Elena Ferrante, Private Novelist

One of my first memories of the publishing industry is the story of a friend who was asked to provide an author photo to help sell the international rights to her debut novel. My friend is not a person who thinks particularly of her looks—she has always focused on her writing. She submitted a photo of herself standing in a doorway wearing a winter coat. The Italian rights sold, the French did not. Her agent, also a woman and a veteran of the industry, joked that perhaps the French would have gone for the rights if the photo had been more revealing. “The lesson I took,” my friend told me, “was that I was being vetted for physical attractiveness”—not the value of her novel.

The author photo is something writers agonize about. Should you smile? Should you seem remote or accessible? Should you lose weight? It is the prelude to the public life of a book: the tours, readings, interviews, and media appearances a writer hopes to undertake on her publishing journey. A writer spends so much of her time subordinating her personal life to write fiction, and then suddenly, on publication, the personal life is all that matters. I recently listened to an interviewer ask a very famous author about a scene in her new novel, how it surely resembled the recent death of her father. As the author began to answer in earnest, I turned the radio off. I couldn’t bear to hear it.

The bar for every writer of fiction is that the novel is an invented thing. And yet each time we write, novelists are treated like spiritualists who rip off the grief-stricken—as though our inventions are some sort of hustle. Surely you must have some experience like this: Tell us about it. On tour for my first novel, a reader asked, “How much of this is autobiographical?” I replied, nearly snarling, “If you knew, would you believe it more or less?”

Elena Ferrante wanted none of this. Her career as a writer—now in its third decade—is anonymous, her name a pseudonym, her face unknown. “Elena Ferrante was born in Naples,” reads the author bio on the inside flap of her internationally bestselling novels. The only word readers can reliably identify any part of her work with is Naples. There is no author photo. Since her 1992 debut,Troubling Love, was published in Italy, Ferrante has rebuffed in-person interviews, bookstore readings, lectures, television appearances, award banquets—anything, really, known to sell a book these days. She has communicated through her publishers for more than 24 years, during which she has published seven books. Her last four are considered a single novel, her masterpiece—The Neapolitan Quartet—an unparalleled examination of a friendship between two women in Naples: their marriages, pregnancies, ambitions, jealousies, rivalries, and loves, as well as the past 60 years of Italian history. Despite her refusal to appear in public, the books have sold 1.2 million copies in the United States since they were first published in English in 2012.

In Ferrante’s novels, women disappear quite often—either at the hands of others or by their own will. Disappearance is a way to fight back against the demand that, as women, they must forgo any right to their humanity in service to their families. It is an act of rebellion against the idea of what women should be—an idea usually determined by men. Ferrante’s characters are similar in the way sisters, or women of the same family, are similar: the abandoned wife, the drowned woman, the daughter who imagines she will not meet the fate of her mother, the mother who longs to throw off the yoke of the child.

Ferrante’s latest book to be published in English, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, is also about a woman’s disappearance—her own. In it, Ferrante records her 24-year fight against the manipulation of her authorial identity. Just before finished copies of the book were sent to reviewers, the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti announced that he had proof of Ferrante’s “real” identity. After scrutinizing financial records and real estate transactions, Gatti said, he had identified Ferrante as Anita Raja, a literary translator who works for Ferrante’s Italian publisher, Edizioni E/O. The New York Review of Books announced the news in a blog post at one o’clock in the morning—the late hour due to its simultaneous publication in the French, German, and Italian presses—as if Gatti had caught a spy. In Italy, the news was received with a shrug: The naming of a Ferrante suspect had become such a common occurrence, it seemed as though everyone in Italy might take a turn. But readers in the rest of the world denounced Gatti’s actions as a violent unmasking. In The Times Literary Supplement, Frances Wilson condemned it as a “catastrophic misunderstanding of what criticism is or how reading actually works.” Gatti, Wilson said, had actually done readers a disservice: “No one,” she insisted, “really wanted to know the identity of Elena Ferrante.”

In Frantumaglia, Ferrante seems to anticipate her own discovery: The book is like a mask hidden beneath a mask, ready to be displayed when the first one is torn off. Organized with the care of an Italian archaeological museum, it is not meant as an introduction to Ferrante’s work—she even calls it an afterword. Frantumaglia is Ferrante for the Ferranteans, her readers who have long enjoyed the puzzle over her work and her self without ever needing it solved. The reader is meant to enter through her novels, then dive deeper here, into this mix of letters to fans, imagined conversations, interviews with the press, essays—there is even a short story—and come out the other side with no clear answers, only more questions.

Frantumaglia resists any narrative or forward motion. As an unreliable and at times unsympathetic narrator, Ferrante constantly interrupts herself with addenda, footnotes, and postscripts. The book is not a diary, a memoir, or an autobiography. Rather, the fragmentary nature aids Ferrante’s hiding of herself, and like any fragmented narrative it describes something that could not be described if the parts were whole. Through this diffraction, we see what Elena Ferrante wants us to see: A portrait, elided and mercurial, that she asks us to believe is her.

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