It is rare, in our age of social media and aggressive self-promotion, to find a public figure that chooses to remain (almost) completely anonymous. Yet this is the case of Elena Ferrante, Italian writer and author of six novels, among which is her famous four-volumes work known in Britain as the Neapolitan Quartet (2011-2014), the coming-of-age story of two girls struggling to build lives for themselves amidst the violence, poverty and patriarchal constraints of their upbringing. Following the warm reception of Ferrante’s novels by Anglophone audiences, the question of her identity has become a transnational guessing game. Obviously, Ferrante does not appear in public nor gives face-to-face interviews, and only a handful of people close to her know who hides behind the pseudonym. As she continues to gain popularity, many readers and journalists have made attempts to guess her real identity, forcing several (female and male) writers to declare “No, I am not Elena Ferrante”. Very recently, a controversial investigation of her publisher’s financial accounts seems to have finally unmasked her.
But the mask seems to me a lot more interesting than the unmasking. What does Ferrante’s anonymity do? For example, it is undeniable that anonymity can capture the public’s imagination and in this case it may have contributed to this novelist’s popularity. On the other hand, it can be difficult to be anonymous at a time when a visible identity is everything in marketing one’s work.
We can also ask: how anonymous is this ‘anonymous’ author? Clues from her novels have after all been one of the main tools for identity-hunters to construct correspondences with real-life people. The most extreme case is perhaps Italian philologist Marco Santagata, who painstakingly examined the books using the same techniques employed for the attribution of ancient texts in order to arrive at a plausible solution (which resulted only in another denial). Not only philologists but many readers take her Neapolitan Novels as largely autobiographical, speculation that the author has encouraged.
This makes sense, doesn’t it? The protagonist and first-person narrator is called Elena, which is the name of the author (well, her fake name). The protagonist is also a writer, which is the profession of the author (a profession that consists in producing fictionalized narratives). Uncovering these links to ‘truth’ appears in the end to lead us to more questions of ‘fakeness’. At least we know from her pseudonym that she is a woman – but haven’t pseudonyms been employed more often to conceal the gendered identity of the author than to correspond with it? Some have speculated that Elena Ferrante might be a man. If this is the case, how does it change the response that we may have when reading the intimate and ‘authentic’ details of the inner lives of girls and women in the text?
Attributing identity proves to be a slippery matter. Debates about Ferrante’s identity seem actually to call attention to the process by which we always construct our ‘authors’ from what they write, her anonymity providing us with a blank space on which to project this authorial figure. Ferrante herself has commented:
“Elena Ferrante is the author of several novels. There is nothing mysterious about her, given how she manifests herself – perhaps even too much – in her own writing, the place where her creative life transpires in absolute fullness. What I mean is that the author is the sum of the expressive strategies that shape an invented world, a concrete world that is populated with people and events. The rest is ordinary private life.”
However, there is usually assumed to be a two-way street between author and text (a street that goes through a multiplicity of readers), which means not only that we construct the author from the text, but that biographical facts about the author shape how we receive the text. What happens, then, when we don’t have a flesh-and-blood writer to participate in this game of refraction and mutual construction? Does the only real fact that we know about Elena Ferrante, namely that she has decided to be anonymous, influence us in our reading of her texts? Do we expect something from someone who has chosen to be anonymous or does anonymity act as an emptying out of all expectations?
We hope to discover more answers (and more questions) at the Anonymity Conference.
-The Implied Author