• Print

Elena Ferrante: An Answer?

A Note to Readers: In response to many queries and comments, we want to make it clear that the two-part investigation of Elena Ferrante by Claudio Gatti was undertaken on behalf of Mr. Gatti’s Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. After the Il Sole investigation was completed and definitely scheduled to appear on October 2 in Il Sole as well as in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and on the French website Mediapart, an English version of both articles was offered to the NYR Daily for publication on the same day. We regret any confusion about the origins of the Il Sole investigation and publication.

Readers may be interested in two extensive discussions of Elena Ferrante’s work in The New York Review, by Rachel Donadio and by Roger Cohen, in December 2014 and in May 2016.

—The Editors, October 10, 2016


Gulf of Naples, Italy, 2004
Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos
Southern Italian coast, 2004

Ever since the first novel by Elena Ferrante was published in Italy in 1992, and especially since the sensational success of the four novels that make up the Neapolitan quartet (2011-2014), there has been much speculation about the writer’s identity. Until now, there were never any photos and almost nothing has been known about her. Yet she has been an oddly public figure in recent years, granting numerous interviews through her small Rome-based publisher, Edizione e/o, and gathering together a volume purporting in part to outline her family background, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, which will be published in the United States on November 1.

But after a months-long investigation it is now possible to make a powerful case for Ferrante’s true identity. Far from the daughter of a Neapolitan seamstress described in Frantumaglia, new revelations from real estate and financial records point to Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator whose German-born mother fled the Holocaust and later married a Neapolitan magistrate.

Raja, who is married to the Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone, is known to have had a relationship with Ferrante’s publishing house for many years as a translator of German literature. For a brief period she was also the coordinator of Collana degli Azzurri, a short-lived imprint of Italian writers at Edizione e/o that, according to a spokesperson for the publisher, released a total of “three or four books, including Ferrante’s first novel,” in the 1990s.

The spokesperson described Raja’s work as that of a simple freelance translator and said she was “absolutely not” an employee. Yet payments to her from the publishing house have increased dramatically in recent years and appear to make her the overwhelming beneficiary of Ferrante’s success—first in Italy and then internationally.

Public real estate records show that in 2000, after Ferrante’s first book was turned into a successful movie in Italy, Raja acquired in her own name a seven-room apartment near Villa Torlonia, an expensive area of Rome; the following year she bought a country home in Tuscany.

But the real commercial success of the Ferrante novels began in 2014 and 2015, when they conquered the international market. According to her publisher, her books have now been sold in more than forty countries, including about one million books in Italy and 2.6 million books in the English-language market (of which 1.6 million have sold in the US and Canada and 600,000 in the UK). The German translation of Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend has sold 250,000 copies since its release five weeks ago.

Records show that in June 2016 Raja’s husband, Domenico Starnone, bought an apartment in Rome, less than a mile away from the one registered under his wife’s name. It is a 2,500 square foot, eleven-room apartment on the top floor of an elegant pre-war building in one of the most beautiful streets of Rome, also near Villa Torlonia, with a value estimated between $1.5 and $2 million.

In Italy, an apartment can be registered under the sole name of one member of a married couple regardless of whether the money comes from that person or his or her spouse. As a tax lawyer explained to me, in the case of Starnone and Raja, the couple could have significant tax advantages by registering under his name: when a married couple owns two apartments it is common to register each apartment to a different spouse, because the “first residence” of any given owner is taxed at a much lower rate than the second one.

Anita Raja, November 25, 2015
Anita Raja, November 25, 2015

Even more significant is the pattern of payments from Edizione e/o to Raja in the years since Ferrante’s books reached the international market. Edizioni e/o’s annual revenues for 2014 were €3,087,314, a 65 percent increase from the previous year. In 2015, revenues went up another 150 percent, reaching €7,615,203. These extraordinary increases appear to be a direct result of Ferrante’s sales; the publisher had no other comparable bestsellers during these years. The growth in the publisher’s revenues are also closely paralleled in the growth of Raja’s own payments from Edizioni e/o over the same period, which I obtained from an anonymous source. In 2014, Raja’s compensation increased by almost 50 percent, and in 2015 it grew again by more than 150 percent, reaching an amount that was about seven times what she received in 2010, when the market for Ferrante’s books was still confined to Italy.

In the records I obtained, no other of the publishing house’s executives, staff, writers, and freelance contributors are shown as receiving such generous compensation in 2014 and 2015, and Raja alone received vast increases in pay in those years, the most recent on record. Domenico Starnone, in particular, who has published his own novels with other publishing houses, did not receive any large payment from Edizioni e/o in these years.

Raja’s work as a translator—a notoriously poorly paid occupation—can hardly account for her anomalously large income. In fact, the payments appear to correspond to the royalties the Ferrante books would have earned in those years.

Neither Raja nor Starnone responded to repeated requests for comment, including detailed cell-phone messages describing my findings that were left with Starnone and with Raja’s brother. Sandra Ozzola and Sandro Ferri, the co-owners of Edizioni e/o, also declined to confirm or deny the findings. Reached by telephone on Friday, Ferri said, “If this is an article that intends to make revelations about Ferrante’s identity, I’m telling you right now that we will not give answers.” He added that such an article was an “invasion of privacy, ours and Ferrante’s.” When I then provided the details of my findings to a spokesperson for Edizioni e/o, I was told that the publishers’ position regarding “hypotheses about Ferrante’s identity” hasn’t changed.

The financial data not only suggest a solution to the long-running puzzle about the real Elena Ferrante but also assist us in gaining insight into her novels. For twenty-four years, Ferrante has managed to remain hidden behind a pen name apparently chosen to echo that of another great Italian writer, Elsa Morante. (Ferrante refers on multiple occasions to the work of Morante in the writings and interviews collected in Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey.) Edizioni e/o has long contributed to the mystery, arranging anonymous interviews with the author and encouraging her to write Frantumaglia, a version of which was first published in Italy in 2003.

In a letter written to Ferrante on July 3, 2003 that is included in Frantumaglia, Sandra Ozzola, the co-owner of Ferrante’s Italian publisher, told the writer that the curiosity of her readers deserved “a more general response, beyond the newspaper interviews, not only to placate those who get lost in the most far-fetched hypotheses on your real identity, but also out of a healthy desire on the part of your readers…to know you better.”

These words led to Frantumaglia—literally, a “jumble of fragments”—which gathers together a collection of letters, interviews, and autobiographical writing that is Ferrante’s only work of ostensible non-fiction. According to the book, which has been updated with new interviews for the American edition that will be released in November, the writer has three sisters and her mother was a Neapolitan seamstress who tended to express herself “in her dialect.” Ferrante, in this account, lived in Naples until she “ran away,” having found work elsewhere. These crumbs of information seemed designed to satisfy her readers’ appetite for a personal story that might relate to the Neapolitan setting of the novels themselves.

None of the details corresponds to the life and background of Anita Raja. Like the mother of Elsa Morante, Raja’s mother was a teacher, not a seamstress, and she wasn’t Neapolitan. She was born in Worms, Germany, into a family of Polish Jews who emigrated from Wadowice, a town west of Krakow. She spoke Italian with a strong German accent. Raja has no sisters, only a younger brother, and although she was born in Naples, she moved to Rome with her family at the age of three and has lived there ever since. (See the accompanying article on Raja’s family history.)

In fact, in a letter included in Frantumaglia, Ferrante warns her publisher that she will not tell the truth about herself, writing “I don’t at all hate lies, in life I find them useful and I resort to them when necessary to shield my person, feelings, pressures.” And when Ferrante is asked to describe herself in a 2003 interview republished in the book, she offers Italo Calvino as a precedent for her evasions:

Italo Calvino, who, convinced that only the works of an author count, in 1964 wrote to a scholar of his books: “Ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth, of that you can be sure.” I’ve always liked that passage, and I’ve made it at least partly mine.

But by announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown. Indeed, she and her publisher seemed to have fed public interest in her true identity.

Until now, the search has been undertaken by literary critics, who sought to use philological techniques and stylistic analysis to compare Ferrante’s work with that of several of the writers proposed as candidates. A decade ago, at the request of Italian writer Luigi Galella, a team of physicists and mathematicians at La Sapienza University in Rome analyzed Ferrante’s books with special text analysis software. They concluded that there was a “high probability” that the books were written by Starnone, Raja’s husband. Along with him, speculation in the Italian press about “possible Ferrantes” has long centered around Raja, the co-owners of Edizioni e/o, Ferri and Ozzola, several other Italian writers, as well as Ferrante’s American translator, Ann Goldstein. A final addition to the list was Marcella Marmo, a professor of modern history at the Federico II University of Naples, who was named by Dante scholar Marco Santagata on the basis of linguistic parallels between her writing and Ferrante’s and because of a connection with the Scuola Normale, the elite university in Pisa where both Lenù, the main character in the Quartet, and Marmo studied.

But none of these theories have been backed by concrete evidence. By contrast, the new financial information leads directly to Raja, while leaving open the possibility of some kind of unofficial collaboration with her husband, the writer Starnone.

Domenico Starnone, Turin, Italy, April 26, 2008
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Domenico Starnone, Turin, Italy, April 26, 2008

In fact, the payments to Raja are backed by other clues in the Ferrante books themselves. Elena, the name chosen by the author for herself and the narrator of the Quartet (Elena Greco, aka Lenù) belonged to Raja’s aunt, while Nino, the name of Lenù’s great love, is Domenico Starnone’s family nickname. In My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante emphasizes the importance of the local public library in the cultural education of Lila, Lenù’s friend. In Italy, the value of public libraries is rarely appreciated, but for years Anita Raja has been the head of Rome’s European Library. Viola Starnone, Raja and Starnone’s daughter, graduated from the Scuola Normale, the elite university in Pisa attended by Lenù.

In her own work as a translator of German literature, along with translating male authors such as Franz Kafka and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Raja specialized in female writers from East Germany. In a 1983 article published in Noi Donne, a well-known Italian feminist magazine in which Elena Greco, the narrator of Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, also published, Raja describes German women writers whose “narrative voices display their capacity for self-reflection.” She particularly praised Christa Wolf, author of Medea, Cassandra, and The Quest for Christa T. Raja translated Wolf’s books into Italian for Edizioni e/o over many years, forming a close relationship with the German writer.

In an interview published in the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto in March 2015, Raja recalled: “I met Christa in 1984, and with time our relationship turned into friendship….It was very formative for me.”

In a separate statement from 2011 that was published on the website of the Goethe Institute in Italy, Raja wrote that Wolf’s “way of verbalizing has affected my own poorer and more unrefined relationship with my language. It’s given it new power, pushing me in directions I would never have thought of going.”

While there are significant differences in the literary worlds inhabited by Wolf in East Germany and the books of Ferrante set in southern Italy, Raja’s career-long interest in Wolf raises a suggestive connection of its own. Rebecca Falkoff, assistant professor of Italian Studies at New York University, told me that she is convinced that the Neapolitan quartet show the influence of Wolf:

Thematically the works of Ferrante intersect considerably with those of Wolf. The Quest for Christa T., by Wolf, for example, is the story of a woman who pieces together the traces of a lost friend, while Ferrante’s tetralogy begins with Lila’s disappearance without a trace. Like Wolf’s Medea and Cassandra, which rewrite classical texts, Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment draws heavily on the stories of Medea and Dido, while Lila’s dangerous prescience makes her sometimes seem a Cassandra-like figure.

In fact, both Raja and Starnone have acknowledged that Wolf’s work has loomed large in their own work. In a March 2009 article for the Neapolitan daily Il Mattino, the couple explained, “Every book by Christa that [Raja] translated into Italian led to months of intense discussions between the two of us, an opportunity to reflect, to learn. It wasn’t just driven by literary passion, but by our desire to master a complex text…and enhance the way we look at the world, and see how we can become better….[Christa] immediately seduced us.”

To explore this influence further, I contacted Jana Simon, Wolf’s granddaughter and a journalist for the German weekly Die Zeit. Simon, who has written a book on Wolf, claimed to know nothing about Ferrante’s novels. Reluctant to speak, she referred me to the two publishers of Edizioni e/o. She said that Ferrante’s work had not yet been published in Germany, despite the fact that three books preceding the quartet were published there about a decade ago. In a subsequent text message, Simon went on to say, “Of course I have heard about [Ferrante’s] admiration of Christa Wolf.” But Ferrante, in the anonymous interviews she has given about her work and in her published correspondence, has never made that admiration publicly known, and Simon never answered my repeated requests for how she had heard this.

The author of the Neapolitan quartet chose Elena Ferrante as a pen name before the publication of the first Ferrante novel, Troubling Love, in 1992. Among the correspondence included in Frantumaglia is a letter from Ferrante to her publishers at the time of the first novel, in which she writes: “I will be the publishing houses’s least expensive author. I’ll spare you even my presence.”

In an age in which fame and celebrity are desperately sought after, the person behind Ferrante apparently didn’t want to be known. But her books’ sensational success made the search for her identity virtually inevitable. It also left financial clues that speak by themselves.


A second article, “The Story Behind a Name,” examines Anita Raja’s family background. This investigation was originally produced for the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore; versions of it were also published in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and on the French website, Mediapart.