He said he was doing his job as an Italian investigative journalist based in New York. “The biggest mystery outside Italy about Italy is who is Elena Ferrante,” Mr. Gatti said. “I’m supposed to provide answers, that’s what I do for a living.”
Beyond the financial records, Mr. Gatti cited literary clues linking Ms. Raja to Ms. Ferrante’s books, including that Nino, the love interest in the Naples novels, is Mr. Starnone’s family nickname. But his primary evidence was financial. “Raja’s work as a translator — a notoriously poorly paid occupation — can hardly account for her anomalously large income,” Mr. Gatti wrote. Ms. Raja retired last year from her day job as the head of a public library in Rome.
Mr. Gatti also said that real estate records showed that in June 2016, Mr. Starnone had purchased an 11-room, 2,500-square-foot apartment in Rome at an estimated value of $1.5 million to $2 million.
Ms. Ferrante’s so-called Neopolitan Novels have found a passionate readership, especially among women — Hillary Clinton recently said she was reading them — and some look to them as feminist touchstones. They have been released in 40 countries, with 2.6 million copies in print in English-language editions.
The books’ literary power is derived in part from the author’s anonymity. And Ms. Ferrante’s fans have said they couldn’t possibly believe her work was written by a man, as some literary critics have speculated.
As their success grew, so did curiosity about Ms. Ferrante’s identity, which gave rise to amateur literary sleuthing at a level not seen since the unmasking of Joe Klein as the author of “Anonymous,” a roman à clef about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.
Ms. Ferrante, explained her choice of anonymity in a 2014 interview with The New York Times, conducted via email. “What counts most for me is to preserve a creative space that seems full of possibilities, including technical ones,” she wrote. “The structural absence of the author affects the writing in a way that I’d like to continue to explore.”
Credit Chris Warde-Jones for The New York Times
Ms. Raja, who was born in Naples in 1953, has worked as a consultant to Edizioni E/O, which has published her Italian translations of writing by the German feminist writer Christa Wolf, whose books feature complex women as narrators. Mr. Starnone’s novels often play with the notion of literary doubles and, like Ms. Ferrante’s work, feature writer-protagonists who draw on their Neapolitan roots as material even as they write to escape those roots.
This year, an Italian academic speculated that Marcella Marmo, a Neapolitan historian, might be behind the books. (Ms. Marmo denied she was.) Devoted readers have lined up for copies of Ms. Ferrante’s novels signed by Ann Goldstein, the English-language translator, as if she were a kind of sibyl in contact with the divine. A professor at the University of Padua in Italy recently called on academics to use quantitative analysis to compare Ms. Ferrante’s prose to Mr. Starnone’s.
In a deeply reported sidebar, Mr. Gatti discovered that Ms. Raja’s mother had come to Italy from Germany with her parents in 1937 to escape the Nazis. Her extended family perished in the Holocaust.
But how Ms. Ferrante’s novels came into being remains a mystery that financial records alone cannot solve definitively. Was Ms. Raja the sole author of Ms. Ferrante’s books? Are they the product of collaboration, including with Mr. Starnone, as literary critics have speculated in the past, even as Ms. Ferrante’s fans have bristled?
Mr. Starnone’s name first came up in 2005, when an Italian literary critic, Luigi Galella, spotted similarities between Ms. Ferrante’s first novel, “Troubling Love,” published in Italy in 1992, and Mr. Starnone’s 2000 novel “Via Gemito.” Both are set in Naples, narrated by the guilt-ridden children of violent painter fathers who beat their seamstress wives, and some descriptions are strikingly similar.
Only one of Mr. Starnone’s novels has been translated into English: “First Execution,” published in 2009 by Europa Editions. His latest novel, “Lacci,” or “laces,” published in 2014, tells a story of the dissolution — and reconstitution — of a marriage, but from multiple perspectives over decades, a technique favored by Ms. Wolf. Its plot echoes that of Ms. Ferrante’s 2002 novel, “The Days of Abandonment,” told from the perspective of a woman who falls apart then pulls herself together after her husband leaves her with two young children.
But since last year, literary critics have begun making a strong case for Ms. Raja, because of her years translating the work of Ms. Wolf and other feminist authors writing in German.
Ms. Ferrante’s Naples novels are preoccupied with questions of authorial power, as well as with the emotional and personal risks writers face when mining their own families for material. A theme in Ms. Wolf’s work is a fear that writing about someone is a way of killing that person, as Ms. Raja herself explained in an interview in Italy’s daily La Repubblica last year.
Ms. Wolf died in 2011. The first Naples novel appeared in 2012.
In an essay last year, Rebecca Falkoff, a professor of Italian at New York University, traced the similarities between Ms. Ferrante’s novels and Ms. Wolf’s. “The more I read about Raja,” Ms. Falkoff wrote, “the more convinced I became that she is indeed Ferrante.”