Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Making of a Woman

The spice of news is revelation: the uncovering of secrets or the shining of a light on the unknown, from Donald Trump's tax returns to the surface of a comet. Human curiosity being what it is, the business of revelation regularly oversteps the bounds of ethical conduct, as the fall of the "Fake Sheikh" has shown. Interestingly, the biggest out-of-bounds story this week was not the evidence-tampering of Mazher Mahmood, but the claim that the pseudonymous Neapolitan author Elena Ferrante was actually a Rome-based translator, Anita Raja, who works for the same niche publisher. Despite being a respected investigative reporter for Il Sole 24 Ore, the Italian equivalent of the FT, Claudio Gatti's story was met with fury, particularly by female writers and commentators (and particularly in The Guardian in the UK), appalled by what they saw as a misogynistic denial of a woman's right to anonymity.

The act was variously referred to as an "outing" and an "unmasking", and one that additionally violated the reader's "right not to know". This language points to the ambiguity involved in the act of revelation: outing (notably of homosexuals) was once praised when it revealed hypocrisy, while unmasking applies to super-villains as much as super-heroes. Our right not to know is less a defence against malign revelation and more an insistence on the luxury of an untroubled conscience: "I don't want to hear about that". Suzanne Moore made the connection with wider journalistic ethics explicit in her bizarre revival of the memory of Benjamin Pell: "Riffling through someone’s bins looking for clues about their life or identity is considered a tabloid activity performed by low-lifes who sell information on celebrities". In fact, examining royalty payments and property purchases, as Gatti did, is precisely what literary biographers do. It's not as if he were counting used condoms or takeaways.

Gatti is no Richard Ellman (a literary biographer who took a forensic interest in James Joyce's finances and Oscar Wilde's sex life), but he isn't Benji Pell either. For one thing, his interest in Raja's backstory, specifically her mother and grandparent's flight from Nazi Germany in 1937 and their subsequent troubles in Fascist Italy, appears motivated more by a conventional curiosity at the links between life and art rather than a search for titillation. The criticism also ignores that Gatti's case includes, as circumstantial evidence, the stylistic and thematic influence of the East German women writers, notably Christa Wolf, that Raja specialised in as a translator from German to Italian. I've only read one of Ferrante's books to date, The Days of Abandonment, but the connection with East Germany makes a lot of sense, not only in the claustrophobia of the tale (a woman suffering a breakdown following her husband's desertion) but in the almost Lutheran concern with bodily functions (this isn't a Protestant speciality, as Joyce proved, but it is unusual among Italian writers).

Ferrante has certainly been the victim of misogyny, but more in the supposition that an author that good - and she is very good - must be a man (Raja's own husband, the writer Domenico Starnone, has previously been fingered). That she has commanded such attention reflects the resonance of her work with a wide audience, which reminds us that popular success is inimical to anonymity, as Joe Klein found with Primary Colors. Even death is no protection: witness the posthumous controversy over A Woman in Berlin. The media, particularly outside Italy, have made use of Ferrante's anonymity over the years, both as a cute angle on the work and as a story in its own right, which makes their protestations now ring somewhat hollow. It's almost as if Gatti's true crime is to have deprived them of a handy and flexible theme, namely female identity and the compromises it makes with society, leaving only the aridity of the media's traditional approach to literary criticism: who are the characters based on?

Frances Wilson in the TLS makes nods towards misogyny and the moral turpitude of journalism, but can't help avoid making explicit the disappointment of litterateurs: "It was a puzzle we enjoyed, and now Gatti has waded in and spoilt the game" (a game that had long been stale in Italy, where Raja's naming has not come as a surprise). The Daily Mail, true to form, preferred the "damaged female" angle with a report that it is "feared" Ferrante may never publish again. Not wholly dissimilar, Vox first established its zeitgeist credentials by describing the revelation of Ferrante's identity as a "doxxing", but then rather ruined the effect by mangling postmodern theory to suggest that Gatti had "killed" Elena Ferrante in a bid to restore the Author-God, missing the point that the mysterious Ferrante had already achieved apotheosis. Given that all publicity is good publicity, and many will now be tempted to buy Ferrante's books to find out what all the fuss is about, a better response might have been the "good career move" crack said to have been prompted by the death of Elvis.

Ferrante is on record as advocating anonymity as a strategy for heightening appreciation of the text: "What I mean is that removing the author—as understood by the media—from the result of his writing creates a space that wasn’t there before ... 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. Remove that individual from the public eye and ...we discover that the text contains more than we imagine". This doesn't convince. Occluding the author doesn't improve the text, it merely avoids the tedious journalistic enquiries about the equivalence of art and life. For some, "Her anonymity has been a protest against those who can no longer read books as works of fiction". Leaving aside who "those" people are, refusing the celebrity grind strikes me as a rather obscure form of protest at the unwillingness of readers to suspend disbelief.

I find more interesting Ferrante's comment on the two protagonists of her Neapolitan Quartet: "I felt Elena and Lila were alienated from history in all its political, social, economic, cultural aspects—and yet they were part of history in everything they said or did. That alienation-inclusion seemed to lie outside the narrative frame". This suggests that excising the author as a definable character in the mind of the reader is not just a strategy intended to unmoor the work from the writer's own history, but an attempt to engage with Italy's postwar history. This was an era of secrets, conspiracies and hypocrisy; of Operation Gladio and a quintessential politician, Giulio Andreotti, who was believed to be an associate of the Mafia. An irony is that the method by which Raja has been "brought to book", so to speak, namely the diligent analysis of financial records, is the same method that was employed successfully against organised crime and corrupt politicians.

Anonymity avoids the question of what is true but it also removes the need to explain why a particular fiction was invented ("How did your years in Africa inform your decision to write about polar bears?"). It prevents the inconsistencies and contingencies of a real life polluting the art. Some authors try to achieve the same end by fictionalising themselves, to the point that they become the dominant character of their oeuvre, a la Martin Amis. Others drain their public persona of interest, suggesting that they are humdrum mechanics of the written word, despite the evidence of colourful lives, a la Ian McEwan. Ferrante's anonymity has become a work of art in its own right, evidence that a woman can be truly independent. The obloquy poured on Claudio Gatti owes much to the shattering of this illusion. What the international response misses is that her public trajectory, from riddle to revelation, is typically Italian.

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