Exposure of 'Real' Elena Ferrante Shakes Up Literary World

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Women in Napoli, Italy, 1955.
Women in Napoli, Italy, 1955.Credit: Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Has one of the biggest mysteries in contemporary literature finally been solved? On Sunday, as Israelis prepared for Rosh Hashanah, the French investigative website Mediapart published a scoop that rocked the literary world: The famous Italian author writing under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante is a translator (German to Italian) and editor named Anita Raja, wife of an author named Domenico Starnone. She worked for the publishing house Edizioni, which also publishes Ferrante’s books. In 2016, Time named Ferrante, author among other things of the four-volume “Neapolitan Novels,” one of the 100 most influential people on the planet.

Raja had never been suspected of being Ferrente before, nor has anybody proven the claim to be true. The allegation was made by an Italian journalist, Claudio Gatti, after months of ferreting, based less on analysis of language use and more on cross-checking money transfers, tax payments and land registries. Raja earned much more from Edizione than she could have for translation and editing, certainly compared with other employees, and the amounts corresponded to the dates of publication of translated Ferrante books in Europe and the United States.

Gatti also showed that shortly after Ferrante’s books were published in Europe and the U.S., Raja or Starnone bought homes in Rome and Toscana.

In an email interview with Haaretz last December, Ferrante wrote, “Everything that can rightfully be invaded are my books. There, inside the cover, you find me as an author with a first name and surname It’s not my pen name that creates interest in my books, but my books that create interest in my pen name. My private life is completely separate from my public presence in the books. No one can invade it.”

Practically since she began writing in the early 1990s, and certainly since she achieved the rank of most popular contemporary female Italian writer, the literary world has been obsessing over Ferrante’s true identity. Two years ago The Guardian called her identity the biggest literary mystery today. Theories abounded: Some thought her a Neapolitan woman who married and divorced a non-Italian man, some assumed she is in her 70s, others that she is an academic living in northern Italy.

Her books ostensibly contained some clues. Her first, Troubling Love was published in Italy in 1992 and dealt with the troubled relations a between a daughter and mother who drowned to death in her 40s. The Days of Abandonment, published in 2002, was about Olga, whose husband abandoned her after eating dinner in the house one day while the children played in the other room. The Lost Daughter talks about a girl born in Naples who lives in Florence and finally feels happiness after her daughters move to live with their father in Canada.

Anita Raja – the real Elena Ferrante, or not? Credit: YouTube

My Brilliant Friend is the first of the Neapolitan tetralogy, about the friendship of Elena and Lila from childhood to age 66. Friends and rivals, both grew up in the same impoverished, violent neighborhood at a time that women, even the most scintillating, were not given education or considered responsible for their fate, and were vulnerable to the brutality of the men around them.

The Neapolitan tetralogy, an epic spanning four books that encompasses themes and abilities that appeared in her previous books, is widely felt to be Ferrante’s finest literary endeavor. She writes without mercy or finessing about “female” subjects – friendship between women, becoming a wife (or mother) in the turbulent, Mafia-ridden areas of Napoli and the Italian south, in an era of social and political change.

Escape from Germany

“A story succeeds if it is able to establish its own autonomy, if it is able to affect even my beliefs, as its author,” she told Haaretz last year. “A story is not a manifesto; it’s an attempt to translate the inherent disorder of the human experience into words.”

The ties between Raja, who lives in Rome with her husband – who had also been suspected of being the mysterious Ferrante – and Naples, are rather tenuous. But as Gatti reported, her mother’s family story is heartrending, and begs the thought that the tendency to look bleak reality and tragedy in the eye, especially as it pertains to women, originates there.

Raja’s Jewish mother, red-headed blue-eyed Golda “Goldi” Frieda Petzenbaum, was born in Germany in 1927. The mother’s parents, Sally Regina and Abraham Wrumek,fled Poland because of the anti-Semitism – to Germany, but in 1937, as life for Jews in Germany became intolerable, they decamped to Milan. Fascism and anti-Semitic laws however dogged their heels: In September 1938, Mussolini declared his race laws, and two years later, in June 1940, some days after Italy had officially joined World War II, the military announced a warrant for all foreign Jews. Goldi and her mother were detained in one camp, in an isolated village called Spezzano in Italy’s south. The father was sent to a concentration camp for men.

A customer holds a book by Elena Ferrante in a bookstore in Rome on October 4, 2016. Credit: AFP / Gabriel Bouys

Goldi managed to escape Spezzano, fleeing to Milan with a family friend, and hid until November 1943, when the friend, her mother and Goldi fled onward to Switzerland. Finally the family reunited and moved to Naples, where Goldi finished high school and married Renato Raja, a judge. Their daughter Anita was born in 1953.

In contrast to her intensely Neapolitan characters, Raja’s personal history with the city is short. The family left Naples for Rome when she was 3. Yet neither Rome nor her Jewish history mark Ferrante’s books, and while still maintaining anonymity, “Ferrante” claimed in interviews and the like to have grown up in Naples, in poverty, as the daughter of a seamstress.

Homes in Rome and Tuscany

“The most urgent question for a writer may seem to be ‘What experiences do I have as my material, what experiences do I feel able to narrate?’ But that’s not right,” she said in an interview with the Paris Review. “The more pressing question is ‘What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know?’ Without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing comes out alive and true. It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, ‘These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred.”

In 2000, when Ferrante’s book Troubling Love was made into a movie, Raja bought a seven-room apartment in an expensive Roman neighborhood and a year later, she bought a house in rural Tuscany. More property was bought with the success of the Neapolitan tetrology, starting in 2014. In June this year another luxury apartment was bought in Rome, in Starnone’s name.

Raja meanwhile denies being the author and since Gatti’s thunderous expose, a counterattack has begun. One Roman paper wondered at Gatti’s priorities and wrote that perhaps he had pursued his aim with “fury that was worthy of a better cause .”

“Stop the siege of Elena Ferrante. She is not a criminal,” said Sandra Ozzola Ferri, Ferrante’s publisher, who also accused Gatti of indulging in gutter press. The British writer Jojo Moyes tweeted that she and Ferrante owe nobody “nothing but our books.”

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