The 'unmasking' of Elena Ferrante
The great Elena Ferrante refused to deliver up her innards to the Diviners. They fixed that for her, writes Miriam O'Callaghan
Over my desk there's a black-and-white photo of a middle-aged woman, cheek-to-cheek with a young bride. The woman holds her handbag over her left arm like the Queen. In her hand, she holds a bag of rice. It reads Riso d'oro. Golden rice. I bought the photo on a market stall and look at it often. I can't decide whether it's a mother whispering last reassurances to her daughter, or if it's the bride, visiting from the future, her newly-wedded self. "It's OK. See? You survived."
The photo is taken in 1950s Italy, where Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan quartet of books begins. Ferrante, who writes pseudonymously, is in the news for being 'outed' by the journalist Claudio Gatti as, possibly, the translator Anita Raja.
Like other women, I experience Elena Ferrante's writing as a visitation. It's a kind of seanced sensation: the revelation that the truth of a life, immanent, has so little to do with 'events' or their 'documentation'; the realisation that this truth manages to survive, be retrievable, regardless of how anaesthetising, electrocuting, or obliterating the events have been. It's a truth, shattered, shattering.
Thereafter, which shards of yourself do you leave, which do you gather? When you reassemble them, what do the inevitable, sharp gaps signify: space or loss? Do you depend on friction or glue to hold them together? If it's the latter, which will you choose: habit, hate, hope, prayer, sex, surgery, exercise, bitterness, gin, envy, courage, infidelity, vindictiveness, regret? Ferrante writes about this as Frantumaglia - a falling apart. I note its root in frantumare - to crush; frantoio, a crusher or press, for example as in olives.
I began reading Ferrante around the time my own life began to fracture, fragment. This is observational, not confessional. Hit your 50s, you hit more urgent intimations of mortality. Friends and family become ill, die, exposing life as capricious, provisional. Plain sadistic. Children start to leave home. As you reach your limits, or set them for others, more fragments are created, fall away. Having even a scintilla of insight into life, initiates a sometimes-severe self-questioning. After the frantoio, who are you, what next, what now? Elena Ferrante writes mesmerisingly about this experience.
Not since Nancy Drew have I made sure not to finish a book without the sequel beside my bed. It's years since I rationed pages, eking them out over weeks, but such is the quality of My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of The Lost Child. I found the shorter The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter even better, more disturbing. No wonder she has sold over a million books in the US alone.
Ferrante's success is more extraordinary, since she chooses anonymity in a world obsessed by trivia, scandal, gossip, fame, celebrity, self-promotion. Her choice is doubly risky with publishing in thrall to marketing, the tyranny of what will sell, the 'packaging', not only of a book, but its maker. In keeping with Beckett's "what does it matter who is speaking", Ferrante believes she can write 'truly', only if she remains anonymous. Her work would stand alone. It would not be read, framed, sold, interpreted relative to her. There would be no book tours, no right-on opinions, no Ferremojis, no Snapchatting hot flushes, no posting her tigelle on Facebook.
Last year she told The Paris Review: "I don't think the reader should be indulged as a consumer, because he isn't one. Literature that indulges the tastes of the reader is a degraded literature. My goal is to disappoint the usual expectations and inspire new ones".
She continues: "It's as if literature were not capable of demonstrating its seriousness simply through texts, but required 'external' credentials. It's not the book that counts, but the aura of its author. If the aura is already there, and the media reinforces it, the publishing world is happy to open its doors and the market is very happy to welcome you. If it's not there but the book miraculously sells, the media invents the author, so the writer ends up selling not only his work but also himself, his image".
Quite. This week, Graham Norton's novel Holding was reviewed in various outlets. The consensus seems to be, knock me down with a feather, but it's good. I was at university with Graham-then-Walker for two years. A combination of genius and gorgeous was only ever going to produce something of pathos, insight.
Neither of which applies to Claudio Gatti's outing of Ferrante last weekend. My teenage daughter calls him by the English translation Lame Cats. Whatever about humour, irony goes over his head. He exposes a woman whose 'crime' is her desire for anonymity with information, some of which, he says was "obtained from an anonymous source".
Despite Claudio's klaxon, Raja had been mentioned previously as a contender. If Rome's La Sapienza university tried science to solve the Ferrante mystery, Gatti decided to follow the money. Of which there's loads. And for which I'm delighted. Good girl yourself, Anita Raja.
For Gatti, the outing was a question of truth, lies, readers' "legitimate right to know". In writing, Ferrante 'lied' about her personal life. "I don't like lies and I chose to expose them," he reportedly told the BBC.
His New York Review of Books expose shows him tracking Ferrante, hunting her down, catching her out, turning documents of private transactions into a dossier of public 'evidence' against her. That banging you hear is a post-modern Malleus Maleficarum, a Witch's Hammer. And it's repulsive. Buy a large apartment in an "expensive" part of Rome. Bang. A house in Tuscany. Bang. "Raja's work as a translator - a notoriously poorly paid occupation-can hardly account for her anomalously large income". Bang.
A woman writer - a mere translator - would remove herself from the scrutiny which Gatti's act represents so perfectly and of which she writes so devastatingly? She would become rich, best-sold, least-known and on her own terms? The gall of her.
I note the oblique attachment of the word "notoriously" to a woman whose 'crime' was to keep her privacy, whose transgression was to refuse to have her innards dissected by the current, self-appointed Diviners of propriety, probity, value, quality, success.
Overall, the Gatti expose chills me. The Woodward and Bernstein tone ignores blatantly obvious candidates for the attention of his 'forensic accounting'. Equally, I believe it is cruel to bring pain to another's life, simply because we can.
But there is also something more complex. I started reading Ferrante and Patrick Modiano around the same time. Though their worlds were different (I know now not quite so different) their depth of insight was similar.
As I read Gatti's 'file' on Ferrante, I thought of Modiano's Dora Bruder; the author's search for documented traces of the young Jewish girl in Paris, after she disappeared from school, before she was finally Disappeared by the Nazis.
Also, Gatti exposes Anita Raja's mother, not as the Neapolitian seamstress of Ferrante's imagination, but as a Jewish refugee from that time. Is it in this "memoryscape" Ferrante talks of being fascinated by "images of crisis", of the need to write about "what terrifies us most"? And she does. "I'm dead, I'm fine".
Reading Ferrante and Modiano, I was reminded of one such image. A mother, toddler in arms, running barefoot from a Nazi taking aim with a rifle. Like many of Modiano's and Ferrante's women, she didn't know what she was running to, only what she was running from.
Ferrante ran from publicity. She kept her private space. There, as a writer, she could be whoever she is, whoever she wants. "I have gained a space on my own. A space that is free where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful", she told Vanity Fair.
Her world is of the imagination. She neither seeks nor requires public approval. Perhaps Raja didn't have the experience claimed by Ferrante. But Ferrante, in her interior life, most certainly did. Or perhaps Gatti is peeved that writer and reader have not been shrunk to fit an approved, small, self-righteous, literal, iterated-to-the-point-of-distraction version of the world, real or imagined.
Ferrante knew from the outset that being a writer gives her a plush seat at Carlin's freakshow. She refuses the invite for audience participation, regardless of how hotly it's demanded.
Gatti is widely quoted that Ferrante owes her identity to her readers, because it was they who "made her such a superstar". No Signor Gatti. Elena Ferrante, Anita Raja and brilliant translator Ann Goldstein did that all by themselves.
You? You have ripped Lenuccia's silver bracelet from her wrist, crushed it in the dirt of the stradone.