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Why Anonymity Is More Artistically Rewarding Than Fame: Virginia Woolf on Elena Ferrante

“Obscurity rids the mind of the irk of envy and spite; [it] sets running in the veins the free waters of generosity and magnanimity; and allows giving and taking without thanks offered or praise given.”

When Virginia Woolf published Orlando: A Biography (public library) on October 11, 1928, she revolutionized the politics of LGBT love with this groundbreaking novel inspired by and dedicated to her longtime lover and lifelong friend Vita Sackville-West.

In a testament to the famous assertion that “fiction is the lie that tells the truth,” the novel has stood the test of time not only as an immensely pleasurable work of art, which Vita’s son aptly described as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” but as a ceaseless wellspring of truth and wisdom on such elemental existential concerns as the elasticity of time, the nature of memory, the fluidity of gender, the enlivening power of illusion, and our propensity for self-doubt in creative work. It is the rare kind of book which, once read, accompanies you as a sage silent companion throughout life, always aglow with the perfect insight to illuminate any situation or struggle.

Art by Aleksandr Zinoviev, 1921 (New York Public Library public domain archive)
Art by Aleksandr Zinoviev, 1921 (New York Public Library public domain archive)

One such perfect insight came to mind in light of the recent parasitic paparazzo’s alleged unmasking of Elena Ferrante. Nearly a century earlier, Woolf addressed the question at the heart of this egregious violation of artistic choice and integrity by juxtaposing the rewards of fame with those of anonymity, or what she called “obscurity,” in the original sense of the word — the state of being not-known, of having one’s identity concealed, of being hidden from view in the public eye.

Woolf writes:

While fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a man like a mist; obscurity is dark, ample, and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded. Over the obscure man is poured the merciful suffusion of darkness. None knows where he goes or comes. He may seek the truth and speak it; he alone is free; he alone is truthful; he alone is at peace.

Extolling the value of obscurity as “the delight of having no name, but being like a wave which returns to the deep body of the sea,” Woolf adds:

Obscurity rids the mind of the irk of envy and spite; [it] sets running in the veins the free waters of generosity and magnanimity; and allows giving and taking without thanks offered or praise given.

Woolf’s words offer the perfect affirmation of Ferrante’s artistic choice to use a pseudonym, which she herself had articulated to her Italian publisher in a beautiful letter penned on September 21, 1991, shortly before the publication of her debut novel, Troubling Love. The letter was later included in the Ferrante anthology Frantumaglia. She writes:

You asked me what I intend to do for the promotion of Troubling Love… You asked the question ironically, with one of your bemused expressions… I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient. I won’t participate in discussions and conferences, if I’m invited. I won’t go and accept prizes, if any are awarded to me. I will never promote the book, especially on television, not in Italy or, as the case may be, abroad. I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum. I am absolutely committed in this sense to myself and my family. I hope not to be forced to change my mind.


I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. There are plenty of examples. I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana [a fairy-like character of Italian folklore], which I waited for as a child. I went to bed in great excitement and in the morning I woke up and the gifts were there, but no one had seen the Befana. True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known; they are the very small miracles of the secret spirits of the home or the great miracles that leave us truly astonished. I still have this childish wish for marvels, large or small, I still believe in them.

Complement with Einstein on the fickle nature of fame and the true rewards of work, then revisit Woolf on the relationship between loneliness and creativity, what makes love last, and the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.

Published October 11, 2016




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