On Sunday, in an online article in The New York Review of Books, Claudio Gatti revealed the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s “real” identity. If he is correct, she is an Italian translator named Anita Raja. In a separate article, Gatti told some of Raja’s “real” family history to demonstrate that it was different from that of the family in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.
These revelations about a writer who has wanted nothing more than to remain away from public view made me first sad, then angry. Why did he feel the need to explode this wonderful phenomenon of a beloved anonymous writer? Why did he refuse to honor her wishes?
Grappling with these questions in her Verso Books Blog, Katherine Angel described how essential privacy — here taking the form of anonymity — has been for Ferrante’s creativity. Focusing on Gatti’s violation, Angel writes, “The punitive edge to Gatti’s intrusion speaks of a desire to make some writers offer up a pound of flesh for their success — to make them pay some penance for it.”
...for some writers of literature, a shielded psychological space singularly enables the imaginative work.
I actually see Gatti’s punitive edge as having more to do with the historic (and ongoing) belief that a free and powerful woman is a deeply dangerous social creature. Indeed, Ferrante’s intense need for privacy can best be understood in terms of the historical absence of privacy in women’s lives, and the oppression and curtailment of creative expression implicit (and explicit) within that absence.
As I similarly noted about Hillary Clinton hiding her pneumonia, Ferrante used secrecy as a means to preserve privacy. But whereas for politicians, the desire for privacy cannot always be honored because of the distrust it sows, for some writers of literature, a shielded psychological space singularly enables the imaginative work.
There is no way Ferrante could have managed her profound exposure of every aspect of her woman’s soul, body and psyche — revelations essential to making her fiction explosive, explicit and captivating — without keeping herself from public view. She has needed to be unknown in order to allow her most intimate imaginings, thoughts and feelings to become so fully known. She has needed the right to privacy: the right to reveal what she chose to reveal when and how she chose to reveal it.
Writing in The New Republic, Charlotte Shane scolded Gatti for demonstrating — by exposing Ferrante against her will — that “women are not allowed to participate in the public sphere and yet set boundaries.”
The ironies are many. For centuries, most women weren’t allowed anything but anonymity. They were denied access to the “public” sphere: They couldn’t hold office, serve on juries, or vote. (Italian women only got the vote after WWII ended.) Yet, within their private sphere, they were denied the very benefits privacy can grant: autonomy, liberty and creative self-expression. They lacked choice, which is why Ferrante's loss of it touches feminist nerves.
Women have tended to live under close domestic surveillance. When I first started writing about privacy, I became aware that the only time many women in early America had any privacy was if they secluded themselves to read their Bibles. Their “Jezebel” impulses were apparently too dangerous to allow them time alone — unless they were praying.
Gatti has served as a policeman of the patriarchal order -- identifying a free woman and putting her in her place.
To put it another way, the reason Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” became a core symbol of 20th century feminism is that nothing has been more threatening — across many eras and societies — than (male fantasies of) what women would say if they ever got space and freedom to speak.
Ah, you say, Woolf’s essay was published in 1929. This is now. We are long past such problems.
Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so. Ten minutes watching the misogyny in the current election should disabuse us of that naive notion. Battles have been won, yet the war continues.
I know nothing about Claudio Gatti. But knowing how explicitly Ferrante writes about women’s experiences, and how rarely such raw female expression has appeared ever in this world, I think it’s fair to “read” his very public action as symbolic and part of a larger field of meaning. It participates in an age-old gender struggle about power, dominance and voice. Perhaps consciously, perhaps outside awareness or intent — Gatti has served as a policeman of the patriarchal order — identifying a free woman and putting her in her place.
Janna Malamud Smith is the author of “Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life.”