Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Ferrante Roundtable at Rutgers

On March 28 I had the opportunity to participate in a roundtable sponsosred by Rutgers Italian Graduate society. I learned a lot from the other panelists and from the graduate students, and especially enjoyed meeting the graduate students. Each panelist saw Ferrante through her own lens. One panelist focused on architectural history as a window into Ferrante. I found this a little strange but she probably saw my insistence of the Neapolitan novels as political novels as a misguided interpretation.

To my surprise, despite evidence mounting over the years that Domenico Starnone was one of the writers behind the pseudonym of Elena Ferrante, one panelist claimed that anyone who thought the translator Anita Raja was writing in collaboration with her husband Domenico Starnone was guilty of sexism. By that definition, I would be a sexist.

Surely, there are reasons other than sexism for coming to the conclusion that Starnone was involved in writing the books attributed to Ferrante. This reminded me of the kinds of rhetoric all too common in political circles—inflammatory charges made without any consideration of the evidence. And the evidence is compelling.

When I first encountered Ferrante, I was one of the people convinced that Ferrante's novels 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 claim 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.

Not only did 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, but the three of Starnone’s novels that have been translated into English provide considerable support for Starnone’s role. (See chapter 2 of my book In Search of Elena Ferrante for my argument s regarding Starnone’s authorship and the really interesting questions it raises about gender and authorship.)

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

Given the evidence suggesting that Starnone had a role in the works attributed to Ferrante, I cannot help but wonder what makes people (including highly educated academics) stubbornly cling to their positions and refuse to consider evidence that might undermine their beliefs. This is not so different from what is happening now in the political arena where often evidence counts for very little and impassioned belief trumps all.

I asked a friend, a professor of European history and culture if she could explain the panelists’ refusal to consider possibilities other than sole authorship by a woman writer. My friend’s response—“probably a simplistic form of feminism."That would be ironic because feminist theory has moved far beyond a binary approach to gender and acknowledges gender fluidity. Ferrante herself in her many interviews, returns again and again to the idea of collaborative authorship and the belief that “a good writer—male or female—can imitate the two sexes with equal effectiveness. There are allusions to both gender bending and collaborative authorship scattered throughout Ferrante’s work, almost as if she is providing clues to the authorship of her novels—similar to the many clues embedded in Starnone’s works.

Ferrante’s publishers may fear that if a male author is acknowledged as the co-author of Ferrante’s books, many of Ferrante’s readers will be disappointed, may feel deceived and book sales will plummet. My guess is that many readers will be intrigued by the collaboration of a man and woman on books that so powerfully explore gender roles. Many second wave feminists have (in some cases reluctantly) moved beyond the idea that there is an authentic female voice that can be recognized as such. Queer theory and intersectional feminism have emphasized the fluidity of gender and undermined the notion of a stable female identity.

Perhaps Starnone and Raja are uncomfortable about what might be viewed as a web of lies rather than the artful creation of the literary person of Elena Ferrante. Or perhaps they worry that interest in their dual authorship would in some way detract from serious interest in the texts. However, since thanks to Gatti’s investigations and the text analysis software identifying Starnone as the likely co-author, there seems to be little to be gained from denying what is widely known. And readers would certainly benefit from the translations of Starnone’s works, which might follow from acknowledging his role in the creation of the Neapolitan Quartet.

The impassioned denial that a man could have any role in the creation of Ferrante’s novels is just no longer tenable.

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