The set of the TV series set a genial friend. Picture credit: Salvatore Laporta/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images

Will the real Elena Ferrante please sit down?

It is her words and voice, not her purported identity, that matter to her fans

Artillery Row Books

Journalist Claudio Gatti strikes again. With the long-awaited return to the screen of My Brilliant Friend, and the new film of The Lost Daughter, Elena Ferrante is having a bit of a moment. But, for Gatti — the author of the New York Review of Books 2016 investigative bombshell which “unmasked” Elena Ferrante as translator Anita Raja — this moment cannot exist without controversy. Gatti is back with a follow-up for The Post Internazionale: part apologia and part (who would have thought?) exegesis of Ferrante’s novels. 

Gatti is disappointed that his unmasking of Ferrante has gone largely ignored. He laments that Ferrante hasn’t stopped teasing the media with sly references to her purported identity, throwing the stone (by giving interviews about herself) and hiding the hand (by never showing her face). For Gatti, this game of hide and seek is in open contradiction with Ferrante’s proclaimed intention to keep the readers’ interest focused on the books, rather than on herself. A sullen j’accuse follows: all this time, the media have been guilty of complicity with Ferrante’s “game”, talking about her as if her identity was still a mystery. 

Gatti’s unctuous defence amounts to little more than “Ferrante asked for it”

Then, by all appearances, Gatti adds a plot twist. All the vitriol gained him by his report was misdirected. He isn’t the one to blame for violating Ferrante’s wish for privacy — instead, the fault lies with her publishers. But before we become even more thickly engulfed in the mystery, this turns out to be only one of Gatti’s many sensational statements. The way that the publishers “betrayed” Ferrante’s wish for anonymity would be by having convinced her to write Frantumaglia, a collection of autobiographical writings, to satiate her fans’ curiosity about her life. Now, it was only the duty of a good investigative journalist like Gatti that he should reveal the information given by Ferrante about her life as false; but when he unsuccessfully reached out to her publishers for confirmation that Elena, the self-declared daughter of a Neapolitan seamstress, was really Anita, a Rome-based translator born to a Polish Jewish mother, their reticence “forced” him to out her to the world. 

This, then, is what Gatti’s unctuous defence amounts to: Ferrante asked for it. 

I was part of the choir when, in 2016, fans around the world turned against Gatti. Religiously intent on upholding the illusion wrought for me by Ferrante, I resisted reading Gatti’s NYRB report until this very morning, when professional necessity forced me to. This is because I suspected that if Ferrante really had lied, she had done so with purpose.

Writers use pseudonyms for all sorts of reasons: to avoid aggravating fathers prone to frowning on unconventional career paths; to up their chances of being read by as great an audience as possible irrespectively of their sex; to deflect friends’ suspicion that they might have provided the inspiration for the villain. 

And then there’s the thrill that comes with having a literary persona whom one can inhabit and do things with, and say things through, without carrying the responsibility for any of it. For a writer to be able to extend the illusion outside one’s work as skilfully as Ferrante does — to inhabit one’s characters, to exist as the creator and the created at once — must be an exhilarating experience. For Ferrante’s audience, to play along has certainly proved nothing but exhilarating. The venom with which Gatti was showered speaks, rightfully, for people’s fondness for lies well told — or you might just call it good fiction. 

But Gatti seems hell-bent on keeping us grounded. He wants us to understand that Ferrante’s game of mirrors has a “literary cost”: it harms our capacity to locate Ferrante’s oeuvre in the context to which it belongs, thus deterring us from achieving a complete critical understanding. In outing Ferrante’s real identity as Anita Raja, Gatti’s motive was of a much more venerable nature than his critics were ready to grant him: he wanted to provide the right biographical and cultural key in interpreting Ferrante’s novels. 

People will dismiss Gatti’s repeated intrusion a second time around

Months spent surveying archives and family trees resulted in a detailed reconstruction of the extraordinary life of Golda Frieda Petzenbaum, Anita Raja’s mother, who survived two wars and the Holocaust. And what, Gatti asks, is Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy, if not the story of two women’s survival in a hostile world? Having momentarily surrendered his investigative pursuits to try his hand at literary criticism, Gatti suggests that the motif of “the fragmented self” recurring in Ferrante’s novels is a characteristic theme of the Jewish literary canon. 

Petzenbaum’s story deserves telling, yes; but not for the purpose of “better understanding” Ferrante’s work.  Gatti seems to believe that literature should be assessed according to the cultural history of which it acts as a measure. On the contrary, the Neapolitan novels are meant to be (and already are) enjoyed in their own right, and the reason they are a global phenomenon is that they resonate across time and place, not that they’re peculiar to a specific historical event. 

My bet is that people will dismiss Gatti’s repeated intrusion a second time around. I certainly know I will. I am held in happy captivity not by Ferrante’s face, but by her voice: the kind of voice that speaks to us all, despite — or perhaps because of — its mystery. 

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