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The Ferrante farrago

The Ferrante farrago

Claudio Gatti, the Italian journalist who this week ‘unmasked’ the woman who writes as Elena Ferrante – the secretive novelist whose stories are set in 1950s Naples and a 2016 Man Booker International shortlistee – might have predicted pats on the back all round for his clever sleuthing. He got a very different response. The real Ferrante turns out to be exactly the sort of person one might expect; a Rome-based translator who once helped to run a publishing house –  a highly-literate book world insider, in other words, rather than a romantic maverick. No one, it seems, is applauding Gatti though. Ferrante's fans have turned on him with real wrath. Ferrante has long made it clear that the reason for her anonymity was that she is not interested in fame or publishing brouhaha and wanted her books to speak for themselves. Who was Gatti then to go against her wishes? Ask her fans and what gave him the right to invade her privacy? And, most pertinently perhaps, since Ferrante has threatened to give up writing if she were ever unmasked, will she stick to her word? In one fell swoop, Gatti has gone from clever investigator to the man who might have put a halt to one of the most intriguing of literary careers.

            Gatti argues that since Ferrante is the most well-known Italian literary figure in the world there is a ‘legitimate right for readers to know [her identity] . . . as they have made her such a superstar’. Her publisher, Sandro Ferri, see things differently: ‘We just think that this kind of journalism is disgusting.’ Quite what the ultimate fall out will be remains to be seen.

Rather cheerier news was provided by Arundhati Roy, Man Booker winner in 1997 with The God of Small Things. She has just announced that her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, will be published next year, a full 20 years after her debut. Roy has written widely in the intervening years but works of non-fiction and politics. It was, she revealed, another Man Booker winner, John Berger (1972) who made her return to fiction. ‘I was with John at his home, and he said: ‘You open your computer now and you read to me whatever fiction you are writing.’ He is perhaps the only person in the world that could have the guts to say that to me. And I read a bit to him and he said: ‘You just go back to Delhi and you finish that book.’ So I said ‘OK’.’ Sounds easy. Or indeed a relief, as can be felt in Roy's words, ‘I am glad to report that the mad souls (even the wicked ones) in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness have found a way into the world.’ Mad and wicked souls . . . sounds promising.

Back to this year's Man Booker. The winner announcement is a little under three weeks away (25 October) and the bookies, it seems, are having as much difficulty as everyone else separating the contenders. According to William Hill, Deborah Levy remains the favourite (11/4) with Madeleine Thien (3/1), Graeme Macrae Burnet (4/1), Paul Beatty (5/1), David Sazalay (11/2), Ottessa Moshfegh (6/1) all coming not so far behind. It is a great shame for get-rich-quick readers that there are no ridiculously long odds on offer (not that this column encourages gambling) but an indication how well matched the authors are. So punters hoping to buy a villa in Italy with their winnings might have to wait for another year.

Four of the Man Booker shortlistees will be passing the nervous days before the announcement by travelling to Liverpool for an event at the spectacular cultural temple of St George's Hall on 20 October. The, ahem, fab four (apologies, apologies) are Paul Beatty, Deborah Levy, Graeme Macrae Burnet and Ottessa Moshfegh who will be reading from their books and taking questions from the audience.