Dubai – Never-before-seen-in-public author of international bestsellers is one of Italy’s most popular literary thrills
âMore than one person, probably like me, writes so as not to have a face,â said Michel Foucault. For the French philosopher, writing was a way of escaping fixed and restrictive identities.
“Do not ask who I am”, he stressed, because it is the job of “our bureaucrats and our police officers” to make sure that our “papers are in order”. In his influential essay What is an Author ?, Foucault wrote that our definition of an author is culture-dependent and will inevitably vary over time. It’s a socially constructed idea.
In an earlier period, western medieval literary texts were anonymous. Stories and tales were not meant to have an author; they would circulate anonymously.
Even centuries later, several writers have had their books published under a pseudonym or even anonymously. For example, the founder of the historical novel genre, Sir Walter Scott, wrote Waverley (1814) anonymously. A few years later he wrote a classic, Ivanhoe (1819), under the pseudonym Lawrence Templeton.
On a more contemporary note, four decades ago an Italian publishing house brought to life one of the most intriguing literary mysteries in recent Western history. I’m referring to Elena Ferrante, a truly international literary sensation whose novels have a passionate readership around the world. Hillary Clinton is a huge Ferrante fan.
The enigmatic novelist is not a person using a false name. She is a literary person, a character, a heteronym, a creation with an imaginary biography and a 30-year history, enriched over time by the stories that, as happens in legends, have grown up around her in a very lively Naples, a great forge of history.
âI believe that books, once written, don’t need their authors. If they have something to say, sooner or later they will find readers; otherwise, they won’t, âElena Ferrante wrote in a 1991 letter to Sandra Ozolla and Sandro Ferri, her editors in Rome and founders of Edizioni E / O. In this letter prior to Ferrante’s first novel Amore Molesto (Troubling Love), published in 1992, Ferrante explained his will and determination never to reveal his true identity.
She was quickly unequivocal: âI will not participate in discussions and conferences whenever I am invited. I’m not going to take any prizes I could win. I will never promote my books, especially on television, not in Italy or, as the case may be, abroad.
Over the years, the Italian novelist has been staunchly true to her wishes to protect her anonymity amidst stunning international success. His first novel (Troubling Love) was transformed into a Mario Martone film in 1995, soon presented in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Among her relevant books are The Days of Abandonment (2002), the story of Olga, a woman abandoned by her husband; and The Lost Daughter (2006), about a divorced academic who finds herself morbidly drawn to a family she sees on the beach. These early novels foreshadow many themes of her iconic Neapolitan stories, focusing on female relationships, motherhood, and class.
Ferrante received rave reviews for representing the world of women, primarily female friendship. In this, My Brilliant Friend (2011) is a masterpiece. This is the first part of his Neapolitan quartet, an extraordinary modern portrayal of the complexities of female friendship – Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, two girls living in an underprivileged neighborhood of Naples in the post-war years.
In the novel The Story of a New Name (2012), Lila and Elena grow up in increasingly different social spheres, showing the cultural and economic divide between northern and southern Italy. It follows Those Who Go and Those Who Stay (2013) and The Story of the Lost Child (2014), the last part of the quartet completing the double Bildungsroman that spanned 60 years.
Recently, I called the Ferrante editors in Rome to request a written interview with their mysterious author, but they immediately refused. However, in the past Ferrante has given a few rare written interviews. A few years ago, she told Paolo Di Stefano of the daily Corriere della Sera that she had never regretted having chosen anonymity because “the media tend to privilege the image of the author before their work. . In this case, the book functions like a pop star’s sweaty t-shirt: it’s completely meaningless garment without the star’s aura. It’s that kind of accent that I don’t like, âshe said.
In addition, in a 2014 interview with the New York Times, conducted by email, Ferrante explained his choice of anonymity. âWhat matters most to me is preserving a creative space that seems full of possibilities, including technical ones,â she writes. “The structural absence of the author affects the writing in ways that I would like to continue to explore.”
But paradoxically, with the author being an absolute secret, the risk is that the focus will be more on finding out who the mysterious novelist might be than on her expertly written books.
In 2016, an international team of literary experts led by academics from the University of Padua conducted research to uncover his true identity using methods of quantitative analysis. The researchers assembled a large corpus for their analysis: 150 novels by 40 contemporary Italian novelists explicitly selected for the specific objective. The academic study concluded that the writer behind Elena Ferrante is likely a man over 60 from the Campania region of Italy named Domenico Starnone. He is both novelist and journalist. They chose this author because his books had the most affinity in style and content with the novels written by Elena Ferrante.
Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti takes a different view on the matter. He thinks it’s not Domenico Starnone but his wife Anita Raja behind the literary sensation. Ms. Raja is a professional Italian translator specializing in German. She translates German novels into Italian at Edizioni E / O, editor of Elena Ferrante. Anita Raja’s mother was a Polish Jew who left Germany in 1937 to escape the Nazis.
Gatti reported that the financial documents he received from an anonymous source show a dramatic increase in payments from Ms Ferrante’s Rome publishing house to Ms Raja since 2014, when Ms Ferrante’s novels took off in the whole world. Gatti also discovered that the couple had purchased an 11-room, 2,500-square-foot apartment in Rome with an estimated value of $ 2 million. What translator and writer can afford to buy similar luxury properties even if they are good at what they do?
Gatti believes that there is a literary collaboration between the wife and the husband. The best-selling novels could be a collaborative fiction by two authors who share creative control of a story. However, both Mr. Starnone and Ms. Raja deny writing the books.
Marcella Marmo, professor of contemporary history at the University of Naples Federico II, was the last writer to deny the authorship of Ferrante’s critically acclaimed Neapolitan novels. The claim came from a professor at the University of Pisa who investigated various details in Ferrante’s History of a New Name set partly in Naples and partly in Pisa.
Ferrante’s 13 novels are available in 47 languages. The English edition is published worldwide by Europa Editions in London, owned by the founders of Edizioni E / O in Rome. Ann Goldstein is the English translator. While the Lebanese publisher Dar al-Adab takes care of the Arabic editions of the novels. Sales have exceeded 20 million copies worldwide. “In the Gulf countries, Ferrante’s novels have sold more than 10,000 copies,” explains Giulio Passerini of Edizioni E / O in Rome.
My Brilliant Friend has been adapted for the screen, thanks to its colorful characters and dramatic storyline. Saverio Costanzo achieved the huge television success. The third season of the Costanzo series will air in the fall. And a Netflix series based on the new novel The Lying Life of Adults is in the works.
The new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, a Coming of Age Story, confirms Naples as the element of continuity in the author’s literary work. Naples is the real muse of Ferrante, a city that climbs, the parts of which overlap.
In 1995, Unesco declared Naples a World Heritage Site as one of the oldest cities in Europe, whose contemporary urban fabric preserves the elements of its long and eventful history. The rectangular grid arrangement of the ancient Greek foundation is still noticeable. It continued to provide the basic form of the current urban fabric.
Naples remains an important port city in the central Mediterranean, whose maze of streets and stairs tells an impressive story. And Ferrante captures the heart and soul of Naples, a historically important and complex city that international visitors still consider one of the most interesting in the world. Until the 1800s, it was one of the four true metropolises in Europe.
Ferrante readers feel the cultural vibrancy and incredible texture of Naples. They perceive its orography, its attractive landscapes, Vesuvius and the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Readers hear the noises, the cacophony of the street, smell the sidewalk at their feet. Life is in the neighborhoods of Naples. Humans are not meant to live indoors, Aristotle said 2,000 years ago.
Readers appreciate the colors; they imagine tasting the original Neapolitan pizza and a million other local specialties of excellent street food. They meet and identify with the characters, a people both empathetic and warm-blooded.
Naples is a city full of excess and contradictions. It is not an easy place to live. It can be hell in chaos, corruption and crime in the Camorra that never sleeps. It has more secrets and hiding places than any other Italian city. However, the splendor of its rococo palaces, its Gothic and Baroque churches, its fantastic museums are there.
Naples is a great mixture of reality, miracle and superstition. And it is still the Omphalos Mundi, the center of the world, for its inhabitants as it once did for the Roman emperors and aristocrats resting in their magnificent villas stretching out on the shores of the Gulf of Naples during the summer. The city speaks for itself in its ancient, slow dance.
There is an indissoluble bond between Naples and Elena Ferrante. Without Naples, his stories would be as unimaginable as Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo without Sicily.
But such stories written by an unidentified author frees up more creative freedom for the author and the readers. They seem to make Ferrante’s work stronger, transpersonal, universal – and already an authentic classic.