Jon Han

An Open Letter to Elena Ferrante—Whoever You Are

The pseudonymous author has said all along that her identity lies in her writing. I’ve followed the literary clues. Here’s where they’ve led me.

Dear Elena Ferrante,

It’s been a while. We haven’t been in touch since I interviewed you for The New York Times in December 2014—by email via your publisher, of course, because you are an artist of absence as well as a literary presence. I’ve always been impressed that back in 1992, when you published your first novel—Troubling Love, a vexing exploration of the female psyche—you made clear to your editors at Edizioni E/O that you would never appear in public. You didn’t want to do author tours or go on television, you told them; you wanted the work to speak for itself. And when you did choose to respond to questions, you would do so only on your terms—in writing.

To hear more feature stories, see our full list or get the Audm iPhone app.

You published nothing for a decade after the glowing reviews of your debut. When you reemerged in 2002 and 2006 with two more slim, raw novels featuring female protagonists navigating difficult and painful moments in their lives, The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter, you stuck to your vow. Your refusal to show your face seemed a bold act as social media exploded, and an even bolder one when your four Neapolitan novels, which trace the lives of two girls born in poverty in postwar Naples, made you a bona fide global superstar. With those books, you published more than 1,600 pages in three years, from 2011 to 2014. Complimenti!

You kept your strategic silence even after the bombshell in the fall of 2016, when the Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti posited that the person writing under your pseudonym was Anita Raja, a retired librarian and freelance literary translator for your Rome-based publisher. In his sleuthing, Gatti had rifled through financial and real-estate records, and discovered that Raja had struck it rich just when your Neapolitan novels were becoming international best sellers. When his story ran concurrently in The New York Review of Books and outlets in France, Italy, and Germany, readers fiercely defended your right to remain faceless. It was a fraught moment. Gatti’s story landed a month before Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, when the righteous anger of women was very much in the air, and some Anglophone readers saw the attempted unmasking as a violation; a few even compared it to an act of sexual violence.

Even then, I wasn’t entirely surprised that you didn’t say a word. You hadn’t deigned to weigh in on earlier rounds of speculation about your identity, speculation that had prompted different accusations of sexism. Various Italian literary sleuths (and scholars using computer programs to analyze prose styles) had for years proposed that Domenico Starnone might be writing your books. He happens to be Raja’s husband, and one of Italy’s most important living novelists—to my mind, one of its best—as well as a prolific screenwriter for Italian film and television, and a longtime newspaper columnist who was once a culture editor for the Communist daily Il Manifesto.

Of course your devoted readers were outraged at the mere suggestion that a man might be behind your work. That notion—if you were a faceless but highly successful woman, then you must be a man—seemed to say as much about Italy’s sexist culture as it did about your work. Actually, you didn’t remain completely mum on the Starnone question. You told me in our interview that Starnone was right to be fed up with constantly denying he was Elena Ferrante, and that you felt guilty for causing the intrusion. But you refused to put the mystery to rest. “My identity, my sex,” you wrote me—by now, your familiar sphinxlike refrain—“can be found in my writing.”

I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking again about your work at this moment, as the television adaptation of My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan novels, arrives on HBO and RAI, the Italian state broadcaster. Though I’m a bit reluctant to see specific faces and bodies put on the characters I feel I know so well, I’m eager to watch the series. But what about you, Elena? What about the disembodied author behind those texts, the author I feel I know so well, yet know so little about? Yes, you chose absence. But rereading your novels and revisiting your collected interviews, I think that even though you insist on staying invisible, you’ve also been inviting us to keep probing. Maybe we’re protective of you—the outcry over Gatti’s revelations certainly cast you into a new role, the role of victim—but truth be told, you’re also kind of a tease.

And you have pulled off something remarkable. Your Neapolitan novels are a forceful saga of 20th-century women forging their way out of the world of their working-class mothers and finding their own place in a new world. I’m awed again and again by how you have managed to root the relationship between your writer-narrator, Elena Greco, nicknamed Lenù, and her friend Lila Cerullo so deeply in the gritty uniqueness of Naples and the particulars of Italian history, politics, and society, while also carrying us along in a drama that feels so universal, so relatable.

But the curiosity you’ve aroused has also prodded me to pursue questions of a different order: about the nature of authorship, about the fluidity of personal identity, about the intermingling of life and art, about assumptions regarding gender and literary authority. You work these larger issues quite self-consciously into the Neapolitan novels, which are constructed as a frame within a frame, a story told by Elena, now in her 60s, looking back on the span of her life after learning that Lila has gone missing. Decades earlier, Elena, the narrator who shares your name, surged ahead of Lila with the publication of a book that drew its inspiration from something Lila had written as a girl. Elena Greco’s literary career, we’re led to understand, ends up crowned by the very novels we are reading. Lila inspires, Elena writes—so whose story is it?

Thinking more about these books, I’ve come to see them as at heart an exploration of a timely and timeless theme: imaginative appropriation. Who has authority to say what in fiction? Who controls the story? And then: How should we readers respond to your work if we can’t be certain who you are, or even whether you’re a single person, either male or female? You’ve been heralded as an inviolable voice of womanhood, therefore understood to be one woman, and after reading all your fiction I was in thrall to that idea myself. But wider reading since then—mostly in Italian, because texts I consider key have not been translated into English—has taken me in a different direction. In choosing absence, I believe, you’re challenging us to reassess the very idea of an unambiguous female authorial voice. And I’ve concluded that you are not quite the creator—or should I say creation?—we have imagined you might be.

Jon Han

It’s not my style or my aim to rifle through your finances. I admire Gatti’s detective skills but found his approach rather literal. Here was a hard-nosed reporter’s take on a long-running, often aridly theoretical literary debate about authorship, akin to Gatti’s saying, “What do you mean ‘Is the author dead?’ or ‘Is the author a social construct?’ Forget it! The author is the one who gets the royalty checks!” In further digging, Gatti discovered that Raja’s lineage—born in Naples in 1953, the daughter of a Neapolitan magistrate and a Polish Jew who had escaped Nazi Germany for Italy—doesn’t match the lineage you claimed in Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, a book of your letters and interviews that appeared in an updated edition that same fall, in 2016. So he grew indignant. In his exposé, Gatti accused you of lying about your parentage.

But for all his efforts, wasn’t Gatti missing the point? Why search for biographical details if the central aim of the Elena Ferrante undertaking is the separation of the work and the author, and the consistent evasion or reshuffling of biographical facts? That’s very clear in Frantumaglia. You recently said in your weekly column in The Guardian that your written exchanges result “in writing that should be set beside the books like a fiction not very different from the literary one.”

At the same time, I think Gatti’s critics, in accusing him of gross violation in probing your identity, were also missing the point. After all, as one of the most famous writers in the world today, you are a legitimate subject for inquiry, whether you welcome it or not. And you haven’t exactly been a literary Greta Garbo: Frantumaglia is an entire book in which you discuss your approach to writing and your choice to remain faceless. It can also be read as an attempt to shake up reductive presumptions that fiction, especially confessional fiction by women, must necessarily be rooted in autobiography.

Yet whatever one thinks of Gatti’s methods (which didn’t conclusively prove that Raja is you), I believe we both know he was onto something when his trail arrived at the door of Raja and Starnone’s Rome apartment. And here my reading has led me to a crucial question: Were he and others wrong to have been looking for a solo author? I can already hear literary-feminist Twitter revving its engines, but the more I’ve read, the more intrigued I am by the possibility of Starnone’s central involvement in your work, along with Raja’s.

You have said that readers should seek your identity and your gender in your writing. That suggests we shouldn’t expect your identity to be a simple, unified one. When I asked you back in 2014 which of your protagonists was closest to your own experience and heart (as Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”), I was struck when you told me:

All my books derive their truth from my own experience. But together Lenù and Lila are the ones that best capture me. Not in the specific events of their lives, nor in their concreteness as people with a destiny, but in the movement that characterizes their relationship, in the self-discipline of the one that continuously and brusquely shatters when it runs up against the unruly imagination of the other.

You’ve also gone out of your way to emphasize that “there is no work that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence.” You lamented that readers “wrongly diminish the role played by this collective intelligence” when the focus is on an author as a “concrete, definite individual.”

To be sure, all authors draw from the works they most admire, as well as from the people around them, for inspiration. In your case, the literary elements combining and recombining are more elusive. So many of us have imagined you as a solitary woman at her desk writing, a woman who, like the protagonists in your fiction, is trying to make sense of her experiences, trying to carve out time and mental space from her family life for her creative work. We have seen parts of ourselves in you, as well as in your characters, and the fact that you are perceived as a woman writer was central to the victimhood dynamic that developed in response to Gatti’s reporting, no matter how strong your voice and your female protagonists are. Your novels have helped us see our own lives more clearly. Sometimes we have felt that you might even understand our innermost thoughts. But tell me, have we fallen into a trap? All but the most naive readers know very well that a narrator’s voice is always an invention. But what happens if you, the writer herself, are just as much an invention as your characters are?

I don’t know much about Starnone and Raja, about their lives or personalities or how and when they met. But both of their careers attest to an investment in creative collaboration and a preoccupation with the uncertain boundaries of personal identity and authorship. Born in Naples in 1943, a working-class boy who became a gifted student and then a teacher, Starnone is Italy’s preeminent metafictional master, an heir to Italo Calvino. In his 40s, he published the first of his 14 novels (only three of which have been translated into English). His fiction is filled with self-conscious male author-narrators and messy Neapolitan families. One of his screenplays is about two women who switch identities. The push and pull between novelists and their material, the way the process of writing fiction transforms and changes the author, is a running theme in Starnone’s work. He is also interested in the role of education in social advancement—which happens to be the backbone of your Neapolitan novels.

Raja’s passion, translation, is an act that requires channeling one text and transforming it into something fresh and alive in a different language. She hasn’t published much under her own name, except for insightful introductions to works she’s translated from German into Italian. But she has been particularly devoted to the work of the East German author Christa Wolf, well known for her explorations of Communist life in East Germany and her feminist reinterpretations of ancient Greek tales. Raja has described Wolf as the most intimate of mentors, one who led her “to paths I never would have thought of taking. To the point that I had the impression that the texts of Christa were expressing me.”

Magazine Cover image

Explore the December 2018 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More

In a 2015 lecture, Raja spoke about Wolf’s preoccupation with “the difficulty of saying ‘I,’ ” the challenge of capturing a story in one voice or one person—hence Wolf’s tendency to shift in the same text among the first, second, and third person. Wolf’s 1968 novel, The Quest for Christa T., which appeared from Edizioni E/O in Raja’s Italian translation in 2003, is about a woman who reconstructs the life of a childhood friend after the friend goes missing. That is, of course, exactly the same frame as your Neapolitan novels, in which Elena Greco is inspired by Lila’s disappearance to explore their intertwined pasts. The narrator of The Quest for Christa T. says of Christa: “She was—eccentric. She never managed to recognize the limits which, after all, everyone does have. She lost herself in everything, you only had to wait for it.” In a recurring motif in your Neapolitan novels, Lila is beset by what you call episodes of “dissolving margins.” As you wrote in My Brilliant Friend, “She said that on those occasions the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared.”

After Wolf died, in December 2011, Raja and Starnone posted a heartfelt tribute to her on the Edizioni E/O website. The couple wrote that they had become close friends with Wolf over the years and that every book of hers that Raja translated into Italian

became, for the two of us, the object of months of discussion—an occasion to reflect, to learn. It wasn’t only literary passion, the desire to master a complex text, it was also the desire to improve our way of looking at the world, to find instructions for how to become better people. It was above all a need for an ethics, a quest for an acceptable way of living.

They had, Raja and Starnone continued, come to see Wolf as a paragon of how to be a writer and a human. “She is her books, and her books are her,” they wrote. They said they were also affected by Wolf’s bond with her husband, Gerhard, a relationship that had become “an unsurpassable model” for them, pointing the way to being a loving, collaborative, and morally engagé couple.

This tribute intrigued me. “What a complex foamy mixture a couple is,” you wrote in The Days of Abandonment. Could it be that you, Elena, began as a topic of similarly rich discussions between Raja and Starnone? You may portray yourself as a reclusive writer who wants to avoid the usual media juggernaut. But perhaps you are a composite creation—a feminist author imagined into being by other writers, almost certainly masterminded by Starnone in tandem with Raja, with others possibly in the mix too.

I came to the notion of Starnone’s involvement reluctantly, based on my close reading of his novels, not out of any desire to undermine your standing and credibility as a woman writer. And I’m of course not the first to name him, or to propose collaborative energies at work. From the start, Italian critics also speculated that your editors at Edizioni E/O might be involved in writing your books. You yourself steer us toward the possibility of collaborative origins, emphasizing in Frantumaglia the “highly composite, immaterial organism” to be found in the pages of your novels, “made up of me who writes and of Lenù, let’s say, and of the many people and things she narrates.”

The quest for Elena Ferrante, as your emphasis on dissolving boundaries would suggest, need not entail deciphering a clear-cut process of co-authorship—quite the contrary. We readers may never know the precise divisions of labor that have gone into the creation of you, the author, any more than we could identify which qualities in a child come from which parent’s DNA. Maybe you began as an experiment, in three slim novels that you didn’t want consigned to the familiar literary niche of “women’s fiction,” which tends to invite prurient, pestering media coverage. And maybe the experiment continued as you began to chafe at fictional conventions, and at the kind of writing women are expected to produce, much as Elena Greco does in your Neapolitan novels.

Writing as Elena Ferrante seems to me a metafictional project, a literary game of the highest order. But it’s also a far-reaching exploration of what it means to write as a woman, to be perceived as a woman writer—and what expansive possibilities may emerge when our assumptions about the author’s identity are subverted. Perhaps you, the construct that is Elena Ferrante, aspire to break down the categories that too often constrain or pigeonhole a complex literary project.

From George Eliot to Colette, who wrote best-selling novels under her husband’s name, women throughout history have assumed male pseudonyms in order to get published. Raja explores this phenomenon in the introduction to a 1997 Italian translation of No Place on Earth, Christa Wolf’s 1979 novel about two poets who went on to commit suicide: Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderrode, a woman who, in the early 19th century, wrote in the guise of a man. “To fight the pain of existence,” Raja writes of von Günderrode’s plight as a woman in male society, “Karoline sees no other possibility but to turn herself into a man … to deny her own identity.” If “the price of having a voice, words, writing, is to die as a woman in the eyes of the world,” she is ready, “because the urgency she feels to express herself is so great that even eliminating herself seems an acceptable tool.”

You are the inverse phenomenon. You are taking a female name yet are intent on erasing any specific, verifiable female identity in the world. If a male author is indeed involved in your creation, as I have come to believe, you’ve also confounded any easy assumption that he must be the influencer, and not the influenced. The Italian literary detectives who have been especially eagle-eyed in tracing echoes between your work and Starnone’s—Luigi Galella, a high-school teacher and sometime literary critic, led the way in 2005, joined more recently by the literary critic Simone Gatto—don’t concern themselves with the larger implications. They have simply hypothesized that Starnone is you. But let’s consider the evidence.

Uncanny similarities crop up between your debut work, Troubling Love, narrated by a distressed daughter reckoning with the death of her mother, and, eight years later, Starnone’s novel Via Gemito. That novel is narrated by a guilt-ridden adult son whose abusive father feels that having a family has held him back from being an artist. Particular features of the families’ Naples apartments echo each other, and the protagonists of both books find boxes hidden away by their fathers containing pictures of nude women. If a creative conversation is under way, it began with a woman’s story, that of Delia in Troubling Love, wandering bereft and disoriented in Naples.

The conversation continues even more conspicuously between your second novel, The Days of Abandonment, and Starnone’s Ties of 2014. To read side by side the complementary accounts of a husband’s departure for a younger woman is to watch a fascinating dialogue on marriage unfold—one novel, yours, rendered in the voice of a wife in the throes of an emotional collapse; the other, Starnone’s, emerging as a sort of sequel told 12 years later in a retrospective kaleidoscope of multiple perspectives. And in Starnone’s 2016 novel, Trick, the male protagonist experiences his own version of Lila’s “dissolving margins.”

As I was puzzling over these subtle cross-references, I happened upon another of Starnone’s novels—and it came as a revelation. In the fall of 2011, when your first Neapolitan novel, My Brilliant Friend, appeared in Italian, Starnone published Autobiografia Erotica di Aristide Gambía (which has not been translated into English). This novel, a 456-page hall of mirrors, written for the most part in intentionally clumsy prose, is Starnone at his most intricately metafictional—and is about as easy to summarize as an M. C. Escher print is to describe. But the novel, in which you actually appear as a character—or at least as a specter—is also very much about you.

Among other things, Autobiografia Erotica is a dizzying meditation on whether men can convincingly write about women and women about men. It starts out as the graphic story of the sex life of Aristide Gambía, a raunchy, middle-aged male publisher. I found it hard to stick with, but I persisted, and well after the first 350 pages, something remarkable happens: The sex-fueled tale shifts and becomes a meditation about who really is the author of the preceding pages—and, if I’m reading it right, about Elena Ferrante as a catalyst for the narrator’s desire to complicate familiar assumptions about imaginative authority.

Seventy pages before the end of the book, the narrator—like Starnone himself, he is the author of an autobiographical novel called Via Gemito—has a flash of inspiration. Upon receiving a handful of pages from a mysterious woman writer, he decides he wants to move beyond his usual material, aging men. Instead, he will chronicle “stories about women’s lives,” and “the battle … to become a new woman” facing a generation of women eager to leave behind the worlds of their working-class mothers. Is this not the core tale of your Neapolitan quartet?

Two years pass as he struggles and, to his own mind, fails to create women characters. He also tries in vain to locate the woman writer who passed him the pages. And then the phone starts ringing: Journalists are asking whether he is Ferrante, and he fends off their inquiries—as happened in real life to Starnone. He starts reading your early work and finds himself drawn in, and before long he begins to surmise that the woman writer might be you, Elena. “She’d left me those pages only to bear witness, ironically, about our contiguity. A literary game. A charade: If I wanted to understand, I’d understand. If not, not,” he says. This realization doesn’t ultimately propel his stalled fiction forward, but it does seem to open his mind about how to approach the endeavor.

He must move beyond traditional preconceptions about male and female material, he thinks to himself. Impatient with denying that he is you, he’s also impatient with the critics’ observation “that two very different writers, one male and inclined toward irony and the other female and inclined toward deep feeling, could have things in common.” Instead, he must embrace a more viscerally disorienting experience. That experience begins to unfold as he grasps the source of your fans’ anger at the speculations about male authorship. Those volumes of yours, he thinks,

weren’t only a literary corpus, they also held the real body of a woman, and reading them entailed—the author herself expected it—a kind of intimate contact. And so for many people, the very notion that they’d put their hands not in Elena Ferrante’s underwear but in mine really seemed repugnant. And I myself—I readily admit—if I were to discover in the future that I’d been mistaken, and with time I had the unassailable proof that Ferrante was a man and not the woman who now was seriously attracting me, well, I would have felt at least a flicker of disgust.

Reading this, I laughed. Here was the most charged debate about you and your writing—Should readers’ response to the work depend on our perception of the author’s gender, and if so, how?—filtered through the Starnone-narrator’s trademark raunchy thinking. Was this a Rosetta Stone, or a dirty metafictional joke?

The male narrator, struggling to come to terms with his own blinkered thinking and limitations as a writer, marvels at how he conflated the author and her characters, and “felt the woman who had chosen those words, who had composed the sentences, who had written and rewritten,” a woman who “seemed familiar, reachable.” More aware than ever of his own failure with female characters, he is struck by “what a great confusion the imagination is, what a mess forms are, what a hallucinatory machine writing is.” The novel ends with the narrator still stuck. He considers writing the story of Aristide Gambía’s sex life from the perspective of two different women—“the first one sarcastic, the second one curious, and then both enraged, and then sweet.” Then he gives up.

Even as the narrator in this novel declares defeat, an undertaking based on an interplay of female perspectives is about to come to fruition in a different novel, My Brilliant Friend, to be followed in short order by three more volumes about that battle to be a new woman. I can’t begin to know what alchemy went into the writing of your Neapolitan novels. Starnone’s acrobatics in Autobiografia Erotica only deepen my belief that he had a role in your creation. At the same time, your reflections in Frantumaglia suggest how reductive it might be to presume that the male writer is necessarily the imaginative force behind the composite character that is you. Questioning reflexive notions about male and female writing seems to be at the core of a collaborative enterprise that, if I’ve understood you, expands the authority of the woman writer in fascinating new ways.

“It is rare to see commentary that traces the influence of a female writer on the work of a male writer,” you said in a Vanity Fair interview in 2015. “The critics don’t do it, the writers themselves do not do it.” Indeed, you noted, “male colonization of our imaginations” has long been a “calamity” for female writers and readers. But I was struck that you went on to say that what was once a calamity is today a source of strength: Women “know everything about the male symbol system,” but men “for the most part, know nothing about ours, above all about how it has been restructured by the blows the world has dealt us.”

Men “are not even curious” to learn more, you remarked, but I think you know that some are in fact deeply curious. And in the quest to forge this “new mode of voicing female experience”—a phrase Anita Raja used in writing about Christa Wolf—what better companion than a translator whose art, Raja has said, “means establishing an intense relationship which unfolds entirely within the written word … between two utterances that are by nature strongly personal”?

All creators of fiction contain multitudes. Writers write to discover themselves, and to hide themselves. “I know that my books can only be female,” you have written. “But I also know that female (or male) absoluteness is inconceivable. We are tornadoes that pick up fragments with the most varied historical and biographical origins.” No matter who is writing under your name, Elena, your work loses none of its urgency, none of its power. Sometimes I think back to the last passage of The Story of the Lost Child, the final Neapolitan novel. Lenù has again found traces of Lila. “Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity,” Lenù thinks. This is precisely the feeling I have after reading your books. It’s the fiction that offers the clarity. The real life, the lived experience that might drive the imagination, remains a mystery.

This article appears in the December 2018 print edition with the headline “My Search for Elena Ferrante.”