Even grown-ups want to believe in fairytales, as a journalist found when public outrage greeted his “unmasking” of the best-selling Italian novelist Elena Ferrante this week.
Claudio Gatti, an Italian investigative journalist, applied his forensic skills unusually “to make a powerful case”, in his words, for the real identity of the pseudonymous Ferrante, author of a quartet about two fictional women’s lives in post-war Naples, beloved by readers – especially women – around the world.
In a long article published on Monday in The New York Review of Books and publications in Italy, Germany and France, Gatti used leaked financial statements from Ferrante’s publisher, Edizioni e/o, to show payments to Anita Raja, a translator of German literature, had risen dramatically since international sales of Ferrante’s books took off.
The publisher’s revenues went up 65 per cent in 2014 and another 150 per cent in 2015, Gatti reports. He does not give figures but says Raja’s compensation increased by almost 50 per cent in 2014 and more than 150 per cent in 2015, so she earned seven times more than in 2010 when Ferrante was only published in Italy.
Ferrante was the small press’s only bestselling author in those years. She is the author of seven novels, including My Brilliant Friend and its three sequels, which are published in more than 40 countries and have sold about a million copies in Italy and 2.6 million in English translation; a recent German translation of My Brilliant Friend has sold 250,000 in five weeks.
Gatti also reports that Raja bought an expensive apartment in Rome and a house in Tuscany in 2000 after Ferrante’s first book, Troubling Love, was made into a film; her husband, the writer Domenico Starnone, bought an apartment for about $US1.5 million this year.
Michael Reynolds, the editor-in-chief of Europa Editions in New York (the English-language arm of Editizioni e/o), told me in an email, “I have heard nothing from our author on the subject of the NYRB article, so for me the claims contained in it remain nothing more than further speculation of the kind that we have always been uninterested in either denying or confirming.”
Ann Goldstein, who has translated all Ferrante’s books into English, also sent an email: “My relationship has always been with the text and with the creator of that text; that is, the voice of the writer of the words. And I don’t expect that to change.”
None of Gatti’s persuasive evidence is definitive proof, and he is not the first to point to Raja – and to Starnone. Almost since Ferrante began publishing in 1992, journalists and critics have speculated about who she is.
Raja has been named because as a translator of East German women writers for Edizioni e/o she knows the work of Christa Wolf, an acknowledged influence on Ferrante; she also published Ferrante’s first novel for the company when she was briefly an editor.
Though he denies it, Starnone has also been considered a likely candidate because text-analysis software matched his writing with Ferrante’s. While Raja’s mother was Polish (as Gatti details in a second article), Starnone is from Naples and his mother was a seamstress like Ferrante’s and the fictional Elena Greco’s in her novels.
Gatti says “[Ferrante’s] books’ sensational success made the search for her identity virtually inevitable” and quotes a saying: “In Italy even the stones know that Anita Raja is Elena Ferrante.”
Yet his clinical examination of Ferrante’s financial affairs has been the trigger for a furious barrage from writers, critics, readers and even other journalists.
The reaction seems disproportionate in the age of celebrity and public confession but perhaps it is a sign of fame-fatigue. It also reflects the passionate attachment readers feel to Ferrante’s characters – and their creator.
As well as attacking an invasion of privacy, some saw Gatti’s work as “revenge” against a feminist author who often portrays men as oppressors. Ferrante might also be wary of attention from the Camorra, who appear as violent thugs.
Australian writer Nikki Gemmell, once revealed as the anonymous author of an erotic novel called The Bride Stripped Bare, tweeted the “unmasking” was “a grossly distressing intrusion”.
— Nikki Gemmell (@NikkiGemmell)
October 2, 2016
Salman Rushdie, subject of an Islamic fatwa for The Satanic Verses in the 1980s, called this a “tawdry exposé” and declared, “I am Elena Ferrante”.
Many readers say they do not want to know who Ferrante is because her identity is irrelevant or, more romantically, the mystery enhances their enjoyment of the novels.
Most (known) attempts by authors to hide – for privacy or publicity – have been exposed, usually by journalists. “Anonymous”, the author of Primary Colours, turned out to be American journalist Joe Klein. British crime novelist Robert Galbraith was quickly revealed as J.K. Rowling.
Ferrante made it clear from the beginning that the pseudonym gave her freedom to write her intense, intimate and sometimes shocking fiction, and told her Italian publishers (who know who she is) not to expect her to promote her books.
“I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t,” she wrote in a 1991 letter.
Since then she has given a few interviews by email, including one for Fairfax Media, about her work and aspects of her life. She patiently explains her anonymity but feeds the notion that she and her characters are interwoven, no doubt helping to fuel Ferrante Fever.
An English translation of her book Frantumaglia, a collection of interviews, letters and a long essay, will be published in November. Gatti insists the book poses as memoir and fans deserve the truth.
But until someone other than Rushdie says, “I am Elena Ferrante”, we can all believe whatever we like and hope she keeps writing.