Is personal privacy at odds with literary fame?
The apparent unmasking of pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante feels like an occasion not for outrage so much as for sadness, and regret at the vanishing space allotted to personal privacy in an age insatiable for celebrity tidbits and fueled by omnipresent technology.
Into this intrusive new world comes Ferrante, who has written a compelling and -- perhaps more energizing to those determined to expose her -- spectacularly successful quartet of novels, set in Naples and recounting the lifelong friendship of two women.
Ferrante’s true identity as literary translator Anita Raja was revealed, if the report by Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti is correct, the old-school shoeleather way, with leaks of her publisher’s financial records and digging into real estate documents. Yet the author’s unavailing plea for anonymity is best understood in the context of the modern world she inhabits, and her effort, ultimately unsuccessful, to resist the invasive force of celebrity culture.
This moment was inevitable. Human nature loves a mystery yet demands its eventual solution. Investigative reporters respond with Pavlovian predictability to the intolerable provocation of the pseudonym.
No matter that the pseudonymous novel has an impressive historical pedigree -- and not just, for those who discern sexism at work in Ferrante’s unmasking, when it comes to female authors. No matter that there may be more worthy topics of journalistic enterprise.
Once Ferrante’s choice to write under a pseudonym collided with her best-seller status, the hunt was on, the prey certain to be caught. Ask Joe Klein, the once-anonymous author of the roman-a-clef about Bill Clinton. Ask J.K. Rowling, who, post-”Harry Potter,” wrote mysteries under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, albeit for a brief three months, explaining that she sought “totally unvarnished feedback.”
Sure, Ferrante assumed this risk, although perhaps she could not have anticipated her fame. Certainly, she tempted fate with the publication of “Frantumaglia,” an ostensibly nonfiction pastiche of letters, interviews and other writings in which Ferrante both describes herself (apparently inaccurately) as the daughter of a Neapolitan seamstress and proclaims that she finds lies “useful and I resort to them when necessary.”
It is not mere window-peeping prurience for a reader to crave more about an author’s background. A 2003 letter to Ferrante from her publisher, included in “Frantumaglia,” cited “a healthy desire on the part of your readers ... to know you better.”
And yet there is an equally healthy, even laudable, desire on the part of the author to shield herself from public view. For Ferrante, at least, pseudonymity was not a gimmick but a given, essential to her self-conception. She warned her publisher in 1991, before the release of her first novel, that she would engage in no public activities to promote it -- no conferences, no prize ceremonies, no television circuit.
This attitude is remarkable not only for its departure from the publishing norm, but for its resistance to the cult of celebrity and the accompanying demands for an all-access pass to all manner of personal information. Relentless self-promotion and self-exposure have yielded a plague of Kardashians, Real Housewives and, yes, Donald Trump.
And what intimate details celebrities, both real and famous-forbeing-famous, may be reluctant to divulge are increasingly vulnerable to technological intrusion. The drone buzzes the celebrity wedding, snapping photos. The hacker unearths private emails, or posts intimate photographs.
Ferrante stood as a conscientious objector to all this. That she ultimately failed should come as no surprise, but it is cause for reflection, and for lament.