Bernard Jaubert

You Want A Piece Of Me

Elena Ferrante and the myth that female artists owe us more than their work

I was halfway through the second Neapolitan Novel when I threw the book across the living room, where it collided squarely with a table and sent my roommate’s vase crashing to the floor. It wasn’t that I was sick of the series, a critically acclaimed tetralogy about the 60-year frenemy-ship between two women in post-war Naples. It was that, after nearly 500 pages inside the head of the narrator, I felt her anguish so acutely that I could no longer contain my physical response.

It’s not every book that makes you so mad you turn it into a projectile. Then again, not every book is written by Elena Ferrante. A literary phenomenon whose work has received near-universal praise, topped international bestseller lists, and inspired feverish hashtags among devoted fans, Ferrante would be the subject of fascination even before mentioning the fact that no one knows who she actually is. Add that famous pseudonymity to the mix, and she becomes one of the most intriguing figures in contemporary literature.

Of course, this is the Internet age, and Ferrante’s explicit desire for privacy hasn’t stopped people from trying very hard to solve the mystery of her identity. (The Guardian called this “Italy’s favourite — and increasingly farcical — literary parlour game.”) Just last month, an Italian newspaper claimed to have unmasked Ferrante as a history professor named Marcella Marmo — something both Ferrante’s publisher and Marmo herself have, unsurprisingly, denied.

This obsession with authorship, of uncovering some hidden autobiographical truth behind works of genius, isn’t unique to Ferrante. People have called Shakespeare a fraud since at least the 1800s, and theorists have long debated whether art has meaning independent of its creator’s intentions. Whether or not authors’ identities add value to their work, their masks are good for a whole lot of things, including:

1. Letting famous people attempt to earn something without invoking their already achieved fame (see: J.K. Rowling’s alter ego Richard Galbraith)

2. Curating an image that’s more interesting than the artist's mundane self (see: Daft Punk’s helmeted Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, who once told Rolling Stone, "it would not be enjoyable for humanity to see our features, but the robots are exciting to people”)

3. Being heard in a society that keeps telling you to stop talking (see: women, everywhere, throughout history)

4. Privacy (that the desire for privacy tends to become a point of intrigue in its own right is an ironic side effect faced by reclusive authors, like Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger)

Even so, what Ferrante’s doing feels like something different in a time when social media grants us access to our idols’ every shower thought (not to mention a time when a struggling publishing industry has evolved to mean that authors often have to work tirelessly to market themselves and their own work). In that sense, I’m especially happy we don’t know who Ferrante is. All our faves end up being problematic, one way or another, and overexposure can only end in disappointment.

Ferrante is clear that she is not anonymous, mind you. “My books are signed,” she said via email in a rare interview with Vanity Fair. Ferrante hasn’t removed herself from the narrative so much as dictated its terms: “If you write and publish you are hardly erasing yourself,” she continued. And while we don’t know her real name, Ferrante has admitted that her Neapolitan series, the final installment of which was published in 2015, is based in at least some truth. The books are narrated by a Naples-born writer also called Elena (or “Lenu”), who chronicles her fiery relationship with the “dazzling, terrible” Lila, from girlhood through old age. Lenu’s perspective is explicitly feminine, which is why so many women I’ve talked to about these books have described visceral reactions much like mine; Lenu’s thoughts, desires, and fears feel as though they’ve been ripped, perhaps painfully, from our own minds.

Still, we don’t know exactly how autobiographical the Neapolitan novels, or any of Ferrante’s writings, really are. We don’t know what’s drawn from truth and what’s plucked from imagination. We only get the words on the page; we don’t get the woman behind them. You could, in theory, argue that this denial is unfair, because autobiography shapes how we interpret art. Then again, knowing the details of Ferrante’s life likely wouldn’t blunt the emotional honesty of the story she’s written. Attempts to uncover who she is feel less like an appreciation of her work than a bow to the need to gratify our passing curiosities. No wonder Ferrante calls her pseudonymity liberating — from the “anxiety of notoriety and the urge to be a part of that circle of successful people” — and grounded in a belief in the power of great writing to stand on its own. It’s also an absence and total assertion of ego, something the more apologetic sex isn’t supposed to flaunt.

Whatever the ultimate reasons behind Ferrante’s pen name, it’s all the more provocative in light of the extraordinary expectations women face when stepping into the public eye, beyond those dictating what they should wear, do, and say to conform with patriarchal ideals of femininity. The historical lack of women’s artistic traditions relative to men’s means that female artists today are still often pegged as just that: female artists, tasked with creating the sort of legacy they never had to build on. Making space for underrepresented groups matters, but this also subjects women to yet another level of scrutiny. When it comes to writing, Ferrante has referred to this as kettling women into a “literary gynaeceum,” an “area reserved for the female sex” where “they must only address certain themes and in certain tones that the male tradition considers suitable for the female gender.”

In addition to limiting the scope of women’s work, such thinking demands a level of emotional labor from women that just isn’t required of men. While it’s worthwhile to use a platform to help others, we expect women — still disproportionately charged with listening, helping, nurturing, and mothering — to perform a sort of constant selflessness, to always put a greater good before their own desires. Not incidentally, this is why we so often grill female celebrities, regardless of what they’re famous for, about their feminism. And it’s why they, in turn, fall back on the crutch of “female empowerment” to justify their actions when the public accuses them of doing something that doesn’t explicitly benefit the rest of womankind (see: Kim Kardashian’s naked selfie conflagration).

With so many demands dictating what and how they should be, women often don’t have enough space to be people — selfish, generous, complicated people — at all. This makes Ferrante’s refusal to market herself alongside her work — an intensely feminine masterpiece in a world where our literary titans are still almost all men — even more subversive, a rejection of the burden we place on female artists to give us more than whatever they create.

Dismiss it as a stunt if you want, and you may or may not be right, but the role Ferrante’s pseudonymity has played in boosting her stardom likely wasn’t its original intent. Though she has found international fame with the Neapolitan novels, she has been publishing under her chosen name for nearly a quarter of a century at this point. That said, she isn’t blind to the allure of the decision not to lend her books “their author’s expendable image,” and, given their success, has no cause to unveil herself now. For years women have turned to male or gender-neutral pen names in order to be taken seriously by a world that insists our voices be soft and deferential, that our opinions hold less sway, that we are unreliable narrators of our own experiences. If Ferrante’s use of a female pen name has sent her words even further than they may have otherwise traveled, more power to her.

In any case, Ferrante presents absence as one of the ultimate acts of female agency right there in her work. My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan novels, begins with Lenu telling the reader that Lila, at age 66, has finally made good on a lifelong desire to eliminate every trace of herself from the violent, oppressive world she knew: “She wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found,” Lenu says. Lenu feels that this is an act of specific cruelty toward her, and so she sets out to “win” by recording the fraught story of their relationship on the page. This reflects the same tension that complicates women’s relationship to legacy, in a way: wanting to excise yourself from a story that tells you who to be, and wanting to better understand yourself by recording who you are.

With Lenu and Lila, Ferrante has also captured the sometimes contradictory nature of female friendship in a world in which, lacking true structural power, women rely on intimacy. And though she has said she doesn’t want the fierce honesty of her books to be distilled into empty platitudes about sisterhood, they do inspire their own kind of distinctly female camaraderie. Whoever she may be, Ferrante grants readers access into an unbridled woman’s mind, treating it with the seriousness, urgency, and respect we’ve long afforded men’s. And in reading another woman’s experience that feels, in moments, so very like our own, we become less isolated, less alone. That thrill of recognition is a gift, and it’s why we should stop asking who Elena Ferrante really is. In the pages of her books, she has given us ourselves.