Elena Ferrante has won the Nobel Prize!

No, she hasn’t but I needed a catchy title that combined the two key literary events of the past couple of weeks and Bob Dylan unmasked definitely seemed like second best.

So let’s start with Elena Ferrante. Many people have been very critical about the unmasking of her by Claudio Gatti. Jeanette Winterson, for example, was particularly bitter. I can entirely sympathise with Jeanette Winterson and others who are bitter and, of course, with Anita Raja, who has had her life disrupted, probably forever. However…

1. The Internet is prurient. It was, I think, set up to exchange information and still does that, to a certain extent. However, its main function now seems to the wilful display and enjoyment of what other people are doing. You know that. I know that. And Elena Ferrante knows that.

2. As Joe Louis may or may not have said, You can run but you cannot hide – from Google. In the EU, there is now “the right to be forgotten”. This stemmed from a case brought by a Spanish man. He had been forced to sell a property to pay off social security debts. When his name was searched the announcement about this sale came to the top of the search listings. He did not like that and sued at the Court of Justice of the European Union. He won and he and all other EU nationals now have this right to be forgotten, i.e. removed from Google search listings. Despite this, I found the link above to the case – by Googling. Moreover, if you search for his name both in Google UK and Google Spain, you still get the story of his crusade and, therefore, the information about his social security debts.

3. In the UK, we have something called a superinjunction. If you are very rich, you can go to a judge and s/he will issue an order saying that a specific story about you cannot be published, either in the printed press or online. I will mention three cases. The first involved Ryan Giggs, who, at the timed, played football (i.e. soccer) for a low-life football club called Manchester United. He was having a sexual affair with his brother’s wife. Perhaps understandably, he did not want the world to know about this and, presumably, particularly did not want his brother or his wife to know about it, so he took out a superinjunction. However, a Member of Parliament, using parliamentary privilege, revealed all in the Houses of Parliament and the press was able to report this. Thus, he wasted his money and everyone, including his wife and brother, knew what he was up to.

Jeremy Clarkson is an obnoxious TV presenter, formerly of a popular car programme called Top Gear. When his ex-wife wanted to publish details of their life together, he took out a superinjunction. He soon realised that it was a) pointless and b) expensive, so dropped it.

A celebrity couple has taken out a superinjunction to prevent publication of a story about a three-way sexual romp they had. The injunction still holds. However, it only applies in England and Wales, so anyone, even people in England and Wales, can find out in seconds who is involved, by going to non-English/Welsh websites. I am fairly certain that anyone in England and Wales who wants to know now does know but the English and Welsh press cannot report it.

4. Wayne Rooney, another footballer who played (and sometimes still plays) for the low-life football team mentioned above, allegedly had an affair with a prostitute (while married). He was thinking about getting a superinjunction but he was told not to bother, as it would likely be declined as he previously shared details of his private life with the media.

5. Elena Ferrante is not, of course, the first author to write under a pseudonym. Many women writers used to write under a male pseudonym, in order to increase their chances of getting published. The Brontë sisters and George Eliot are just a few of the many examples. Many authors have chosen to use pseudonyms for one reason or another, from Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain to Flann O’Brien and J K Rowling (Wikipedia has a list). Some writers, such as Cecil Day-Lewis and Julian Barnes have used a pseudonym to write different types of books. Some, such as B Traven have managed to carry the secret to the grave. Other writers, while not adopting a pseudonym, have kept a very low profile In recent times, Thomas Pynchon and J D Salinger are famous examples. But this does not top people from tying to find who they are and where they are. I know, you know and Elena Ferrante knows that if you do try to hide your identity, people are going to try and find it and all too often will succeed. Just ask J K Rowling.

6. In Italy considerable effort was expended to find the real person behind the Ferrante name. In his article, Gatti mentions various candidates. In particular, a textual analysis suggested that Ferrante was Domenico Starnone, Anita Raja’s husband. She herself had also been suggested.

(Interesting aside. Software has been developed to enable us to identify the sex of the author of a text. This is one example. Putting the first chapter of Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend into this software gives the result that the author is likely to be female and likely to be European. I wonder why the textual analysis of Starnone did not give the same result. Is it is because it works differently in Italian? Only one of his works has been translated into English (and published, incidentally, by Europa Editions, who also publish Ferrante in English) and this work does not appear to be available in e-book format, so I have not tested to see if he comes out male, according to this software.)

7. Conclusions? Ferrante was always going to be unmasked. Given the nature of the Internet, the nature of people’s curiosity, the difficulty of keeping anything hidden from Google and the nature of the literary business, I am sure that even Ferrante herself did not expect to remain anonymous forever. I would add that Ferrante and her publisher very much benefited from the publicity she received. The reviewers, the bloggers,the readers, social media, all helped her sell more books and helped her buy the properties, which were her unmasking. Yes, she may be sad and/or bitter at her unmasking but I do not think that she can really complain. I know that, you know that and Ferrante knows that.

Which brings me to Dylan.

8. Various commentators (all right hundreds, maybe thousands) have speculated on why he got it. Here are my theories, which may or may not be correct. Apart from the obvious one – they really did think he was a very deserving writer – I have four possible ideas:

  • Publicity. Whatever you may say about the decision, it has generated a huge amount of publicity for the Nobel Prize. You may argue that they do not need publicity but you would be wrong. it is the Internet. Everyone needs publicity.
  • There have been numerous complaints from commentators, particularly those from the US, that the award keeps going to an obscure Austrian novelist no-one has heard of or an obscure French novelist no-one has heard of. Moreover, the Academy, it is alleged, is prejudiced against US writers, based on remarks by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize jury. The fact that there have been two secretaries since that remark was made has altered nothing. So now the award has gone to a US writer, who writes in English and whom everyone has heard of. What’s to complain about?
  • Related to the above, this means that the Swedish Academy does not have to/will not give it to a US writer for some while, which will mean that all the supporters of Philip Roth can stop bleating about how he should get it as there is a good chance he will be dead by the time it is the turn of the US again. Same applies to Oates, Pynchon, DeLillo and McCarthy.
  • Trump. Trump? Yes, Trump. A few years the Nobel Peace Prize went to President Obama. What had he done to deserve it? He was fighting two wars at the time and had not brought about peace, despite vague promises. However, he got it for one simple reason. He was not George W Bush. You may argue that you are not George W Bush either, which is undoubtedly accurate, as I am fairly sure that he does not read this blog. But then you are not President of the United States. If you have ever visited Sweden, you will be aware how many people hate the US right. They hated Bush with a passion and they hate Trump. So what better than to give the prize to the writer who best embodies values opposed to those of Donald Trump. Whatever you may think of Dylan musically, politically or otherwise, you cannot deny that he has stood up for causes such as immigrants, African-Americans and the poor and downtrodden in a way that is the antithesis of Donald Trump and his views. It may be that Roth, Oates, Pynchon, DeLillo and McCarthy have similar views. I do not know but, if they have, they are certainly not as well known as Dylan for these views.

9. It has been argued that a mere singer does not deserve the prize. If you isolate his words from his music, they do not, many say, stand up with the literary quality of more deserving writers. But, in my view, you cannot and should not isolate the words from the music. Just as with drama, for example, you cannot entirely isolate the text from the performance, the stage directions and even the actors, you cannot and should not isolate the words from the music in songs. Words with music have a long tradition. It is highly likely that, in the Middle Ages, the exposure of most people to poetry would be by songs sung by troubadours. Songs such as The Song of Roland (which would have almost certainly won an eleventh century Goncourt Prize or Nobel Prize, had they existed then) were highly influential. Dante and Petrarch, themselves huge influences on later European literature, were very much influenced by troubadours and their songs. In more modern times, there have been numerous cases of words set to music, including, of course, opera, oratorios, masses and lieder. From Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to John Taverner’s The Whale, classical musicians have made extensive use of words to go with their music.

10. Dylan is not a monolithic composer. He has written satirical political songs, such as Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues and Talkin’ World War III Blues, songs about the unfair treatment of African-Americans, such as George Jackson (sung here by Joan Baez), Hurricane and The Death of Emmett Till, love songs such as Sara, religious songs such as Gotta Serve Somebody, songs telling a story such as The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest and a whole host more songs on any number of different topics. He has almost certainly influenced more musicians than any other artist and has probably been covered by more musicians than anyone except, possibly, the Beatles and they were not just one artist.

11.Recent discussions have put forward the claims of other singers, such as Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon, both of which are valid claims but I will still go for Dylan over Cohen and Simon. I will also throw in another artist, who was not Jewish but had a lot of sympathy for the Jews, namely Pete Townshend.

12. Conclusion? I am not shocked at the award to Dylan (not as shocked as Dylan himself seems to be, as he does not seem to have, at the time of writing, acknowledged the award.) I applaud the Academy’s brave decision to look beyond the novelists, the occasional poet and the occasional dramatist. Could they have picked a novelist who would have been more worthy than Dylan? Of course they could. We can all come up with names. However, I do definitely consider him more worthy than Philip Roth. It would certainly have been nice to give the award to some relatively unknown novelist (unknown to the public at large, I mean) and, no doubt, they will revert to type next year. Two predictions (no, not the winner, which I will invariably get wrong). Philip Roth won’t win it and Elena Ferrante won’t win it. As for me, I am going to listen to Dylan singing Queen Jane Approximately (but not this version).

4 Replies to “Elena Ferrante has won the Nobel Prize!”

  1. Is there evidence that Ferrante/Raja is sad or bitter at her “unmasking”? My understanding is that in Italy her identification as Raja has been something of a foregone conclusion for some time, and that all Gatti did was to confirm what everyone already suspected. Ferrante suggests reasons for her anonymity within her Neapolitan novels. Roberto Saviano, in his nomination of her for the Strega Prize, also lauded her choice to remain anonymous as one that served her work in the same way that his choice not to remain anonymous served his – high praise from someone forced into lifelong hiding from Camorra death threats. I’m also puzzled that no one I’ve read has pointed to the manifesto of the New Italian Epic writers – chiefly the collective Wu Ming – that stresses anonymity as one of its seven key principles. I don’t think Ferrante, like the now well-known members of Wu Ming, could have had many illusions about remaining anonymous forever, but rather saw anonymity as a strategic tool in the arsenal of her approach to literature (one other principle of the manifesto was the exploitation of popular forms of literature to get across the writer’s ideas).

    1. I do not know if Raja is sad or bitter at her unmasking but several commentators have been sad and bitter on her behalf. I can only assume that she remained anonymous, at least in part, because she wanted to keep her privacy and therefore we might assume that she is not too happy about the unmasking. But, as I said and you said, she cannot have been entirely surprised that it happened, only, perhaps, how and when it happened.

  2. Coming to this debate long after the media flurry, I defy more than 3 readers to recall (without looking) what Ms. Ferrante’s real name might be. You’ve already forgotten. You didn’t really care. Neither did the journo – he just wanted his plastic prize. What was the point? There wasn’t one, although there were many, many justifications like the text above. Maybe Dylan’s approach is better: everybody knows his real name but he has successfully guarded his private life for years.

    Finally, small point, but so far as I can tell, Mr. Pete Windmill Townshend grew up around Jews but isn’t one. You have stretched the point, which is fine and can even lead to interesting places. Correct me if I’m wrong. A bientôt j

    1. Yes, you are right about Townshend. He had a lot of sympathy for the Jews and visited Israel but was not Jewish himself. My mistake. As for Anita Raja/Elena Ferrante, does it really matter what her name is? The point is that, in a celebrity culture, her secret was not going to be a secret forever. I am not entirely sure that Dylan has guarded his private life. We know a lot about his relationship with Joan Baez and also about his wife, partially from his songs, though you are right that, recently, he has kept himself to himself.

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