October 16, 2014

Elena Ferrante: should writers reveal their real identities?


This is not Elena Ferrante. Or maybe it is.

This is not Elena Ferrante. Or maybe it is.

The Guardian reports from Rome that as anglophone interest in the Italian writer Elena Ferrante increases, her home country is becoming more desperate to discover the true identity of the author.

Ferrante is best known for her series, collectively called the Neapolitan novels, which tracks the lives of two friends, Lila and Luna (short for Elena). The series has been gathering high praise over the past year in Britain and America; James Wood wrote about her in the New Yorker last year and British critics have been crowding around to praise her as their very own discovery every since. There have been whispers that Ferrante is more deserving of the praise and interest heaped on Karl Ove Knausgaard, and attention for her books could reach those levels yet. But unlike Knausgaard, Ferrante’s real identity remains known only to a small handful of people, which includes her publishers at Europa, Sandra Ozzola and Sandro Ferri.

This week, the Italian novelist Domenico Starnone was again forced to deny being the author behind the novels. After being accused by a journalist of writing a book strangely similar to Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, he responded, “Put yourself in my shoes…I have an idea [for a book]. And because everyone thinks I am Ferrante, I am supposed to ditch my idea?” He then continued his defense by asking:

“Let’s say I am Ferrante, or that my wife is,” he said. “Explain to me one thing: given that it is so rare, in this mud puddle that is Italy, to have international reach, why would we not make the most of it? What would induce us to remain in the shadow?”

Unless Starnone is pulling a clever double bluff, it doesn’t seem like he is the true writer everyone’s looking for: Starnone would trade an invasion of privacy for international acclaim, while the “real” Ferrante seems to want to avoid just that. But the situation certainly raises interesting questions about the importance of authors in promoting their novels, and what comprises a writer’s job. Writing to her editor in 1991 Ferrante explained that she’d finished all her work on L’amore molesto (Troubling Love) when she finished writing it: “I’ve already done enough for this long story: I’ve written it,” she said.

But many publishers would argue that writing the book is only half of the job: the book tour, the interviews, the readings, the commissions, the book festivals all follow. ”Is the author marketable?” people will ask in acquisition meetings, shorthand for, “Is the author attractive enough to go on the back cover flap; will they charm an audience?; can we bring them out at our parties and introduce them to book buyers?”. In the same letter quoted above, Ferrante joked that she would be “the cheapest author in the publishing house”, because her books would require no publicity and marketing budget:

If the book is worth something, it should be enough. I will not participate in debates and conferences, if I am invited. I will not go to accept prizes, if I am given any. I will never promote the book, above all on television, in Italy or, should the need arise, abroad. I will only participate through writing, but I will also try to keep this to the bare minimum.

The debate about author anonymity is further heightened when it comes to writers in translation.  As Starnone highlighted in his description of “this mud puddle that is Italy”, a foreign writer who makes it big in Britain and, especially, America, will want to make the most of it. Italy is certainly no literary backwater, but no one can deny the boost in attention and sales that comes with international recognition.

The Knausgaard campaign was outstanding in its use of the author: the author’s face on the book cover, the author’s face on billboard posters, the author’s face on t-shirts, all saying the same thing: “look at the exceptional bone structure of this handsome Norwegian man; regard the deep lines of experience etched in his face; understand this man, read his book.” The publisher made a virtue of his Nordic singularity in order to win over an English-speaking audience. They “othered” him, readers, in order to promote him.

“More than in her books, Ferrante’s strength lies in her not being here, her huge distance from everything,” Paolo di Paolo wrote in the Italian newspaper La Stampa this week, the Guardian reports. And in exact contrast to Knausgaard, Ferrante is dramatic in her absence. She is doubly foreign to us, writing in a different language but also not available for profile in Anglophone newspapers where she might be “explained” to us in our own language. You can see why Ferrante would rather avoid this, and why she becomes doubly interesting, and respected, as a result. Events around the author have taken place in Italy, New York and London, where critics and prominent fans have been happy to appear without the author in attendance. Italy might be eager for its hottest author to reveal her/himself and take advantage of the current attention but so far, it’s proving quite unnecessary.




Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.