THESE are tough times for champions of transparency. Julian Assange languishes at the Ecuadorean embassy in London; Edward Snowden in an undisclosed place in Russia. Rudolf Elmer, a Swiss banking whistle-blower, is contesting a 14-month suspended jail sentence. And if Claudio Gatti, an Italian investigative journalist, expected plaudits for a story he published on October 2nd claiming to identify Elena Ferrante, the world’s most famously pseudonymous novelist, he was spectacularly wrong.
Since “My Brilliant Friend”, the first of her four “Neapolitan novels”, was published to international acclaim in 2011, speculation about Ms Ferrante’s identity has become a literary pastime. More than a dozen names have been suggested, including those of male writers such as a Strega-prize-winning novelist, Domenico Starnone. Using data leaked from Edizioni E/O, Ms Ferrante’s publishing house, Mr Gatti made a persuasive case that Mr Starnone’s wife Anita Raja, a translator, is the real Elena. The data showed her earnings soaring after the Ferrante novels’ international success, reaching €7.6m ($8.5m) in 2015.
The reaction has been a storm of criticism and an angry debate over the right to literary anonymity. As the New Yorker succinctly put it, “People are pissed.” None more so than the magazine’s own commentator, Alexandra Schwartz, who laid into Mr Gatti, a prize-winning foreign correspondent, calling him “a puffed-up pedant straight out of Nabokov.”
Many are doubtless disappointed that the guessing game is over. By describing Mr Gatti’s story as “disgusting”, Edizioni E/O’s Sandro Ferri all but acknowledged it was true. Few have seen the mystery surrounding the author, and the growing number of interviews she gave by e-mail in recent years, as a marketing ploy. Readers and critics have tended to accept Ms Ferrante’s explanation to Vanity Fair that anonymity had given her “a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present”. The evidence from social media and published commentaries is that women feel particularly outraged by its violation.
Pen-names are almost as old as literature, variously employed to escape persecution, deceive creditors and separate authors’ literary identities from their private lives. But for women, pseudonymity has had a special role: as a means of achieving credibility by posing as men, as George Sand, George Eliot and the Brontë sisters did in the 19th century. Even today, many female authors use initials that mask their s.e.x, as J.K. Rowling and E.L. James do.
If correct, Mr Gatti’s story will be of value to future literary critics. It would show the novels are not, as was widely assumed, autobiographical (Ms Raja’s mother was born in Germany, and Ms Raja herself grew up in Rome). It would show too that the author used her e-mail interviews to lay false trails, while hinting as much with Italo Calvino’s quip: “Ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth.” Perhaps most important, though, Mr Gatti will have dispelled the suspicion that this outstanding novelist was a man.
The concern now is whether, if she has lost her precious, private space, “Elena Ferrante” will ever write again.