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Unmasking Elena Ferrante diminishes her radiant magic

  • 06 October 2016


I went to a conference on the work of a Nobel Prize-winning author. The Nobel Prize-winning author was in attendance. The Nobel Prize-winning author is my favourite author, I think, and because of this it is not my first time seeing him in fleshtime.

In other flesh encounters, the Nobel Prize-winning author has somehow remained impervious to the scrappiness of my charms. So out on the terrace one evening I told the Nobel Prize-winning author that his work meant something to me, something else. He was gracious, gave a shy smile. I said I was quite grateful that his work had made possible what it has made possible for me, intellectually speaking.

I took a cube of cantaloupe from the catering table and walked away. Feeling foolish, maybe, but also like a well behaved child deserving of a pat on the head.

Later in the week: a white-haired (male) academic holds court with his (female) peers and tells tales from the field, tales of his 'sleuthing' around in the historical matter of the Nobel Prize-winning author's life. Amazingly, it turns out, the Nobel Prize-winning author has included some details from urban life in his city in his novels: some place names, some references.

To me this seems rudimentary. Even Shakespeare's works are 'not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures' says Virginia Woolf, in my head. To me this seems borderline offensive — give the man some privacy! — though I can't identify exactly why this should offend me.

'So, you're a fan,' says one of the (female) peers, meaning, it is fans who are obsessed with the paratext. This goes over his head, or under it. He is not a fan. He is a white-haired academic.


"On the night of the fancy dinner I wear an outfit that makes my décolletage pop. As I walk by him I notice the old man notice me. A feeling of immense power washes over me."


Happily, I do not know who the 'real' Elena Ferrante is. Happily, I have blocked my eyes and ears to the unfolding, the unmasking of the Italian author whose anonymity allowed her the freedom from scrutiny to give us seven (currently in translation, though there are others, too) novels that document the slow burn indignities of poverty and sexism and ambition.

How can we accept this gift, a woman writing about the most abject of female pleasures, the darkest impulses, and then demand that she answer inane questions