I remember asking my dad one day whether he’d prefer to rich or to be famous. He replied without a moment’s hesitation: “rich”. Then he stopped to think for a moment and added, “But only if nobody knew I was.”
The favouring of wealth over fame is not something that surprised me; my family are, for the most part, a host of bookish introverts. What gave me cause to reflect was the idea that being QUIETLY rich trumped everything. No expectations, no falsity, no unwarranted attention, just a life of ease to be spent exactly as you wish.
Which is why for a quick moment we should all bask in our envy towards the writer Elena Ferrante, who penned a 4-book best-selling series over the last 5 years whilst refusing to divulge her real identity, thus living the dream of undercover wealth. That is, until the reporter Claudio Gatti rummaged through her tax records and recently revealed her to be Anita Raja, small time German/Italian translator.
For those of you who are behind the times vis-à-vis the scandal that is currently dominating the literary headlines, Elena Farrente’s quadrilogy, dubbed the ‘Neapolitan Quartet’ has achieved enormous success after being sold in more than forty countries, including about one million books in Italy and 2.6 million books in the English-language market. I personally have had this series recommended to me 3 times by 3 different people, most recently my boyfriend’s mother just two weeks ago. I can imagine our conversation would go a little differently now.
Despite Ferrante/Raja’s best efforts to keep her real name under wraps, it’s the money that finally gave her away. Although the whole idea of searching people’s tax records for information is, on principle, abhorrent, let’s not pretend that the trail was likely not easy to detect. A smallish Italian publishing house’s profits catapult from just over 1 million euros per annum to over 7 million, thanks in large part to the success of the Neapolitan Quartet. In the meantime, over that same period, one employee who deals primarily with German translation starts to earn millions for the kind of work that most people do for pittance. Assuming that Raja’s translations aren’t so outrageously good to be warranting that kind of money, it must have been easy as anything for Claudio Gatti to call her out.
Raja has every right to complain. She made a professional choice in her own interest and an outrageous invasion of privacy has now deprived her of the privilege of relaxing in her own anonymity. We don’t know what this woman is like; perhaps she’s shy, perhaps she agonises over negative criticism, or maybe she has unpleasant family members who might bristle at the thought of her concealed financial gains and suddenly start popping over a little too often.
Equally possible is that she may have just preferred not to bother with the fame thing and I don’t think anyone could argue with the motives behind that. It is a common opinion that the culture of social media has turned fame into something time-consuming, demeaning and, paradoxically, more tantalising than ever. Ironically, pseudonyms have played a big part in the growing ferocity of online personas, with people unashamedly lashing out from behind their own digital masks. And let’s not forget that Ferrante had already managed to achieve a certain status as a writer without an exhausting publicity push. (The enigmatic nature of her writing seemed only to enhance her reputation, in fact.) It would, therefore, be a waste of time and effort for Ferrante to dabble in such things.
So it’s a shame that this grace period has come to an end for her, but come on everybody, let’s not get too indignant on her behalf. The unveiling of her true name and identity is by no means going to ruin Anita Raja, nor will it spark the demise of her creative efforts.
Because, whilst it’s true that there are huge benefits- both practical and emotional- to shielding yourself behind a penname for years on end, money alone was always unlikely to have served as valid recognition for very long. Call me a cynic, but I would bet any money that Ferrante had every intention of revealing herself to the public and receiving the attention she so rightly deserves in due time.
There are very few writers who are willing to create such extensive worlds of fiction without acknowledgement. Writers, for the most part, are creating things in order that others might read them; Anita Raja is no exception to this. Yes, Claudio Gatti invaded her privacy and yes, he took away her say in the matter, but… what’s the worst that will happen, really? Once the hype dies down, she’ll probably be pressured into doing readings or to attend important literary events. From time to time, somebody may recognise her and tell her how much they love her work… Am I the only one who thinks that this sounds like a pretty sweet deal?