Have Italian Scholars Figured Out the Identity of Elena Ferrante?

Elisa Sotgiu on Reading Gender and Class in One of the Great Literary Mysteries of Our Time

When Claudio Gatti published an investigation into Elena Ferrante’s identity, a few years ago, he raised an outcry both in Italy and abroad. He had pried into the author’s privacy, violated her right to remain anonymous. It was unfair, it was irrelevant, we didn’t want to know.

Didn’t we? Yes and no. There was one conclusion that mattered in Gatti’s article: the person writing Ferrante’s novels was the translator Anita Raja, a woman.

That was a relief. If you haven’t experienced firsthand how sexist Italian academics and journalists can be, it might be difficult to imagine how important Ferrante’s gender has been for all of us studying her work over the years. Before My Brilliant Friend was even published, there were rumors that Ferrante’s work had been authored by a man, and they intensified after the success of the Neapolitan Novels in the United States. I remember my advisor telling me about these speculations when I started working on Ferrante in 2015; we both scoffed at the misogyny that that kind of gossip implied, feeling like we were on the trenches of a mini culture war.

So when I first stumbled on a series of scholarly articles that, through stylometric analysis, identified Elena Ferrante as the Italian novelist Domenico Starnone (Anita Raja’s husband), I was not ready to lay down my weapons. At that time, I hadn’t read any of Starnone’s novels. I knew that he was a prolific author, that he had written about high school, and that his long, semi-autobiographical novel about his youth in Naples, Via Gemito, had won the prestigious Premio Strega. But I didn’t really care about him. When confronted with the idea that he might be the author of my beloved Neapolitan Novels, my first impulse was to push that information aside, not talk about it, and not think about it too much, either.

I was hardly alone. Although the first of those stylometric articles, by Arjuna Tuzzi and Michele A Cortelazzo, came out in 2018—just at the moment when international publications on Ferrante were multiplying exponentially—it was hardly ever cited outside the field of digital humanities. On the rare occasion that it was mentioned, it was quickly dismissed: addressing the problem of Ferrante’s identity, it appears, is quite detrimental to any serious analysis of her writing for some scholars.

For someone interested, like I am, in the cultural history of our present, the creation of Elena Ferrante is a remarkable case study.

It is good practice among Ferrante scholars to declare that whatever her gender, what counts is that she chose to adopt a woman’s persona. But the fact remains that critics frequently (though reproachfully) cite Gatti when they want to discuss Anita Raja’s ideas about translation in relation to Ferrante, while they carefully ignore Tuzzi, Cortellazzo, Jacques Savoy, and the other nine scholars who confirmed that Ferrante’s and Starnone’s styles are often indistinguishable. Rachel Donadio was the only one who attempted (fruitfully) to put Ferrante’s and Starnone’s novels in conversation, but she did so in the pages of the The Atlantic and the The New York Times: the same comparison is very much a taboo in academia.

Let’s start from the beginning, then, and see what picture of Ferrante those articles allow us to trace. First of all, it’s useful to know that Tuzzi and Cortellazzo put together a large corpus for their analyses: 150 novels by 40 contemporary Italian novelists, balanced by gender and regional provenance. This body of texts was then used by a group of international experts who participated in a summer workshop at the University of Padova in 2017. They worked independently and with different methodological approaches but reached similar conclusions (the workshop proceedings are published here by the Padova University Press). While earlier investigations, like this one from 2006, relied on a simple comparison between Starnone and Ferrante, these scholars used less arbitrary methods. Georgios Mikros from Athens University, for example, used the textual corpus to train a machine-learning algorithm to profile authors (that is, identify their gender, age, and provenance) with a high degree of accuracy. This algorithm concluded that the person behind Elena Ferrante was a male over 60 years old from the region of Campania.

And that aging Neapolitan man looks suspiciously like Domenico Starnone: in Maciej Eder’s and Jan Rybicki’s visual representation of the corpus, Ferrante’s and Starnone’s novels occupy the same marginal spot, distant from the larger network of texts and connected to them only by Starnone’s first three novels, which were written between 1987 and 1991. In other words, both Starnone and Ferrante are highly original authors, different from every other Italian writer but very close to each other. In the study by Margherita Lalli, Francesca Tria, and Vittorio Loreto (Sapienza University of Rome), a data-compression algorithm wrongly attributes Ferrante’s Troubling Love to Starnone and Starnone’s Eccesso di zelo, Via Gemito and Prima esecuzione to Ferrante. In their introduction to the volume, Tuzzi and Cortellazzo also give a very long list of terms and expressions that can be found only (and frequently) in Starnone’s and Ferrante’s writing, but in no other writer’s work.

In their latest study, Tuzzi and Cortellazzo also allow us to delineate a parallel evolution in time: after his relatively conventional first novels, Starnone develops a very recognizable style in the early 1990s. Between 1992 and the early 2000s different novels are published under the two names, but they all seem to belong to the same family: Ferrante’s 1992 novel (Troubling Love) is most similar to Starnone’s 1993 and 1994 novels (Eccesso di zelo and Denti), Ferrante 2002 and 2006 (Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter) are most similar to Starnone 2005 (Labilità). Then, around the 2010s, we see a stylistic development: both Ferrante and Starnone acquire a certain distance from their older selves. The Neapolitan Novels are most similar to one another (understandably, since they are one long novel divided into four volumes) and to Ferrante’s 2019 novel The Lying Life of Adults. Starnone’s most recent novels, furthermore, can be grouped together, as their features are more pronouncedly unique.

This data can be interpreted in different ways. At the beginning, it seems clear that Starnone is using Ferrante’s name when he wants to adopt a female first-person narrator, without worrying about changing his distinctive voice. Later, he might have worked towards a more marked differentiation of the two styles—or something else might have happened. Maybe a collaboration with Raja. One author, Rybicki, who had previous experience analyzing a couple’s writing efforts, doesn’t exclude that possibility. Tuzzi and Cortellazzo also show that Ferrante’s nonfiction writings—the ones collected in the volume Frantumaglia—are not as stylistically coherent as her fiction. Their algorithm attributes the different essays, letters, and interviews to three different authors: Starnone, Raja, and a collective author representing the owners of, and publicity materials from, the E/O publishing house (the publisher of Ferrante since the beginning). In any case, that Starnone, either alone or in partnership with his wife, sat down and typed the novels that were published under the name of Elena Ferrante seems to be almost beyond doubt.

Elena Ferrante is a pleasure to read. And she is also the greatest literary mystery of our time.

But this is a story that goes beyond Starnone. For someone interested, like I am, in the cultural history of our present, the creation of Elena Ferrante is a remarkable case study.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Domenico Starnone had a contract with one of the major Italian publishing houses, Feltrinelli, for which he had published three novels between 1989 and 1991. At this point, he began collaborating with the young, little-known publishing house Edizioni E/O, where his wife Anita Raja worked as a freelance translator from German during the 1980s. In E/O’s historical catalog, Starnone’s name appears only between 1991 and 1992. He penned an afterword to a collection of Mark Twain’s short stories, an essay in an edited volume on coming-of-age literature, and Sottobanco, a theatrical adaptation of his first book, the only one that Feltrinelli hadn’t published. 1992 was also the year in which Troubling Love, the first of Ferrante’s novels, came out from E/O.

Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola, the founders of the publishing house, must have been keen on retaining Starnone among their authors, but Starnone—perhaps because of contractual obligations, perhaps by choice—decided to continue to publish under his real name for Feltrinelli and under the pseudonym of Ferrante for E/O. After all, a woman writer was more in line with Ferri and Ozzola’s editorial project, and Starnone’s choice of writing as a man for a prestigious publisher and as a woman for a marginal one was consistent with the structure of the male-dominated Italian literary space.

The second chapter of this story begins in 2005, when Ferri and Ozzola founded Europa Editions in London and New York. Their mission—of publishing peripheral authors and serving as a bridge between different nations and cultures—had not found much resonance in Italy, but it was perfectly aligned with the new enthusiasm for “world literature” that scholars, cultural critics, and independent publishers shared in the Anglophone world. In order to conquer their niche in this world, Ferri and Ozzola decided to bet on Elena Ferrante: The Days of Abandonment was one of the two books that Europa Editions published in its first year, and all of her other novels were translated into English immediately after they came out in Italian.

It was a winning bet, but they weren’t just lucky. If being a woman author was a liability in Italy, it was much less so in the United States. In the decade from 2010 to 2019, women constituted 60 percent of shortlisted authors and 60 percent of winners of the National Book Award for Fiction, 52 percent of nominees and 60 percent of winners of the PEN/Faulkner Award, and 80 percent of winners of the National Book Critics Circle Award, just to mention some of the most important recognitions. While Ferrante gave global readers a “fever,” Domenico Starnone received critical attention in the US only with his 2014 novel Ties, which can be read as a sequel to Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment.

I’m not suggesting that the invention of Elena Ferrante was only a shrewd editorial enterprise. A female pen name might have been a way to avoid criticism: if you Google “male writers writing female characters,” the first few results (with titles like “30 Times Male Authors Showed They Barely Know Anything About Women” and “Male Writers Have No Idea How To Write Female Characters”) make clear that this practice suffers from a poor reputation. Writing about gender from a woman’s perspective could have also been a way to draw attention to the issue of class dynamics and social mobility that has often been at the center of Starnone’s writing. Near the end of the Neapolitan Quartet, the protagonist Elena Greco says that without her brilliant friend Lila, her entire life “would be reduced merely to a petty battle to change my social class.” We could say the same of Starnone’s books: without Elena Ferrante, his self-involved, semi-autobiographical novels about the struggles of a writer to pull himself out of his provincial origins might have been considered uninteresting, and perhaps quite petty.

It could be useful, then, to refocus our attention from the subject of gender to that of class. Ferrante’s last novel, The Lying Life of Adults, has little to add on the matter of women’s identity. Especially at the beginning, the story seems to replay with minor variations on all of Ferrante’s tropes: the thought of being nothing but “a tangled knot,” the erasure of women in pictures and in flesh, the idea of mothers peeking out through their daughters’ body, female friendship as based on emulation and desire for fusion, jealousy and possessiveness toward one’s mother, children’s sexuality. Sentences from previous books, and especially from the Neapolitan Quartet, are repeated almost unchanged. The only difference is that this time the point of view seems to be that of a younger reincarnation of Lila instead of another Elena.

The main novelty in the story, instead, is what it says about class. The Neapolitan Novels were built on the contraposition of the proletarian and sub-proletarian neighborhoods of Naples to the bourgeois city center: an ethics of responsibility and educational achievement and a huge investment on status were the cornerstones of Elena Greco’s beliefs. In the Lying Life of Adults, though, the protagonist Giovanna and her friends embrace post-materialistic values and self-actualization: they can travel freely and still recognize the importance of Naples’s poorest peripheries, they don’t care about good grades but are interested in reading and writing as a means of cultivating their authentic selves. They’re the new cosmopolitan middle class, and they reject the stark class dichotomies of the older generation.

Studying Ferrante’s novels together with Starnone’s could make us better readers of both and open new pathways for scholars. But recognizing that Elena Ferrante is most probably a man could also change things for the worse. She served us well: women scholars in Italian studies suddenly had a reliable entry ticket for international conferences, online magazines, special issues, publishing houses. Those advantages might come to an end. But that’s no reason to be gloomy; Elena Ferrante is still a pleasure to read. And she is also the greatest literary mystery of our time.

Elisa Sotgiu
Elisa Sotgiu is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Harvard. She studied at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa and has published on Edoardo Sanguineti, Henry James, and Elena Ferrante.





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