It was always going to happen wasn’t it? After several abortive cracks at “identification” on the part of finicky scholarly detectives, the journalist Claudio Gatti says he’s finally put a finger on the real name behind Elena Ferrante. Break out the bubbly? I certainly won’t be celebrating.
The dust from the media storm will take a while to settle. The history of anonymous authorship is also a history of triumphalist “unmasking” at the hands of self-appointed public servants who assume the right to trumpet the spoiler – and who also, if there is justice in the world, tend to suffer their own exposure as the parasitic charlatans they often are.
Gatti thinks he has unmasked the “real author” of Ferrante’s acclaimed books – something that has been the subject of much speculation in the past – but even were this latest round of revelation to turn out to be “true”, there are bigger fish to fry here. The violation of anonymity brings with it, kicking and screaming in Gatti’s face, a host of problems at the heart of power and identity. This is an ethical, political, but also a literary issue of the deepest concern to all of us.
I work on the nameless literature of 2,000 years ago. You don’t have to tell me twice that there are a bunch of reasons why authors opt, sometimes need, to remain anonymous or pseudonymous. The range of these reasons usually meshes with the grids of historical context. There have been periods of history where the branding of an authorial name was abnormal and inauspicious, because authorship was not about claiming individual authority. Then there have been moments of danger where authors have had to abolish or toggle their names for fear of reprisal.
Ferrante – and we should continue calling her Ferrante – writes in several traditions of anonymity. All of them have radical political roots, ambitions, and effects. We could fit her into the tradition of Wu-Ming, the (originally) anonymous group of broadly Marxist cultural guerrillas, who messed around bracingly with collective authorship. Better, however, to think of Ferrante as one of the great warriors in the long line of women who have made active use of, or sometimes had no other choice than to employ, anonymous publication.
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf observed that for most women writers up to her time – for example Currer Bell, George Eliot, George Sand – anonymity was a kind of dictate born of a patriarchal compunction to chastity and self-effacement. She goes on:
Thus they [Currer Bell et al] did homage to the convention, which if not implanted by the other sex was liberally encouraged by them (the chief glory of a woman is not to be talked of, said Pericles, himself a much talked-of man) that publicity in women is detestable. Anonymity runs in their blood.
Manifesto for anonymity
What’s changed since 1929 is that publicity in women is no longer detestable. What hasn’t changed is that it is overwhelmingly men who get to set the terms of that publicity, not to mention make capital from it. Ferrante’s experiment is a radical and urgent attempt to take charge of anonymity, in a history that has always made it non-negotiable. Gatti’s act of “exposure” and “unveiling” – no matter how much he protests that an author’s identity is in the public domain – is a reactionary bid for repossession.
“Unveiling” is the traditional moment a man claims his bride by revealing her identity. Gatti could have looked no further than Ferrante’s fiction to find that it is all about this moment of revelation and repossession. It is full of the hostile threats and acts of male renaming. In the Neapolitan novels, Lina chafes under the story of her new name, her marriage to the oafish Stefano Carracci.
But there are so many other moments in the series where the narrator Elena claims her writing with her own name, only to have it blow up in her face. Her first signed article is sabotaged by her future lover Nino, chucked in the bin before it can get to press. Her first book, based on personal experience even though she changes all the character names, is inevitably read autobiographically, with social fallout for its author. Her final collaboration with Lina, a written denunciation of the Solara gang which doesn’t shrink from naming names, only puts her in danger – and doesn’t make any inroads into the male violence set to repeat itself with geological certainty. The books contain their own manifesto for anonymity.
Gatti’s “unveiling” shows that respect for anonymity only counts in certain spheres – his whole edifice depends on the information of an “anonymous source” whose name we may not see anytime soon. But in the end, this is not so much a privacy issue as it is a political one. This is about who owns Elena Ferrante. It is about allowing or denying the author the space to complete her incredible work of invisibility beyond the paparazzi apparatus, beyond the frontline lenses of patriarchy and capitalism.
The two protagonists of the series have very different approaches to authorship. Lenù prefers to sign her name to her own work; Lila prefers to destroy the products of her own hand. The series’ final scene plays with that power of self-destruction – a literary effect much more potent than self-commemoration (if you haven’t read it yet, I won’t spoil it for you).
We should not interfere with Ferrante’s right in life – or Lina’s in literature – to disappear without a trace.