One might, with a little effort, recall a literary scandal of late 2016. James Wood, a few years earlier, had written a rave review of My Brilliant Friend, the first Neapolitan novel to be published in English. “Elena Ferrante, or ‘Elena Ferrante,’ is one of Italy’s best-known least-known contemporary writers”, he wrote. She had kept her identity unknown from the 1992 publication of her first novel, the uneven Troubling Love, through to the 2002 triumph of Days of Abandonment. In that slim novel, narrated by a woman whose husband leaves her for his lover, emerged the shatteringly harsh emotional reality that would become Ferrante’s signature: a limpid and authoritative style where cruelty is eternal and infinite, where women live at the razor’s edge of collapse.
Those themes achieved astonishing proportions with the four Neapolitan novels, released in English from 2012 to 2015. The series was a rare work-in-translation to sell millions of copies in the Anglo world, in what was embarrassingly called “Ferrante fever”. Indeed, it achieved a kind of popularity rarely seen in books at all, where even writers at major publishers typically make zero royalties whatsoever.
But in 2016, Ferrante was revealed. Absolute disaster was avoided — she wasn’t, as rumour had suggested and feminists had dismissed, novelist Domenico Starnone, but, according to financial sleuthing, Starnone’s wife: Anita Raja.
In English, most outlets besides the New York Review of Books declined to sully their pages with the revelation. Ferrante’s anonymity was seen as feminist defiance, and her reveal a sexist attack. In The Guardian, Suzanne Moore proclaimed: “Who cares who Elena Ferrante really is? She owes us nothing”. Aaron Bady, in The New Inquiry, called it “a violation, and a desecration”. The New Republic dubbed the whole affair “The Sexist Big Reveal“.
That autumn, her lengthy book of letters and interviews Frantumaglia appeared in English; in 2018, an HBO adaptation of My Brilliant Friend; in 2019, her disappointing novel The Lying Lives of Adults; in 2021, the star-studded adaptation of The Lost Daughter; and now, in 2022, In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing, a collection of Ferrante lectures. Indeed, she’s even had a weekend column in The Guardian — producing the iconic headline “Elena Ferrante: ‘I devote myself to plants. Is it because I am afraid of them?’ So much, then, for staying “in the margins”. So much for the threat made in a 2014 interview, that: “I remain Ferrante or I no longer publish”.
Curiously, In the Margins doesn’t make a single reference to the author’s anonymity. This wouldn’t be remarkable under ordinary circumstances, but in a volume centred around a young woman’s journey to the writer’s life, it’s quite the dodge to duck her most shocking decision. It’s more remarkable still in a book which, though quietly disappointing like so many craft essays, raises fascinating questions about the relationship of the author to the work of art.
Ferrante doesn’t have to acknowledge the reveal, since the rest of the educated world has chosen not to. Though the Raja theory has not been discredited, it’s been rejected as a violative and violent thrusting of a woman into the public against her will. In a 2018 retrospective, The Cut podcast remarked on how inspiring it was for a woman to stay anonymous, refusing the usual pressure on women to perform the emotional work of social harmony. Sensitive as I am to the pressures on women writers, this explanation, inflected by the Clinton-Trump election, doesn’t quite convince me, given that these critics never proffer a single example of another woman unveiled, or a man given privacy. Ferrante’s obvious comparator would be Karl Øve Knausgård, whose My Struggle six-part autobiography was published almost contemporaneously; but he didn’t even change the names of others, let alone his own. More importantly, these defences of Ferrante are a little over-tinged with projection, as if Ferrante putting her name on her novels were nothing different from the “emotional labor” of a woman with her social set.
I wonder if Ferrante could get away with it today, when even an Oprah’s Book Club pick like American Dirt could be trashed for “opportunistically” “appropriating” experiences foreign to the writer. Quaint as it seems now, “cultural appropriation” was a new and controversial concept back in 2016, and as a New York Times op-ed weakly pointed out, perhaps the bigger Ferrante scoop was an opportunity to discredit it. After all, Anita Raja wasn’t a working-class girl raised on the violent streets of Naples; she was born in Naples, sure, but moved to Rome at age three, and her father was a magistrate. As Gatti pointed out with disgust, ‘Ferrante’ had said her mother was a seamstress who spoke in the Neapolitan dialect, who had grown up in Naples until she “ran away”. “These crumbs of information,” he said, “seemed designed to satisfy her readers’ appetite for a personal story that might relate to the Neapolitan setting of the novels themselves”.
The Neapolitan novels even end with the narrator writing a novel about the girls’ friendship, before her best friend, to everyone’s torment, disappears. Few of us seem upset by what, almost undeniably, was a case of an upper-class woman passing herself off as lower-class in the marketing (yes, marketing) of best-selling novels almost universally received as autobiographical.
Obviously, Ferrante would never call this marketing. Explaining the anonymity, Ferrante’s most repeated refrain is that she wanted to avoid the machine of publicity, and to recentre criticism on the work produced by collective intelligence, not on her. In the media, she’s said, “the book functions like a pop star’s sweaty T-shirt, a garment that without the aura of the star is completely meaningless”. Who, though, treats her work as anything other than exceptional? Hasn’t her anonymity precisely forced the focus on the conspicuously, famously absent writer, rather than the books? And moreover, who sees writers like pop stars at all?
As literature limps along to its final extinction, regarded as irrelevant, abrasive, and even suspect by its few remaining consumers, the author is no longer the mysterious and other-worldly celebrity of, say, the Art of Fiction heyday; the author is a somewhat pitiful creature, photographed in front of its bookcase in an unkind sweater in The Guardian. The last writer before Ferrante to have totemic status was perhaps David Foster Wallace, who only doubles as a “red flag” of the pretentious male; and as Jonathan Franzen described beautifully, even he had to die to become a saint.
For a woman, the problem is double. In In the Margins, Ferrante writes that when she was starting out, “It seemed to me that the voice of men came from the pages, and that voice preoccupied me, I tried in every way to imitate it… I imagined becoming male yet at the same time remaining female”. There’s something fascinating there: the idea that the voice of writing, in general, is a male voice, as if the female writer’s body is an albatross, and her transcendental part, her thinking part, male.
What could a woman like Elena Ferrante do? Her books are vociferously angry ones, screeds against the male sex and sex itself, bone-cuttingly dark. At one point, for example, a character says of the narrator’s brilliant, and now beautiful, young woman friend: “The beauty of mind that Cerullo had from childhood didn’t find an outlet, Greco, and it has all ended up in her face, in her breasts, in her thighs, in her ass, places where it soon fades and it will be as if she had never had it.” It would have been too painful for those words to come from Anita Raja, a real, plump, unremarkable-looking older woman. This level of rage and authority had to come from a disembodied voice, not one with wrinkles and rolls.
That’s what’s missing from so many Ferrante think-pieces: the fact that she is not just a woman and not just a woman in public, but a woman artist. She talks often, in her interviews, of the space of freedom of anonymity. That space, for a woman, is one of not having a body, of being spirit. No one is more connected to their body than an older woman, for whom, with rare exception, there is not even a consolation of beauty. One knows this early on.
As she writes in In the Margins, as a young writer, “I also considered myself a lowly, abject woman. I was afraid, as I said, that it was precisely my female nature that kept me from bringing the pen as close as possible to the pain I wanted to express.” She ends up finding hope in Dante’s depiction of Beatrice as one of the “women with intelligence of love” who rise above the “vulgar daughters of Eve” to enter the realm of poetry. These pages, though, are often stunted and stiff, as if the author is avoiding the personal: that is, how did Ferrante cope with that feeling familiar to the young woman writer, that her femaleness is a chastising humiliation? Whatever feminist pride has been ascribed to her is far from the girl-power, choice-driven positivity familiar to the American scene; instead, her sense of femininity is cut with terror, anger, and a painful self-loathing. The paradox, here, is that her feminism is largely borne of hating being a woman.
But her writing persona is emphatically female, so female that any rumours she might be male have provoked violent repudiation. It’s impossible, the line goes, for a man to write books like these. So what did she get, then, by being anonymous? Without betraying her sex–and straining credulity–by writing as a man, by being anonymous she was able to write as a disembodied mind, as a pure attention. I find it revealing that so much of In the Margins concentrates on the writing self as an abandonment of self, a rejection of any single identity. She reprints paragraphs of Woolf: “One must get out of life…One must become externalised…When I write, I’m merely a sensibility”; and Beckett: “I’m something quite different, a quite different thing, a wordless thing in an empty place”.
Similar to how Beckett wrote in French to have no style, by writing as ‘Ferrante’, she could escape the worn-out and stifling limits of her given identity. For her, this depersonalisation is the beginning of art: she writes that “Dante’s capacity to situate himself in the other, pivoting on the autobiographical I, with its inherent limits, left me astonished”. Writing means to leave the self, to be pure voice, pure mind. And as a woman, still, one may not be that. Ferrante gets what so many women dream of: to be a woman without a body.
Though Ferrante fans alike treat the Neapolitan novels as autobiography — as “real” and “brave” — it’s telling that In the Margins celebrates Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Ultimately, I suppose that’s what the Neapolitan novels are: the autobiography of an imagined person dignified in her aloofness, grand in her disappearance, and so absent that the books read as if discovered in the desert. It’s not that her unveiling was all that awful an act: it’s that her fans, with all the magic gone out of art and replaced with exercises in mutual suspicion and mediocrity, have decided, albeit with a slightly inconsistent political justification, to remain studiously unaware of the truth. And who’s to blame them? And who’s to blame her?
These novels are an almost unparalleled feat in contemporary literature, more ambitious and more accomplished than is allowed in an age of diminished expectations, where the summit of contemporary literature is a naturalism stripped of coherence and navel-gazing justified as humility. With Ferrante revealed, one would have had to grapple with a question both tedious and unanswerable: can a rich woman write a poor woman’s experience? Well, yes, it would seem so. But only in secret.