Is per­sonal pri­vacy at odds with lit­er­ary fame?

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Ruth Mar­cus Colum­nist Ruth Mar­cus’ email ad­dress is ruth­mar­cus@wash­post.com.

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.

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