Who is Italy’s Elena Ferrante? And are we sure we want to know?

Francesca Astorri

Published: Updated:

The question “Who is Elena Ferrante?” is what publishing houses, readers and book lovers are obsessed with recently.

There is a mystery around the identity of the author of the Neapolitan Novels, a 4-book saga that started with ‘My Brilliant Friend’, the best-seller that sold more than 10 million copies in over 40 countries.

The curiosity around the Italian writer’s identity is turning into an unhealthy mania, almost a witch hunt, now that the TV series, based on Ferrante’s book and directed by Saverio Costanzo, was presented this month at Venice Biennale Film Festival.

Two episodes of the TV series produced also by HBO and Rai will go on the big screen this October.

Not showing herself at all might have been detrimental for Ferrante’s career at the beginning when she was not there to present and sign her books, to give interviews, to give speeches at book fairs and literature festivals, but it was rewarding in the end.

The question around her identity is so hot it surely has a monetary value now since Ferrante was listed between the top 100 most influential thinkers by Foreign Policy in 2014 and between the top 100 influent people by the Time in 2016.

Even Hillary Clinton said she was obsessed with Ferrante, finding her books hypnotic.

Then who is Elena Ferrante?

We don’t even know if Elena Ferrante is a she or a he, since both things were argued and denied, but we will refer to Ferrante as a she since Elena is a woman name.

Goffredo Fofi, Mario Martone, Domenico Starnone, Marcella Marmo, Anita Raja, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola are just some of the names that have been raised when it comes to attributing a name and a face to Elena Ferrante. These tend to be speculations more than revelation. Some of them have now started presenting themselves as “I am not Elena Ferrante”.

The way she describes Naples and the outskirts of the city in her books makes one believe she was raised there. But that’s all we can deduce.

If now many are focusing on finding traces that could reveal her identity, the most interesting question is where her success comes from.

She kept readers entertained and amused with her books that followed during the years the ambivalent friendship between two girls in the south of Italy, and she is now writing her thoughts for the Guardian on a weekly basis.

If her books attracted readers for the stories she was telling and for way she was telling them, her columns in the Guardian seems to satisfy more the audience’s curiosity about herself, by telling small details yet almost revealing peculiarities about herself.

Her writing, simple but not banal, has been defined as a writing that is good for people that don’t read. Not really a compliment, but maybe that’s also how she managed to reach such a vast crowd of readers around the world.

The topic she chose, a friendship between two girls set with Naples in the background, can easily intrigue for being local and universal at the same time, triggering a mix of fascination and self-identification.

The real question then is not “Who is Elena Ferrante?” but “Why do we want to know it so badly?”. In the end, the moment she reveals her identity, her readers are only going to lose something.

Her writings will remain the same, but readers won’t help being affected somehow by the information they will receive about who Ferrante is. And there are little chances that, whoever she is, it’s going to be as familiar and charming as what they imagine.