Italian journalist says he set out to 'uncover a lie' when he unmasked author Elena Ferrante

Italian journalist Claudio Gatti defended his unmasking of the real identity of author Elena Ferrante as the uncovering of a mystery and a lie, but critics see it as sexism while her readers may not even care.

Claudio Gatti takes heat from literary world and Ferrante fans after naming author of Neapolitan novels

Italian financial journalist Claudio Gatti holds up a copy of Elena Ferrante's book Frantumaglia, which comes out in English Nov. 1. Gatti published an article revealing what he suspects is the true identity of the popular author, who has managed to remain known only by her pseudonym since her first novel was published in 1992. (Domenico Stinellis/Associated Press)

For a man who insists he regrets nothing, Claudio Gatti looks about as at ease as someone who woke up with a severed horse head beside him in bed.  

The 61-year-old Italian journalist, who has long specialized in investigating organized crime and international banking corruption, sat shifting restlessly in an armchair in the ground-floor library of Rome's Foreign Press Club last Friday.

Facing him was a small group of journalists there to hear his reasons for revealing the hidden identity of the most famous living Italian writer, Elena Ferrante.

A week earlier, Gatti stepped — or rather stomped — onto the world literary stage, publishing articles in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere that unmasked the true identity of Ferrante.

These accounts weren't the Panama Papers or bungs or bribes or secret payments to secret mistresses.- Jeanette Winterson, author

"When I wrote about her, it wasn't to attack a woman; it was to uncover a mystery and a lie," Gatti said, his voice tight in the throat and arms gesticulating widely. "I said, 'Here are some lies. They can't be true. So I'm going to investigate.'"

Ferrante — as readers now know — is the nom de plume of publicity-shy Rome translator Anita Raja. Her four Neapolitan novels, which chronicle the fierce friendship between two women from Naples, have climbed onto international bestsellers lists and into the hearts of a largely female readership.

The quartet begins with My Brilliant Friend, and is followed by The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of a Lost Child.

In several interviews conducted over email in the last three years, Ferrante defended her right to anonymity, saying it gave her the space she needed to create, freed her of "the self-promotion ­obsessively ­imposed by the media" and that surrendering it would be "very painful."

A young couple share a moment on a street in Naples, Italy. Ferrante is best known in North America for her four-novel Neapolitan series, which tells the stories of two best friends growing up in the southern Italian city. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

Needless to say, her curious, but protective, readers didn't take well to Gatti outing her. Nor did fellow writers.

"These accounts weren't the Panama Papers or bungs or bribes or secret payments to secret mistresses," wrote novelist Jeanette Winterson in The Guardian, the only paper that refused to publish Gatti's scoop, explicitly giving "invasion of privacy" as the reason. "The woman in question wasn't a politician or a Berlusconi-style businessman. She paid her taxes. She wished to live quietly and get on with her work."

Gatti faces charges of sexism

Sexism, pure and simply, Winterson and many others concluded, was what motivated Gatti. Some likened it to stalking, others to sexual violation and others to a long tradition of male reviewers insinuating the accomplished books of female writers must be work of a man.

It's clearly an accusation that gets under Gatti's skin.

"I expected a backlash. What I did not expect were accusations of misogyny," he said, agitatedly, adding that as an editor he's hired female journalists, as if that settled the matter.

He admits he thought there was a 50-50 chance that Ferrante's novels were written by Italian writer Domenico Starnone, Raja's husband. But he says that doubts that a woman could write so well did not drive his investigation.

The cover of the fourth novel in the Neapolitan series, which was known for its gaudy, sentimental covers that critics thought didn't match the quality of the writing inside. (Europa Editions)

What did drive it, he said, were the "lies" found in the book of essays, Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey, soon to be published in English. The book claims to provide readers with some autobiographical details, including scenes from a childhood in Naples in the form of non-fiction articles. Raja was born in Naples but grew up in Rome.

"Not even writers have the right to write lies. This is not about artistic licence," Gatti said.

In Italy, the core font of outrage over Ferrante's outing flows from Rome's small literary circle. Most in that circle already knew who Ferrante was, with several bloggers piecing her identity together, albeit without the financial records that made Gatti's revelation definitive. One blogger, rather hyperbolically, claimed "all the stones in Rome" knew Ferrante was Raja.

Yet beyond the circle of writers and a restricted public of avid readers, most Italians have not even heard of Ferrante. She has been publishing novels since 1992, but her relative success in Italy arrived only after her star rose in North America.

As one Italian friend and Ferrante fan here in Rome put it to me, "Gatti's real faux pas is that he touched a caste that is used to setting its own rules."

Mount Vesuvius is seen in the background of Castel dell'Ovo, one of the defining landmarks of Naples. Ferrante has been writing novels for more than two decades, but it was the Neapolitan quartet that earned her a huge, loyal following around the world. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

Indeed, while readers and fans of the books may have enjoyed the mystery surrounding Ferrante, not knowing her real identity is unlikely to change their experience or opinion of the books themselves.

Some will find the research into Raja's family and past (her mother was a German Jew whose family fled to Italy in 1937) that Gatti supplies "enriching," as Gatti claims; many others won't bother with it.

She was able to use every possible tool that social media provided without paying any price for it.- Claudio Gatti, Italian journalist

Yet despite his repeated insistence that the publisher's lies triggered his "journalist's instincts" to investigate, it is clear the so-called lies were not his only motivation.

Gatti says he sympathizes with Ferrante's desire for privacy, boasting he was one of the first readers to understand she was a "grande" — a major writer.

But he also clearly wanted to make Ferrante pay for her success.

"She was able to use every possible tool that social media provided without paying any price for it. And make money off it, too," Gatti said, more than once during the almost two-hour encounter.

And, well, mission accomplished. Raja will now pay with the loss of her privacy.

Defiant but uncomfortable

If writer Annie Proulx complained of fans hiring planes to fly over her home in rural Wyoming, it doesn't take much imagination to foresee the stream of curious readers seeking out Raja's homes in Rome and Tuscany.

Yet, Raja's life is not the only one altered.

"My wife is worried some crazy fan will do something to me," Gatti said, playing down the concern by saying if he didn't worry about being killed by the mafia, he won't worry now.

Worry, perhaps not.

But despite all his protests that he was just doing his job of uncovering lies, he hardly seems comfortable with the result of this truth.

About the Author

Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Megan Williams is a Canadian foreign correspondent and writer based in Rome. Her radio documentaries and reports from around the world have won many awards. She covers everything from the Vatican, culture and corruption to Italy's ongoing refugee crisis.


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