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‘Uncovering’ Elena Ferrante, and the importance of a woman’s voice

One of the questions most discussed on Italian social media is whether the same thing would have happened to a male writer who had made the same choice for privacy. dawolf-/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

‘Uncovering’ Elena Ferrante, and the importance of a woman’s voice

Italian journalist Claudio Gatti has published new allegations about the identity of the novelist who goes by the name of Elena Ferrante.

But there’s something no tax details, no prying into financial affairs, no invasion of privacy or the truth and no trace of marital or patriarchal support can ever take away from Elena Ferrante or her readers - and that is the author’s avowedly female viewpoint.

The female gaze

It doesn’t matter whether the “real” Ferrante is a woman, a man or transgender; whether she is heterosexual or homosexual; an individual human being or a collective. What matters is that in the years when she wrote her first three novels - Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter - when her readers were few and success unpredictable, she chose to identify as a woman writer.

She has continued to do so in all her public statements and in the self-commentary that appears her collection of autobiographical non-fiction writing Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey.

This is no easy choice in a country like Italy, where male-dominated journalism, publishing, and academia denies visibility – and I should add respect – to women writers, despite a long stream of extraordinary women of letters. Nonetheless, Ferrante has chosen to identify as a woman.

In essence, this means that, for a long time, the author chose to count for less: she’s had fewer opportunities for publication; she’s been labelled as a writer of sentimental novels aimed at a female readership; and she’s been ignored by cultural reviews.

Not only in her novels but also in numerous articles and in correspondence, she has chosen to depict the world from a female point of view. Ferrante has always implicitly claimed that the woman’s gaze is decisive.

Ferrante’s Italian readers are aware of this heritage. On social media and in newspapers right now, a protest is spreading against what’s being called a “safari”, or the “ruthless pursuit” of Ferrante. This pursuit that has failed to clarify anything about the writer and her novels while undoubtedly violating her right to privacy.

One of the questions most discussed on Italian social media is whether the same thing would have happened to a successful male writer who had made the same choice of confidentiality, of privacy.

Translation: Many women (readers, writers, journalists) from abroad speak of a patriarchal attack on the choices of an author.

The answer is almost certainly no, or at least not in this violent form, in this punitive way. Italian readers share concerns voiced internationally about how this journalistic investigation was handled.

The author is not dead?

There’s another feature Italian readers share with the writer’s other fans from across the world, and that’s their hunger to find reality in fiction. This need often becomes so pressing that readers abolish the barrier between truth and fiction, and attribute the events and experiences of fictional characters to the author’s life.

Something similar happens in Ferrante’s work, only with an added ingredient. Elena Ferrante’s entire writing is governed by the suspicion that weighs on much fiction: a suspicion that it is invented and therefore artificial, unnecessary, not directly reflecting real life, lived experience or our identities.

But Ferrante is saved from this suspicion of artificiality because her anonymity allows readers to attribute the narrated events to her life. We know that Ferrante has maintained her anonymity for diametrically opposed reasons: to call attention to the value of the written text as autonomous and beyond the empirical author who produced it, and to reject any form of exhibitionism in the author, undermining any equivalence between literature and show business.

But, absurdly, her desire for her fiction to stand alone doesn’t count. Indeed, Ferrante’s anonymity has had precisely the opposite effect by imposing a link between her secret identity and narrative fiction.

Ferrante’s fictional narrative evokes the powerful fantasy of a memoir, a continuous connection between her life and works. Her writing is thus paradoxically considered an infinite memoir, because every fragment testifies doubly to a life lived and a life yet to be lived (to be invented), and can continuously stimulate the process of readers’ identification of one with the other.

If this is true of all of her novels, it applies even more so to the so-called Neapolitan novels: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child.

These four volumes do not feature the systematic use of flashbacks that was the narrative technique of Ferrante’s first three novels. Instead, time acts as a record, as a transcript of even minute events. Meaning is created by the progression of time that dictates the pace of the formative years of the two friends.

The realistic style of this female friendship saga has the effect of abolishing the border between artifice and reality. Ferrante thus situates her writing at the margins between fiction and memoir, and explains the continuous seepage between the two.

We do not know whether Ferrante is going to write any more or not, but she will certainly continue to resist the assimilation of literature into the logic of show business. Thanks to Gatti’s investigation, her many readers in Italy and elsewhere seem to have discovered that while their hunger for reality might be a legitimate desire, it can never be satisfied by the violation of Ferrante’s privacy.