Elena Ferrante's work is more important than her identity — so leave her alone
In the digital age, the "right to privacy" has become something of an elusive and unrealistic dream. Author Elena Ferrante, though, was enjoying her privacy just fine until Italian journalist Claudio Gatti unceremoniously stripped it from her on Sunday.
Ferrante, whose true name has remained a mystery up until now, is the beloved author behind the Neapolitan novels — a coming-of-age series following a Naples-born girl (also named Elena). Gatti revealed Ferrante's identity in an article in the New York Review of Books.
Gatti says the revelation comes after a "months-long investigation" that included probes into real estate records and paper trails between the woman he says is Ferrante and her publishing house, Ediozioni.
"In an age in which fame and celebrity are desperately sought after, the person behind Ferrante apparently didn't want to be known," wrote Gatti. "But her books' sensational success made the search for her identity virtually inevitable. It also left financial clues that speak by themselves."
Surely, Gatti must feel like he's landed one hell of a scoop. As he mentions in his piece, he's not the only one who has speculated as to the identity of Ferrante. But in potentially unmasking her, Gatti has first and foremost acted against Ferrante's consent and violated her entire ethos as an author. In learning Ferrante's true identity, readers may lose the most important thing of all: Ferrante herself.
Reading just a few chapters of the first Neapolitan book, My Brilliant Friend, would have most anyone wondering who writes such poignant descriptions of Italy, female friendship (or, rather, frenemy-ship), social status and growing up. But though she may have ripped our hearts out and dragged them through the dusty streets of Naples, Ferrante owes us nothing.
What's more, Ferrante has made it clear that she'd rather spend the rest of her literary career using a pseudonym. "I simply believe that today it's wrong to let one's person become better known than one's work," Ferrante said in a 2015 interview with the Financial Times.
Ferrante saw the shading of the truth not as dishonesty, but as what she needed in order to work. "I don't at all hate lies," Ferrante once wrote in a letter to her publisher, as was noted by Gatti. "In life, I find them useful and I resort to them when necessary to shield my person, feelings, pressures."
Most of Ferrante's fans were keen on respecting her wishes. In a New Yorker article, columnist Alexandra Schwartz wrote that she cared first and foremost about not finding out Ferrante's true identity.
"There are so few avenues left, in our all-seeing, all-revealing digital world, for artistic mystery of the true kind — mystery that isn't concocted as a publicity play but that finds its origins in the writer's soul as a prerogative of his or her ability to create," she wrote.
So congratulations, Gatti: You ruined it for us.
Of course, we fans weren't doing so well on our own, either. Up until Sunday's reveal, much of the speculation surrounding Ferrante's identity circled around the same conclusion: that she was a man. The author addressed these rumors in an email interview with Vanity Fair, calling out the blatant sexism inherent in assuming a successful writer — a writer who wrote as skillfully on girlhood as she did Italian politics — would be male.
"What if, instead, we're dealing with a new tradition of women writers who are becoming more competent, more effective, are growing tired of the literary gynaeceum and are on furlough from gender stereotypes?" Ferrante wrote. "We know how to think, we know how to tell stories, we know how to write them as well as, if not better, than men."
On top of this gender question lies also a storied tradition of our demands on authors who've shied away from their literary fame. People have clamored after famously reclusive writers like the late J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon for want of some perverse satisfaction.
But perhaps, unlike with Salinger or Pynchon, there is something different about Elena Ferrante remaining an enigma.
Ferrante has given us four novels that chronicle the lifetime of not just their protagonists, but an entire Italian village. Each book, hundreds of pages long, presents the reader first with a list of characters to help keep track of the ever-expanding cast, because Ferrante isn't just presenting a novel, but a fully realized world. There's something about the prose, narrative style and sheer feat of the books that feels of another time, unconcerned with the standard 250-page novel.
Ferrante's anonymity, too, gave us permission to indulge a certain nostalgia. In keeping her identity a mystery, Ferrante allowed the reader to imagine authors as we once thought them to be: writing quietly alone in some corner of the world, concerned solely with their art.
If, as she's said repeatedly, her pseudonym is what's made her feel free to write as boldly and beautifully as she has, Gatti has done something irreparable in taking that freedom from her. We cannot have Elena Ferrante without "Elena Ferrante." Learning who she is isn't worth losing her.