literary life

Why an investigative journalist felt compelled to 'out' Elena Ferrante (and what she can do now)

Support is pouring in from the literary community for Ferrante, defending her right to hide her real identity.

Claudio Gatti is a curly-haired 61 year old man who lives in the Upper West Side in New York City. He used to love coaching his son’s basketball team. He often takes summer vacations in the touristic town of Positano, on the Amalfi Coast. He’s a respected investigative journalist, who three years ago tried his hand as a TV presenter in a show for the Italian network with the lowest ratings. He wrote a novel in 1996. Then he let fiction go. His wife is Jewish.

I wouldn’t normally disclose such information about someone I’ve known for about 30 years – a generous yet irascible man, prone to loud temper tantrums, but with a golden heart. I’m simply following his rationale when he disclosed what he thinks is the identity of an internationally-famous writer who dared to ask for anonymity. I particularly would not care to talk about his kind wife. But he’s the one who thought it necessary to spell out that the mother of the internationally-famous writer was a “Polish-born Jew who survived the Holocaust,” (this in the Italian, not the English version of his investigation, where there’s only mention of a “German-born mother”) so it seems only fair to go into such details.

The reason for the investigation

In the past two days, Claudio has become himself – finally! – an international celebrity, after publishing in the Italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore, along with a few other publications like the New York Review of Books, what he alleges to be the true identity of best-selling Italian writer Elena Ferrante, a pseudonym jealously protecting the identity of the real author.

Almost two years ago, gossip website Dagospia had already revealed this name and surname, but not by using the methodology applied by Gatti. They simply did what they do best: gossip.

Gatti instead found an “anonymous source” (how ironic that you would need an anonymous source to reveal a writer’s anonymity) to dish out the book-keeping of Elena Ferrante’s publisher, e/o edizioni. He then looked into the public real estate records of a longtime translator from the German language for e/o edizioni and saw she’d purchased an apartment in Rome, and then a small one in Tuscany. On a translator’s salary? Gatti asked himself. Then he noticed she’d received a 50%, and then a 150%, increase in her compensation over the past two years, coinciding with the 3.6 million copies of books by Elena Ferrante sold lately.

Claudio concludes that this is proof that this longtime translator is, in fact, Elena Ferrante. And it may very well may be so. Yet, I’d rather not even name this translator here, because I believe that the anonymity of a writer is to be respected. It is not a crime, and should not be the target of a journalistic investigation. And the majority of the reaction in the Italian and world literary community seems to agree with this point of view, considering the wave of anger and disappointment voiced by many writers and critics.

“I am Elena Ferrante,” was Salman Rushdie’s post on Facebook: “(In the spirit of "I am Spartacus," in the wake of the New York Review of Books' tawdry ‘exposé’ of her identity, every writer in the world should now do this.)”

Italian writer Errico Buonanno made one of the best observations reflecting the common mood: “If you walk up to a magician’s stage to investigate and reveal to the world how his tricks work, you have, sure, created a news item. But you are also an asshole who spoiled the show.”

Critic and author Loredana Lipperini was incensed, not only by the anti-feminist hints that Elena Ferrante had been helped by Domenico Starnone, a famous Italian writer married to the translator: “(Gatti) conducted his investigation with ice-cold professionalism, as if bringing to light the identity of an anonymous writer, who often asked her identity not be revealed, was tantamount to unmasking Trump’s fiscal evasion. Ferrante, who does nothing more than work on novels, has been treated like a criminal.”

And yet Gatti, in the Italian version of his investigation, is much more vocal than in the English language version published by the NYRB, where he writes that “she and her publisher seemed to have fed public interest in her true identity”.

In the Italian original text, Claudio more specifically reveals why he became obsessed with this research. It is because Ferrante, “by announcing here and there that she would have lied, has compromised her right that she always declared she had (and that anyway only a part of the wide world of readers and critics granted her) – that of disappearing behind her texts, letting them live and propagate without an author. On the contrary, we can say that she literally threw down the gauntlet to critics and journalists.”

“Throwing down the gauntlet” is what Claudio writes in the Italian version. Perhaps he confuses the understandable – and some would say anti-narcissistic – desire of a magician to hide her tricks, and her face, in order to better entertain her millions of readers with the subjects of the scores of serious, dignified investigations he has conducted during 30 years of a glorious career. Read my books, don’t worry about me, as Ferrante has said in countless (anonymous) interviews.

The long lives of pseudonyms

There have been many famous writers whose anonymity has been revealed in the past. And their reactions to such events have been very different.

Portuguese legend Fernando Pessoa made creating pseudonyms part of his own writing. His Book of Disquiet by Bernando Soares contained a pseudonym inserted into the title. But he did not have only one of them – he had dozens. One for every personality that inhabited his incredible and long-lived talent. So he got away with it. Readers got it. And so did journalists of the time.

But when Steve Brown, a bookshop clerk, discovered that one of the many Richard Bachman novels had been registered under the name of a certain Stephen King, all King had to do was write a letter of explanation to his readers, and the pseudonym Richard Bachman died an assisted death. While, luckily, Stephen King lives on. And has been selling a lot more with his real name.

Not as fortunate was Roman Kacew, who, under the pseudonym Romain Gary, reached the highest peaks of success in the French language by winning the Prix Goncourt in 1973. Then he adopted a second pseudonym, Emile Ajar. And Emil Ajar won the Prix Goncourt in 1975. He also wrote a novel as Fosco Sinibaldi and one as Shatan Bogat (wait, Chetan Bhagat?). They were all nothing more than Kacew’s pseudonyms, a writer who was married to the beautiful Jean Seberg, the actress made into an icon by Jean-Luc Godard’s movie Breathless.

After his wife’s suicide and after having been hounded for years by journalists about his real identity, Romain Gary, alias Emile Ajar, alias Roman Kacew, wrote a final confession, The Life and Death of Emile Ajar. Then he shot himself in the mouth.

The last lines of the autobiography where: “I had loads of fun. Thank you and goodbye!”

There are reports that Ferrante has said that she would stop writing if her identity were revealed. A magician whose trick is disclosed cannot face the public anymore. If this were the case, there’s a solution, inspired by the great Pessoa and the versatile Kacew. Get a new pseudonym and hide better.

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