Listen to this crazy idea. We stop listening to rumours, we leave aside our opinions, and we just read the texts before drawing conclusions.
What if we stop interrogating artificial intelligence (see Drawing Elena Ferrante’s profile. Workshop Proceedings. Padova, 7 september 2017, Arjuna Tuzzi e Michele A. Cortellazzo Eds., Padova, Padova University Press, 2018) or rummaging through bank accounts (Claudio Gatti, in Ecco la vera identità di Elena Ferrante, in «Il sole 24 ore», 2 ottobre 2016, https://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/ecco-vera-identita-elena-ferrante-ADEqsgUB), and, in order to solve the alleged Elena Ferrante mystery, we begin by reading carefully what she wrote, and, most specifically, what she wrote about herself?
More and more people indulge in extravagant declarations of love and admiration for Elena Ferrante and her works. But how true and credible are those assertions, when they lack the most basic form of respect, as they merge into a morbid – and truly horrifying – desire to intrude Ferrante’s private life?
What follows is nothing but a careful reading of Ferrante’s writings with particular attention to La frantumaglia (2003, 2016; trans. Frantumaglia. A Writer’s Journey, 2016) e L’invenzione occasionale (trans. Incidental Inventions, 2019).
1. THE BIOGRAPHY
The person writing under the pen-name Elena Ferrante was born in a working-class district in Naples at the end of the 1940s. She was baptised with her great-grandmother’s name (Frantumaglia, II, 8). The are no pictures of the newborn, the first one was taken when she was two (Invenzione occasionale, p. 73).
She has at least two younger sisters; they are, respectively, six and three years her junior.
During her childhood, Elena’s father was very jealous of his wife’s alluring beauty, and often accused her to seduce other men.
Elena, in turn, had a very possessive relationship with her mom, she even perceived her dad like a troubling rival (un rivale molesto, in Italian, quotation from Freud that echoes in L’amore molesto, Troubling Love, Ferrante’s first novel). Later on, the author confessed her constant desire to hold and contain his mother; to impose her the shabby domestic appearance, instead of the graceful look she wore anytime she left the house. Young Elena lived in the constant fear that someone could “steal” her mom, even dreamed of cloistering her away. This demanding love soon turned into detachment, resentment, hatred and disdain for the mother; but those feelings were just the utmost consequences of the anguishing fear to lose her (Invenzione, pp. 69-70).
Elena’s mom was a seamstress, and she grew up among the taglia e cuci, which in Italian refers not only to the noise of the sewing machine, but also the tittle-tattling of the many ladies hanging around the house.
In describing those years Ferrante never mentions her sisters; the mother might have quit her job after the birth of the second daughter. In the following years she only sewed clothes for herself, her children, and female relatives. Elena, however, did not like the dresses her mom made for her, copying the patterns from magazines, imitating famous stylists. They looked too eccentric and pretentious; she would have preferred more plain clothes, in order to look like her friends (F, I, 16).
The family moved house several times (F, I, 3).
In those early days, Ferrante was constantly exposed to a neapolitanness not criminal but potentially criminal (“non camorrista sempre a rischio di camorra”), for whom the transition to criminality looked imminent, prepared not only by poverty but by a sort of cultural normalisation (F, II, 7). In Naples, Ferrante felt perpetually in danger, everything in Naples was in fact violent; not only people, but even noises, odours. It was to her a city “of sudden quarrels, of blows, of easy tears, of minor arguments that ended in curses, unrepeatable obscenities, and irreparable breaks, of emotions so extreme as to become intolerably false”. It was the vulgar Naples “of people who are ‘settled’ but still terrified by the need to go back to earning a living through temporary odd jobs; ostentatiously honest but, in the event, ready for petty crimes in order not to make a bad impression; noisy, loud-voiced […], respectable and potentially criminal, ready to sacrifice themselves to the occasion, or the necessity, not to appear more fool than others”. Elena felt different and experienced her city “with repulsion” (F, I, 9).
The years of primary school were the happiest. Learning was, for the young girl, real marvel, acquiring new skills the greatest joy. She studied hard, always got very good grades, and showed great discipline. As a student however, to her, the only goal of education was excelling, obtaining good grades in order to get a career. She didn’t think that Latin or Greek could have an intrinsic value, they seemed to her just an erudite exercise, a way to show her skills, and get, one day, a good job. Only after her graduation she started to study for her pleasure and to build her own erudition (Invenzione, pp. 47-48).
Reading and writing soon became a daily practice and an all-encompassing experience. Elena read a lot and across a variety of genres; not only literary classics recommended by teachers, but also frivolous magazines and romance novels. In Frantumaglia she confesses her passion for photo story books (very popular in Italy in the 1950s and 1960s), her secret pleasure as a young reader (F, I, 9; II, 9). She kept journals, took notes, elaborated and rewrote her readings, sketched short stories. Reading and writing for her were complementary and inseparable activities; a writer must be an avid reader, and she could not read without re-elaborating her readings, rewriting, recreating them. In fact, through the years, she constantly write and rewrites numerous stories, experimenting different genres and styles, drawing from the pool of world literature.
For a few years she kept a journal. In real life she was shy and taciturn, but in her writing she let go to bold thoughts, using words that she would have never pronounced aloud. She was terrified at the idea that someone in her family might have found her diary (Invenzione p. 13). In this phase she was fixated with writing, and obsessed with the idea of writing the truth, dominated by an uncontrollable desire to reproduce reality in her stories (I margini del dettato, pp. 57 e sgg.). She overcame her painful obsession only a few years later.
Although her timorous nature, little Elena was a big liar. She made up stories to look better, to brag about her achievements, or to stay out of trouble. She put a lot of effort in weaving detailed, colourful accounts, and they sounded so realistic that, sometimes, she believed her own fabrications. Most of times her friends trusted her, other times however they realised those fanciful accounts, narrated so confidently, were just too good to be real. Due to such distrust, and because of a certain desire to grow up, young Elena suddenly decided to abandon such habit. From one day to next, as she often does, she imposed herself a fierce discipline, and stopped lying altogether. Lies survived in the stories she wrote, but when she narrated orally, she was extremely faithful, a story teller obsessed with truth (I margini del dettato, pp. 57 e sgg.).
When she was twelve years old, perhaps for the same desire to grow up, she started to smoke, and, as she admitted in 2019, stopped only very recently (Invenzione, pp. 43-44).
As a secondary school student young Ferrante was fascinated by Ancient Greece and Rome. She read avidly the Greek Myths, Tragedies and Epics, and wrote about them (F, II, 8), they remained great sources of inspiration. The stories of Dido, Ariadne, Leda, Medea, Helen, are indeed recurring motifs in her novels.
As a child, Elena was intimidated by her mother’s alluring beauty, and felt plain looking, insignificant (F, II, 9). As a teenager, in fact, she refuses any adornment, she hid her body under oversized clothes that her mother, always very elegant, found very shabby. Ferrante describes her younger self as enemy of any femininity; she refused to wear make up, rejected the very idea of wearing something special to look beautiful. Young Elena felt irritated by the very idea of making herself beautiful for someone who might have just laughed at it, humiliating her. For this reason, as a teenager she wore only oversized shirts, sweaters, and jeans, the same everyday, refusing to change into better clothes before going out, as her mother did, hiding her indigence and misery (F, I, 16).
When she was sixteen years old, she read the Gospels. The story of Jesus looked to her frightening, it gave her the sense of a humanity completely devoted to crucifying its own kind and other living beings; the idea of eternal life looked terrifying, God a cruel Father (Invenzione, pp. 35-36).
Ferrante’s early obsession for the truth came to an end in her early twenties. She abandoned diaristic writing, channeling her desire of truth into fiction. The contradiction is only apparent: as she declared multiple times, her fictional stories always narrate the truth. All of a sudden journal writing looked to her rough and childish, lacking worthy contents; for this reason, and to symbolically mark the transition, she threw away her old diaries (Invenzione, p. 14); a gesture that will sound familiar to the readers of My Brilliant Friend.
In the same period, Ferrante’s interest in politics grew considerably. She felt ignorant and superficial knowing little about the world around her, so she forced herself to read newspapers, history, philosophy and sociology books (Invenzione, p. 59).
She found a job far from Naples at a very young age (right after graduating from secondary school?), but when she left her city already looked to her completely lost, beyond redemption (F, II, 2).
She changed several jobs (F, I, 10).
The bios on the back cover of the Italian edition of Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment tell that Ferrante had spent several years in Greece. Interviewed by Francesco Erbani in 2003, however, she explained that “Greece” is just a condensed way to say that she had lived in several places; moving mostly reluctantly, out of necessity. She also declared that she no longer depends on the needs of others only on her own (F, II, 2).
In the mid-1960s she graduated with a major in Classical Literatures (F, II, 2) certainly not with a dissertation on the fourth book of the Aeneid.
It is also certain that Ferrante did not attend the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. A person who wants so strenuously to preserve her anonymity, doesn’t choose a school that accepts only fifty students per year, and where all students and alumni know one another by name, surname and year of matriculation. Elena Greco’s account of her University years in Pisa in The Story of a New Name is largely based on common knowledge rather than on secret information known only by the intellectual élite. Ferrante describes quite generically well known buildings, streets, meeting places, familiar to anyone who visited Pisa in those years. There are no strong reasons to assume that she actually attended the school. Marco Santagata’s interpretation presumes (in a way that is too naive to be believable for a prominent philologist) Ferrante direct experience, while her narration might be based on someone else’s personal experience. As a matter of fact, personal stories heard from friends and family are one of the main sources of her plots.
In the biographical fragments she disseminated in essays and interviews over the years, Ferrante never mentioned a marriage, but she mentioned at least two daughters, born, probably, between the end of the 1970s and the 1980s. She also said that she took care of her first born alone, without any help and with limited finances (Invenzione, p. 23).
Among numerous short stories and novels she wrote and never published (at least not as Elena Ferrante) in the mid-1980s she wrote the ones she published in the 1990s (Margini, p. 59). Other followed in the 10 years between Troubling Love (1992) and The Days of the Abandonment (2002). Around 1998, for example, she drafted a novel tentatively titled Le lavoranti (‘The [female] workers’), but she never submitted the manuscript to the publisher (F, I, 10).
Regarding her own working experience, in 2003, she declared “I study, translate, teach” (F, II, 2).
She also confessed that she has spoken publicly only a few times, reluctantly, and after days of obsessive rehearsing (Invenzione, p. 75).
She loves plants. Probably more than animals, although she adores cats (Invenzione, p. 83). Writing The Days of Abandonment, the character that caused her more pain was Otto, the dog (F, I, 12); the inspiration for the story came from a German shepherd she loved profoundly (F, I, 14).
When she attends a dinner party, she is always the last to leave (Invenzione, p. 85).
She hates loud voices (Invenzione, p. 29) but loves laughing and make other people laugh, even though she is not always successful at it (Invenzione, p. 21). She defines herself a fearful-belligerent (Invenzione, p. 12). She digests pizza poorly, eats little spaghetti, doesn’t gesticulate (Invenzione, p. 19). She never defames other women, no matter what (Invenzione, p. 25). Her daughters remind her daily that she belongs to the time of the fountain pen and pay phones (Invenzione, p. 27). Having suffered from insomnia for many years, when she was around thirty, she started taking sleeping pills, but then found out that surrendering to sleeplessness, resting in the early afternoon, was healthier (Invenzione, p. 46). She has never undergone psychoanalytic therapy. She said that many times, but people keep asking (clearly because nobody reads before asking).
It is very clear that we know a lot about Elena Ferrante. Much more of what we know about the lives of other writers.
Why this is not enough? What else do we need to know in addition to what she has already disclosed and what she has already written about her in her novels?
Maybe the problem is not the alleged lack of information, nor the biographical gap (which, at any rate, does not diminish the value nor the beauty of her novels), but the reading audience (or the non-reading audience!) itself.
Maybe the problem is the lack of good readers.
What matters is the book; good readers are interested in the book, not in who wrote it, Ferrante reminds us (F, I, 6). A true reader, not to be confused with the fan, does not look for “the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood, who makes herself beautiful for the occasion, but for the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word” (F, I, 2), she warns us.
The so called “Ferrante mystery”, made up by the media, is not only fictitious (as these modest 6 pages of biographical data show) but, for true readers and for the author, is trouble (F, I, 7).
2. THE ANONYMITY
Ferrante’s first recorded declaration about anonymity occurs in a letter sent to the publishers in 1991. The first refusal to appear publicly follows the Procida Prize, awarded to Troubling Love, in 1992. The first interview she denied is the one requested by journalist Francesco Erbani in 1995.
Although her refusal to appear is clearly stated (“I do not intend to do anything […] that might involve the public engagement of me personally […]. I won’t participate in discussions and conferences […]. I won’t go and accept prizes […]. I will never promote the book, especially on television […] I will be interviewed only in writing”) motivations are less clear (“To explain all the reasons for my decision, is, as you know, hard for me” F, I, 1). Ferrante mentions “limitations of character” (F, I, 9) and specifies that the decision has been made with her family (“I am absolutely committed in this sense to myself and my family” F, I, 1).
The author justifies her reluctance to give interviews with her – supposed – inability to provide short answers. “I look for ideas by running after words, and it takes me many sentences—real, confusing, jumbled speeches—to arrive at an answer”, she says in her rejection letter to Erbani (F, I, 6). “Every question makes me want to gather ideas, rummage in favorite books, use old notes, annotate, digress, relate, confess, argue […] in the end I realize that I put together material not for an interview […] but for a story-essay, and naturally I lose heart” she writes to Anna Maria Guadagni, refusing her interview in 1995 (F, I, 7). However the series of Short stories she wrote for her weekly column on The Guardian in 2018 (then published in the volume Incidental inventions, 2019), confuted such claim.
After the publication of The Days of Abandonment, she gave three interviews. Other followed, always in written form and through the publishing house e/o.
Ferrante describes her writing as a form of inner excavation, a painful act, and describes publishing as a way to unburden herself, something that results in both relief and suffering, like losing a part of herself. The whole process causes a sensation of excessive exposure, and consequently the desire of solitude, the refusal of any further contact. In her own words: “when the book is finished, it’s as if you had been rudely searched, and you desire only to regain integrity”, your only desire is “to return to being the person you usually are. Once finished, the book leaves its creator and goes elsewhere, leaving here alone (“Before, it was the text that was pestering me”). Once the book leaves the author it enters the marketplace, but she refuses to follow it (“I wrote my book to free myself from it, not to be its prisoner” F, I, 9).
The analogy with motherhood, as described in The Lost Daughter, is evident (for good readers at least). Writing, like maternity, is the greatest joy and the greatest pain; it is like feeling a voracious creature that grows inside us absorbing our energies and then expelling it painfully; the separation is a liberation but also the violent removal of a part of oneself.
In this probably lies the true reason of her anonymity.
Ferrante, however, doesn’t hide in the shade; an expression that, she explains, reminds assassins and conspiracies (F, II, 7). More simply, she talks about violence and sorrow, and violence and sorrow must be received with respect.
Her anonymity is a choice. And, in a world where gender-based violence survivors are unfailingly blamed, and women judged from their appearance and their lives rather than their skills, this is a precise political choice.
3. ONCE FOR ALL: ELENA FERRANTE IS NOT A MAN
Since the dawn of time women cross-dress to be listened to, to access education, to gain independence. Mythology, literature, hagiography and history are full of examples. Women have always profited from passing for men. Men never did. In literature men have dressed as women out of opportunism (in order to seduce a girl or to intrude on a female-only space) or to produce a comical effect. Hercules’ worst abjection was wearing Iole’s feminine clothes. As endless literary examples show, telling a woman that she is good or brave like a man is the greatest praise (female saints, intellectuals, aristocrats have been acclaimed as virile women), but telling a man he is like a woman seems to be the worst insult.
Nobody ever thought that a famous masculine name could hide a woman, especially in literature. Since the Middle Ages (male) scholars have questioned the very existence of female writers – such as Compiuta Donzella or Nina Siciliana – based on the ground that in those times no woman had ability or interest in writing literature. Although the great number of anonymous writers (or artists), no scholar has ever ventured to conjecture that one of those nameless creators could be a woman.
In a world in which women struggle to be heard, are less published and barely read by (mostly male) academics and publishers, why should a male writer to be willing to pass as a female?
Men have usually little or nothing to lose in showing their face or sharing their personal experience, even when it includes troubling details, such as infidelity, or violence, either perpetrated or suffered. If a man confesses he has cheated on his wife, he might face some criticism, reproach, rarely a severe condemnation, but in some case even admiration. If a man comes out as a victim of violence, hardly ever has to face forms of secondary victimisation.
On the contrary, a woman has everything to lose in showing her face and sharing her story publicly. She will be judged based on her age and her appearance – for being too pretty or too ugly, too slim to to fat, for using too much or too little make up – rather than on her works. Her biography, rather than her professional merits or demerits, will be scrutinised and judged without appeal. She will be blamed for any violence she suffered. For women, public exposure usually results in judgement and pressure, or even in hatred and abuse; the cost-benefit analysis is rarely favourable.
Anonymity is, therefore, a very understandable choice for women; much less for men.
But I have digressed too much already. A few passages from Ferrante’s novels should suffice to prove my point.
From The Days of Abandonment:
“At times I also wrote […] how I felt: I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping; a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves, leaving on me the odor and taste of their gastric juices. Nursing, how repulsive, an animal function. And then the warm sweetish odor of baby-food breath. No matter how much I washed, that stink of motherhood remained […] on my almost absent flesh that tasted of milk, cookies, cereal”
From The Lost Daughter:
“I had wanted Bianca, one wants a child with an animal opacity reinforced by popular beliefs. She had arrived immediately, I was twenty-three, her father and I were right in the midst of a difficult struggle to keep jobs at the university. He made it, I didn’t. A woman’s body does a thousand different things, toils, runs, studies, fantasizes, invents, wearies, and meanwhile the breasts enlarge, the lips of the sex swell, the flesh throbs with a round life that is yours, your life, and yet pushes elsewhere, draws away from you although it inhabits your belly, joyful and weighty, felt as a greedy impulse and yet repellent, like an insect’s poison injected into a vein.
Your life wants to become another’s. Bianca was expelled, expelled herself, but […] she couldn’t grow up alone […] she needed a brother, a sister for company. So, right after her, I planned […] Marta to grow in my belly, too. I was twenty-five and every other game was over for me. Their father was racing around the world, one opportunity after another”
“How happy I was when Bianca came out of me […]. But then came Marta. She attacked my body, forcing it to turn on itself, out of control […]. My body became a bloody liquid; suspended in it was a mushy sediment inside which grew a violent polyp, so far from anything human that it reduced me, even though it fed and grew, to rotting matter without life […]. I was already unhappy, but I didn’t know it. It seemed to me that little Bianca, right after her beautiful birth, had suddenly changed and treacherously taken for herself all my energy, all my strength, all my capacity […], [she] had become voracious, demanding, hostile […] there seemed no[thing] […] capable of taming the dark beast I was carrying in my womb. The real breakdown for me was that: the giving up of any sublimation of my pregnancy, the destruction of the happy memory of the first pregnancy, the first birth”
“My mother had rarely yielded to the games I tried to play with her body. She immediately got nervous, she didn’t like being the doll […]. I, on the other hand, no. As an adult I tried to keep in mind the misery of not being able to handle the hair, the face, the body of my mother. So when Bianca was a small child I patiently became her doll. She dragged me under the kitchen table […] and made me lie down. I was very tired, I remember: Marta wouldn’t sleep at night, only during the day, and then only a little, and Bianca was always around me, full of demands […]. Yet I tried to keep my nerves under control, I wanted to be a good mother. I lay on the floor, let myself be cared for as if I were sick. Bianca […] combed my hair. Sometimes I fell asleep, but she was little and didn’t know how to use the comb, and when she pulled my hair I started, and woke. I felt my eyes tearing with pain.
I was so desolate in those years. I could no longer study, I played without joy, my body felt inanimate, without desires.”
The saying goes, if (in a western country) you hear hooves coming, think horses, not zebras or wildebeests. If a person provides a really detailed description of the most disturbing aspects of motherhood (pregnancy, childbirth, breast-feeding, weaning, child-rearing, second pregnancy), what is more realistic? That the person is a man with an unusual empathy and an extraordinarily deep knowledge of women’s physiology and psychology, or that, the person is, more simply, a woman recounting her own experience?
I really doubt a man can describe the shape of the labia maiora during the pregnancy, the smell that milk and regurgitations leave on the mother’s body during breast-feeding, anhedonia and other symptoms of postpartum depression, the chronic sense of guilt and inadequacy, social pressure, the sense of feeling an inanimate object or even a lump of food that children chew and spit.
Those are not the words of men, but the words of women on motherhood. Ferrante’s words here echo several female authors and their accounts of motherhood. The monstrous chain, the maternal sacrifice, described by Sibilla Aleramo in Una donna (1900); children devouring their own mothers from The Devourers by Annie Vivanti (1911); the bodiless mother from Scialle andaluso by Elsa Morante (1953); the clash between the role of intellectual and the socially imposed motherly function from Bambino mio by Lidia Ravera (1979); the daughter carrying the mother on her shoulders from Althénopis by Fabrizia Ramondino (1981); the empty space left by the child from Sotto la neve by Susanna Tamaro (1994); pregnancy and childbirth as barbaric violence on women’s bodies from Due partite di Cristina Comencini (2006) and many others.
Motherhood is the essence of female difference, women’s most authentic creative power. “I think that the most extraordinary thing in my life was to conceive and give birth” says Ferrante in Incidental Inventions, “Men have always been jealous of that experience which is ours alone, and often dreamed – in myths, in certain rites – of forms of male pregnancy […]. they immediately appropriated conception and birth metaphorically. They conceive ideas, give birth to works […]. [But] Children are our body’s great, marvellous prostheses, and we will not give them literally to anyone, not to mad fathers, not to the country”. Motherhood is female, and female only.
So, once for all, no, Elena Ferrante is not a man.
- Elena Ferrante, L’amore molesto, Roma, e/o, 1992
- I giorni dell’abbandono, Roma, e/o, 2002; The Days of Abandonment, trans A. Goldstein, New York, Europa Editions, 2002
- La frantumaglia, Roma, e/o, 2003, 2016; Frantumaglia. A Writer’s Journey, trans A. Goldstein, New York, Europa Editions, 2016
- La figlia oscura, Roma, e/o, 2006; The Lost Daughter, trans A. Goldstein, New York, Europa Editions, 2008
- L’amica geniale, Roma, e/o, 2011
- Storia del nuovo cognome, L’amica geniale volume 2, Roma, e/o, 2012
- Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta, L’amica geniale volume 3, Roma, e/o, 2013
- Storia della bambina perduta, L’amica geniale volume 4, Roma, e/o, 2014
- L’invenzione occasionale, Roma, e/o, 2019; Incidental Inventions, trans A. Goldstein, New York, Europa Editions, 2019
- I margini e il dettato, Roma, e/o, 2021
Author: Marianna Orsi
Translator: Marianna Orsi; revised by Jennifer Weaver
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