Why ruin the fun?
It seems a category error to expose a pseudonymous novelist as if you were acting in the public interest; to adopt the tools and language of investigative journalism, go through someone’s financial records and harass their family in order to ruin an authorial position that has been almost as interesting as the author’s novels themselves. There’s no value in revealing Elena Ferrante’s ‘true identity’ (as Claudio Gatti claimed to have done yesterday). What’s interesting about her anonymity depends on its being sustained; it’s a creation, as well as a political proposition, that has engendered a conversation about literary making rather than dismantlement and confession. In an age of autofiction, when so many protagonists take their authors’ names, the idea that the author, too, is a literary creation extends the fictiveness out of the books and into the world. Why ruin the fun?
It’s embarrassing to work this hard just to put fictive names onto real people, and immoral to make it so boring to read (‘In Italy, an apartment can be registered under the sole name of one member of a married couple regardless of whether the money comes from that person or his or her spouse. As a tax lawyer explained to me…’) But most of all it’s a failure to see what the real question is – not the one that ‘Ms X’ is an answer to. The biographical instinct is an attempt to understand how the trick of fiction works, because, when it does, it constantly recedes before our reach. We don’t answer the question of a work of art by knowing that the author likes oranges.
The writer known as Elena Ferrante – or perhaps the character of Ferrante, if she has walked that far from the page – has spoken eloquently on this subject in interviews and pieces, giving her thoughts on the role of the writer, the morals and ethics of anonymity, the assumptions of the market, the position of women in society, the separation of life and art. More than anyone else in recent times she has resisted fiction’s autobiographical turn and pulled the argument back in the direction of imagination and inventiveness; restoring to the relationship between the author and the art some of the subtleties and refinements, the shadings and strange veilings, that make novels work in the first place. Her anonymity has been a protest against those who can no longer read books as works of fiction. What’s interesting about novels isn’t that they imitate life, but that the ways in which they perform reality aren’t the ways in which real reality works. Writing, but especially fiction, is about selection and transformation: it doesn’t make sense to think it a ‘shame’, as Gatti does, that Ferrante hasn’t given us a picture of her ‘real’ mother, who sounds so ‘unique’. A person we meet walking down the road is unique but a person written is only as unique as the writer has power to make them. Who would say that Ferrante has failed to animate her characters?
Another riddle: When is a scoop not a scoop? I don’t need to know who Ferrante is because I already know. I never felt like she was hidden: her mind has been on my mind. I’ve walked her thoughts and seen what she has chosen to show me; I am her intimate friend. And the more she writes the more I know the shape of her artistry. All dead authors are pseudonymous: we cannot know their person. But we see their patterns and performances; we learn their subjectivity. The living mind of a novel is a character in itself. My Ferrante has long dark hair, and I can see her now, with a green string bag, shopping for oranges. She hasn’t looked up; she doesn’t know I’m watching.