The Elena Ferrante saga is a cautionary tale about the double lives we lead online

Image: Courtesy Europa Editions
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When it comes to the books we love, what makes news is their authors: who they are, what they look like, what they say. What did Jonathan Franzen deplore this time, and who has Elizabeth Gilbert fallen in love with? What’s JK Rowling tweeting now? Did Harper Lee really intend her book to be a sequel? What designer is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wearing?

That’s a culture that Elena Ferrante—the pseudonymous Italian author of nine books, including the critically acclaimed bestselling Neapolitan novels—has refused to engage in. Ferrante has kept the world of books guessing: She very rarely meets journalists in person and corresponds mainly by email and phone. Every few months a report comes out with new evidence about her “true” identity. But because of her anonymity, she has had to endure a different kind of fascination—as one of contemporary literature’s most tantalizing mysteries.

The latest, and thus far most substantial, report was put forth by journalist Claudio Gatti on October 2. For his investigation, published in English on the New York Review of Books’s site, he obtained the financial statements of Ferrante’s publisher, Edizione e/o, and connected them to a translator named Anita Raja, one of the people rumored to be the “real” Ferrante.

The attempt to unmask this elusive author sparked outrage among fans, critics, and other authors, who have said that Ferrante’s wish to remain anonymous should be respected; that her identity is irrelevant; that the investigation is an invasion of privacy.

The author Ta-Nehisi Coates challenges the idea that Ferrante’s name is somehow important information the public needs to know. Others have called the article purporting to expose her a “doxxing”—a form of online trolling that involves publishing private information about a person, such as their address or phone number, to encourage offline harassment.

But beyond the issue of privacy, it’s worth taking a moment to think about why we are so curious about ferreting out Ferrante, so eager to make the writer of the Neapolitan novels a real, flesh-and-blood human.

Yes, we’re in a moment where we have come to expect unfettered 24/7 access to our favorite celebrities, politicians, and artists, to know what they’re eating, who they’re with, and their thoughts and feelings on everything from their facial care regime to climate change. At the same time, the internet has allowed all of us a cloak of anonymity—a multiplicity of identities that liberates us from the confines of our one “true” identity, and allows us to be different characters in different contexts. Why can’t we afford Ferrante the same freedom?

This isn’t all new. The proliferation of online platforms codifies the identity-switching we all do, and have always done, in real life—you’re Sweet Jane with your mother, Tough Jane at work, Only-Eats-Bacon Jane with your roommate. Our online worlds barely need to intersect at all: You can be a trustworthy and pleasant host on AirBnB’s website; a troll to Hillary supporters on Twitter; an unboxer of brand new weed-smoking tech on Snapchat.

Why, then, do we expect to align the personalities of our literary heroes with their writing voice?

To enjoy the Neapolitan novels, you don’t need to know the “true” Ferrante’s name or where she lives, any more than you should know how she takes her coffee. The thrill, violence, and anxiety of the friendship between Lila and Lenu in no way rests upon how much Ferrante makes a year, or what kind of car she drives, or whether she’s gay or straight, married or not.

Alexandra Schwartz articulated this in the New Yorker:

I don’t care. Actually, I do care: I care about not finding out. … To fall in love with a book, in that way that I and so many others have fallen in love with Ferrante’s, is to feel a special kinship with its author, a profound sort of mutual receptivity and comprehension. The author knows nothing about you, and yet you feel that your most intimate self has been understood. The fact that Ferrante has chosen to be anonymous has become part of this contract, and has put readers and writer on a rare, equal plane.

It’s that contract, that mutual trust, that’s key. Even if what we encounter is just one of multiple identities, we do have a right to expect a real and unchanging connection. Just as the consistent quality of your contributions matters for someone to trust your reviews on Yelp, Ferrante the fiction author is a voice we want to trust.

We can see what happens when that trust is betrayed in one of the biggest recent scandals in literature, the mystery of JT Leroy, in the early 2000s. Leroy was a young writer who, it was reported, started publishing at 16. His fiction was marketed as semi-autobiographical and was premised on his biography as a truck-stop prostitute pimped out by his mother.

The media eventually revealed that Leroy was the pseudonym of a woman named Laura Albert, and that she had invented Leroy’s entire persona and had written the books herself. (The controversy is the subject of a new documentary about Albert, Author: The JT LeRoy Story, which had a limited US release last month.) Albert was widely condemned as “a great literary hustler.”

Where Albert betrayed her fans, and where she departs from Ferrante, is not in the fact that she had two identities, but in her flimsily constructed alter ego. The persona of Leroy—which surely created a sensation and sold books—invited investigation into the person, created inconsistencies, and compromised the work associated with the name. That became clear in the perception of Leroy’s writing. Once the writer’s public identity collapsed, Stephen Beachy wrote in New York Magazine in 2006, “The stories are full of clichéd white-trash characters and vague, nondenominational, child-whipping fundamentalists.”

The author known as Ferrante, on the other hand, chose only to create under another name, to disclose no personal information and make no public appearances (and to occasionally speak out against speaking out). She gives the reader her books—works about terrifying and brilliant women—and nothing more.

We have to give up this obsession with the blood and bowels of our writers, and accept that they’ve told us what they want us to know. In the same way that your boss doesn’t need to know the you who stretched out in a cab at 4am on Saturday, or the deeply weird stuff you Snap from the subway at 3pm, or the encrypted messages you send to a lost love over WhatsApp, we don’t need to know where Ferrante lives or where her mother is from.

Fragmented identity of course is not unique to the internet, and neither is the separated author. Of course, the most enduring—and alluring—mystery in Western literature swirls around the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.

Wayne C. Booth wrote of “the intricate relationship of the so-called real author with the various official versions of himself” in 1961: “We must say various versions, for regardless of how sincere an author may try to be, his different works will imply different versions… just as one’s personal letters imply different versions of oneself, depending on the different relationships with each correspondent and the purpose of each letter.”

He cites the Irish critic Edward Dowden, who wrote in 1877 about the great pseudonymous novelist George Eliot. The “second self,” wrote Dowden, is “more substantial than any mere human personality.”

We still don’t really know much more about Ferrante than this “second self” she offers us. Anita Raja, the person who seems to have financially benefited from the sale of books by Elena Ferrante, could turn out to be another front. The true writer could be a niece. Or her husband. Or someone else entirely.

Based on the books, it’s hard to imagine that the writer is a man, or that she is young, or not Italian, or gay, or Jewish. But if the writer of the Neapolitan novels fits any of these identities, it would mean that Elena Ferrante is one very, very good avatar.