The malice and sexism behind the ‘unmasking’ of Elena Ferrante

At the bottom of this so-called investigation is an obsessional outrage at the success of a writer – female – who decided to publish and promote her books on her own terms

“Her books’ sensational success made the search for her identity inevitable. It also left financial clues that speak by themselves.” So writes Claudio Gatti in the New York Review of Books. We know that money talks, but personal bank accounts have nothing to say for themselves unless a journalist is doing the ventriloquism.

These accounts weren’t the Panama Papers or bungs or bribes or secret payments to secret mistresses. The woman in question wasn’t a politician or a Berlusconi-style businessman. She paid her taxes. She wished to live quietly and get on with her work. She is the writer we know as Elena Ferrante.

Gatti tells us that a decade ago a team at La Sapienza University, Rome, analysed the books using software programs and decided that they were written by Domenico Starnone – a writer who happens to be the husband of the woman who is and is not Elena Ferrante.

That must have been a relief to those who still want to believe that Branwell Brontë wrote everything for his mousy sisters, or that Willy really did write Colette’s masterpieces, and that only a man can write about women – or write about anything, which is, after all, the basis of the literature myth. JK Rowling knew boys wouldn’t read her books if she was called Joanne. Later, wanting a fresh start from both Harry Potter and from herself, she chose the name Robert Galbraith – definitely male, and soon unmasked.

The not-so-wise men at La Sapienza (note that Wisdom is female – Sofia is her Greek and medieval incarnations) could not eliminate gender bias from the analysis of their software program, and I am sure that we will soon hear that Signor Starnone is the “real” author, by marriage, of the Neapolitan Quartet.

Why? Because at the bottom of this so-called investigation into Ferrante’s identity is an obsessional outrage at the success of a writer – female – who decided to write, publish and promote her books on her own terms.

It is only 150 years in the UK and 110 years in Italy since women were able to own property, earn and keep their own money, and stand under the law equal to men. Women got the vote in Italy late – 1946 – and Italy is still a Catholic country with strong patriarchial attitudes towards women. Gatti is no doubt a secular journalist, but listening to him talk about his scoop on the BBC – his pompous unthinking sexism, his desire to discredit the creator of both Ferrante and Ferrante’s books, what he calls her “lies” about her mother, tells us a lot more about him than about his subject. Which is not a surprise, because this is all about him. This is his shot at the limelight. Claudio Gatti is a nobody with too much time on his hands. Elena Ferrante is a writer with worlds at her fingertips.

And I go on calling Elena Ferrante Elena Ferrante because that is who she wishes to be. She has been very clear about why she has chosen to be two people – one of whom can be known through her books, and one of whom cannot be known at all. Writing is an act of splitting – like mercury. Writers are multiple personalities. This is clear when we create other characters – it can be confusing when the character we create is ourselves.

My first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit uses a character called Jeanette. I like to read myself as a fiction as well as a fact. It is creatively freeing. Henry Miller, Philip Roth, Paul Auster and Milan Kundera have all used themselves as their own aliases. When men do it, it is called meta-fiction and part of their playful experiment. When women do it, it is called autobiography.

Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about himself with monomaniacal fixation. Yet this does not reduce him – it expands him, because his claim to be his own artwork is accepted. Antony Gormley uses his own body as the cast for his forms. Tracey Emin has determined her own space in much the same way – as subject and object – but her reception has been very different. Women who say, as Beckett did, I and Not I, this is me and not me, this is myself but it is someone else, are driven back from the larger open spaces of the artwork to the smaller spaces of the self.

This is exactly what has happened to Ferrante. By forcing us to concentrate on biography and bank accounts, on the writer and not the work, Gatti has invaded the space that belongs to the work. He has swivelled the lens so that we are looking at the writer through his eyes instead of looking at the work in its own right. He justifies this by telling us that “Ferrante has relinquished her right to disappear behind her books.”

This is the “short skirt – she was asking for it” – argument. According to Gatti, inventing a life for the fictitious Ferrante, especially inventing a mother, is lying; in fact it is publicity seeking – so it’s double lying, because she says she doesn’t want publicity – therefore she deserves all she gets.

In the Facebook world where privacy is an anachronism and nothing is real unless it is photographed and uploaded, Ferrante’s desire to remain hidden in plain sight needed only one response: respect. Gatti did not respect Ferrante, and neither did the New York Review of Books. This is Hello! magazine journalism.

The stripping and parading of Elena Ferrante is violent and crude. Creatively it might destroy her (she has said she cannot write without anonymity), so it is a deliberately malicious act, too. Rightly, around the world, most people seem disgusted by what has happened.

There’s an essay by TS Eliot from 1919 called “Tradition and the Individual Talent”. He talks about personality – and how creative work is a means of escaping personality. This is the I Not I that is difficult to explain. You lose yourself, yet you are most clearly yourself in the creative act. It’s the Indian rope trick.

Ferrante claimed the freedom of I Not I. I hope she will know, in time, that no one can take that from her by force, as Gatti has tried to do. It is her right to claim it, her right to keep it. Whoever else she is, she will always be Elena Ferrante.


Jeanette Winterson

The GuardianTramp

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