Brow Beat

The Real Problem With the NYRB Piece That Set Out to Unmask Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante trilogy.
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.

Image by Slate

Over the weekend, Italian investigative reporter Claudio Gatti published the fruits of a months-long inquiry into the identity of mysterious Italian author Elena Ferrante. His article, appearing in the New York Review of Books as well as in French, Italian, and German publications, used real estate and financial documents to build a strong case that “far from the daughter of a Neapolitan seamstress described in Frantumaglia,” Ferrante is truly “Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator whose German-born mother fled the Holocaust and later married a Neapolitan magistrate.”

Ferrante is Jewish? Ferrante is not living in Naples and presumably not packaging her own experiences in a thin veil of fiction? Gatti unearths powerful evidence: He shows that Raja, a freelance translator, received striking increases in payment from Ferrante’s publishing house as the Neapolitan novels began to ignite international markets in 2014. While other employees of Edizione e/o received a constant salary, Raja’s annual income rose by 50 percent in 2014 and more than 150 percent in 2015—a pattern that closely mirrored the company’s burgeoning revenue, thanks to Ferrante’s best-sellers.

Gatti also dug into public real estate records, finding that “in 2000, after Ferrante’s first book was turned into a successful movie in Italy, Raja acquired in her own name a seven-room apartment near Villa Torlonia, an expensive area of Rome; the following year she bought a country home in Tuscany.” (Seven rooms in an expensive area, plus a country home! These revelations are extremely newsworthy because literature.)

He adds that during the summer of 2016, Raja’s husband Domenico Starnone (whose name has been floated in the Ferrante hunt, to the dismay of fans convinced she could only be a woman) bought a lavish apartment in Rome. Noting that Italy’s tax code favors couples who register homes under separate names, Gatti describes the residence in extravagant detail, as if it were a starlet in a real-estate porno: “a 2,500 square foot, eleven-room apartment on the top floor of an elegant pre-war building in one of the most beautiful streets of Rome, also near Villa Torlonia, with a value estimated between $1.5 and $2 million.”

The article sprinkles in a few other suggestive congruencies. Raja has translated the feminist fiction of German writer Christa Wolf, whose complicated female narrators evoke Ferrante’s own protagonists. And Nino, the character Elena’s great love, is the family nickname of Raja’s husband.

Gatti may be correct. (OK, he is probably correct.) But voices from Ferrante’s fervent readership have risen up to protest the violation of her privacy. Her publisher Sandro Ferri said, “We just think that this kind of journalism is disgusting … searching in the wallet of a writer who has just decided not to be public.” The New Yorker, Jezebel, New York magazine, and critics on Twitter reacted as though the NYRB had informed the world’s children by megaphone that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

It’s hard to blame them. With the spell of Ferrante’s anonymity most likely broken, I am struggling to reconcile my belief in journalism—in fact-finding and investigation and transparency—with a profound sense of loss. This is not empathy speaking: While I respect the author’s wish to remain unknown, I can’t summon too much heartache for a millionaire with her pick of at least three beautiful manses to patrol, however despondently. And yes, Lila and Elena have an author whether or not we are privy to the details of her life. But as a reader, I liked the way Ferrante’s absence electrified her characters’ edges. She receded, and they came into being as if by uncanny force of will. The Neapolitan novels possess a remarkable, absorbing vividness that makes them feel almost self-created. Their consciousness is not quite human; it is restive, harsh, and percolating, like a Greek fury’s, or a gathering storm’s. Ferrante’s reticence made it easier for readers to meet her in the shared space that her books are so adept at plumbing: our weird, alluring basement of fairy tales and myths.

And I liked how the specialness of the Neapolitan quartet was reflected in the riddle surrounding its provenance. My Brilliant Friend was no ordinary book; its writer was no ordinary novelist. “Readers have the right to know something about the person who created the work,” Gatti told the BBC. But even putting aside the controversy surrounding the NYRB piece’s methods and tone, does the inherent newsworthiness of Ferrante’s identity outweigh the pleasure of imagining she could be anyone? That she could be a seamstress’ daughter in Naples or a bus driver in Florence or a suit stuffed with fireflies?

In his exposé, Gatti appears to argue that Ferrante and Edizione e/o goaded reporters into unmasking her, simply because they chose to keep the secret. “Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown. Indeed, she and her publisher seemed to have fed public interest in her true identity,” he wrote.

But Ferrante, who has spoken at length about her reasons for using a pseudonym, made it clear that she was not just seeking publicity. “What counts most for me is to preserve a creative space that seems full of possibilities, including technical ones,” she told the New York Times in 2014. “The structural absence of the author affects the writing in a way that I’d like to continue to explore.”

So after 24 years, Ferrante has lost, and Gatti has won. Of course we were curious; of course we are disappointed to find our curiosity sated. At least readers’ appreciation of the novelist shines in their indignation on her behalf. Gatti, for his part, justified his scoop by claiming that Ferrante’s “sensational success made the search for her identity virtually inevitable.” It’s a strangely spineless way to talk about an investigative coup that occupied him for months. If he’s going to out this century’s most famous literary phantom, shouldn’t he at least take responsibility for the words he’s set down?