October 18, 2016
The Trainwreck Files: Elena Ferrante
by Sady Doyle
Happy day! It’s time for another installment of The Trainwreck Files, in which certified genius Sady Doyle—author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… And Why—looks at a figure making hay in the news and answers the question: Are they a trainwreck? Because we won’t be awakening from the nightmare of this election for three weeks yet, and America has got a lot on its mind. Today’s file: Elena Ferrante.
“I was told you had once some thoughts of bringing out Fanny as a professional singer,” Charlotte Brontë once told a friend with a young daughter, “and it was added Fanny did not like the project… Fanny probably looks on publicity as degrading, and I believe for a woman it is degrading if it is not glorious.”
It’s an odd thing to hear, from one of the more famous and feminist novelists of her age: That women are better off shutting up, that the pursuit of fame and recognition is better left alone. But then, Brontë knew better than most people how degrading publicity could be.
Her first published novel, Jane Eyre, had been so scandalous (bigamy! madness! mild curse words!) that someone once scolded her publisher’s mother for leaving a copy in reach of children. Her first attempt to reach out to the literary world had been met with a scolding response about how she was neglecting her womanly “duties” by being too “eager for celebrity.” Her public life was constructed around a male pen name — yet London’s literary world would not stop trying to figure out who “Currer Bell” was. Theories pointed to William Makepeace Thackeray, Thackeray’s mistress, or some anonymous “fallen woman.” In an attempt to redeem womanhood from the stain of Jane Eyre’s sexiness, female critics dissected the book’s (apparently unconvincing) descriptions of dresses — no woman could possibly be that ignorant of fashion, ergo, Currer Bell was a dude.
Of course, those female critics also published anonymously. What else was a woman to do — write about Jane Eyre under her real name? Let everyone and their brother know she had opinions about a dirty book? My God: She’d be torn apart.
All of which brings us to Elena Ferrante. Her identity has been the subject of a Currer-Bell-style guessing game for several years now — our willingness to attribute the books to men, or to other famous authors, has marked Ferrante’s press no less than it marked Brontë’s — and now, thanks to an Italian journalist who claims he’s been digging through her finances and real estate documents, it has ostensibly been revealed.
Given that Ferrante is (duh) a relatively private person, we can’t be certain that we know all of her reasons for maintaining anonymity; we don’t know whether, like Brontë, there are factual or emotional truths in her work that she felt sensitive about revealing. But what we do know is that those questions are exactly the ones Elena Ferrante did not intend on answering: “It has become natural to think of the author as a particular individual who exists, inevitably, outside the text—so that if we want to know more about what we’re reading we should address that individual, or find out everything about his more or less banal life… If we want to find that person, she’s right there [on the page], revealing a self that even she may not truly know.”
In that same interview, Ferrante notes that self-revelation carries a much higher price for women: “Whenever a part of you emerges that’s not consistent with some feminine ideal, it makes everyone nervous, and you’re supposed to get rid of it in a hurry… if you refuse to be subjugated, violence enters in.” Brontë, at least, connected this directly to the act of writing as a woman: “We had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality,” she said.
Claudio Gatti’s “exposé,” relying as it does on private financial documents, feels more like an old-fashioned doxing than a literary investigation. And now that he’s supposedly brought a “real” woman’s personality into the picture, his justification evidently rests on the idea that her personality is faulty: She’s promoted a forthcoming work, La Frantumiglia, as autobiographical, and Gatti believes that work may not contain 100% gospel truth.
“On November 1st, you are going to have an entire book about her life. She writes about being the daughter of a seamstress from Naples, about having three sisters. Nothing of that is true… you cannot have your cake and eat it too,” Gatti whined. In the eyes of her readers, Ferrante is a writer, whose fluid identity is part of her artistic project. In the eyes of Claudio Gatti, Elena Ferrante is rich and a liar, and that’s about it.
Which brings us to the question of whether Brontë is still right: Whether it is better for a woman to stay out of the public eye altogether, or else submit to being ritually degraded for every single one of her real or perceived flaws. It’s hard to believe; when women go silent, we lose our chance to influence the conversation, or make it kinder. But women’s attempts to engage without their personalities being dragged into the ring don’t tend to go so well, either. Just look at what happened to Elena Ferrante.
Verdict: Trainwreck, nineteenth-century style.
Sady Doyle founded the blog Tiger Beatdown in 2008. Her work has appeared in In These Times, The Guardian, Elle.com, The Atlantic, Slate, Buzzfeed, Rookie, and lots of other places around the Internet. Her first book, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... And Why is out now from Melville House.