Unmasking of mystery author ignites row over writers' privacy

ROME • One of literature's most talked-about mysteries appeared to have been cracked on Monday with the unmasking of Italian publishing sensation Elena Ferrante's identity.

In its wake, a literary row erupted over journalistic ethics and writers' right to protect their identities and the personal back stories that may, or may not, inform their work.

Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti says he has seen evidence of royalty payments that establish that Ferrante is a pen name for Rome-based translator Anita Raja.

Reacting angrily to Mr Gatti's revelation, Ferrante's publisher did not deny his claim. Instead it railed against the perceived breach of the writer's right to privacy.

"It is disgusting to see a great Italian author, loved and celebrated in our country and across the world, treated like a criminal," Edizioni E/O said in a statement.

"What higher public interest could the investigation led by Claudio Gatti have served?"

Ferrante is an international phenomenon with her novels, particularly her Naples-based quartet - My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story Of A New Name (2013), Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story Of The Lost Child (2015) - being acclaimed for their compelling storytelling and insights into female friendship.

Her success has been fuelled by media interest in the mystery over the author's identity with the until-now anonymous Ferrante having granted only a handful of interviews conducted via e-mail passed on by her publisher.

Mr Gatti's scoop was based on leaked records of payments made by Ferrante's publishers, for whom Ms Raja also worked, which appear to correspond to the royalties the best-selling novelist would have been due.

Assuming that Ms Raja is Ferrante, it appears that the novelist has been complicit in misleading the literary world and her millions of fans into thinking she was the daughter of a Neapolitan seamstress familiar with the backdrop of post-war poverty against which her most famous novels are set.

Mr Gatti defended his story, published on Sunday by the New York Review Of Books and outlets in Italy, France and Germany, on the grounds that Ferrante was a public figure and that she had "lied" about her life story.

"When millions of books are bought by readers - in a way I think readers acquire the right to know something about the person who created the book," he told BBC Radio 4.

He argued this was particularly true in the light of Ferrante's publication in 2003 of Frantumaglia, an ostensibly autobiographical collection of non-fiction works which the reporter described as "full of untruths".

"As a journalist, I don't like lies and I chose to expose them," he said.

While Ms Raja was born in the southern city, she was raised from the age of three in middle-class comfort in Rome by her magistrate father and a mother of Polish Jewish heritage who had escaped the Holocaust as a young girl and never lost her German accent.

British academic Katherine Angel claimed the reporter had gone after Ferrante as if she were "a corrupt politician hiding tax evasion" when, in fact, she had done nothing to deserve such intrusion.

"A writer does not owe his reader anything beyond his work," she told the BBC.

Novelist JoJo Moyes weighed in on Twitter. "Maybe Elena Ferrante has very good reasons to write under a pseudonym. It's not our 'right' to know her," she wrote.

Italian novelist Erri de Luca agreed. "To whom does it matter a jot the real identity of Elena Ferrante?" he said. "As a reader, the identity of a writer is of no interest to me."

Being economical with biographical details is not exactly unprecedented in literary history.

Ferrante revealed in a 2003 interview that she liked her compatriot Italo Calvino's warning to a student of his work: "Ask me what you want to know, but I won't tell you the truth, of that you can be sure."

Her unmasking will inevitably reignite speculation that Ms Raja's husband, Domenico Starnone, a Neapolitan who has also written about the city's post-war period, may have had a hand in the books.

A decade ago, experts at Rome's La Sapienza University used text analysis software to try and establish who Ferrante might be.

They concluded there was a "high probability" Starnone had written them.

Several other literary figures were linked to the books in the intervening years but no one had, until now, produced the kind of back-up evidence Mr Gatti has acquired.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2016, with the headline 'Unmasking of mystery author ignites row over writers' privacy'. Print Edition | Subscribe