Ever since her first novel, Troubling Love, was published in 1992, nobody has known the true identity of bestselling Italian author Elena Ferrante.
The name printed on the cover of her books was a pseudonym, and the author made it clear that she had no interest in revealing who she really was. With the 2011 release of My Brilliant Friend, the first of her Neapolitan Novels – a four-book series about two girls growing up amid the grim violence of Naples – Ferrante’s literary star began to rise. But even as her novels were translated into multiple languages and interest in Ferrante’s identity increased, she held on staunchly to her anonymity.
Ferrante has been forthright about her reasons for wanting to write anonymously. Dismissive of the cult of literary celebrity, she does not believe that a writer’s identity should affect readers’ interpretation or enjoyment of a novel. In an email interview with The Gentlewoman earlier this year, she listed her reasons for writing under a pseudonym.
“The wish to remove oneself from all forms of social pressure or obligation. Not to feel tied down to what could become one’s public image. To concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies,” she wrote.
While the mystery of Ferrante’s anonymity heightened interest in her work, her novels are also endlessly fascinating on their own merit: complex, sharp and tender-hearted explorations of female friendship, poverty and youth.
And so fans of Ferrante’s have responded with fury to the news that an Italian investigative journalist has ‘unmasked’ the author – against her wishes.
Claudio Gatti allegedly used financial and property records to identify Ferrante as a translator from Rome, revealing his findings in articles published in the New York Review of Books and the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.
But since the news broke of Gatti's so-called "revelation", many readers have taken to Twitter to denounce his investigation as an unnecessary and aggressive intrusion.
Gatti has defended his decision to expose Ferrante’s identity, telling BBC Radio 4 that he “did it because she was a very much public figure”, and suggesting that the author’s real life story does not tally with the biography presented by her publishers.
However, the latent sexism in Gatti’s investigation has been widely remarked upon: in the first instance, his obsession with her autobiography. It’s a well-established fact that women are often asked to explain exactly how their creative output correlates to their “real lives”, in a way that is rarely required of men. (We can’t simply enjoy one of Adele’s songs for its lyrics and melody and emotion alone: we want to know exactly who she’s writing about, and why she isn’t over him yet.)
It’s assumed that women must be drawing inspiration for their book or song or film or painting from a place of experience, rather than pure imagination.
And in the same week that saw Kim Kardashian mocked on social media after being robbed at gunpoint in Paris, Ferrante fans also pointed out a bitter irony: that whether a successful woman chooses to seek publicity and fame or eschew it entirely, she will inevitably be punished.