Last year, the writer behind the bestselling Elena Ferrante novels was unmasked as a little-known Italian translator. Speculation remains rife that more than one author is at work. Michael Sheridan goes to the heart of the literary rumour mill in Naples to sort the facts from the fiction

Michael Sheridan


Readers like a mystery. All publishers know that. When the author is the riddle and her books are a cult, they are on to something special. The four Naples novels by Elena Ferrante, stacked on booksellers’ shelves in airports and high streets around the world, are just such a phenomenon. The quartet tells the story of two girls. One is the narrator: smart, diligent Elena. The other is her “brilliant friend”, the dazzling, capricious Lila. Their tale unfolds across decades of loyalty and betrayal. Both escape from the slum, but one never really leaves it. They share passion and rivalry. Their men are rats. Their home, Naples, is a gift to the novelist as a scene for the drama, being turbulent, operatic and cruel.

For years, the novels drew a steady following in Italy. It was when they were translated into English that sales took off — more than 4m copies have been sold worldwide. They touched a chord among women, among lovers of Italy and among readers who liked a long, flowing narrative with many characters and storylines. The Ferrante saga can be consumed as a series of snacks or as a banquet — and it inspires devotion. A two-part dramatisation finishes today at the Rose Theatre in Kingston upon Thames. A Radio 4 adaptation has been enthralling listeners since last summer. Hillary Clinton said she would curl up with a volume on the campaign trail. Now the Naples quartet is being adapted into an Italian TV series, slated for 2018 — reportedly with assistance on the screenplay (via email) from Ferrante herself.

But who, critics asked, was Elena Ferrante? The name was a pseudonym. Reviewers wondered if she had lived the experiences or imagined them. How could her writing be so authentic? Had she grown up around the mob? Was she one author or several? Rococo conspiracy theories flowered. Could she be a he? Was her anonymity born out of fear of the mafia, or trauma, or was it just a sales gimmick?

We think we know the answer to the first question, since the author’s identity was revealed last year. As for the rest of it, the Ferrante story turns out to be like Naples itself: intricate, contradictory and troubling.

Literary detection appeals to the Neapolitan mind. The city’s intellectuals live alongside crime, chaos and poverty. They are proud of its flourishing cultural life. Quicksilver instincts, plus a deep suspicion that nothing is what it seems, make them natural sceptics.

The author continues to hide behind her pseudonym, despite being exposed last October as Anita Raja, 63, an Italian academic and translator specialising in German literature, who lived in Rome with her husband, the novelist and screenwriter Domenico Starnone. His 2014 book, Lacci (Ties), was published in English last month to glowing reviews — and inevitable comparisons with the Ferrante novels.

Raja’s cover was broken by Claudio Gatti, an Italian investigative journalist, who identified her through financial records with the virtuous air of one exposing a politician on the take. His scoop left many of Ferrante’s admirers feeling that her privacy had been violated. In Italian, the verb to violate means to rape, a point made by plenty of female commentators. Worse, so far as literary Naples was concerned, the Italian version of the article appeared in Il Sole 24 Ore, the financial daily published in grey and distant Milan by Confindustria, the Italian employers’ federation. It was, said the Neopolitans, “una gran brutta storia” — which hardly needs translating.

The resultant furore just added to the buzz. In the midst of this, the foreign publishers released a book of essays, letters and written interviews by Ferrante called Frantumaglia (roughly, “fragments”), which in any other circumstances would only be bought by the select few interested in Italian feminist ideology and Marxism in the 1970s. It, too, is selling well.

“Are you kidding? That’s amazing!” exclaims Ann Goldstein, who has translated Ferrante’s works from Italian, when I tell her I have seen it piled high at a London railway station. In one way, Goldstein knows Ferrante better than anyone. In fact, she doesn’t know her at all. “Well, first of all, let me say, I’ve translated a lot of dead writers,” says Goldstein, laughing down the phone line from New York, “so in a way it isn’t that different. An absent writer isn’t different from a dead writer.”

Is it not extraordinary that Ferrante has never reached out to the person who transformed her from a niche Italian novelist into a global brand? Goldstein sighs. “I mean, in theory, I still don’t know who she is. My experience has been always through the publishers. The Gatti thing, I don’t know, they haven’t said if it’s true or false.”

It is not as if Ferrante is reticent. A torrent of opinion, often austere and censorious, pours from her pen in dozens of written interviews. It is just that she does not appear to like meeting people face to face.

“When she began to give more interviews, I started to read them,” says Goldstein, who became a literary detective pursuing the case of her own author. “I assumed that there were some continuity elements that were consistent among all her novels — a woman born in the mid-1940s, but who had obviously read a huge amount, was strong-minded, sometimes impatient.”

The question, for many, is whether ‘Elena Ferrante’ is actually a joint venture

In English, the voice that comes through is hard-edged. This may enhance the appeal of Ferrante’s flinty view of the gender wars for an Anglo-American audience. In Italian, though, the prose is softer, compromising, even dreamlike. “There are many things that get lost in translation, but my intention is to convey to some extent the style, as well as the content,” Goldstein explains. “Italian is a musical language, although I wouldn’t say that she uses it in the musical way that other writers do. It’s not elegant in the classical Italian way, but it’s very expressive.”

I ask Goldstein if she agrees that nothing good seems to happen to any of the characters, what with murders, oppression, beatings, abandonment and sexual assault.

“Right, neither in the short term nor the long term,” she says. “She examines these emotions, the good ones and the bad ones, in a way that’s illuminating but also depressing. Well, not depressing, but difficult.”
Is that down to Naples and its Madonna-and-whore culture of machismo, multiplied by shame? Goldstein thinks not. “I’ve talked to a lot of women from all over the world, from the most disparate places, who feel that it touches something real,” she says. It is certainly brilliant on the complexities of female friendship.

Goldstein communicated with Ferrante through her publishers in Rome, Edizione E/O. The only feedback: “She said that she trusted me.”

To dig further, I go to Naples, where the grip of the Camorra — the local mafia that pervades the novels — remains a reality. “This is a city that has a continuous dialogue with death,” says Silvio Perrella, a Neapolitan writer and critic who has known Raja and her husband, Starnone, for years. “Here, you live with fear. All the time you have to reach an accommodation with fear.”

I found Perrella after asking around among journalists and writers who all felt there was something odd about the Ferrante story, but couldn’t explain what it was.

We were walking towards the Via Chiaia at the Bourbon heart of Naples, an area that reminds you that if only more tourists would brave the city instead of rushing off to Pompeii and Sorrento, they would find a treasure house of art, architecture and style. It is where one of the few triumphant scenes in the saga takes place, when Lila soars above her origins to run a fashionable shoe shop.

Perrella gestures skywards, beyond alleys laced by washing, to a castle brooding above the port. “You always have to look upwards in Naples,” he says, “but have you noticed how in Ferrante’s books the people in the rione never see the sea?”

The fictional rione, or city district, where Elena and Lila grow up, is likely based on a warren of streets between the city’s central train station and a jail. In the books, its people live in a virtual prison, trapped by poverty and acquiescence, bullied and exploited by petty Camorra gangsters. It is only when the two girls make a daring bid to break the bonds of custom that they glimpse the sheer blue of the Bay of Naples.

“In the same way,” says Perrella, “look how in the books they speak Italian when they aspire to something, but speak in local dialect when there’s a crisis.”

Perrella points out two facts. One is that there is something incomplete in the biographical note in the novels that says: “Elena Ferrante was born in Naples.” True, but Raja left with her parents at the age of three and was brought up in Rome. Her father had been a magistrate in Naples and her mother, Golda Petzenbaum, was born in Germany to Jewish parents who fled the Nazis, found shelter in Italy and narrowly escaped deportation in the Holocaust.

The second fact is that it was Raja’s husband, Starnone, now 74, who grew up in a family of five children in Naples — as it happens, in the grimy tenements around the station familiar to Ferrante’s readers. Starnone, in interviews with the Italian media, has spoken of his abusive father, a frustrated railway worker who dreamt of being an artist. “My mother was dazzled by this domineering, persuasive, charming, violent man,” he told Io Donna, an Italian women’s magazine. “He never hurt us, but he beat her up before our very eyes. And always for the same reason — jealousy.”

The profile fits almost exactly that of Donato Sarratore, who in the books is the father of Nino, a clever boy who will move in and out of the lives of the two women. It is clear to Perrella that Starnone took a long time to come to grips psychologically with his decision to escape the menacing atmosphere of Naples. He did not begin writing books until his forties.

As for Raja, certainly her father, who had served as a magistrate in Naples, would have experienced that daily accommodation with fear, a theme that runs through all her novels. Public death is the ultimate humiliation when people lose out to the Camorra. This fate befalls several of Ferrante’s characters, yet there is something distant in her description of the act, when the victims fall like marionettes.

I tell Perrella that I once witnessed a murder scene not far from where we are standing, and it is one that resonates in the novels. It was July 15, 1982, and gunmen had killed Antonio Ammaturo, the head of the Naples flying squad. The crime was theatrical: the bodies of Ammaturo and his bodyguard splayed in their death agony inside a police car, bright splashes of blood on its bullet-starred windows, two carabinieri officers standing with tears pouring down their cheeks, brass cartridge cases scattered in the gutter. Everyone of a certain age in Naples knows the case because the murders were claimed by the Red Brigades, a terrorist group, but were most likely committed on the orders of Raffaele Cutolo, a jailed Camorra godfather.

These deceptive, conspiratorial undercurrents account for the most turgid sections of Ferrante’s novels. To the average foreign reader they are prolix diversions into the political and social crises of modern Italy, when the mafia cut deals with a corrupt state, feminism collided with class struggle and the great battles over divorce and abortion were waged. Once again, the influence of Starnone, a longtime culture editor at the communist paper Il Manifesto, seems to pervade these pages. The question, for many, is whether “Elena Ferrante” is actually a joint venture between the couple.

“I’ve always suspected that behind the pen name it was Anita Raja and that her novels were the fruits of collaboration with her husband, Domenico Starnone,” the veteran critic Goffredo Fofi told the Turin daily La Stampa recently. “I recognised the style.”

Ferrante published her first novel in 1992 and was already the subject of Italian literary intrigue long before the Naples quartet. In 2006, Vittorio Loreto, a professor at La Sapienza University in Rome, ran a software program to compare early works published under Ferrante’s and Starnone’s names. He called the result “an evolutionary tree”, suggesting that the branches shared a common ancestry.

Last autumn, with 10 more years of linguistic data to work on, the Swiss start-up OrphAnalytics reached a more troubling conclusion. Using algorithms derived from genome sequencing, the researchers Claude-Alain Roten and Guy Genilloud analysed patterns of letters, syllables, phrases and rhythm in eight books by Ferrante and five by Starnone. They found that while the first three Ferrante novels followed a common style, the next four — the Naples quartet — were different. There could have been two writers, or one writer who had changed style dramatically. Overall, they found “a strong scientific signal” pointing to one conclusion: the most likely author was Domenico Starnone. There was one hole in the data: because there are no novels by Anita Raja written under her own name, no comparison could be made with her work.

The couple did not respond. The Swiss data emerged just as they were reeling from the Gatti exposé. While speculation swirled around Italy that Ferrante was the product of a ghostwriter, she remained spectral.

One evening in Naples, I go to a literary salon in the gilt and plush antechamber of the Teatro Bellini, a 19th-century opera house. Perrella is there, and so is Titti Marrone, a writer and critic who says in her blog that she fights “negative stereotypes” about Naples and the south. They have come to remember Fabrizia Ramondino, a political activist and writer whose novels captured local life with an authentic blend of characters and place that is, well, Ferrante-like. “Fabrizia based her characters on real people and you could even meet them in the village,” Marrone says.

At one time, there was speculation that Ramondino — who is almost unknown outside Italy — actually was Ferrante, but that ended when Ramondino died aged 71 in 2008, while swimming in the sea. However, one thing the writer said in her lifetime haunts me when I hear it at the salon: “I read Starnone with great attention, because he is known to write about women’s themes with particular sensitivity.”

There are more than a few ghosts flitting around Naples as I walk back from the opera house, thinking that here at least was a mutual debt and that the drowned author might one day be recognised as an influence on the famous one.

Gatti justified his exposé by saying that Ferrante had chosen to lie, citing this line from her: “I don’t hate lies, I find them useful in life and resort to them when I need to shield my persona.”

At first I thought that was a bit unfair. Then I looked up the page in Frantumaglia, the Ferrante collection Gatti had picked his quote from, and found another, in a letter to her publishers dated 2002: “You always end up lying when you play these games with the newspapers and at the root of the lie is the necessity to put yourself before the public in the best possible light, with suitable thoughts for the role and just the right touch of blush.”

Last summer, Ferrante had agreed to give one of her written interviews to The Sunday Times. But when we went back to Sandra Ozzola, her publisher in Rome, she said the author was already exhausted when the “bad story” of the Gatti affair broke.

“She has decided not to respond to any request from any newspaper,” Ozzola wrote in an email. “She does not want words uttered and reported in good faith by a serious journalist to be twisted and distorted, as often happens, by unprofessional people. This seems to me to be a legitimate defence, no?”

“Ferrante is a fairly mysterious personality,” says Titta Fiore, culture editor at Il Mattino, the venerable daily newspaper in Naples. “She has always been a very reserved person, not a ‘social network’ type as we would put it today.”

Fiore makes a more pertinent point, which I hear from others in Naples. While the unsparing portrait of the city in the novels is accurate, it is also dated. “Naples has a cultural and literary scene that’s very competitive, lively, always regenerating itself, so Ferrante was an important voice, but certainly not the only one,” she says. “The Naples in the quartet is the Naples of the 1950s to the present day, so it’s mainly women in their sixties who recognise themselves in it.”

As if in an act of defiance, last year Starnone published his latest novel, Scherzetto (Italian for “little joke” — yet to be published in English), while declining to be interviewed about it. It is set, inevitably, in the dingy streets around the Naples train station. The protagonist is an illustrator in his seventies who returns to his childhood home to look after his grandson. The experience transports him to the world of his adolescence, “a continuous murmur of street talk, passers-by chattering, cries from the windows, gatherings on the shop doorsteps ... all noises echoing tenderness and violence, politeness and obscenity.” Folkloric, some might say.

It is a universe that seems remote to the bright Italian millennials who populate the range of cafes, start-ups and art galleries that are slowly changing the face of the city.

One evening, riding to meet the mayor, I ask Roberta Gaeta, the smart young head of welfare for the city of Naples, what she thinks of the Ferrante books. She looks at her assistant and they sigh. “It’s a certain idea of the place,” Gaeta says diplomatically.

The mayor, a centre-left politician named Luigi de Magistris, is trying to lift Naples out of its inertia. The Italian government has poured billions into a metro system, sponsored cultural festivals and renovated the old port area.

De Magistris meets us in the courtyard of the splendid Angevin castle that will be the city’s centrepiece. He is proud of how Naples, once a byword for inward-looking deprivation, has taken care of thousands of migrants who have been rescued from the Mediterranean and brought ashore here. “The truth is that our city has been able to rise to the occasion and give the right image of itself,” he says.

It can only be a matter of time before upmarket Ferrante tours start taking devotees around the locations associated with her novels, with a security guard on hand. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things for Naples, neither her identity nor her authenticity really matter.

“As far as the speculation goes about who actually wrote the Ferrante books, whether they were in reality written by different authors or by two pairs of hands together, I couldn’t really say,” says Fiore, the culture editor.

“What matters to the readers is whether there will be any more books. The story in the quartet is over, so there can’t be a sequel. We shall have to wait and see.”

FINDING FERRANTE
How worldwide fame fed an insatiable desire to reveal the author’s true identity

1992 — Elena Ferrante’s first novel, Troubling Love, is published in Italy. She tells her publisher: “I will be your least expensive author. I’ll spare you even my presence”

2003 — Ferrante defends her anonymity: “The true reader searches not for the face of the author in flesh and blood, but for the naked physiognomy in every effective word”

2006 — The novelist Domenico Starnone is identified as a “highly probable” author of Ferrante’s work, after software analysis of the text by a team at Rome’s La Sapienza University

2011 — My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Naples quartet, is published in Italy. An English translation follows a year later. Her publisher says initial sales are a “disappointment”

2013 — A New Yorker article sparks interest in Ferrante across the English literary world, describing her novels as “remarkable, lucid” and “austerely honest”

2015 — As speculation grows over the author’s identity, an Italian gossip blog claims that “even the stones know that Elena Ferrante is Anita Raja” — Starnone’s wife

August 2015 — In an email interview with Vanity Fair, Ferrante says: “Have you heard anyone say about a book written by a man, ‘It’s really a woman who wrote it, or a group of women?’ ”

December 2015 — Sales of the Naples quartet hit 750,000 in the US and approach 250,000 in the UK

October 2, 2016 — An investigation by Claudio Gatti, published in the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, exposes Ferrante as Anita Raja, using financial records to make his case

October 4, 2016 — The Italian newspaper Il Mattino reports that Ferrante’s books have sold 4m copies in 44 countries, 1m of them in Italy and 1.5m in America

Additional reporting by Wolfgang Achtner