By revealing the identity of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous author of the Neapolitan quartet of novels, I unleashed an ethical, journalistic and literary uproar.
It has been a saga full of irony and hypocrisy. Starting with the evolution of my relationship with Elena Ferrante.
As a reader and a fan, I was a staunch defender of the literary quality of her books when many in Italy belittled them as "novels for Americans," literary expression of a neo-romantic, postcard vision of Naples.
As a investigative journalist I became interested in her, and as a result of my work for many of her fans I became her most vicious attacker. Because the author’s professed desire to remain anonymous, I was depicted as the prototypical male aggressor who cannot accept “no” for an answer.
What made me look into Ferrante’s identity was the curiosity of many friends in New York who kept asking me if, as an investigative journalist from Italy, I could solve the biggest secret in the contemporary literary world.
I started reading the many interviews the author granted searching for clues about her identity.
In time I became convinced that she could only be one of two people. Anita Raja, a translator from German to Italian for Edizioni e/o, the publishing house that published the Neapolitan novels, was in my opinion the most likely candidate because of the female sensibility in her novels. The other, was her husband, Domenico Starnone, the Neapolitan writer who, in one of his recent novels, “Lacci”, showed similar signs.
After learning that Ferrante had published in Italy an autobiographical essay, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, I scrutinized it as one reads the map in a treasure hunt, underlining and annotating each one of the few details that the author provided about herself and her family.
The book was written after Sandra Ozzola, Ferrante’s publisher, released to the press an open letter to the author, encouraging her to respond to "the healthy desire of your readers to know you better." However, the few personal details given to readers did not fully correspond to either Raja or Starnone.
Only then did I come across a post in Dagospia, the most well-known political and social gossip website in Italy: "In Rome even the stones know that […] Anita Raja is Elena Ferrante”. At that point I realized that there was nothing to be revealed, and no reason for me to deal professionally with Ferrante’s identity. It was already known. Even the Roman stones knew it!
Over the course of the last year, the media frenzy continued, fueled by Edizioni e/o with many interviews by the ''mysterious author".
My journalistic impulse was renewed when I discovered that Edizioni e/o was preparing to ride the wave of interest for the Neapolitan author by deceiving readers with a new edition of the self-proclaimed “self-portrait”, Frantumaglia, both in Italy and in the US.
At that point it was not so much a question for me of unraveling a mystery, but exposing a lie.
For years the publishers denied that Ferrante was either Raja or Starnone, so I knew they would continue to do so. There was only one way to counter that. I needed to find out who benefited from the commercial success of the Quartet; and that person turned out to be Anita Raja.
One of the criticisms against me was that I used techniques that should have been reserved for criminals, corrupt public officials or unethical corporations not a writer. It was portrayed as aggressive journalism. It is a sad commentary on the current social and cultural climate that the Ferrante story engendered such an intense indignation when other articles of mine such as the one where I exposed the people who control the human trafficking from Africa to Europe did not.
Furthermore there is a certain hypocrisy in the publisher keeping alive the sense of mystery through interviews and then through the publication of a false self-portrait while asking that we respect her privacy.
Alessandro Ferri, co-owner of Edizioni e/o called my work “disgusting”, trying to focus the public attention on the fact that, in order to unravel the mystery/lie, I showed how the German translator benefitted from the commercial success of the books. Before publishing my story, however, I presented Edizioni e/o the evidence of significant increases in Raja’s compensation and the purchases on her part of two apartments in Rome and a country home in Tuscany, asking them to finally confirm what the Italian website Dagospia took for granted. They continued to deny that the author was Anita Raja. I then published what I had found, while purposefully omitting monetary figures, addresses and even the name of the Tuscan town.
Identifying the author was not the core of my investigation, as the name Anita Raja would not be a complete revelation. Once I confirmed her identity, I wanted to turn my attention to the literary aspect in order to understand her work better and how her life influenced it. I wanted to "situate" the Ferrante novels and provide context to her writing through her life experiences.
Instead of a Neapolitan seamstress, as claimed in Frantumaglia, Raja’s mother, Goldi Petzenbaum, was a German-born Polish Jew who survived three of the twentieth century greatest tragedies, Nazism, Fascism and the Holocaust. She came out of this as a powerful, independent woman.
And what is the Neapolitan Quartet if not a great female survival story, with the two protagonists, Lenù and Lina, who overcome the great economic, social and cultural challenges of their male-dominated world?