Elena Ferrante: Who Has the Right to Privacy?

Elena Ferrente, Napolean series, via Elena Ferrante website

Elena Ferrante is the name on the cover of some of the most powerful novels I’ve had the chance to read. The author has lived in secrecy for many years now, with dozens of guesses about her identity surfacing over time. Now a journalist has “discovered” her true identity and claims to have done it for the greater good.

First, who is Elena Ferrante? I don’t mean the actual person who found time in her busy schedule and sat down to write novels. I mean the character, Elena Ferrante, the persona and pseudonym created by someone who probably had good reason for wanting to remain anonymous. Well, she’s a good writer. Arguably her most well-known work, The Neapolitan Quartet is a series of books about female friendship, the real thing. It addresses the feelings of betrayal, inadequacy, love, redemption, hope, and despair that come hand-in-hand with long term relationships. The Guardian reviewed it with, “Nothing quite like this has ever been published before” and I, along with countless others, agree. She also wrote The Days of AbandonmentTroubling Love, and The Lost Daughter. Her writing is raw, pointed, and lush with nuance.

Second, what are we owed by the author? Not Elena Ferrante the character, but the actual author. The answer is nothing. The Neapolitan Quartet are shelved as novels, as fiction. Many would argue that they read as memoir, they’ve been compared to Karl Ove Knaussgard’s behemoth of a memoir My Struggle. The author shares the name of the main character, but this is not an invitation to invade the author’s, the person behind the character, privacy.

Now, why did this journalist, Claudio Gatti, feel comfortable revealing the identity of a woman who asked not to be found (which draws parallels to one of the main characters in her series)? He felt the need to out her as a fraud. The stories she writes are about women in poverty, and it’s a tale close to my own heart. I won’t tell you “who she is” (though you can Google that yourself now) because I won’t be a part of outing someone who does not wish to be outed, but the suspected author did not grow up in the poverty of her characters. Thus, Gatti attempts to throw her to the wolves. What a disgrace, what appropriation, how dare she speak for people she is not a part of! Yet, her tales ring true for thousands of readers. She has treated each of her characters with such care and compassion that many believed the works to be memoir, and not fiction. She never claimed to be telling The Truth, just a truth, someone’s truth. A truth we wanted to read.

It is also an act of violence, this unveiling. How often do we hear of women saying no, and then to have a man hear that as a challenge? No, you may not know my identity, and this journalist answers, oh, but I must. On Twitter Lili Loofbourow wrote about the power of naming. I highly recommend reading through her full thread, which also touches upon how memoirs are seen as lesser when they are works by women.

I’ve preordered her work Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, which promises “a glimpse into the drawers of her writing desk, those drawers from which emerged her three early standalone novels and the four installments of My Brilliant Friend, known in English as the Neapolitan Quartet. Consisting of over twenty years of letters, essays, reflections, and interviews, it is a unique depiction of an author who embodies a consummate passion for writing.” This reveal, this unwanted outing, comes at a good time for this upcoming work. How much will be revealed by these letters? What will the reflections tell us about her life?

Yet it would have been better, more fun, more interesting, to read that work and wonder about the person behind the character. Gatti robbed readers of that while taking away what little Ferrante asked of her audience, to be left alone to write.

Al Rosenberg

Al Rosenberg

Gay weirdo. Talk to her about tiny games, big books, trash, and all things illness.