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4 October 2016

The unmasking of Elena Ferrante: why a writer’s biography is irrelevant

In the age of the Kardashians and compulsive self-revelation, it is ever more important that art be allowed to speak for itself.

By Erica Wagner

It’s too bad that Elena Ferrante is in the news. The author who writes under this pseudonym has apparently been “unmasked” (as BBC Radio 4’s Today programme put it) by an Italian investigative journalist called Claudio Gatti. He alleges that Ferrante’s “Neapolitan novels”, which have sold more than two and a half million copies in English translation alone and which have been published in more than 40 countries, are the work of a previously unknown Italian translator.

Until now, the true author of My Brilliant Friend remained unidentified. It was a literary mystery, for those who like that kind of thing, with much speculation regarding who Ferrante might be: Neapolitan or not? A woman or a man? But many of Ferrante’s readers have been willing to accept that there need be no connection between the writer’s “real” self and the novels; indeed, that the presentation of that self would be a distraction from the books.

For Gatti, however – and for the formerly august New York Review of Books, which published the results of his “months-long investigation” – this was not good enough. As if the author were a Mafia don, Gatti went digging into financial records to find out whom Ferrante’s publisher had been paying. He combed through the details of property purchased in expensive areas of Rome and Tuscany and then presented his findings as if this were a public service.

His great work was spurred by the publication of Ferrante’s purportedly autobiographical Frantumaglia: a Writer’s Journey, which will appear in English next month. Gatti is enraged by the author’s admiration of a remark by Italo Calvino: “Ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth, of that you can be sure.” Ferrante has said, “I’ve always liked that passage, and I’ve made it at least partly mine.” In his NYRB article, Gatti makes an extraordinary leap of logic from this response: “. . . by announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown.” One hardly knows where to begin.

It is difficult to find anyone in the literary world who approves of Gatti’s work or the decision to publish it. Her Rome-based publisher, Edizioni E/O, has described it as “disgusting journalism” and Twitter is alight with fellow writers tweeting pictures of Kirk Douglas with the hashtag #IAmElenaFerrante. Stig Abell, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, found in Gatti’s piece “the regrettable, sulphurous whiff of a female artist being ‘mansplained’”. And the New Republic stated simply: “Leave Elena Ferrante alone”.

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Speaking on the Today programme, Gatti sounded as unhinged as Donald Trump. Why, he asked, should Ferrante be allowed to “lie”, “when you don’t allow politicians to lie to their voters”? Because they are politicians and Ferrante is a novelist, that’s why. Gatti then introduced the language of criminality. The person whose name he unearthed, he said, was already “the number-one suspect”.

The scholar Katherine Angel, who had been brought in to defend the right of authors to invent things, was clearly baffled but made her opinions clear. Ferrante, she said, had done nothing wrong. The writer does not owe the reader anything beyond her work.

This is the truth of it. In the age of the Kardashians and compulsive self-revelation, it is ever more important that art be allowed to speak for itself. The Brontës made themselves Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, knowing that in the 19th century their gender would stand in the way of their work. J K Rowling tried to escape her blinding fame by publishing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith – but she, too, was “unmasked” before long.

Those of us who build worlds with words wish those worlds to be complete in and of themselves. A writer’s biography may be interesting but it is, finally, irrelevant. The reasons for our interest are best expressed by the American critic Janet Malcolm, who has written in the past about “the voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike”, and which are “obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of bank-like blandness and solidity”. Malcolm is a regular writer for the New York Review of Books. One wonders what she thinks of this sorry tale.

Ferrante has given interviews before, but they have been about her writing, not about her life. “I wrote for a long time without the intention of publishing or having others read what I was writing,” she told the Paris Review last year. “That trained me not to censor myself. What I mean is that removing the author – as understood by the media – from the result of his writing creates a space that wasn’t there before . . . [I]t seemed . . . the emptiness created by my absence was filled by the writing itself.”

The best writing is the kind that endeavours to create a space that wasn’t there before, as Ferrante put it. Finding a space that may be filled by the imagination is rare and precious. How brutal to fill it with ugly gossip.

This article appears in the 05 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph