We Already Know the Identity of Elena Ferrante

Another Italian writer has been outed as Elena Ferrante, the author of the Neapolitan quartet, a run of novels held in such high esteem that they will now be adapted for television.

So who is Elena Ferrante this time? In 2014, L’Unita claimed it was the novelist Domenico Starnone. Twin statements from Starnone and Ferrante, who claims to admire the work of the former, shut down the rumor mill, at least until we learned that Ferrante is actually Anita Raja, a consultant for the publisher of the quartet, who denied any connection.

This time the accuser is Marco Santagata, a professor at the University of Pisa, who claims to have done nothing more than perform a bit of forensic exegesis. He simply looked at the historical facts presented in Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name, and came up with a list of possibilities. From the Guardian:

“I did something simple. I took the yearbook of the (Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa) students in the 60s and I looked at which names could respond to all of these requirements,” he told Corriere. “Marcella Marmo corresponds to my identikit.”

And “identikit,” with its connotation of a police investigation in pursuit of a criminal, seems like the right word. For her part, Marcella Marmo — a professor of contemporary history at the University of Naples Federico II — claims only to have read the first of the four novels, which is to say that she denies being Ferrante. Her publisher denies it, too.

For a sleuth confident enough to publicize his findings, Santagata’s evidence is flimsy. After first establishing that Marmo’s matriculation in Pisa (from 1964-1966) would suit the setting of the novels, things get markedly circumstantial:

In the book, Ferrante refers to a bar frequented by students in the 1960s and a Christmas party which Santagata claimed was only known to the university crowd. He also believes a love affair which saw a student expelled from the men’s college may have inspired the author in her writing of Greco’s romance in Pisa.

Of course, there are those readers for whom the fever has become a sickness, and it will come as a temporary relief to put a face to the name. For others, the entire enterprise of uncovering Ferrante’s “true identity” is an affront to the purity of literary interpretation. Whether they realize that this position is basically New Critical — and therefore a bit conservative — is hard to say. But sometimes conservatism and radicalism touch hands. There is something religious (and beautiful) and radical about Ferrante’s own reasons for anonymity. In a letter to her publisher from more than two decades ago:

I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. There are plenty of examples. I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana, which I waited for as a child. I went to bed in great excitement and in the morning I woke up and the gifts were there, but no one had seen the Befana. True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known; they are the very small miracles of the secret spirits of the home or the great miracles that leave us truly astonished. I still have this childish wish for marvels, large or small, I still believe in them.

It’s on this basis that the cat-and-mouse game with Ferrante’s identity annoys me. There is something opportunistic in the questioning, especially when the detectives know good and well that she wants to be left alone. (Though I still can’t understand why she’s allowing the series to be made into a TV show, which doesn’t sound like a “small miracle” or marvel.) And, as Dayna Tortorici points out in one of the best pieces I’ve read on Ferrante, it seems like an evasion. She is a difficult writer to pursue, critically speaking. “Fixating on her identity is one way to postpone reading,” Tortorici writes, “to kill time until the words come.”

Even if Santagata is correct — it doesn’t matter to me whether we find out or not — his method is strange. Given that we don’t know Ferrante’s identity, it’s impossible to say whether the books are autofictional. And what do these stray facts that place Marmo in Pisa work to corroborate? It’s difficult to say which details are drawn from memory, or which are created, when you have no idea who is doing the remembering or creating. This is to say that we know the identity of Elena Ferrante. She’s the author of several novels that will outlast most of the others that you read.