Monday, December 5, 2016

Her real name: on the unmasking of Elena Ferrante

My new piece this week is a political obituary of John Key for Overland. Below is another piece I wrote this year for the magazine, following the latest attempts to reveal the identity of Elena Ferrante.

The only thing you need to know about Elena Ferrante’s name is that it’s a homage to Elsa Morante, the author of La storia. This is the only literary kinship sought by Ferrante and it should suffice. But of course it never could. Not in a culture obsessed with celebrity, or rather with identity; a culture for which what matters are not the things you say or do but rather who you are.

It is not a great stretch to connect this obsession with the policing of national borders, which is the product of the same ideology, or to the entire apparatus of international surveillance. Even something as apparently innocent as our social networks would like you to use your ‘real name’, if only in order to correctly predict your future consumer decisions. However, when it’s a woman who makes such a decision, the challenge to the cultural order is that much more serious. For a woman who asserts the right to change her identity makes a play for greater autonomy, and female autonomy is always a threat.

There are so many ironies. The hunt for Elena Ferrante, which involved a journalist – Claudio Gatti – supported by four different international outlets, was conducted by ‘following the money’, that is to say tracking down the assets purchased by the suspect after the publication of Ferrante’s various novels, as well as the film adaptation of L’amore molesto. In the very same years, another Neapolitan author who achieved great international notoriety, Roberto Saviano, was using those same methods to track down the activities of the mafia, most famously in his ‘novel’ Gomorrah. As a result of this work, Saviano has had to go into hiding. His real face and name are known, his works have been translated into dozens of languages and adapted for both the small and the big screen, but he lives the life of a criminal.

Equally and painfully ironic is the justification given by editor Roberto Napoletano in publishing Gatti’s investigation for La Domenica, the weekly cultural supplement of the prestigious financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. (The translation is mine, the somewhat tortured syntax his.)
There is nothing quite like La Domenica – a cultural supplement in the heart of a financial newspaper – in the whole of Italian journalism, and it is not by chance that this investigation has been published here, in this home, where we combine economics with its rules and its culture, that is sustained by literary and scientific passions, the desire to dig, without ever being satisfied with superficial appearances. The decision to ‘follow the money’ is precisely the product of our history and knowledge.
He continues:
What struck me the most about Gatti’s work was his passion for the novels and how he delved into the story and its characters. Thus he discovered that Elena, also known as Lenù, the protagonist of the tetralogy of My Brilliant Friend, was the name of a beloved aunt of Ms Raja, while Nino, the name given to Lenù’s great love, is also how Domenico Starnone, the husband of the translator-author, is known to his family.

Bullshit. All of it. And not only because you could find a beloved aunt Elena in every second Italian family, nor because the thought of Ferrante naming Nino Sarratore after her own husband would strike anyone who has actually read the novels as an alarming choice. All of these pieces of evidence which we are supposed to believe were carefully and almost lovingly deduced from the novels are nothing but a post-facto attempt to aggrandise Mr Gatti’s work. The much more prosaic explanation is that he started his forensic investigation with the person who has been named most often over the years in literary circles as the ‘real Elena Ferrante’ (along with her husband, novelist Domenico Starnone – for the idea that a woman might have written such a successful series of novels sat awkwardly with many; and Gatti himself attributes in passing to Starnone a significant intellectual contribution to the cycle, for reasons that are best known to him).

What’s more, as Ferrante’s publisher pointed out in its response to Gatti’s story, over the last five years the weekly cultural supplement of Il Sole 24 Ore, in all its snowflake-like uniqueness, never bothered to review any of Ferrante’s novels, save for a recent short piece by venerable critic Goffredo Fofi. In other words, if this supposed veneration for Ferrante’s work actually existed, it was hidden rather well. This extends to the entire Italian literary establishment, whose reaction to the international success of the Neapolitan cycle has been tepid at best. We could blame this on the misogyny that Ferrante describes in her works, or point to something more nuanced and complex. I’ll merely note that sometimes the simplest explanations are the best.

I wrote earlier this year about Ferrante and her badly written men, in response to the charge by a Sydney Morning Herald reviewer that the male characters in her novels ‘are all needy losers whose recourse to action is either pleading, infidelity or violence’. I proposed that the lives of many women I have known in my own life and countless others would have been greatly improved if real Italian men with real names had behaved in more satisfyingly nuanced ways, making the work of authors like Ferrante (and Morante) truly seem like lazy social satires. Now, I find myself despairing at the plausibility of Claudio Gatti and Roberto Napoletano, and how well they could fit within Ferrante’s cycle, with their needy, greedy, narrow worldview, and their belief that they are naturally entitled to a woman’s life.

If it’s true that Elena Ferrante is who Napoletano and Gatti say she is – which it may be, in a sense that is all but meaningless to her readers – then it was never much of a secret. She would just be the person most people said she was from the beginning, and all we needed to do was respect her wish and never seek to find out for sure. This desire for definitive knowledge, too, is a form of violence that will be familiar to readers of Ferrante and to people who know women. It’s a final irony I wish we had been spared.

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