Last week in New York, I was lucky enough to watch a brilliant magician, Dan White, at work. Only the slightest trickle of sweat at his temple gave away the effort it took to make it all look effortless – to make it look magical, this levitating and sleight of hand and things appearing where things shouldn’t be. I looked at the crowd, all of us fairly jaded, I would guess, and thought about when the last time was any of us had felt a sense of wonder or mystery or awe about the spaces between known things.
I’ll just go back to the hotel room, I thought, and Google all the tricks and see how he does it. I ignored that impulse and went and had pizza instead and by the time I returned, I knew I didn’t want to see the gears and pulleys. The gears and pulleys were the magician’s business; in return, he had given us amazement.
It’s the same sense of wonder I feel when I read Elena Ferrante’s novels, a sense of wonder that is shared by the millions of readers who fell in love with her quartet of stories called The Neapolitan Novels, tracing the friendship of two girls growing up in postwar Italy. That simple description in no way begins to describe the magic of the novels, the beauty of their sentences (translated by Ann Goldstein), or the disturbing honesty about women’s friendships. How in God’s name did Elena Ferrante do it?
Of course, her name isn’t really Elena Ferrante. That’s a nom de plume, or perhaps you might call it a nom de guerre after what happened this week. For 25 years, Ms. Ferrante published under a pseudonym, for complex reasons we’ll get into. She does almost no publicity. She does not share what she ate for breakfast, or the size of her advances. She is that rarest of things, the public figure who is also a ghost. And that, apparently, is too much provocation for our greedy world. Like toddlers driven crazy by wrapped Christmas presents under the tree, we just had to know what’s inside.
For years there’s been speculation about her identity. This week, an Italian journalist named Claudio Gatti, writing in the New York Review of Books and Il Sole 24 Ore, claimed that he had unmasked Ms. Ferrante, using financial statements from her publisher. He makes a complicated argument that the novelist had given up a right to anonymity because she made reference to Italo Calvino’s (himself a sly trickster) love of deceit in her new non-fiction collection, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. You can easily find Mr. Gatti’s sleuthing online, if you want to know more about what he claims is the writer’s true identity.
Me, I don’t care if Elena Ferrante is really Trudy Higginbottom of Des Moines, Iowa. She is not a memoirist. What she owes the world is not biography but story and that’s all we should ask of her. I can’t imagine that the pleasure of reading her books would be enhanced by knowing if she had children, or struggles with work-life balance, or sometimes wants to kill her husband, or likes Nutella on her toast. In fact, she argued in an interview last year in the Paris Review (conducted by her publishers) that the lack of biographical detail actually allows readers to inhabit her stories more fully, to imagine themselves inside with no filter between them and the work.
Anonymity also gives her the freedom to be wicked and pointed and brutal in her writing. In an e-mail interview with journalist Deborah Orr, Ms. Ferrante said she’s chosen camouflage partly to protect the privacy of the people from her childhood whose lives she mined alongside her own. “My work stops at publication,” she wrote. “If the books don’t contain in themselves their reasons for being – questions and answers – it means I was wrong to have them published.”
I’ve interviewed dozens of authors over the years (and written a novel myself) and it’s been my experience that the one question that will send them over the edge is, “How autobiographical is this?” All writers want credit for the power of their imagination and fear Truman Capote’s contemptuous assessment of Jack Kerouac’s confessional tendencies: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
At the same time, autobiography is what we crave. Memoirs stomp across the literary landscape like Godzilla, crushing everything in their path. We want to know who Lionel Shriver is feuding with, who Elizabeth Gilbert is sleeping with, what Stephen King thinks about Donald Trump (spoiler alert: not much.)
It might be because we’re addicted to having the answer to everything, at an instant’s notice, in our pockets. Knowing has become not just a privilege, or a favour conferred on one person by another, but a right.
You can have a mountain of information but end up with a teaspoon of understanding, which is something that Ms. Ferrante (or whatever her name is) recognizes at a fundamental level. Just read her books and you’ll see. It’s all right there.Report Typo/Error