Dr Dominic Glynn, lecturer in French at the IMLR, was invited to speak about the Ferrante furore at the Battle of Ideas, held at the Barbican 22-23 October 2016. Here, he summarises his thinking on a subject that has sent pulses racing.
A bit of background: The identity of popular Italian writer known as Elena Ferrante, author of the highly successful Neapolitan Novels, has long been a mystery. Now an investigative journalist, Claudio Gatti, claims to have revealed her true identity and provoked outrage in the process.
I can’t help thinking Roland Barthes, who proclaimed the death of the author, will be turning in his grave following this revelation which shows that authors are very much alive. Or this one is in any case. Instead of a hologram, we have a real person as Elena Ferrante makes way for Anita Raja. Or so we are led to believe by Claudio Gatti. If we assume Gatti’s revelations are correct (and he is certainly adamant that they are), then we have to consider the following two issues.
The first is a general issue about how we read literature. To what extent do we need to know an author’s biography to understand a literary text? The second is both a personal issue and a general issue. It’s a personal issue for Anita Raja, since whether or not she is the woman behind Elena Ferrante, people will start to scrutinise her life. And it’s a more general issue about what we want our investigative journalists to look at?
Regarding the first issue, there is certainly an appetite for literary biographies, biographies of writers. This is all well and good, and some writers had fascinating lives. But it is not because they had fascinating lives that they were good writers – many people with fascinating lives are bad writers. And it’s not because some writers had, what we might call rather uneventful lives, that they didn’t write exciting fiction. Jules Verne, for instance, hardly travelled, yet wrote great adventure novels.
The big problem here is that it is easy to conflate the author with their narrative persona, and the author as a real person with their public persona used for marketing purposes. Gatti, it seems, falls right into the trap. One the one hand, he accuses Anita Raja of being inauthentic, since she was brought up in Rome, yet writes about Naples. And on the other hand, he looks for clues in Raja’s life that might support his case. For instance, he argues that the fact ‘Elena’ was one of Anita Raja’s aunt’s names and Nino, the name of a love interest in the novels, was the family nickname of Anita Raja’s husband, Dominico Starnone, helps prove his case.
We have to be careful about looking for biographical elements in a work, because it’s as if we’re denying its literary and fictional qualities. Looking for biographical clues stops us from considering all the different ways fiction is playing with us as readers. Biographical explanations only paint a small section of the overall picture.
Regarding the second issue, Gatti used the methods of an investigative journalist (these are usually quite underhand) to obtain information about financial transactions between publisher Edizioni e/o and Anita Raja as well as details of purchases by Raja and her husband.
Certainly, we have had many instances in recent years of whistle-blowers, leaks or investigative journalists using undercover and underhand means to reveal political, economic or social scandals. But there is a difference in using such methods to reveal unsavoury truths about the leaders that govern us, or to find out that we’re being spied on all the time by the NSA, for example, and exposing the private life of someone who writes novels.
I don’t doubt that a number of people are delighted by the news, and that they wanted to find out who she is. Gatti, himself, justifies using such methods by the fact that Ferrante is a bestselling author, arguably the most read Italian in the world at present. His readers have a legitimate right to know, he claims, what her identity is.
I don’t think I’ve ever bought a novel and thought that in so doing I gained an automatic right to know about the author’s life. Deborah Orr, in The Guardian, even argued that Gatti had violated her right not to know Ferrante’s real identity by violating Raja’s private life. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that we don’t gain that much by relating Ferrante to Raja. Raja, on the other hand, has a lot to lose, starting with her privacy. And if only for that reason, I would strongly suggest that Gatti’s actions were not justified.
Dr Dominic Glynn, Lecturer in French Studies, IMLR
The aims set for this multi-strand project are ambitious: we hope to develop new models for understanding the relationship between language and communities and to raise awareness of the importance of language learning – in the words of the project leader, Professor Stephen Hutchings: ‘to position languages at the core of a changing world’. The leaders of the three main strands of enquiry outlined the vision and the agenda set for the four-year duration of the research programme:
The multilingual strand, led by Professor Yaron Matras (Manchester), will build on the hugely active and successful ‘Multilingual Manchester’ initiative, which has made great steps already towards making people understand that language variety is not divisive but, on the contrary, has the potential to bring people together in a celebration of diversity. Professor Matras and his team vow to continue their work of ‘eradicating people’s fear of linguistically diverse environments’.
The transnational strand at Durham which comprises, among others, highly complex and intriguing sub-projects on diasporic communities of Russians (‘Global Russians’) and on the rhetoric and social media narratives of the so-called Islamic State organisation, will investigate the significance of language in building (or proclaiming) communities across national boundaries.
Finally, the translingual strand, based at the School of Advanced Study’s IMLR and led by Professor Catherine Davies, contains enquiries into the use of languages other than the mother tongue – and beyond this, into the relationship between minor/minority and majority literatures. Other sub-projects look at activist sub-titling of films as a means to building translingual networks and, moving away from the spoken or written word to language that is sung, experiment with the impact of language on music in two new opera projects that are being developed in conjunction with the Royal Opera House and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Two early-career performers, one first-year student and one recent graduand of the Guildhall School’s opera course, treated the audience to excerpts from the forthcoming opera ‘The Tale of Januarie’, a work based on ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The libretto – written in Middle-English – conveys the astonishingly multilingual nature of medieval language. (Did we really hear a love-song to a young woman addressed with the French endearment ‘cherie’ – juxtaposed with that same young lady’s exasperated reply from the only place that grants her peace to think, the – equally French-rooted – ‘privy’?)
Musicians from the Xinhua Chinese Association
Closing the day’s events in style, musicians and dancers from the Manchester Xinhua Chinese Association performed traditional songs, orchestral pieces and an exuberant fan dance. The ethereally uplifting and vibrant sound of the popular piece ‘Clouds Chasing the Moon’ set an appropriate tone for the optimistic and energetic start of our four-year research project.
Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex, Reader in Modern German Literature, IMLR
Professor Peter Ives (The University of Winnipeg) writes about the event ‘Modern Languages, Global English and the Future of the EU’ held at the IMLR in September 2016
Antonio Gramsci, early 1920s
Antonio Gramsci is one of the most influential Italians of the 20th Century. But what could his writings composed in fascist prison cells in the late 1920s and early 1930s have to tell us about multilingualism and global English in this post-Brexit world? This was one of the questions that brought me from Winnipeg, Canada where I teach Political Science to Senate House in London on a beautiful, sunny Wednesday in September of this year for a conference hosted by the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) and the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory.
There were also other related questions around which Alessandro Carlucci (University of Oxford), Katia Pizzi (IMLR) and Giancarlo Schirru (Università di Cassino e del Lazio Meridionale and the Istituto Gramsci) organised the lively and stimulating conference, “Modern Languages, Global English and the Future of the EU.” Michele Gazzola (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) presented research showing how crucial the EU’s official multilingualism policy is for the democratic enfranchisement of EU citizens. Federico Faloppa (University of Reading) illustrated the obstacles that refugees and immigrants to Italy face despite their often diverse and extensive multilingualism and communicative skills. The day-long conference concluded with a provocative talk by Arturo Tosi (Università degli Studi di Siena and University of London) drawing on an essay by Italo Calvino moving beyond questions of multilingualism as the collection of skills in various languages and towards translation and the relations among and in a diversity of languages.
The papers and extensive discussions emanating from them throughout the day weaved in and out of many topics concerning the politics of language, the impact of the increasing prevalence of English – perceived or real, the role of multilingualism, democracy, inclusion and equality. One thing that most of the participants agreed on was that there is a danger of language policy reinforcing bureaucratic elitism that can alienate ordinary people and further divide and stratify – to use Gramsci’s terminology – differing sectors of the populations of Britain and European countries. This can be as true of the liberal left political forces as it is of the neoliberal right.
There was perhaps less agreement on whether the context of Italy in the late 19th and early 20th century that Gramsci was most concerned about is at all comparable – or contains insights – for the situations we face today. Giancarlo Schirru drew on Gramsci’s analysis of north-south relations and language politics in Italy to argue that if Europe is a linguistic and social community then English is the only candidate to be a truly popular, common language. In a quite different vein, my own paper focused on how Gramsci’s most influential concept, hegemony, has been used extensively by critics of global English to emphasise the ways in which people are forced to consent to learn English or given little choice but to use English if they wish to be successful. I noted that while such critics provide important analyses, if we look more thoroughly at Gramsci’s writings on language we see that he was actually in favour both of a common language for Italy as well as working towards common languages internationally. His criticisms of how Italian was being standardised and propagated focused on the selection of just a single vernacular or dialect, that of the middle-class of Florence, and an attempt to spread it throughout Italy almost as if it were a foreign language. This does not, however, mean he was critical of the eventual goal of a truly popular common language for Italy, nor of government intervention in fostering such a common language. Gramsci emphasised that we need to focus on the specific forms of such common languages – he urged that they be truly popular and also that their propagation should not be premised on the eradication of multilingualism or the decline of vernacular languages or what are often called dialects.
It seems to me that the incredibly important differences between Gramsci’s historical context and ours especially concerning levels of literacy makes such lessons more, not less, important for us. Of course, this does not mean that Gramsci has all the answers for us, not by a long shot. But his approach helps us gain a deeper understanding of key issues. For example, Michele Gazzola criticised the empirical accuracy of many media and scholarly assessments of English proficiency among Europeans. Gramsci’s perspective adds to this important empirical issue the extent to which many Europeans learning English in schools perceive it as a language not related to their lives and experiences or a language being imposed from above.
Of course, such issues are crucially important as the UK withdraws from Europe. English will move from being the main language of British citizens who had been a significant portion of the EU population to a language of the Irish and Maltese but an important lingua franca of many elites in Europe. This may likely exacerbate the linguistic divides between elites and the general citizenship in ways Gramsci warned against. However, it could also open spaces for us to rethink how we understand multilingualism in very concrete situations such as supporting and assessing immigrants and refugees, as Federico Faloppa highlighted. It may also be an opportunity to reconsider the importance of translation as more than a technical operation of professional translators and more as a possible way of thinking about multilingualism, as Arturo Tosi suggested.
The great value that the Institute of Modern Languages Research provides with its support of conferences like this is that it enables us to think through such crucial social issues with scholars and researchers from a host of different disciplines, places and perspectives. The Director of IMLR, Catherine Davies, who opened and attended much of the day’s events, provided essential support for the success of this conference.