly autobiographical fragments that said that she had grown up in Naples as the daughter of a seamstress. In reality, Raja only lived in Naples for the first three years of life, after which she moved to Rome with her father, a Neapolitan magistrate, and her mother, a Jewish immigrant who had escaped the Holocaust. These facts would mean that she did not have the intimate knowledge of Naples that she had been so lauded for—which raises the question of how her work would have been received were it published in her name, with her own, non-Neapolitan historical baggage linked to it. This becomes part of a particularly important debate as cultural appropriation has taken center stage in literary forums. Recently, Lionel Shriver gave a controversial speech at the Brisbane Literary Festival, where she claimed that, as a white woman, she should not be stopped from writing a story from a person of color’s perspective. It is a controversial topic of debate that is lent a new lens through this unexpected revelation, as both sides must figure out how to address such a celebrated piece of literature in the light of potential cultural appropriation.
This brings me to the fact that the outcry has been not just focused on Raja’s right to privacy, but also of the reader’s right not to know. Part of that may have to do with the fact that the pseudonym could be seen not just as a personal choice but as a literary one. Authors’ biographies become integral to our consumption of a book; when we turn to the cover and see someone’s name on it, it reminds us that what we are reading is in fact a work of fiction and the product of someone’s imagination. Take for example the ubiquity of female authors’ faces, such as Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. These authors’ femininity and backstories become tied up in the reader’s experience of the novel—something that functions at a different level for The Neapolitan Novels as there was no face or real name to associate the book with. Turning to the front of The Neapolitan Novels never broke that illusion, however, as it felt as if we were reading the book written by the narrator, an author. It became a self-complete and entirely believable world that existed in the south of Italy, almost like a nonfictional account. Ultimately, this choice created a space for the author to inhabit another world completely—and the illusion stayed intact for the reader in this special case as well. In light of this, we can see Raja’s choice as blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction, as well as a subtle commentary on the role of the author in a reader’s experience of a book.
Fundamentally, perhaps the reason this unmasking feels like a violation to so many people is beyond sexism or the destruction of a literary world. There are so few real pockets of mystery left in a world consumed by Google and constant access to celebrity’s lives that the mystery had something special in and of itself. A little bit of magic in the world was stripped away when Elena Ferrante was no longer Elena Ferrante.