Everyone Step Away From the Italian Reporter… (Putting Ferrante In Perspective)

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Tara Cheesman

Staff Writer

Tara Cheesman reads books. Sometimes she writes about the books she reads. It's all a bit arbitrary. Most of this reading and writing happens in a small brick house in the Pennsylvania city where she lives with her husband, two dogs and an ever-expanding library of books translated from languages she doesn’t speak or understand. She's currently considering getting a tortoise, because tortoises seem like good company. When not reading, writing or tending to her extensive collection of wooden pencils, Tara spends her time exploring cities in search of bookshops and art exhibits. She was a panelist at the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Since 2009 she’s written the blog BookSexy Review. You can find her on Twitter @BookSexyReview. (Please feel free to tweet her your opinions on both books and pencils).

It was bound to happen, eventually.

We can all wring our hands and rage on Twitter, but scolding Claudio Gatti for doing what journalists do is pointless. As pointless as op-ed pieces by the Times Literary Supplement proclaiming they would have occupied higher moral ground and not run the piece (if it had been offered to them) are disingenuous. Of course they would have run it.

There’s the argument that revealing the identity of Elena Ferrante against her wishes is an invasion of privacy. But in today’s world, where a Facebook algorithm remembers exes you’ve happily forgotten, anonymity is not sustainable.  The truth was going to come out. What’s more surprising is that it stayed a secret for so long.

But that isn’t really why we’re all upset, is it?

Let’s rewind to a few years ago.  During what was arguably the height of “Ferrante Fever”  an n+1 Magazine article opened with the article’s author sharing her fantasy about revealing Elena Ferrante’s true identity not to the world, but to someone she’s met for lunch. She whispers across the table to this fellow diner:  Don’t you know? Promise not to tell? It’s… and then reveals a name that means nothing to her listener.  She observes “a momentary light in the listener’s eyes that fades to bored disappointment. An Italian woman from Naples, whose name you wouldn’t know. Who did you expect?”

Which is pretty much what’s happened.

Because for most of Ferrante’s readers outside of Italy Claudio Gatti’s discovery, that the bestselling Neapolitan series was probably penned by an Italian translator, isn’t just anticlimactic – it’s meaningless. Most, myself included, don’t possess the knowledge of contemporary Italian literature to put it into any meaningful context. We can only shrug and go back to our reading.

The only truly shocking scenario that existed, one that would have captured everyone’s interest, would have been discovering that the person behind the books was a man. If nothing else, that blatantly sexist hypothetical has been put to rest. We can be thankful for that at least.

What Gatti failed to understand is that while the unmasking was inevitable, no one really wanted it to happen – readers least of all.  The question of Elena Ferrante’s identity existed not as a mystery to be solved but as a charming piece of literary ephemera – like Salinger’s secret manuscripts or the story about the Bronte’s publishing as three brothers named Bell. Something we could have discussed and speculated on at parties. Not knowing was more fun.

Ferrante’s anonymity also gave us permission to believe in the unlikely premise that some Neapolitan woman named Elena was sharing parts of her history. Gatti has spoiled that, too. And to replace it with what?

Very little, which I would argue is the bigger crime here. We all could have wished that a better journalist had broken this story. One with the imagination to craft his revelation into something more than a public audit of the bank accounts and real estate investments of a woman he claims, but cannot confirm, is Elena Ferrante. Gatti has managed to solve a mystery which enchanted readers all over the world in the most uninteresting way possible.  Reducing it to a name handed over to a protesting fanbase with little fuss and less finesse. The National Inquirer, or any other tabloid worthy of the name, could have done a better job. Other papers have, in fact, taken up the story and turned it into the narrative we’re currently following. In which Mr. Gatti twirls his Italian mustache while his victim struggles to escape the scrutiny he has trained upon her.

As for the books themselves, knowing does change things and it would be wrong to pretend otherwise. Not knowing who wrote them meant we didn’t have to contextualize them. An author brings a lot of baggage to his or her work, biography being the most unwieldy. It opens the door to new angles of criticism – some of which Gatti has already attempted to introduce in a companion piece to his NYRB article.  Were the books co-authored by her novelist husband?  How was she influenced by the German writer whose work she translates? Gatti even tries to justify his own actions by claiming that because she wrote an account of her life called La Frantumaglia or Frantumaglia: A Writers Journey (which she admitted, in interviews, was fabricated) she was “asking for it”.

But bad journalism and misogyny aside… let’s put the events of the last few days into perspective.  This is publishing, not the film industry. Our celebrities are strictly minor league in comparison to the Clooney’s and Brangelina. All will be forgotten in a few weeks and everyone will go back to their lives – even the talented woman who writes under the pseudonym of Elena Ferrante.