Why the unmasking of Elena Ferrante makes us all so uncomfortable
It was in the February of this year that I last wrote about Elena Ferrante. The English translations of her books were being launched in India, and it seemed as good an opportunity as any to write about one of my favourite authors.
The central theme of that column was how it helped that we didn’t know who Elena Ferrante actually was when we got lost in her fictional world. And how the author’s decision to hide behind pseudonymous anonymity was not just a writer’s caprice or a brilliant publicity stunt set up by her publishing house. Ferrante’s anonymity had a purpose: it allowed her the freedom to write about stuff that we struggle to acknowledge to ourselves, let alone say aloud to the world. And it was this liberty that allowed her voice to soar as high as it did; and to speak to the rest of us.
Well, today it is my unhappy duty to inform you that the veil of anonymity that Ferrante wrote behind has been rudely ripped apart by an ‘investigative journalist’ called Claudio Gatti, who discovered her true identity or, more accurately, invaded her fiercely-guarded privacy by rummaging through her financial and property records. And that he ‘outed’ the author in no less authoritative a journal than the New York Review of Books.
Well, be that as it may, I am not going to play Gatti’s game. I am not going to refer to the author of the Neopolitan Quartet of novels as anything other than her chosen nom de plume, Elena Ferrante. That is how she wishes to be known to the world. And it is not for us to decide otherwise.
Nor is it necessary to know the ‘real’ woman to appreciate what an enormously talented writer she is. That kind of autobiographical detail actually detracts rather than adds to an author’s mystique. The relationship between a writer and a reader is essentially one of imagination and a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Sordid reality plays no part in this social contract. If anything, it takes away from the reading experience rather than add to it.
So I, for one, am not going to enquire too closely into who Elena Ferrante ‘really’ is. I don’t want to know where she grew up. I don’t care about her romantic life. I am not interested in whether she is married, divorced or single. It doesn’t bother me if she identifies as straight, gay or bisexual. And I certainly don’t need to know whether her political beliefs verge to the hard right, the liberal centre, or the extreme left.
This is not a decision I make lightly. No, it is a decision born of bitter experience. Over the years, I have lost count of the number of authors whose books stopped speaking to me when I found out too much about their personal lives or even political beliefs.
It all began when I made the decision to study English literature in college. Once I had signed up, it was not enough to just read texts – poetry, prose or drama – and appreciate them for what they were. No, we also had to learn about the author’s, their lives, their beliefs, and all that had influenced them in the course of their literary careers.
Well, given that I was the bookish, nerdish type, I entered into the enterprise with all the enthusiasm at my command. I had no idea how badly this would go.
It began with T.S. Eliot, a poet I had always admired, some of whose passages constantly played in my mind like the lines of a much-loved song (“I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”). So you can imagine my despair when my research into the person led me, somewhat inevitably, to the discovery that he had been something of an anti-Semite.
I thought I would be okay with Philip Larkin, the writer of such immortal lines as “Sexual intercourse began in Nineteen Sixty-Three (which was rather late for me). Between the end of the “Chatterly” ban And the Beatles’ first LP”. And yes, it all seemed to be going rather well until the 1992 publication of The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin.
That’s when the essential banality of Larkin’s existence was laid bare, with its judicious mix of racism, classism, sexism and misogyny. Sample quote: “The lower-class bastards can no more stop going on strike now than a laboratory rat with an electrode in its brain can stop jumping on a switch to give itself an orgasm.” Ah, quite.
Since then, I have steered clear of getting too up close and personal with writers I admire. But I thought I was on safe ground when I picked up a biography of one of my girlhood favourites, Georgette Heyer. This was a woman who had made her reputation with Regency Romances that I had read so often that I knew the punchlines and plotlines of each by heart. And what do you know? She turned out to be a fan of Enoch Powell (yes, he of the “rivers of blood” fame)!
So, thanks very much, but I am not taking any chances with Elena Ferrante. All I need to know about Ferrante, the author, lies within the covers of the many books she has written. Everything else belongs to the private person behind that name; and that person is entitled to her privacy, keeping it safe from the rapaciously prying eyes of the world.