• Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

Elena Ferrante: is author anonymity a benefit or a hindrance?

ByBee McDougall

Oct 7, 2023
Four of Elena Ferrante's books displayed

Elena Ferrante is the Italian author behind twelve books, most notably The Neapolitan Quartet, a series of four books that begins with My Brilliant Friend and ends with The Story of the Lost Friend, spanning the lives of two friends from twentieth century Naples. Elena Ferrante is also not her real name.

Ferrante has been publishing since 1992, and has maintained her anonymity since then, often speaking of its importance in her rare interviews. She detailed not only its personal relevance to her, saying in a 2015 Vanity Fair interview; “today I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful”, but also the broader idea that disclosure of her identity is not necessary to the enjoyment of her novels. In a 2015 email-conducted interview with the Sydney Morning Herald she said that the “physical absence from the public sphere makes the writing absolutely central.” Further, in a 1991 letter to her publisher, since published in her book Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey Ferrante wrote that she “believe[s] that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” 

Many people disagree with this as a principle, and its proximity to the death of the author concept. Feeling that, in the case of Ferrante, her identity is something that they are deserving of access to. Despite this, the issue of Ferrante’s identity has continued to be a mystery: in 2016 journalist Claudio Gatti controversially claimed that he had uncovered her real name, but Ferrante and her publishing house have never confirmed his theory, or any others. 

Gatti, and many others, believe that Ferrante does not have a right to the true anonymity or privacy that she has repeatedly expressed a desire for. One of the key points of curiosity for many has been to see the extent to which Ferrante’s life reflects that of her characters, most particularly the Neapolitan upbringing. However, Ferrante’s place of birth is not something that readers are owed – if her depiction of Naples is striking and her characters are vivid, they do not become less so if it were to be revealed that she did not have a comparable childhood, and it would not retroactively alter the initial impact of reading her novels. 

There are also benefits to this anonymity, both for readers and for the author. From a financial perspective, it is presumably a double-edged sword: anonymity means no press appearances or public readings, which has the potential to hinder the publicity of any release, but also imbues her novels with a perpetual sense of mystery and intrigue, generating continual interest and curiosity. On an authorial level, the anonymity shelters her, relatively, from public interference into her existence, and allows her to live without her life and decisions being interrogated. For readers it allows her work to stand on its own and speak for itself – as Ferrante herself says ­– independent of any opinions on or knowledge of her personal life, creating a freedom in the way that readers can interact with it, unlike many other modern novels whose authors are easily googleable. This is not to say that there is no relevance in knowing the details of an author or their life, but that it is distinct and interesting to have no access to this information at all.

However, regardless of whether or not her anonymity is beneficial, the more pressing point is that an author’s identity and private life is not something that we as readers are owed. Publishing a book isn’t, or shouldn’t be, automatic consent to sacrificing privacy – people don’t read My Brilliant Friend because they are wanting a biography, they read it as a novel that they derive enjoyment from, and if there are biographical similarities to the author’s life that is incidental. A purchase of My Brilliant Friend is not a purchase of intimate details of Ferrante’s personal life.

Elena Ferrante” by Wolf Gang is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.