The journey of Elena Ferrante: Best-selling author who's never been seen in public

Dubai - The author of international bestselling novels who has never been seen in public is one of Italy's most popular literary sensations

By Mariella Radaelli

Published: Wed 8 Dec 2021, 6:45 PM

“More than one person, doubtless like me, writes to have no face,” Michel Foucault once said. To the French philosopher, writing was a means of escaping fixed identities that are restrictive.

“Do not ask who I am,” he stressed, as that is the job of “our bureaucrats and our police” to make sure our “papers are in order”. In his influential essay What Is An Author?, Foucault wrote that our definition of an author depends on the culture and will inevitably vary across time. It is a socially constructed idea.

In an earlier period, Western medieval literary texts were anonymous. Stories and tales were not meant to have an author; they would circulate anonymously.

Even centuries later, several writers had their books published under a pen name or still anonymously. For instance, the founder of the historical novel genre, Sir Walter Scott, wrote Waverley (1814) anonymously. A few years later, he wrote a classic, Ivanhoe (1819), with the pseudonym of Lawrence Templeton.

On a more contemporary note, four decades ago, an Italian publishing house brought to life one of the most intriguing literary mysteries in recent Western history. I refer to Elena Ferrante, a true international literary sensation whose novels have a passionate readership worldwide. Hillary Clinton is a superfan of Ferrante.

The enigmatic novelist is not a person using a false name. She is a literary person, a persona, a heteronym, a creation with an imaginary biography and a 30-year-old history, enriched over time by the narratives that, as happens in legends, have grown up around her in a very lively Naples, a great forge of stories.

“I believe that books, once written, do not need their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t,” wrote Elena Ferrante in a 1991 letter addressed to Sandra Ozolla and Sandro Ferri, her publishers in Rome and founders of Edizioni E/O. In that letter pre-dating Ferrante’s debut novel Amore Molesto (Troubling Love), published in 1992, Ferrante explained her will and determination never to reveal her true identity.

She was soon unequivocal: “I won’t participate in discussions and conferences whenever invited. I won’t go and accept prizes I might win. I will never promote my books, especially on TV, not in Italy or, as the case may be, abroad.”

Over the years, the Italian novelist has been fiercely loyal to her wishes to protect her anonymity amid an astonishing international success. Her debut novel (Troubling Love) was turned into a film by Mario Martone in 1995, soon screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Among her relevant books are The Days of Abandonment (2002), the story of Olga, a woman abandoned by her husband; and The Lost Daughter (2006), about a divorced scholar who finds herself morbidly drawn to a family she sees on the beach. These early novels prefigure many of the themes of her iconic Neapolitan stories, focusing on female relationships, motherhood and class.

Ferrante has won glowing praise for representing the world of women, predominantly female friendship. In this, My Brilliant Friend (2011) is a masterpiece. It is the first installment of her Neapolitan quartet, an extraordinary modern portrait of the complexities of female friendship — Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, two girls living in a deprived neighbourhood of Naples in the post-war years.

In the novel The Story of a New Name (2012), Lila and Elena grow up in increasingly different social spheres, showing the cultural and economic divide between northern and southern Italy. It follows Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013) and The Story of the Lost Child (2014), the final part of the quartet completing the double Bildungsroman that has spanned 60 years.

Recently, I called Ferrante’s publishers in Rome to ask for a written interview with their mysterious author, but they immediately declined. However, in the past, Ferrante gave a few rare written interviews. Some years ago, she told Paolo Di Stefano from the daily Corriere della Sera that she never regretted choosing anonymity because “the media tends to stress the author’s image over their work. In that case, the book functions like a pop star’s sweaty T-shirt: it is a completely meaningless garment without the star’s aura. It’s that type of emphasis I don’t like”, she said.

Also, in a 2014 interview with the New York Times, conducted via email, Ferrante explained her choice of anonymity. “What counts most for me is to preserve a creative space that seems full of possibilities, including technical ones,” she wrote. “The structural absence of the author affects the writing in a way that I’d like to continue to explore.”

But paradoxically, with the author an absolute secret, the risk is that the emphasis is more on finding out who might be the mysterious novelist than focusing on her artfully written books.

In 2016, an international team of literary experts led by scholars from the University of Padua researched to discover her real identity by using quantitative analysis methods. Researchers put together a large corpus for their analysis: 150 novels by 40 contemporary Italian novelists explicitly selected for the specific purpose. The academic study concluded that the writer behind Elena Ferrante is presumably an over-60 male from the Campania region of Italy named Domenico Starnone. He is both a novelist and journalist. They selected that author as his books had the most affinity in style and content with the novels written by Elena Ferrante.

Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti has a different opinion on the matter. He believes it is not Domenico Starnone but his wife Anita Raja behind the literary sensation. Ms. Raja is an Italian professional translator specialising in German. She translates German novels into Italian at the Edizioni E/O, Elena Ferrante’s publisher. Anita Raja’s mother was a Polish Jew who left Germany in 1937 to escape the Nazis.

Gatti reported that the financial records he received from an anonymous source show a dramatic uptick in payments from Ms. Ferrante’s publishing house in Rome to Ms. Raja since 2014 when Ms. Ferrante’s novels took off worldwide. Gatti also found out that the couple purchased an 11-room, 2,500-square-foot apartment in Rome with an estimated value of $2 million. What translator and writer can afford to buy similar luxury properties even though they are good at what they do?

Gatti believes there is a literary collaboration between wife and husband. The bestselling novels could be collaborative fiction by two authors who share creative control of a story. However, both Mr. Starnone and Ms. Raja deny they wrote the books.

Marcella Marmo, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Naples Federico II, was the latest writer to deny the authorship of Ferrante’s critically acclaimed Neapolitan novels. The claim came from a professor at the University of Pisa who investigated various details in Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name set partly in Naples and partly in Pisa.

Ferrante’s 13 novels are available in 47 languages. The English-language edition is published worldwide by Europa Editions in London, owned by the founders of Edizioni E/O in Rome. Ann Goldstein is the English translator. While the Lebanese publisher Dar al-Adab handles the Arabic editions of the novels. Sales have topped 20 million copies worldwide. “In the Gulf countries, Ferrante’s novels sold over 10,000 copies,” says Giulio Passerini from Edizioni E/O in Rome.

My Brilliant Friend has been the subject of an on-screen adaptation, thanks to its colourful characters and dramatic storyline. Saverio Costanzo directed the massive TV hit. The third season of Costanzo’s series will air in the fall. And a Netflix series based on the new novel The Lying Life of Adults is in the works.

The new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, a coming-of-age story, confirms Naples as the element of continuity in the author’s literary work. Naples is Ferrante’s true muse, a city that climbs, whose parts overlap each other.

In 1995 Unesco declared Naples a World Heritage Site as one of the most ancient cities in Europe, one whose contemporary urban fabric preserves the elements of its long and eventful history. The rectangular grid layout of the Ancient Greek foundation is still discernible. It has continued to provide the basic form for the present-day urban fabric.

Naples remains an important central Mediterranean port city whose maze of streets and stairs atmospherically chronicles an impressive history. And Ferrante captures the heart and soul of Naples, a historically significant and complex city that international visitors still consider one of the most interesting in the world. Until the 1800s, it was one of the four true metropolises in Europe.

Ferrante’s readers feel the cultural vibrancy and incredible texture of Naples. They perceive its orography, its seductive landscapes, Mount Vesuvius, and the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Readers hear the sounds, the cacophony of the street, feel the pavement at their feet. Life is in the neighbourhoods in Naples. Humans are not meant to live indoors, said Aristotle 2,000 years ago.

Readers enjoy the colours; they imagine tasting the original Neapolitan pizza and a million other local delicacies of excellent street food. They meet and identify with the characters, a people both empathic and hot-blooded.

Naples is a city full of excess and contradictions. It is no easy place to live. It can be a living hell in chaos, corruption, and Camorra crime that never sleeps. It has more secrets and hideouts than any other Italian city. Yet, the splendour of its Rococo palazzos, the Gothic and Baroque churches, its fantastic museums are there.

Naples is a great mix of reality, miracle, and superstition. And it is still the Omphalos Mundi, the centre of the world, for its residents like it used to be for the Roman Emperors and the aristocrats relaxing in their magnificent villas stretching across the shores of the Gulf of Naples during summertime. The city speaks for itself in its ancient, slow dance.

There is an indissoluble bond between Naples and Elena Ferrante. Without Naples, her stories would be as unimaginable as Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo without Sicily.

But such stories written by an unidentified author unleash more creative freedom for both the author and the readers. They seem to make Ferrante’s work stronger, transpersonal, universal — and already authentic classic.

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