A Pound of Flesh
Claudio Gatti's claim to have discovered the true identity of the phenomenally successful writer Elena Ferrante has been widely denounced as an unwarranted invasion of privacy, a violent attempt to drag the author back within the patriarchal symbolic order, and just boring. Katherine Angel, author of Unmastered: A Book On Desire, Most Difficult To Tell, responded swiftly on Twitter, BBC Radio 4 and now for the Verso blog, about the misogynistic nature of Gatti's 'investigation'.
Claudio Gatti’s article, ‘Elena Ferrante: An Answer’ invites the question: an answer to what? Via a long investigation into Ferrante’s identity, tracking down financial and property records, Gatti claims to have identified the “true” author behind the literary and commercial success of Ferrante. Ferrante’s books are, it’s worth remembering, significantly about women’s negotiation of the public and private realm, and about the violence and surveillance women routinely experience.
This investigation, of a kind that might ordinarily be reserved for corrupt politicians, relies on a conviction that Ferrante has committed a clear wrong by requesting her privacy. She owes us her real identity, Gatti thinks. Moreover, the phenomenal success of her books, according to Gatti’s dubious logic, legitimizes his pursuit into that identity. There are, of course, no grounds for the violent exposure of who she might be. An author owes her readers nothing beyond the work itself. Artists create artwork, which we consume; this does not entitle us to consume their person.
Ferrante has spoken eloquently about the reasons for her anonymity: about “the creative space that absence opened up for me”, about the “complete freedom” that is required in order to write, about the disobedience that might be necessary in order to pursue one’s work. She has said in interview that:
Once I knew that the completed book would make its way in the world without me, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume – as if the book were a little dog and I were its master – it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.
Anonymity for Ferrante is a condition of the work’s existence in the first place. For her, an awareness of the authorial self, and its potential co-optation in the media, inhibits writing, which for her “must never lose sight of truth as its ultimate goal.” It takes a perverse form of self-righteousness to seek to undo this by calling it deceit, and to deny the truth that can only emerge out of illusion.
The punitive edge to Gatti’s intrusion speaks of a desire to make some writers offer up a pound of flesh for their success – to make them pay some penance for it. Why should we feel we can extract this price? It is significant that Ferrante’s ‘unmasking’ has occurred in the context of tiresome debates about whether she is really a woman or, in fact, a man. This persistent preoccupation is suggestive of the tendency to measure a writer’s literary worth in relation not just to the work, but also to other markers: of gender, race, class. The urge to uncover the ‘real’ Ferrante enacts an imperative to locate her in these systems – and finally, perhaps, to decide on her literary significance. The crime that Ferrante has committed, in Gatti’s eyes, is that of witholding the signs by which he might read her as a “woman writer”.
Ferrante’s insistence on anonymity has given her a freedom ill-afforded to women writers in particular: a freedom from having their work’s merit entangled with their public persona as women, a persona with little space to navigate. Gatti’s insinuation that Ferrante has been playing with us – giving us hints, telling us lies – completely misunderstands the politics of representation, image and power that Ferrante engages with in her refusal of authorial identity. He can only imagine this act as one of cheap deceit, as an affront to the expectation that writers – and women – owe us their identities, their public selves, their personal lives. Gatti has hunted Ferrante down from a feeling of entitlement to ‘unmask’ a woman, a belief that women never have a right to privacy – that women are essentially publicly owned creatures – and an urge to deliberately destroy an artist's and a woman's attempt to create conditions for sanity in a misogynistic world. He’s done so, what’s more, indulgently, with no compelling result – merely a sorry reflection on literary journalism. We still have to confront the work: the work with its own silences, mysteries, and refusals.