Monday, February 25, 2019

Rachel Donadio's search for Elena Ferrante leads to Autobiografia Erotica di Aristide Gambía

Rachel Donadio nails it. In a recent Atlantic article, she provides convincing evidence for Domenico’s involvement in the works attributed to Elena Ferrante but goes beyond identifying Starnone as co-author to explore questions about the nature of authorship and commonly held assumptions about gender and literature.

When I first read Ferrante's novels, I was convinced they were written by a woman. There were just too many intimate details of life in a female body. However, after Claudio Gatti’s well-documented revelation that Ferrante was Anita Raja, possibly working in collaboration with her husband Domenico Starnone, I could no longer ignore the mounting evidence that Starnone was involved in the creation of works attributed to Ferrante. Four groups of analysts using different text analysis programs independently came to the same conclusion that Starnone was in all likelihood the principal author of Ferrante’s novels. Furthermore, references to collaborative authorship abound in the Neapolitan Quartet and in Ferrante’s many interviews collected in Frantumaglia.

When writing my book, In Search of Elena Ferrante, I turned to Starnone’s novels for further clues as to his contribution to Ferrante’s novels; however, unlike Donadio I was limited to those books translated into English. I found many stylistic and thematic similarities to Ferrante. First Execution ,like the Neapolitan novels, explores the ethical implications of political violence. Starnone’s Ties is strikingly similar to Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment; both novels begin with a man abandoning his wife and children for a much younger woman, leaving his wife distraught, angry and unwilling to accept her husband’s betrayal.

Starnone's Trick has thematic similarities to Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Like Elena Greco, Daniele Mallarico, the narrator of Trick, longed to escape Naples and his difficult family; like Elena, through education and talent he managed to do so. Several of the details of working class life recalled by Mallarico in Trick are reminiscent of descriptions of Elena’s family dealing with the difficulties of a large family living in a relatively small space. Elena at times speculates on what she might have become if she hadn’t had the strength to leave Naples, and what the far more talented Lila might have become if her family, like Elena’s, had allowed her to continue her education. Similarly, the elderly artist in Trick becomes obsessed with the roads not taken.

These similarities between Starnone’s works and those attributed to Ferrante strengthened the case for his co-authorship. However, I believed that if I could read Starnone’s novels which had not been translated into English, I would have an even stronger case.

My hunch was confirmed when I read Rachel Donadio’s article. She analyzed Starnone’s 2011 novel Autobiografia Erotica di Aristide Gambía published the same year that My Brilliant Friend appeared in Italian. Donadio describes it as a “dizzying meditation on whether men can convincingly write about women and women about men." “Elena Ferrante” actually appears as a character in Autobiografia Erotica and the narrator Aristide Gambía decides he no longer wants to write about aging men: instead he will explore women’s lives, and “the battle … to become a new woman.”

I found Donadio’s analysis somewhat hard to follow but that may be a reflection on her source—she describes the novel as “Starnone at his most intricately metafictional… about as easy to summarize as an M. C. Escher print is to describe.”

Both in Autobiografia Erotica as in his novels Trick and Ties, Starnone leaves many clues about his relationship to the fictional Elena Ferrante. It certainly seems like he wants to be found out. The decision to publish under the pseudonym of Elena Ferrante was made over two decades ago, before Ferrante became an international sensation. Could Starnone at this point in his life want recognition for his contribution towards the creation of the fictional character Elena Ferrante and her powerful novels? Starnone has apparently published fourteen works of fiction, eleven of which have not been translated into English, and which I would very much like to read. If Starnone were publicly identified as the co-author of the Neapolitan Quartet, I expect some of these books would be translated and made available to the English speaking reader.

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