Tax records and literary criticism are strange bedfellows. But over the weekend, the two combined and brought into the world a literary controversy — call it the Ferrante Furor of 2016.
To put it briefly: Elena Ferrante, an admired and cherished Italian novelist, has always made it clear that her name is a pseudonym and her true identity is not for public consumption.
Claudio Gatti, an investigative journalist, used financial records to, as he put it, "make a powerful case for Ferrante's true identity." The result was published in the New York Review of Books, prompting uproar from writers and readers.
To put it rather less briefly:
A translator put forward by Gatti has been named by Ferrante-truthers before, and is married to a man who has also been proposed as a possible author. You may have heard her name on NPR before, when Christopher Livesay reported on the mystery of Ferrante's identity (without claiming to solve it, or arguing it ought to be solved).
Ferrante's publisher has always denied the alleged connection. But Gatti draws on tax records to make an unusually confident claim that the translator is the woman behind Ferrante's work.
In his piece, Gatti says that by suggesting she'd be willing to lie to protect her identity, "Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown."
Her willingness to protect her identity, he seems to argue, is justification to strip it bare. He also says her striking success makes the search for her name "virtually inevitable," while the profits from her books leave financial clues that "speak by themselves."
The reaction of editors, writers and readers? Well, as long as we're talking about things that "speak by themselves" ...
- Katherine Angel, writing on Verso, called Gatti's work "a sorry reflection on literary journalism."
- In The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz called Gatti himself "a puffed-up pedant straight out of Nabokov, right down to his Nabokovian name: Claudio the Cat, prowling around in search of secrets."
- The editor of the Times Literary Supplement — a highbrow literary review similar in stature to the NYRB — said his publication would not have published Gatti's work, and would instead have asked, "what good does this do Elena Ferrante; what good does this do the TLS; what good does this do the world at large? The answer is, resoundingly, too little on all counts. ... Gatti's is not an important work of journalism: intellectually, ethically or artistically. He didn't need to investigate this; and the NYRB – and others – shouldn't have published it."
- Keith Law, a book-loving baseball writer at ESPN, called the piece "a malicious, tawdry exercise in placing money over integrity, the sort of yellow journalism we might expect from the Drudge Report or an alt-right site."
- Hannah Gold, writing for feminist blog Jezebel, tersely summed up the general tenor of the response: "What the hell, guys?"
Not everyone was so critical. In the Washingtonian, Amanda Whiting argued for the opposition, making the lonely case that the NYRB was in the right to publish the alleged unmasking.
She said the key point was the Ferrante has published an autobiographical work, Frantumaglia, which is about to come out in English. "There are discrepancies between the text of Frantumaglia and the life of the person NYRB says is its real author," Whiting writes. "Readers are being asked to pay for this self-portrait ($13.21 on Amazon), with no warning that its finer details belong to a person who doesn't exist. ... This isn't as simple as a private woman being exposed against her will."
But the overwhelming response to Gatti's piece fell on a spectrum from irritation to anger.
The conversation invoked vast questions — from privacy in the modern age to to the very existence and role of the author. Gender dynamics were inevitably at play, given the persistent allegations that Ferrante's work is written by a man, and the fact that it was a man who felt the need to expose her identity.
There was, too, a much smaller and sadder narrative — a sense of loss, of something beautiful and precious in Ferrante's preservation of a private self. A sense of something that may have been destroyed forever by, of all things, tax records.
This is not the first literary "unmasking," of course. The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum points out journalist Nancy Jo Sales gave "similar treatment" to notoriously no-profile literary legend Thomas Pynchon, tracking down his address and trying to pry details out of his friends.
And pseudonyms have been busted: Robert Galbraith was revealed to be J.K. Rowling in 2013, after a lawyer's wife's best friend leaked the secret. Rowling was "very angry," in her own words, at the unraveling of her choice to write free of fame, but general outcry over the leak was muted. Decades before, Richard Bachman was outed as Stephen King.
But Ferrante was something special.
She was fiercely protective of her identity — and said, again and again, that keeping her true name out of the spotlight was a central element of her writing process.
One of the most poignant and cutting rebuttals to Gatti's piece was a simple collection of quotations published by The Guardian — comments from Ferrante over the years, on the value of her pseudonym.
She describes her secret identity as liberation, an act of independence, central to cultivating creative space. "The writing becomes intimate," she told The Paris Review.
"To relinquish it would be very painful," she told Vanity Fair.
Ferrante also told Vanity Fair that her readers didn't seem to mind. They "do not despair at all," she said. "I receive letters of support for my little battle in favor of the centrality of the work. Evidently, for those who love literature, the books are enough."
Indeed, Ferrante has always been fiercely beloved by her fans. And as the backlash to unmasking has made clear, most of her readers were far more fond of her mysteries than suspicious of her secrets.
Dayna Tortorici described the author-and-audience relationship in literary journal n+1: "More than Ferrante herself, her readers have benefited from her choice, spared so much extradiegetic noise. We are as invested in her anonymity—and her autonomy—as she is. It is a compact: she won't tell us, we won't ask, and she won't change her mind and tell us anyway. In exchange, she'll write books and we'll read them."
"I can only hope that Ferrante will not stop writing, as she said she might," Tortorici wrote. "Perhaps she will find a new name. The one she guarded was no truer or more revealing than the one she gave; it was simply hers."