My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend Ferrante and the Art of Anonymity

Elena Ferrante's decision to publish all of her fiction, including the four Neapolitan novels, anonymously may at first seem surprising. Particularly in a twenty-first century culture where an author's celebrity and ability to effectively self-promote through the various mechanisms of social media and the digital age can significantly impact sales and reception, it can be difficult to understand why Ferrante has chosen to hide virtually all identifying details about herself.

However, the practice of authors publishing fiction anonymously or under a pseudonym has a long history. It is also a practice often tied to female writers: depending on the content of the novel, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a publication containing "unladylike" material could seriously damage a woman's reputation. For example, when Mary Shelley originally published her famous novel Frankenstein she did so anonymously. Most readers assumed it was her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, who was the author. Other women worried less about their reputations, and more about the fear that their work would not be taken seriously if it was known to have been written by a woman. They disguised their identities by writing under male pen names. Examples of women who first published famous novels in this way include both Charlotte and Emily Bronte (publishing as Currer and Ellis Bell, respectively) and George Eliot, who replaced her given name Marian with the masculine George.

For a woman writing in the twenty-first century, these sorts of social pressures do not seem like they should pose major obstacles. However, the subject and nature of Ferrante's writing help us to understand why she would chose to hide biographical details from her readers. The Neapolitan novels are detailed, intimate studies of the everyday lives of women. If readers know about Ferrante's own life, the temptation to impose a biographical reading might be impossible to resist. On the other hand, given how invested the novels are in capturing the specific rhythms of life in a certain time and place, Ferrante could also be accused of lacking the authority to depict this world if it was found that she had not lived through it.

The challenges of choosing to remain anonymous as a bestselling author became particularly visible in the autumn of 2016. Italian journalist Claudio Gatti used financial and real estate records to make a case that Anita Raja, an Italian translator, is the author of the novels published under the name of Elena Ferrante. His claims were published in several major European and North American news outlets. The investigation and subsequent reporting were controversial. Many authors and readers objected to the violation of a writer's privacy and right to make decisions about how she produces her art. Others noted the potential feminist implications of the obsession with revealing Ferrante's identity. As Stassa Edwards had written in response to a previous controversy over attempts to unearth Ferrante's identity, "here is a certain stripping of authorial creativity: women write what they know and they know the small voice of domestic truths. Fiction is thus reduced to the autobiographical. We don’t trust women to wade into the authenticity or the sincerity of a certain kind of fiction without being engulfed by the memoir."

Considering the emphasis that Ferrante places in her fiction on the way in which girls and women are repeatedly violated and reduced to positions of powerlessness, there is a certain cruel irony to the opinion that she does not have the right to control what she reveals about her own life. At the same time, Raja's biographical details hold the potential to challenge the prevalent interpretation of the novel as a memoir. Raja only lived in Naples briefly, as a young child, and her family history does not align with Elena Greco's. The search for Ferrante's true identity might thus also—intentionally or not—end up confirming her artistry, by revealing that the vivid experiences she created in the texts were distinct from her own lived experience.