Elena Ferrante: Hiding in Plain Sight

Elaine Blair in The New York Times:

FerranteNearly all of Ferrante’s interviewers ask some version of the obvious question: Why write under a pseudonym? At first, Ferrante says, it was a matter of “timidity” — “I was frightened of the possibility of having to come out of my shell.” She has been writing for her entire adult life, Ferrante explains, but only with “Troubling Love” did she feel she had finally written a book worth publishing. Using a pseudonym seemed a natural extension of having written in obscurity for years. In a way, she was protecting her future work by not becoming emotionally caught up in the promotion of her present work. Later, she came to resent the superficial media coverage of authors and books. It’s not only that she wants to defend her novels from reductive comparisons to her own life. She’s afraid that she herself, under the pressure of a confrontation with a journalist, will oversimplify or otherwise betray her own work. “In the games with newspapers one always ends up lying, and at the root of the lie is the need to offer oneself to the public in the best form, with thoughts suitable to the role,” she writes to her editor after the publication of her second novel. “I care deeply about the truth of ‘The Days of Abandonment,’ I wouldn’t want to talk about it meekly, complying with the expectations implicit in the interviewer’s questions.” (Her fear of “complying” — of polite social accommodations — comes up several times, and indeed it may have been just such an act of friendly compliance with her editors that led to the publication of “Frantumaglia.”)

Ferrante often points out that readers don’t need authors to explain the work. But by participating in all of these interviews, Ferrante notably retained the ability to comment on her work and regularly did. (Her discussion of her books and her artistic influences makes for some of the most absorbing parts of “Frantumaglia.” Her exchanges with Martone about his screenplay for “Troubling Love,” in which she offers deep interpretations of the book’s narrator, Delia, are particularly interesting, as is a letter to the Italian magazine Indice in which she quotes excised passages from her first two books and explains why she ended up cutting them.) What she denied the media was any outside observation of her person, or her personality. No journalist could describe her clothes or the way she walks or what she orders in a restaurant. No childhood friend could gossip with a reporter about the young Ferrante. For 25 years, Ferrante retained sole authorship of the character “Elena Ferrante.” She found a way to speak to readers through the press entirely on her own terms — literally and exclusively in her own words. This is a rare, maybe unique, achievement. It’s not surprising that a member of the press would eventually be provoked to turn the tables. In order to do it, Ferrante was willing to forgo personal credit for the novels: She has long made the case to incredulous interviewers that some experiences are even more gratifying than being a celebrity. “I don’t want to accept an idea of life where the success of the self is measured by the success of the written page,” she explained in a letter to a magazine editor in 1995. “It’s not a small thing,” she told an interviewer from La Repubblica in 2014, “to write knowing that you can orchestrate for readers not only a story, characters, feelings, landscapes but the very figure of the author, the most genuine figure, because it’s created from writing alone.”

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