“Truly no, I am not Elena Ferrante,”
March 19, 2016 3:42 PM   Subscribe

Who is Elena Ferrante? Novelist issues denial as guessing game goes on. by Rosie Scammell [The Guardian] Unmasking the true identity of the pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante has become Italy’s favourite – and increasingly farcical – literary parlour game. The latest writer forced to deny that she is the creator of the critically acclaimed Neapolitan novels is Marcella Marmo, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Naples Federico II.


- Elena Ferrante: 'Anonymity lets me concentrate exclusively on writing'. by Deborah Orr [The Guardian] [Interview]
Deborah Orr: Usually, at this point in an interview, the writer sketches the subject and her surroundings. Under the circumstances, Elena, can I ask you to do this yourself, please?
Elena Ferrante: I can’t. I don’t know how.
D: Can we assume, then, that you see Elena Ferrante as a somewhat mysterious person, without a home, without a family, who exists inside your head?
E: No, Elena Ferrante is the author of several novels. There is nothing mysterious about her, given how she manifests herself – perhaps even too much – in her own writing, the place where her creative life transpires in absolute fullness. What I mean is that the author is the sum of the expressive strategies that shape an invented world, a concrete world that is populated with people and events. The rest is ordinary private life.
- Will Elena Ferrante outlast Louisa May Alcott's secret alter ego? by John Dugdale [The Guardian]
It looks as if the quest to identify the real Elena Ferrante will have to continue, following this week’s firm denial by the historian Marcella Marmo – “Really, I’m not Elena Ferrante” – who had been fingered as the pseudonymous Neapolitan novelist in an Italian newspaper. (It should be noted, though, that there is a precedent for a false denial: Joe Klein initially insisted he was not Anonymous, the author of Primary Colors). So far, Ferrante has eluded the identity detectives for 24 years, already a good score compared with other female authors who have used pseudonyms of either gender.
- From the Brontë sisters to JK Rowling, a potted history of pen names. by Maev Kennedy [The Guardian]
In 1850 Charlotte Brontë finally outed the brilliant but obscure brother authors Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and neatly analysed why centuries of authors have chosen to shelter behind entirely invented names or ambiguous double initials. The brothers Bell were her and her extraordinary sisters, Emily and Anne. The shy sisters were, she wrote, "averse to personal publicity". But as George Eliot, born Mary Anne Evans, and the newly revealed as multi nom-de-plumed JK Rowling would entirely have understood, there was more to it: "we did not like to declare ourselves women because – without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice".
- Who Is Elena Ferrante? An Educated Guess Causes a Stir by Rachel Donadio [The New York Times]
Over the weekend, Ms. Marmo had been responding to an article in Corriere della Sera’s Sunday literary supplement and an accompanying video, in which Marco Santagata, a novelist and university professor, argued that Ms. Ferrante fit the profile of Ms. Marmo. He based his analysis on a close reading of passages in parts of one of Ms. Ferrante’s novels set in the 1960s in Pisa, where one the book’s protagonists, Elena Greco, studied classics at the prestigious Scuola Normale. Both Mr. Santagata and Ms. Marmo studied at the Normale in the 1960s. “I created a profile — I didn’t say it was her,” Mr. Santagata said in a telephone interview, adding that he had never met or been in touch with Ms. Marmo. He said he had determined that some street names in the books were changed in Pisa after 1968, suggesting that the author must have left Pisa before then. Looking in Scuola Normale yearbooks, he found she seemed to be the only Neapolitan woman at Pisa in the mid 1960s who had become an expert in the contemporary Italian history that is the backdrop to Ms. Ferrante’s Naples books.

- When Pen Names Become People: The Freedom and Pitfalls of Literary (Mis)Identity by Tobias Carroll [Lit Hub]
Knowing that an author’s name is a pseudonym inevitably prompts speculation and searches for their true identity. (There were, apparently, some early-1970s theories that James Tiptree, Jr. was actually a pen name being used by J.D. Salinger.) Earlier this month, a novel called Cow Country became the subject of abundant media attention when critic Art Winslow contended that its author, Adrian Jones Pearson, was actually Thomas Pynchon. Writing in The New Republic, Alex Shephard made the case for why this is likely not true; still, the literary appeal of the pseudonym and of the reclusive genius tend to go hand in hand. Consider, too, the recent speculation over the identity of acclaimed Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. In an article for The Atlantic, Amy Weiss-Myer pointed out that Ferrante’s elusiveness has bolstered the popularity and visibility of her English-language translator, Ann Goldstein. When she was interviewed by Elissa Schappell for Vanity Fair, Ferrante magnificently demolished the idea that she might be a pseudonym for a male author:
“Have you heard anyone say recently about any book written by a man, It’s really a woman who wrote it, or maybe a group of women? Due to its exorbitant might, the male gender can mimic the female gender, incorporating it in the process. The female gender, on the other hand, cannot mimic anything, for is betrayed immediately by its “weakness”; what it produces could not possibly fake male potency. The truth is that even the publishing industry and the media are convinced of this commonplace; both tend to shut women who write away in a literary gynaeceum.”
While a good literary mystery is hard to resist, so too is it necessary to resist falling prey to problematic attitudes about gender when playing literary detective.
- A History of Pen Names [Electric Literature] [Infographic]
- [Previously.]
posted by Fizz (25 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I am not Elena Ferrante
posted by From Bklyn at 4:13 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes you are.
posted by shmegegge at 4:19 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

All I need to know about who Elena Ferrante is is that she's the author of the best contemporary novels I've read in I don't know how many years. These are the books to read if you find yourself asking "wait, why is it important that there's such a thing as a novel? Is there something it can do that other artforms can't?" Yep.
posted by escabeche at 4:25 PM on March 19, 2016 [13 favorites]

Have you heard anyone say recently about any book written by a man, It’s really a woman who wrote it, or maybe a group of women?

What's especially funny about this is that the most famous case of recent misidentified authorship in the US, that of JT Leroy, the "male author" was indeed a woman writing anonymously. And there was zero speculation, before the hoax unraveled, that the author of the JT Leroy stories must actually be a woman.
posted by escabeche at 4:27 PM on March 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

Where by "funny" I mean rrrrrggh
posted by escabeche at 4:27 PM on March 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

literary gynaeceum

god damn that's a good phrase
posted by dismas at 4:33 PM on March 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's been mentioned here on the blue before, but it's worth sharing again. James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips is an informative and entertaining book. It's a biography about SF writer James Tiptree, Jr./Alice B. Sheldon and the mystery surrounding her pseudonym. One of the best biographies I've ever read.
posted by Fizz at 4:40 PM on March 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

“What's any artist, but the dregs of his work? the human shambles that follows it around. What's left of the man when the work's done but a shambles of apology.” ― William Gaddis, The Recognitions
posted by chavenet at 4:42 PM on March 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

I hope the mystery continues for years and years, as the chatter around it as well as comments here on Metafilter spurred me to read the novels and probably will for others as well. And these are books worth reading.
posted by rewil at 4:44 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am not saying I'm Elena Ferrante, I'm not saying I'm not.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:10 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I hope they never find her out, but they probably can these days, like they did JK Rowling's pseudonym .

Anonymity isn't too likely to last these days.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:17 PM on March 19, 2016

Anonymity isn't too likely to last these days.

Indeed. While Joe Hill never tried to use a pseudonym, he did his best to keep his relation to his father, Stephen King, as quiet as possible for the first few years of his writing career. And I always appreciated that. It would have been fairly easy for him to ride along on his father's success.
posted by Fizz at 6:20 PM on March 19, 2016

I am not Elena Ferrante

No, I am not Elena Ferrante!

Never have I pulled so hard for a Spartacus-style confusion of the source, because I love the work and want to respect Ferrante's wish that it speak for itself.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:11 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

In the future, everyone will have 15 minutes of anonymity.
posted by oceanview at 10:09 PM on March 19, 2016 [13 favorites]

All I need to know about who Elena Ferrante is is that she's the author of the best contemporary novels I've read in I don't know how many years. These are the books to read if you find yourself asking "wait, why is it important that there's such a thing as a novel? Is there something it can do that other artforms can't?" Yep.

In the best possible way, this is the worst possible thing I could have read at this exact moment in time. The original post, and this.

I'm coming off of a 20-month Italian literature challenge. I just finished my last novel less than 30 minutes ago (Elsa Morrante, La storia). And I thought: I did it. I've just read works from all the modern Italian greats in their native language. It was hard. But I was done. Finished. It was time to pour a whiskey and enjoy the accomplishment.

And now you all come tell me that there's some new author whose work is the best you've read & whom I haven't even heard of? And accidenti if the books aren't on kindle.

So, thanks for this post. Dammit. I'm looking forward to the series.
posted by kanewai at 12:32 AM on March 20, 2016 [6 favorites]

I hope they never find her out, but they probably can these days, like they did JK Rowling's pseudonym .

Hah! Small world. I actually had dinner once with a group including that post's guest author (Patrick Juola) after a seminar presentation, and I've cited a paper by another author he mentions (Efstathios Stamatatos). Incidentally, that paper--"A survey of modern authorship attribution methods", which you can find here--is a great overview of this sort of thing if you're interested.

Stylometry/stylistics is kind of a smallish field, as it turns out. I still have anxiety dreams about finding someone I cited and/or had drinks with standing on my doorstep with a copy of my thesis saying "You know nothing of my work". /tangent
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:55 AM on March 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

I felt compelled to read Ferrante's novels after seeing an article which included opinions by famous (male) critics insisting Ferrante MUST be a man, because the books are just too good to have been written by a woman. After reading all 4 books in the Neapolitan Series I can't imagine that Elena Ferrante might actually be a man, though it is possible. In any case, it does not change the fact that those 4 books are the best novels I have read in decades and I cannot wait to read her earlier works. I hope Ms. Ferrante is able to maintain her anonymity because I fear she will cease writing if she does not. I think it will be ever more difficult to remain anonymous when the TV adaptation of the novels begin production.

For anyone who has not yet read the books, and is prone to judging a book by its cover -- please know that the artwork is lame, but the books are brilliant. I suspect later editions will be published with artwork more befitting a modern classic than a generic romance novel. Mamma Mia!
posted by pjsky at 6:45 AM on March 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

that the artwork is lame, but the books are brilliant

But the artwork is part of the brilliant joke, that the look of given events is all but unconnected with their hidden and swirling undercurrents, and with who gets to map them and determine their meaning. That romance-novel-cover bride is dangerous.

I loved these books and am among those who are convinced that they could not have been written by a man because of the obsessive attention paid to making visible the intangibles of relationship, and tying them to the political, and to the vulnerability of having misunderstood the meaning of events, and to the interconnectedness of lives. They're full of people with subjectivity, and their lives exist in a web, fully, multidimensionally, across decades.

I hope Ms. Ferrante is able to maintain her anonymity because I fear she will cease writing if she does not.

I never want to know. But if and when I do, and should she never produce another work, the Neapolitan novels will still be proof that amazingly complex limning of relationship is possible.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:17 AM on March 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

Ferrante reflecting on Jane Austen's use of a pseudonym is what made me understand her choice of anonymity:
It seems to me that Austen, by not putting her name on the books she published, did the same thing as Elinor, and in an extremely radical way. She uses neither her own name nor one that she has chosen. Her stories are not reducible to her; rather, they are written from within a tradition that encompasses her and at the same time allows her to express herself. In this sense they are indeed written by a lady, the lady who does not fully coincide with everyday life but peeks out during the often brief time when, in a common room, a space not hers, Austen can write without being disturbed: a lady who disappears whenever something – the disorderly world of the everyday – interrupts her, forcing her to hide the pages. This lady doesn’t have Jane’s anxieties or her reserve. The lady-narrator describes the ferocity of the male world that clusters around income, is afraid of change, lives idly, contends with futility, sees work as degrading. And above all she rests a clear gaze on the condition of women, on the battle between women to win men and money. But she doesn’t have Jane’s natural resentments toward daily life. The lady-who-writes can set aside dissatisfaction and bitterness, spread a light, ironic glaze over the old world that, with its wrongs, is collapsing and the new world that is emerging, with its abundance of new wrongs. But pay attention, for the lightness conceals pitiless depths – it’s a glaze that, miraculously, doesn’t sweeten anything. There are a thousand traces of these depths, continually opening up in a narrative that proceeds at the easy pace of a dance.
I put Ferrante up there with Toni Morrison as the two current fiction writers people will still be reading 300 years from now. Two badass women.

Jonathan Franzwho?
posted by sallybrown at 10:48 AM on March 20, 2016

i wonder what it says among authors about the 'choice' of female anonymity vs. male reclusiveness (i'm thinking like thomas pynchon, greg egan...) or the relative reclusiveness of harper lee? /rhetorical

also btw, another one for the pile :P (doesn't add anything! ...except a link to another ferrante interview! ;)
posted by kliuless at 11:49 AM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

... a famous (male) critics insisting Ferrante MUST be a man, because the books are just too good to have been written by a woman.

That's an amazingly ignorant thing to say, like, I want to see a link because I feel like letters should be written.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:36 PM on March 20, 2016

Jonathan Franzwho?

I'll say this though -- Franzen has constantly been beating the drum for the "social novel," in which the fully realized lives of individuals are presented in the context of and mixed with the social conditions under which they live, over a long period of time. And lots of people were like "whatever this is some mid-century US male "Great Novel" BS" but I think it can't be denied that Ferrante has accomplished exactly this, and exactly what Franzen wishes he himself could do. Hard to imagine Franzen doesn't recognize and praise the Neapolitan novels as the triumphs they are.

I can't find any writing by him about her ,but here's a quote from an interview:

“I am very grateful to Haruki Murakami for writing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I feel the same way right now about Elena Ferrante. I have trouble finding books that really do it for me.”

So out of all the people in the world he could have thought of to praise in that moment, Ferrante was one of the two.
posted by escabeche at 12:43 PM on March 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

From Bklyn -- The Vanity Fair interview addresses the allegations of male critics. They ask EF

I’ve noticed that the critics who seem most obsessed by the question of your gender are men. They seem to find it impossible to fathom how that a woman could write books that are so serious—threaded with history and politics, and even-handed in their depictions of sex and violence. That the ability to depict the domestic world as a war zone and willingness to unflinchingly show women in an unflattering light are evidence that you’re a man. Some suggest that not only are you a man, but given your output, you might be a team of men. A committee. (Imagine the books of the Bible…)

And then there is the Guardian article Elena Ferrante pours scorn on speculation she could be a man
posted by pjsky at 2:28 PM on March 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

Speculating on the identity (or at least, something about the identity) of anonymous novelists will always be exciting but, having just finished the fourth of the Neapolitan novels, it never even occurred to me for a moment that the author was anyone other than a woman.

The speculation that she is really a man is doubly insulting when you consider that most pseudonymous authors are women writing under male (or androgynous) names precisely out of the need to escape the literary gynaeceum she refers to.

One of the many ecstatic review excerpts emblazoned on the book's first few pages gave me pause, however - it compared reading Ferrante now, to being a contemporary reader of Flaubert. Not that the comparison is inapposite; Ferrante has, in my opinion, created a work as enduring, insightful, and revelatory as Madame Bovary. Maybe the difference is that Ferrante has gone further than Flaubert and mapped a whole world of women, where Flaubert mapped only himself onto one woman - "Madame Bovary, c'est moi,": a diagnosis not a boast
posted by Aubergine at 9:46 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I also love this interview she did with the NYT back in 2014. This part is fairly unsparing:

Q. What is the best thing that you hope readers could take away from your work?

A. That even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard — out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness — we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A. No.

posted by superfluousm at 7:11 AM on March 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

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