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Joe Klein: Elena Ferrante, the Clintons and the Beauty of Anonymity

4 minute read

It is with great sadness that I must report that one of my favorite novelists, the pseudonymous Italian “Elena Ferrante” has been unmasked—or maybe not. An Italian investigative reporter claims, in the New York Review of Books, that “Ferrante” is actually Anita Raja, an Italian translator. Raja hasn’t confirmed it yet and I hope, for the sake of her characters, that she thinks twice before she does.

I speak from experience. Twenty years ago, I was unmasked as the anonymous author of Primary Colors, a novel inspired by the presidential election of 1992. The circumstances were different: it was assumed that I had used the novel to reveal all sorts of scandalous “facts” about Bill and Hillary Clinton, who inspired the main characters. I hadn’t. There were no revelations; no confidences betrayed. Indeed, I saw the book, in part, as a parody of the fevered media atmosphere that turns rumor into innuendo into truthiness. You may have noticed that there’s a fair amount of that going on in the 2016 presidential campaign. In any case, my anonymity was a scandal in the minds of some because of my subject matter and my day job; Elena Ferrante’s isn’t a scandal at all.

My anonymity was a weird and blessed state. It forced a monkish humility: I couldn’t brag or even talk about having written a fabulously successful book. But there was also a capacious freedom to it: the act of writing anonymously allowed my imagination to roam freely, take risks, have fun. The removal of the author from the public equation allowed readers to judge the book on its own merits—and not on my checkered history with the Clintons. In a 2014 email interview with the New York Times, “Ferrante” acknowledged these freedoms: “What counts most for me is to preserve a creative space that seems full of possibilities, including technical ones,” she wrote. “The structural absence of the author affects the writing in a way that I’d like to continue to explore.”

And she should. Let me be clear: the Italian journalist—who will go unnamed here, just to vex him—had a right to try to unmask Ferrante, but it was a sleazy invasion of her privacy nonetheless. And now, Anita Raja has every right to remain anonymous, if that’s what she chooses to do—although, I must warn her, denial may make her a bigger story. No doubt, it was easier for her to write these intense novels, the story of two young women who rise out of the Naples slums, without having to explain how much of the books were “true,” or whether the extraordinary main characters were inspired by actual people. (But of course, they must have been; most characters in most novels are.) As “Elena Ferrante,” the author never had to deal with literary pundits who may claim that her work is really a “thinly veiled” memoir; now, she may be distracted by people who’ll claim to have been defamed by their depiction in the books.

Of course, if she denies authorship, she will be called a liar, as I was—accused of all sorts of sordid things. And it’s probably true that the horse has now left the barn; Anita Raja’s privacy is shot. But those of us who are fans should not forget the bottom line: “Elena Ferrante” has given us enormous pleasure over the years—and if, in order to perpetuate her passionate brilliance, the author requires the protection of anonymity, she should never acknowledge maternity. The work is the important thing. If losing her anonymity compromises Ferrante’s creative space and jeopardizes our chance to read more of her novels, a terrible wrong will have been done. The fact is, those of us who have read and loved her have known who “Elena Ferrante” was all along. Indeed, we have an intimate relationship. We know her through her words.

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