I am sensitive about the Elena Ferrante story. I am sensitive about how others feel about her work, which I have found profoundly moving, and I am sensitive about her right to use a pseudonym throughout her career.
When the New York Review of Books published a story claiming to have determined and revealed her legal name and some details about her life, I declined to read it. I was immediately upset that the NYRB, of all places, had disrespected a novelist I so strongly admire for what I felt and feel was for little value.
At the same time, I am a person who believes that the avoidance of information is the most basic form of anti-intellectual thought. I am frustrated by opinions formed without proper time given to the matter at hand. And still, I could not and would not read the NYRB story, nor have I read any of the follow-up pieces debating whether or not it was right to reveal Ferrante’s identity.
All of this works against the curiosity I attempt to retain in the interest of having a more well-rounded perspective. And yet I know, deep down, that Elena Ferrante’s anonymity is an integral part of my enjoyment of her work. So while my friends, peers, and colleagues have debated whether or not it was in the public’s interest to know Ferrante’s true identity, I have come to accept that the only line I can draw is for myself, and that I do not want to know her name, or anything about her life beyond the page.
A handful of people have told me this is the first they’ve heard of Elena Ferrante, and I feel that the nature of her work is an important aspect in this debate. For those who don’t know, Ferrante is an Italian novelist who writes mainly about the experience of womanhood, the tensions of class ascension, maintaining an identity when defined by marriage and motherhood, and the regrets that may come with all of this. Her first novel, Troubling Love—or, in Italian, L’amore Molesto, a more fitting title—was published in 1992. Her next novel—and, in my opinion, her strongest work—Days of Abandonment, was published in 2002. She is best-known for a recently concluded four-part series known as The Neapolitan Novels, which track the life, love, and careers of Lenù and Lila, two women who were childhood friends over the span of roughly 50 years.
Ferrante’s work is engrossing, and honest about female pain in a way that feels like a warning to me, someone younger than the bulk of characters in her novels. The Neapolitan Novels present the best depiction I’ve seen of the twists and tangles of female friendship, yet does so in a way that, almost maddeningly, refuses to allow you to identify wholly with either Lenù or Lila. If Sex and the City was meant to split a single female identity into four distinct parts, The Neapolitan Novels shove that framing in the trash and leave you to see yourself in both women as they commit wrongs and rights while trying to maintain their individual ability to survive.
And that is the crux of Ferrante’s work, for me: It is a work in which I see myself, my mother, and the women with whom I share close emotional connections. It is personal, and I have made it my own.
I am not a person who believes in the separation of art and artist. I believe all work created is a reflection of self, and that the work would be different if the perspective of the creator were different. I do not think that is controversial, but I have often been on the end of a conversation where someone holds dear to them the separation of art and artist.
Ferrante’s anonymity allowed me to place a firm wall between art and artist, and draw as many and whatever conclusions from her work as I saw fit. And I assume, partly because she’s insisted it’s so, that anonymity has allowed Ferrante to do what every writer should envy: write without inhibition.
I read to relate. I read because I want to learn how to live from others who have done more of it than me. The nature of reading is to connect the work to your own world, whether it be through understanding the historical context for society, or to see your own feelings represented on the page.
With Ferrante’s anonymity, I do not have to feel any hesitations about the entanglement of self and art. It is okay, in essence, to make her work all about me. Without the details of her life, there is no way to know what personal experiences influenced the fiction she creates. I can project as much as I want onto her work without hesitation. In my mind, she has created work that boils down to a few major themes, and I can use those as plot points to create an image of her experiences that is convenient to me. Her work, to me, is what I see in it. And I have learned from it.
And so, selfishly, I don’t want any disruption to that freedom.
My colleague Hamilton Nolan argued today that “The Identity Of A Famous Person Is News,” and that it’s disingenuous for journalists, like myself, to advocate for the obscurantism of the truth.
Journalists who write about the arts are not obligated to restrict their reporting to what fans of the artist want. And thank god for that! Nor are journalists required to avoid reporting on a matter of public interest because a famous and influential person had “private reasons.” And thank god for that! One hopes that this is just an instance of writers for very influential publications being temporarily overcome by their fandom for a famous writer, rather than a true statement of any sort of journalistic policy. Because as journalistic policy, opposing the reporting of the true identity of a globally famous pseudonymous person is insane.
This is true, and Hamilton is right, at least about me being supremely influenced by my affection for Ferrante’s work, and what it means to me. I am reading this scenario as a reader, rather than as a journalist.
I do believe I and others can be both, though, and I maintain that there is truly little news value in knowing the identity of a random Italian woman whose work is very popular, but hardly controversial.
The curiosity about Ferrante’s identity is natural and understandable, and a fair thing to dig into; I respect the reporting it takes to see behind the veil of someone who has hidden for 25 years; and yet I don’t see the value, in this case, of making newsworthy information into news.
The reporter argued that the woman known as Ferrante has misrepresented some details of her life in an upcoming English translation of her book Frantumaglia, which contains essays and correspondence with journalists regarding her life and the importance of her anonymity. That gives him a hook—it does!—but unless those falsehoods are of actual consequence, I don’t really care.
I pre-ordered the book weeks ago, so I can not claim to have no curiosity about the woman behind the work, but I know the anonymity she credibly insists she needs to write well requires her to leave things vague, and allows me the distance I am accustomed to needing to take her work in.
These are arguments that in most any other scenario I’d criticize and mock, and yet they are what I actually think, and come from a place of deep indignation about the world not allowing my read of the art to be not influenced by what I know about the artist just this one goddamn time. I worry about the harm that comes from unmasking someone who has written work so personal; I worry that fusing her work and her personal will cause social and family harm; I worry that she will not write again, as she has threatened in the past; and, if I am being as deeply honest as I can, I worry that the news value in unveiling Ferrante was of little importance, and yet it was done anyway, without changing much about the world.
This is possibly a shrill siren in my head, screaming Leave her alone, leave her alone. Leave the capacity in which I want to enjoy her work alone. It is the same distressing resistance I abhor when it comes to Woody Allen or Roman Polanski. The artist has been revealed, and you must accept it—deal with it, deal with the fact that the art you love most is tainted. But Ferrante is not Allen or Polanski. She has not, as far as we know, harmed others in the way that they have. This should bring me relief, I suppose, that whatever has been revealed about her will not distort her work. But I appreciate the distance, and I will work to maintain it.
I appreciate your right to know. I don’t want to know.