Elective Anonymity

Elective Anonymity

[Robert Cottrell is the editor of The Browser, blog/newsletter that I crib a lot of interesting material from. The Browser’s tagline is “Writing Worth Reading,” and that summarizes their mission succinctly. Occasionally he addresses his subscribers directly, such as in this post which is about creators who choose not to be directly identified with their work. Interesting topic, says he who publishes under the guise of a gorilla. SB SM]

“So when an Italian journalist called Claudio Gatti presented strong circumstantial evidence in 2016 that “Elena Ferrante” was, in real life, an Italian translator called Anita Raja, his investigation was widely denounced as a gross invasion of Ferrante’s, or possibly of Raja’s, privacy. “People are pissed”, wrote Alexandra Schwartz in the New Yorker:

Like many — maybe most — enthusiastic Ferrante readers, I have no interest in knowing who the writer who publishes her novels under the name Elena Ferrante is. I don’t care. Actually, I do care: I care about not finding out … Ferrante’s steadfast artistic choice to be anonymous can only be that: an artistic choice, made at the beginning of her writing career for private reasons that she deemed essential.

My own reaction to Gatti’s “scoop” was quite different. I fell hungrily upon it, and I admired the New York Of Books for deciding that it merited publication in English. As a creature of insatiable curiosity I had wanted to know Ferrante’s true identity from the moment I first read a review of My Brilliant Friend. I wanted to know why would any artist would not want to be associated with their art.

Moreover, at first glance, Gatti’s “scoop” seemed about as anodyne as it could possibly have been in the circumstances. It said, in effect, that these novels represented as having been written by an Italian woman were, in fact, written by an Italian woman.

But Gatti’s work pointed, mutely, in a more disruptive direction. As literary Italy well knew, Anita Raja was married to Domenico Starnone, a prodigious and highly accomplished novelist who had grown up in Naples; whereas Raja, though born in Naples, had grown up in Rome. Could Ferrante’s novels, suffused with the life and people of Naples, be in some degree the joint work of Raja and Starnone?

Textual analysis of Ferrante’s novels has found much evidence in favour of Starnone’s participation. I may be wrong, but I do not think these various academic papers have been much picked up in the general and literary media, perhaps because of the repugnance with which Gatti’s “unmasking” was received. I came across them thanks to an article by Elisa Sotgiu on Literary Hub last year.  

Does it matter whether “Elena Ferrante” is a woman, or a man, or a combination of the two? Surely not the quality nor to the long-term reception of the novels, any more than it mattered whether “George Eliot” was a man or a woman. Middlemarch was still a masterpiece.

But whereas Middlemarch, at least by now, enjoys an existence more or less independent of its author, Ferrante’s novels and “Ferrante” still come as something of a package-deal. The novels are celebrated for the apparent authenticity of their female characters and of their Neapolitan setting, both of which are presumed to derive from the lived experience of an author who grew up as a woman in Naples.

If “Elena Ferrante” had wanted only to escape the intrusions and demands of literary fame, they could have done so without subterfuge. It is perfectly possible for a best-selling author to write under their own name and yet to remain a very private person: think of J.D. Salinger, and of Thomas Pynchon. To make a public show of one’s anonymity, on the other hand, creates all sorts of complications, as Joe Klein found.

If it turns out that the persona of Elena Ferrante was indeed manufactured by a husband-and-wife team as a strategy to sell more books, then readers of “Elena Ferrante” who have invested themselves emotionally in the supposed authenticity of the Neapolitan novels will be entitled to feel let and down and manipulated — however wonderful those novels might be in any objective sense. One expects a novel to be fictional; one does not expect its author to be fictional.

Please stop reading at this point if you wish to remain within the bounds of literature, since I want throw in here a few final ruminations about Satoshi Nakamoto, the supposed inventor of Bitcoin, whose successful disappearance has always seemed to me the most truly interesting recent case of elective anonymity.

Let us first admit of the possibility that Bitcoin was conceived by an intelligence agency or bad actor to some dark end which is not yet apparent. To obscure this parentage, the agency or actor would have wanted to equip Bitcoin with a relatively innocuous origin-story, for example, that Bitcoin was invented by a lone public-spirited genius who covered their tracks before disappearing altogether.

If, on the other hand, Bitcoin really was the work of a lone genius (the theory which I favour), then I can see why such a lone genius might reasonably have decided to conceal their identity.

It was highly probable when Bitcoin was invented 15 years ago that any adventures in advanced cryptography would be seen as hostile acts by America’s security services (as in the case of Phil Zimmerman, inventor of PGP); and that adventures in currency-making would be seen as hostile acts by any number of regulators and prosecutors. One could well imagine, for example, that “Satoshi”, had their identity been known, might have been charged alongside Ross Ulbricht, who is now serving life imprisonment for creating and operating the darknet market Silk Road, on the grounds that Bitcoin had made Silk Road possible.

In that long-ago year when Ian Buruma was editing the New York Review Of Books, I asked him if I might try to penetrate Satoshi’s cover, and bring the resulting story to the Review. My work halted with Ian’s premature departure, but I still think my strategy was a good one.

I wrote to a series of past winners of the Nobel Prize in economics, asking them whether they thought Bitcoin was a financial innovation worthy of a Nobel Prize for its inventor. One said yes, one said maybe, five said no.

My next step would have been to see whether the prospect of a Nobel prize nomination might persuade Satoshi to step out of the shadows.

Although I did not then know who was behind Satoshi, I did know somebody who I was pretty sure did know, so I thought there was at least a possibility of getting a message through. Besides, I thought genuinely that Satoshi, whoever they were, deserved a Nobel Prize.

I thought, and I still think, that Bitcoin was the greatest innovation in the technology of money since John Law popularised paper currency in France three hundred years earlier.

Yes, the price of Bitcoin has been volatile, and many lesser cryptocurrencies have been scams. But think of the mischief attending the early days of paper money. Law introduced banknotes to France in 1716, refinanced the French national debt in 1719, and went bankrupt in 1720. Just a century ago the banknotes of three major European countries, Germany, Russia and Poland, collapsed to near-zero value. The fluctuations of our cryptocurrencies today, and the antics of their creators, are almost decorous by comparison.”

Irish podcaster Blindboy maintains

his anonymity by wearing a plastic bag on his head.

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