Dr Dominic Glynn was invited to speak about the Elena Ferrante furore at the recent Battle of Ideas festival at the Barbican. Here, he summarises his thinking on a subject that has sent pulses racing.
A bit of background. The identity of popular Italian writer known as Elena Ferrante, author of the highly successful Neapolitan Novels, has long been a mystery. Now Claudio Gatti, an investigative journalist, claims to have revealed her true identity and provoked outrage in the process.
I can’t help thinking Roland Barthes, who proclaimed the death of the author, will be turning in his grave following this revelation which shows that authors are very much alive. Or this one is in any case. Instead of a hologram, we have a real person as Elena Ferrante makes way for Anita Raja. Or so we are led to believe by Claudio Gatti. If we assume Gatti’s revelations are correct (and he is certainly adamant that they are), then we have to consider the following two issues.
The first is a general issue about how we read literature. To what extent do we need to know an author’s biography to understand a literary text? The second is both a personal issue and a general issue. It’s a personal issue for Anita Raja, since whether or not she is the woman behind Elena Ferrante, people will start to scrutinise her life. And it’s a more general issue about what we want our investigative journalists to look at?
Regarding the first issue, there is certainly an appetite for literary biographies, biographies of writers. This is all well and good, and some writers had fascinating lives. But it is not because they had fascinating lives that they were good writers – many people with fascinating lives are bad writers. And it’s not because some writers had, what we might call rather uneventful lives, that they didn’t write exciting fiction. Jules Verne, for instance, hardly travelled, yet wrote great adventure novels.
The big problem here is that it is easy to conflate the author with their narrative persona, and the author as a real person with their public persona used for marketing purposes. Gatti, it seems, falls right into the trap. One the one hand, he accuses Anita Raja of being inauthentic, since she was brought up in Rome, yet writes about Naples. And on the other hand, he looks for clues in Raja’s life that might support his case. For instance, he argues that the fact ‘Elena’ was one of Anita Raja’s aunt’s names and Nino, the name of a love interest in the novels, was the family nickname of Anita Raja’s husband, Dominico Starnone, helps prove his case.
We have to be careful about looking for biographical elements in a work, because it’s as if we’re denying its literary and fictional qualities. Looking for biographical clues stops us from considering all the different ways fiction is playing with us as readers. Biographical explanations only paint a small section of the overall picture.
Regarding the second issue, Gatti used the methods of an investigative journalist (these are usually quite underhand) to obtain information about financial transactions between publisher Edizioni e/o and Anita Raja as well as details of purchases by Raja and her husband.
Certainly, we have had many instances in recent years of whistleblowers, leaks or investigative journalists using undercover and underhand means to reveal political, economic or social scandals. But there is a difference in using such methods to reveal unsavoury truths about the leaders that govern us, or to find out that we’re being spied on all the time by the NSA, for example, and exposing the private life of someone who writes novels.
I don’t doubt that a number of people are delighted by the news, and that they wanted to find out who she is. Claudio Gatti, himself, justifies using such methods by the fact that Ferrante is a bestselling author, arguably the most read Italian in the world at present. His readers have a legitimate right to know, he claims, what her identity is.
I don’t think I’ve ever bought a novel and thought that in so doing I gained an automatic right to know about the author’s life. Deborah Orr, in The Guardian, even argued that Gatti had violated her right not to know Ferrante’s real identity by violating Raja’s private life. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that we don’t gain that much by relating Ferrante to Raja. Raja, on the other hand, has a lot to lose, starting with her privacy. And if only for that reason, I would strongly suggest that Claudio Gatti’s actions were not justified.
Dr Dominic Glynn is a lecturer in French at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study at the University of London. Dr Glynn joined the IMLR in 2015, having previously worked in professional theatre and academia in France. His main area of scholarship expertise is in contemporary French theatre and his next research project engages with the cross-disciplinary question of what it means to be a writer by studying contemporary French theatre.
This article first appeared on the IMLR’s blog