Radhika Gulab writes on anonymity being an act of defiance and how Claudio Gatti is responsible for the death of the beloved author in his mean spirited attempt to assert masculine power.
The last couple of weeks saw bibliophiles struggle with two very distressing pieces of news from the literary world. First, the release of Chetan Bhagat’s latest pile of bilge and further testimony to his relentless commitment to mind-numbing mediocrity and inanity and second, and way, way more importantly, the unveiling of the real identity of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, the author of the much-loved and wildly popular Neapolitan Novels.
The second news is what shattered me on a very elemental level. And shattered is not a word I use lightly, or often.
Writer after prolific writer has censured, admonished and severely berated Claudio Gatti, the investigative journalist who believes he was only doing his job by answering the world’s most pressing concern about Italy—who the hell is the real Elena Ferrante?
For once, the literary world is mostly unanimous in its belief that outing a writer who has unequivocally demanded that she be left alone to do her writing away from the prying eyes of the world, is amongst the worst crimes against literature that can be committed.
Every news outlet worth its salt expostulated about how uncovering the identity of an author, a female author, who insists on anonymity as being a pre-condition for her continued writing, as proof of the phallocratic forces that manoeuvre and manipulate the literary world even today.
All these arguments and opinions hold merit. How could they not, when literary luminaries with frightfully intelligent books and careers behind them are the ones articulating them?
What difference does Elena Ferrante’s real identity make to me, a nobody writer, sitting thousands of miles away in India, with several decades separating our experiences and preoccupations?
My disappointments are personal. The thing is, Elena Ferrante is my hero.
Not just for the fierce feminism that underpins her narrative. Not also for the fact that she could sustain delicately layered characters for a quartet, without losing steam and resorting to tired clichés. Not even because she is among the few women writers who stood their ground and refused to cave in when the world demanded she owed her identity to her fans. Gatti, after all, is not the first person to attempt to drag her out of the shadows she’s chosen for herself.
I think of her as my hero in much the same way as a recovering crack addict looks up to their sponsor—a guiding light to draw strength from when the night is long and lonely, and the temptation, strong. It helps to know, that it is possible to achieve mastery over one’s deepest, darkest desires, to recognise that even when the battle is with your own self, all is not lost.
Writers who seek the solitude of anonymity are not dissimilar.
Recognition is a filthy, demanding, but ultimately seductive mistress. Desire for it can consume you whole, make you do things the uncompromised version of you would never permit.
In a world where you’re one viral buzzfeed article, or infinitely worse, a few well-timed tweets away from landing a book deal, being anointed a social influencer or creating a Kim Kardashian-esque brand of yourself, choosing to be anonymous is an act of defiance, of bravery. It requires a discipline and a slow-burning madness that only a lucky few possess to be able to make this choice, day after day, every day.
I know, because I’ve often tried and failed miserably more times than I can remember.
Most of what I write is under assumed identities, or at least, I try to keep it that way. I don’t always succeed. Some days, all it takes is an ego-stoking email from a fan for me to step out of the curtains. On those days, I’m filled with self-loathing so intense, it is a physical ache in the gut. Because even as one half of me basks in the glory of adulation and envy, the other half cringes with shame, unable to deny that in the end, my words weren’t enough, that my need for validation was greater than my regard for them. That ultimately, I caved.
Writing is an insular, solitary, often obsessive compulsion. Choosing to shut yourself away from the limelight is, at once, the most selfish and selfless thing a writer can do. By allowing your characters and words, once they’ve escaped the prison of your thoughts, to roam free in the universe and find their own secret paths and delightful trajectories. To learn to cherish the hearts they’re meant to touch and respect those that will stay coldly closed to them. To allow them the liberty to fail miserably or achieve spectacular success. Unencumbered by the baggage of your own personal history, expectations and beliefs, and to resist the temptation to defend or shield them is a writer’s greatest victory and most painful punishment.
To free yourself from the pigeonholes your words force you into, to not have to play to the gallery of your own words. To give yourself the freedom to be a different person from one way to the next, one character to the next, one book to the next. To truly be able to live in the here and now and immerse yourself completely in the world you’re currently painting, without owing any explanations or allegiance to all those who inhabited the previous ones, is a writer’s greatest freedom and coldest cruelty.
Ferrante is more than a beloved writer, she is my template, one that’s now been shattered.
She taught me that it is possible for a writer to create a world where there’s no place for herself. She taught me it was possible to be both, a parent and a stranger to your characters. That there was a kind of sadistic pleasure to be had from being so unnecessary. To find peace in this never-ending dance of marriage and divorce with your own person.
If she’d chosen to come out and own her legacy, it would have been the end of something precious, but at least one could have found solace in the knowledge that the decision had been made by its rightful owner.
This premature and forced delivery of a secret that was only hers to share seems almost vindictive in its intent.
This isn’t investigative journalism, it is power play, an act of asserting one’s dominance with a smug reminder of who’s the boss. It is mean-spirited and deplorable, and no true lover of books would dream of demolishing a writer’s world with such calculation.
Elena once said that she will stop writing the day her identity is known, that privacy was a non-negotiable part of her artistic statement. I half wish she would, as frightening as that prospect is. It doesn’t matter who the real Elena Ferrante is, as far as I’m concerned, she’s dead. Claudio Gatti killed her the moment he decided it was his lot to dismantle her existence.