10.07.2016 In Depth Look

From the bowels of an Eastern timezone midnight, as Sunday disgorged Monday, an incisive and indisputably persuasive revelation from New York Review of Books that the mysterious and pseudonymous author of very plausibly class conscious and quite likely feminist narratives–who signed her books, Elena Ferrante–actually fills the bodily form of translator and writer Anita Raja, not Italian at all and ensconced for decades in a prominent literary marriage whose efforts also issued forth from ‘Ferrante’s’ publisher Edzioni e/o, an investigative triumph that immediately raised an outcry against unwarranted snooping and all manner of other accusations of predatory oversight, a generally negative purview that one sees as an open imprecation  from LitHub to ‘leave Elena alone;’ that appears in another briefing  from one of New Yorker‘s regular “Cultural Comments” this week; that assumes the form of projecting a protection of translators in an Asymptote Journal column; that appears as a plea in The Conversation that readers note the existence of ‘reasons’ for anonymity that are worthy of respect; that shows up as another general critique  in the online edition of n-Plus-One Magazine, and thatmight fill a couple of standard volumes of selections in addition–a definite rejection of the Italian researcher’s methods and choice to proffer his results openly that another Conversation piece , arguing that such privacy as ‘Ferrante’s’ could prove  helpful, if not necessary, assistance of women’s work in general, especially in relation to sexist, condescending, or other questionable ways of contextualizing female work as such, and a clear-cut brouhaha that the author of the NYRB examination availed himself of the good graces of the Columbia Journalism Review to call into question, and perhaps refute, in an interview of modest extent; a steamy stew of controversy that may be mete indeed to our present pass or a ‘tempest in a teapot,’ as the bard had it, “a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ in any event of note in relation to probably thousands or even tens of thousands of recently released media assessments that touch on obviously related matters, such as a Poynter brief that announces the launch of the Beta version of the new Freedom of Information Act Wiki; such as a Hollywood Reporter narrative   that perused the issues that have arisen asGawker disarticulates without any right of consultancy or sayso by the reporters involved in the publication; such as an Atlantic first person account  about one prominent, if quirky, writers privilege of couching much of her work as created ‘for an audience of one;’such as a Digiday pronouncement that publishers are now combating ‘abusive ads’–and what would a non-invasive come on look like?–by seeking staff who can serve a gumshoes in ‘outing’ these ‘abusers;’ such as, in particular, a very short posting from the Chief Organizer’s Blog that poses a possibly apt query about ‘who has privacy anymore,’ all of which leads a scrappy scribe or stalwart citizen who takes such outbursts as this seriously–as a sign of something at least interesting, and conceivably important–to psychological and social inquiries about consciousness and relationship and alienation and more that appear in such iconic material as R.D. Laing’s crucially important monograph, available at the Marxist Internet Archive, which has the evocative title, The Politics of Experience:hwy fr nature path road choice
Neither (Anita) Raja nor (husband Domenico) Starnone responded to repeated requests for comment, including detailed cell-phone messages describing my findings that were left with Starnone and with Raja’s brother.  Sandra Ozzola and Sandro Ferri, the co-owners of Edizioni e/o, also declined to confirm or deny the findings.  Reached by telephone on Friday, Ferri said, ‘If this is an article that intends to make revelations about Ferrante’s identity, I’m telling you right now that we will not give answers.’  He added that such an article was an ‘invasion of privacy, ours and Ferrante’s.’  When I then provided the details of my findings to a spokesperson for Edizioni e/o, I was told that the publishers’ position regarding ‘hypotheses about Ferrante’s identity’ hasn’t changed.

(In the process of her growing fame and fortune from an elaborately concocted persona, the writer behind Ferrante constructed multiple additional texts that ‘responded’ to ‘interest’ in the mystery).  None of the details (in those accounts) corresponds to the life and background of Anita Raja.  Like the mother of Elsa Morante, Raja’s mother was a teacher, not a seamstress, and she wasn’t Neapolitan.  She was born in Worms, Germany, into a family of Polish Jews who emigrated from Wadowice, a town west of Krakow.  She spoke Italian with a strong German accent.  Raja has no sisters, only a younger brother, and although she was born in Naples, she moved to Rome with her family at the age of three and has lived there ever since.

In fact, in a letter included in Frantumaglia (one of the fictitious ‘interviews’), Ferrante warns her publisher that she will not tell the truth about herself, writing ‘I don’t at all hate lies, in life I find them useful and I resort to them when necessary to shield my person, feelings, pressures.’  And when Ferrante is asked to describe herself in a 2003 interview republished in the book, she offers Italo Calvino as a precedent for her evasions: ‘Italo Calvino, who, convinced that only the works of an author count, in 1964 wrote to a scholar of his books: ‘Ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth, of that you can be sure.’  I’ve always liked that passage, and I’ve made it at least partly mine.’  But by announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown.  Indeed, she and her publisher seemed to have fed public interest in her true identity.

(Many the more ‘literary’ snoop has sought to suggest theories about ‘Ferrante’s’ identity).  But none of these theories have been backed by concrete evidence.  By contrast, the new financial information leads directly to Raja, while leaving open the possibility of some kind of unofficial collaboration with her husband, the writer Starnone.  In fact, the payments to Raja are backed by other clues in the Ferrante books themselves.  Elena, the name chosen by the author for herself and the narrator of the Quartet (Elena Greco, aka Lenù) belonged to Raja’s aunt, while Nino, the name of Lenù’s great love, is Domenico Starnone’s family nickname.  In My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante emphasizes the importance of the local public library in the cultural education of Lila, Lenù’s friend.  In Italy, the value of public libraries is rarely appreciated, but for years Anita Raja has been the head of Rome’s European LibraryViola Starnone, Raja and Starnone’s daughter, graduated from the Scuola Normale, the elite university in Pisa attended by Lenù.

(Moreover, Raja’sspecialties as a translator also connect her to ‘Ferrante,’ especially her delving into the brilliant Christa Wolf).  ‘Thematically the works of Ferrante intersect considerably with those of Wolf.  The Quest for Christa T., by Wolf, for example, is the story of a woman who pieces together the traces of a lost friend, while Ferrante’s tetralogy begins with Lila’s disappearance without a trace.  Like Wolf’sMedea and Cassandra, which rewrite classical texts, Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment draws heavily on the stories of Medea and Dido, while Lila’s dangerous prescience makes her sometimes seem a Cassandra-like figure.’  In fact, both Raja and Starnone have acknowledged that Wolf’s work has loomed large in their own work. I n a March 2009 article for the Neapolitan daily Il Mattino, the couple explained, ‘Every book by Christa that [Raja] translated into Italian led to months of intense discussions between the two of us, an opportunity to reflect, to learn.  It wasn’t just driven by literary passion, but by our desire to master a complex text…and enhance the way we look at the world, and see how we can become better….[Christa] immediately seduced us.'”—New York Review of Books

CC BY-SA by Wolf Gang
        “Claudio Gatti’s ‘Elena Ferrante: An Answer?’ betrays its contradictions from the start.  If we want an answer about Ferrante, after all, we only need to read her books.  As most serious readers and writers recognize, it is not the creator who is important; it is the language, the sentences, the art.  Ferrante, to be sure, is a famous recluse; the author of the Neapolitan Quartet, her name has long been known to be a pseudonym.  In his investigation, however—published simultaneously on Sunday in Germany, France, Italy, and on the blog of the New York Review of Books—Gatti eschews literary theorizing, using real estate and financial records instead to argue that Ferrante is not who she appears to be.rect3336 space
The first question to ask is why.  Does anyone believe that knowing Ferrante’s secret identity will offer unexpected insights into her books?  She’s not a superhero—or, for that matter, the presidential nominee of a major party who refuses to release his tax returns.  And yet, I’m struck by Gatti’s assurance that money renders everything fair game, that we should treat a writer as we would a politician trying to avoid being found out.  When did this become the way we think of literature?  Does anyone care how much Ferrante earns or where she lives?  Gatti follows a paper trail that begins with the purchase, in 2000, of ‘a seven-room apartment near Villa Torlonia, an expensive area of Rome,’ and then, a year later, ‘a country home in Tuscany.’  He tracks payments from her publisher, ‘obtained from an anonymous source.’  Close your eyes and you can almost imagine he is writing about national security, that there is more than a writer’s privacy at stake. …
(What does it matter who Ferrante is?  How does the question serve her—or us?  I think of George Orwell (another pseudonym), who in 1936 published the essay ‘Shooting an Elephant,’ about an incident in Burma, where as a colonial police officer, he killed a rogue elephant.  ‘There’s no way of knowing,’ George Packer writes in his introduction to Facing Unpleasant Facts, in which ‘Shooting an Elephant’ appears, ‘whether the events in the essay ever happened.  Orwell’s biographers haven’t been able to prove them either factual or false. … Would the essay be any less powerful if Orwell never actually shot an elephant?  If you’re a literary sophisticate, the correct answer is obvious: of course not.  All we have are Orwell’s words; they are what they are regardless of his life story, and only a naïve reader demands that they reflect the factual truth.’rect3336 space
A similar response applies to Ferrante—even moreso, since she has never claimed the mantle of essayist.  Her work is fiction, so what difference does it make if she too is a creation, a construction, both on and off the page?  ‘In an age in which fame and celebrity are desperately sought after,’ Gatti argues, ‘the person behind Ferrante apparently didn’t want to be known.  But her books’ sensational success made the search for her identity virtually inevitable.’  Still, if this suggests some—or even all—of his motivation, it also tells us how little he understands about art and literature, and the subtle transference by which they work.”—LitHub
Laura Loveday flickr
Laura Loveday flickr
        “In the New York Review of Books, investigative journalist Claudio Gatti claimed to have uncovered author Elena Ferrante’s true identity.  Ferrante, the writer behind bestselling Neapolitan crime novels, has until now been famously anonymous, giving interviews via email, her true identity known only to her publisher.rect3336 space
In many respects, Ferrante’s story mirrors that of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë.  The Brontë sisters published their novels Jane Eyre,Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall under the masculine pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.  Like Ferrante, they published under pen names to ensure their privacy and to eschew celebrity.  In an interview earlier this year, Ferrante stated that she chose to write under a pseudonym so she could ‘concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies.’rect3336 space
The Brontës wrote as men because their novels examined subject matter which was ‘unfeminine’ for their early Victorian readers: sexual passion, slang, alcoholism, domestic abuse and violence.  Nevertheless, commentators were quick to accuse the ‘Brothers Bell’ of being women writers, or equally using their writings to affirm that they must be male.  Mr Rochester’s slang and sexual exploits were said to prove Jane Eyre’s male authorship, while the detailed evocation of Jane’s psychology and emotions gave away the woman’s hand in the novel.

Many commentators have denounced Gatti’s investigations, citing Ferrante’s desire for anonymity and privacy.  In an age of unparalleled access to authors -– through social media and at literary festivals –- perhaps it seemed inevitable that Ferrante’s identity would eventually be found out, unthinkable that an author could hide away in obscurity forever.

Ferrante’s story raises important questions about how we read and value women’s writing and authorship.  Ferrante has stated that in part she wants to protect the Neapolitan community she writes about in her novels, just as Charlotte wanted to write about Yorkshire clergymen she knew without fear of discovery.  The latter failed.  Haworth locals gleefully identified some of the characters drawn from life in Shirley.  If known, with a past to be examined, Ferrante’s novels could be subjected to the flattening biographical readings the Brontës’ works have long been subjected to.
Up until now, as an unknown literary quantity, Ferrante has also avoided having her work put into the boxes unfairly reserved for women writers – romance and chick lit.  Her in-depth examinations of womens’ lives and friendships have been taken seriously.  The cultural critic Lili Loofbourow has argued that Ferrante’s ‘pseudonymity was a gift to her readers.  She inoculated us against the urge to reduce her work to her femaleness, family, biography.'”—The Conversation
        “I started as a reader.  As an investigative journalist, I tend to read a lot of nonfiction, but I started reading the first of the quartet, and then I read the second the third, the fourth.  I loved it.  Then in the last year and a half, every time somebody met me [in New York], and found out I was an investigative journalist, they didn’t ask me about the young prime minister of Italy or if the oldest bank in the world—the Monte dei Paschi de Siena—is going to survive the banking crisis, they asked me only one question: who is Elena Ferrante?rect3336 space
I really felt this is ridiculous.  It can’t be that complicated to find out, so I decided to look into it.  I became obsessed when I started reading the Italian version of Frantumaglia, which is coming out in November in the US.  This was published after Sandra Ozzola, one of the two owners of the publishing company, wrote an open letter to Elena Ferrante [in 2003] in which she said readers deserve ‘a more general response, beyond the newspaper interviews [that Ferrante had conducted by email]…Out of a healthy desire on the part of your readers…to know you better.’  Now, I’m accused of violating the privacy of Elena Ferrante?  But the first person who violated the privacy of Elena Ferrante was Elena Ferrante!  [She] wrote a book that is supposed to be autobiographical and was full of false information.

(To accusations of violating a private individual’s sacrosanct privacy, he ponders whether any of his critics or interlocutors know Italian government ministers or high commercial potentates, who would clearly be worthy of checking out).  But you do know who Elena Ferrante is.  What I’m saying is, the biggest mystery about Italy from outside Italy is, ‘Who is Elena Ferrante?’  It is a major issue, not that I made it such.  When readers buy books by the millions, they have a legitimate desire to know more about who wrote the book.  I’m not saying that; Sandra Ozzola said and wrote that.  On November 1st, you are going to have an entire book about her life.  She writes about being the daughter of a seamstress from Naples, about having three sisters.  Nothing of that is true.  So my feeling is they violated the privacy, because you cannot have your cake and eat it too.  You are fueling the frenzy, the curiosity about her personal life, by the pieces of information that you are giving, and then you complain when somebody finds the real information.  Explain to me how that works?
        (As a rejoinder to charges of misogyny, Gatti again disagrees openly, and with some sense of nuance).  I think there is an issue of female readers who saw this as a misogynistic attack.  They feel, rightly so, that [Ferrante] is a champion of women’s issues and is a deeply intellectual feminist.  They say that I attacked her by exposing her, because she is a woman.  If you know how investigative journalists work, we start with the mystery, not with a target.  I wanted to know who Elena Ferrante is.  The number-one suspect in Italy was Domenico Starnone [Raja’s husband and an author].  She was the number-two suspect.  When I started working on this, I had no idea if Elena Ferrante was a man or a woman, so tell me how I could be misogynistic?  I think it is defensive and ideological for many female readers to see a sign of what they experience in their life, which is a misogynistic world, but it has nothing to do with my work.
        (In terms of whether he feels ‘regret,’ a definitive ‘not in the least‘ is his answer; he goes on).  I only wish that as much attention had been paid in social media to some of my other investigative pieces, like the one about the extraordinary rendition of an Italian citizen, or about the dominant players in the multibillion-dollar business of smuggling human beings from Africa, or the bribes and kickbacks paid by multinational corporations, or about the possible role of a CIA contractor in arming Islamists in Libya and Syria.  But the people who criticize me for wasting my energy investigating a writer never paid any attention to these stories.  Now they go crazy because I applied investigative journalism to a more popular issue.”—Columbia Journalism Review
        “EVEN facts become fictions without adequate ways of seeing ‘the facts.’  We do not need theories so much as the experience that is the source of the theory.  We are not satisfied with faith, in the sense of an implausible hypothesis irrationally held: we demand to experience the ‘evidence.’  We can see other people’s behaviour, but not their experience.  This has led some people to insist that psychology has nothing to do with the other person’s experience, but only with his behaviour.
The other person’s behaviour is an experience of mine.  My behaviour is an experience of the other.  The task of social phenomenology is to relate my experience of the other’s behaviour to the other’s experience of my behaviour.  Its study is the relation between experience and experience: its true field is inter-experience.  I see you, and you see me.  I experience you, and you experience me.  I see your behaviour.  You see my behaviour.  But I do not and never have and never will see your experience of me.  Just as you cannot ‘see’ my experience of you.  My experience of you is not ‘inside’ me.  It is simply you, as I experience you.  And I do not experience you as inside me.  Similarly, I take it that you do not experience me as inside you.

Experience is invisible to the other.  But experience is not ‘subjective’ rather than’ “objective,’ not ‘inner’ rather than ‘outer,’ not process rather than praxis, not input rather than output, not psychic rather than somatic, not some doubtful data dredged up from introspection rather than extrospection.  Least of all is experience ‘intrapsychic process.’  Such transactions, object-relations, interpersonal relations, transference, counter-transference, as we suppose to go on between people are not the interplay merely of two objects in space, each equipped with ongoing intra-psychic processes.  This distinction between outer and inner usually refers to the distinction between behaviour and experience; but sometimes it refers to some experiences that are supposed to be ‘inner’ in contrast to others that are ‘outer.’  More accurately this is a distinction between different modalities of experience, namely, perception (as outer) in contrast to imagination etc. (as inner).  But perception, imagination, phantasy, reverie, dreams, memory, are simply different modalities of experience, none more ‘inner’ or ‘outer’ than any others.

"Dante Gabriel Rossetti - The Day Dream - Google Art Project" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
“Dante Gabriel Rossetti – The Day Dream – Google Art Project” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Yet this way of talking does reflect a split in our experience.  We seem to live in two worlds, and many people are aware only of the ‘outer’ rump.  As long as we remember that the ‘inner’ world is not some space ‘inside’ the body or the mind, this way of talking can serve our purpose.  (It was good enough for William Blake.)  The ‘inner,’ then, is our personal idiom of experiencing our bodies, other people, the animate and inanimate world: imagination, dreams, phantasy, and beyond that to ever further reaches of experience.  Bertrand Russell once remarked that the stars are in one”s brain.  The stars as I perceive them are no more or less in my brain than the stars as I imagine them.  I do not imagine them to be in my head, any more than I see them in my head.

As adults, we have forgotten most of our childhood, not only its contents but its flavour; as men of the world, we hardly know of the existence of the inner world: we barely remember our dreams, and make little sense of them when we do; as for our bodies, we retain just sufficient proprioceptive sensations to coordinate our movements and to ensure the minimal requirements for biosocial survival to register fatigue, signals for food, sex, defecation, sleep; beyond that, little or nothing.  Our capacity to think, except in the service of what we are dangerously deluded in supposing is our self-interest, and in conformity with common sense, is pitifully limited: our capacity even to see, hear, touch, taste and smell is so shrouded in veils of mystification that an intensive discipline of un-learning is necessary for anyone before one can begin to experience the world afresh, with innocence, truth and love.world time watch clock
And immediate experience of, in contrast to belief or faith in, a spiritual realm of demons, spirits, Powers, Dominions, Principalities, Seraphim and Cherubim, the Light, is even more remote.  As domains of experience become more alien to us, we need greater and greater openmindedness even to conceive of their existence.  Many of us do not know, or even believe, that every night we enter zones of reality in which we forget our waking life as regularly as we forget our dreams when we awake.  Not all psychologists know of phantasy as a modality of experience, and the, as it were, contrapuntal interweaving of the different experiential modes.  Many who are aware of phantasy believe that phantasy is the farthest that experience goes under ‘normal’ circumstances.  Beyond that are simply ‘pathological’ zones of hallucinations, phantasmagoric mirages, delusions.
This state of affairs represents an almost unbelievable devastation of our experience.  Then there is empty chatter about maturity, love, joy, peace.  This is itself a consequence of and further occasion for the divorce of our experience, such as is left of it, from our behaviour.  What we call ‘normal’ is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience (see below).  It is radically estranged from the structure of being.”—Marxists.org