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3 October 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 3:33pm

The story of an old name: why readers reject the sexist unmasking of Elena Ferrante

It’s not the first time critics have attempted to use the biographical details of women’s lives to diminish their writing.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

“The trouble about investigating a creative writer,” notes the biographer Victoria Glendinning, “is that they have often prepared the ground, and laid down their own myth.” In recent years, perhaps no creative writer has laid down their own myth quite as comprehensively as Elena Ferrante, with her four semi-autobiographical Neopolitan Novels.

In fact, Ferrante has not so much prepared the ground for prospective biographers as she has sown, nurtured and fenced off an intricate garden of myth-making, a No Entry sign stuck firmly to the locked gate. Her psuedonymity is so integral to the content of her novels that they are a ready-made middle finger to anyone who attempts to dig up her “true” identity.

Of course, that hasn’t prevented people from trying to unmask her, and now an Italian journalist claims to have done just that. Many months of investigation saw him land on a name, belonging to an Italian translator who has worked for a long time for Ferrante’s publisher. Ferrante’s fans were instantly angered – it is well-known that Ferrante has often said that were her identity exposed, she would stop writing. Many read the exposure of a private, female writer by a “serious” male journalist as a sexist attempt to dismiss and silence her. The author Katherine Angel wrote,

“It speaks of a feeling of entitlement to gaze upon a woman, to see her, to unclothe her, to force her to be seen. It speaks of a need to know if a writer is a woman, so as to know whether and how to put her back in her place. It reveals a belief that women never have a right to privacy; that women are essentially publicly owned creatures. And it speaks of an urge to deliberately destroy an artist’s and a woman’s attempt to create conditions for sanity in a misogynistic world.”

Ferrante has long expressed bewilderment at the public preoccupation with authors. “The media simply can’t discuss a work of literature without pointing to some writer-hero,” she told The Paris Review. “It’s as if literature were not capable of demonstrating its seriousness simply through texts, but required ‘external’ credentials.”

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Ferrante’s work is intensely interested in female experience – in the same interview, she explains: “My experience as a novelist, both published and unpublished, culminated, after 20 years, in the attempt to relate, in a writing that was appropriate, my sex and its difference.”

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Is it any wonder, then, that the search for “external credentials” has reached such intensity when Ferrante’s work is discussed? Has any form of literature had to justify its seriousness so often as the writing of women? Ferrante knows this well. “We have to show that we can construct worlds that are not only as wide and powerful and rich as those constructed by men, but more so.”

The gendered treatment of literary lives is a problem that persists far beyond sensational stories like this one. Literary biography is a genre blighted by sexist assumptions. While biographies of poets like William Wordsworth and WH Auden don’t hesitate to suggest that their private actions were motivated by literary ambition, women writers like Sylvia Plath are branded “confessional”, and are often seen as using their work as a tool to understand their own lives. Biographies of male writers use details of their lives to try and reach a greater understanding of their work; biographies of women writers tend to use their work as a tool to unearth the scandalous details of their lives. As biographer Hermione Lee notes, women writers are treated as, “case-histories first and as professional writers second”. While men devote themselves to their work, women simply record their lives. Where a man’s life speaks to his writing, a woman’s writing speaks of her life.

Ferrante’s unusual novels, which hover somewhere  between creative autobiography and fiction, face an unusually sharp double-edged sword. If the details of the novels match the details of her life, she is exposed as simply a case history – if they don’t, she is charged with an accusation most women know all too well: she is a liar. While for men, either form can be brave, exciting, radical, for Ferrante, memoir is cheap, fiction duplicitous. She cannot win.

Ferrante’s work’s is overtly interested in disappearance, in both content and in context – her character Lila attempts to disappear as completely as the work’s extra-textual authorial identity. Ferrante has said, “It’s a feeling I know well. I think all women know it.

“There are many reasons to disappear. The disappearance of Amalia, of Lila – yes, maybe it’s a surrender. But it’s also, I think, a sign of their irreducibility.”

Many men will try to diminish writers like Ferrante, to make them smaller. But Elena Ferrante cannot be reduced to a single name. No matter how many months it took to uncover it.