The Big Read: Unmasking an act of cruelty

07 October 2016 - 10:15 By Darrel Bristow-Bovey


If you don't know who Elena Ferrante is, being told that her name isn't Elena Ferrante but actually some other Italian name won't clarify anything for you. Even if you do know who Elena Ferrante is - and I hope you do, or you really are missing out - being told her real identity won't bring you one step closer to her.This week a loathsome Italian journalist (whose name I will not write because he so obviously wants his name to be written) proudly announced the results of his lengthy forensic investigation into the true identity of the author of a sequence of four books known as the Neapolitan Novels. The author's name on the jacket is Elena Ferrante, but it's a pseudonym. This isn't a publicity wheeze or a marketing trick; there's no translucent veil, no leaked stories to tabloids, no gossipy tidbits or Banksyish flirting with fame. She's not arriving at book launches with an eye-holed pillowcase over her head or making surprise appearances on stage at U2 concerts. She is perfectly clear that her anonymity is to protect her writing from herself.Reading the first book of the series was an experience that I haven't had since I was a much younger reader: astonished infatuation suddenly and violently giving way to the complicated, contradictory vertigos of love, the urge to read faster, to lie here all day and draw the curtains on the world and live happily and hungrily and entirely in her words and her distant Naples; the panicky realisation that this cannot last, that each page you read is one closer to the end; the premature desolation (barely a quarter of the way into book 1!) at the thought of a world without more new Ferrante to read.I managed to hold myself back. I'm reading them at a rate of one a year. I'm hoping that when I finish the last one I'll be struck on the head by a swinging iron girder and develop amnesia and be able to read them all again for the first time.When I wrote my very first column for a Sunday newspaper, the editor asked me to provide a photograph for the byline. I tried to refuse. I'd like to say that I was motivated by pure thoughts and artistic integrity, but actually it was because I didn't want anyone to know how young I was. Oh, I was very young, and I looked even younger, but I was given to delivering judgments with a tone of authority, as though I knew what I was talking about, and I figured if people could see what a clueless young cuss they were reading, they'd be less likely to agree, and considerably more likely to want to give me a damn good hiding.But the editor insisted. We want the readers to have a relationship with you, he said, and I understand that, but a part of me has always regretted it, because when you become even a partially public figure the biggest relationship that's formed isn't the public with you, it's you with yourself.You start to take things personally. If people like something you've written, it's because you're brilliant and talented. If they don't like the next thing you write it's because you're worthless and always have been, and now everyone's finding out.When you sit down to write, it's no longer the writing that you think about first, it's whatever fraught struggles you have with feeling adequate or being accepted or hiding your vulnerability. Different personalities respond to this in different ways. Some strain pitiably to be liked; others try to insulate themselves from the potential pain of not being liked by being abrasive or "provocative" or "controversial". Whatever your survival strategy, your writing becomes attached to your ego, and whatever ego is good for, it is no good for creativity or play or putting yourself at risk.When Elena Ferrante refused to write under her real name, refused to promote her books or participate in the glittering trap of publicness, of publicity, she was offering her writing self the gift of freedom from the self that is afraid and protects and measures itself. In a world in which cultural value now adheres to the shallowest markers of identity, to faces and names and worst of all, "brands", she offered the rest of us a gift infinitely finer and more precious than we are likely to see again.When some investigative paparazzo decided that his right to show his cleverness outweighed her right to protect the most delicate part of her, he stole something irreplaceable. A housebreaker, a violator, a vulgarian with fingers like hammers and crowbars, compelled to break what it cannot understand, he stole something most beautiful from all of us.

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