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Elena Ferrante and the trouble with anonymity

The supposed exposure of the much-feted novelists true identity has caused a lot of outrage this week. From Jane Austen to Banksy, countless artists have tried to stay in the shadows, but it only makes people want to know more

Some all-too-anonymous writers will look at this weeks exposure of the millionaire literary superstar Elena Ferrante and find that sympathy does not come out of them without a fight. Others will see a private artists freedom ruined for ever and weep for her. For writers, thats the trouble with being anonymous. It is difficult to be the right amount.

To bring you up to speed: Elena Ferrante is the nom de plume of an Italian writer (or at least a writer of Italian) whose true identity has been a mystery since her (or his) first novel, Troubling Love, was published in 1991. Until recently the mystery was confined to Italy, where various writers, translators and publishers have been proposed as possible Ferrantes. In the past three years, however, she has become a mythic figure all over the world following the success her Neapolitan novels, about two clever women who grow up poor in postwar Naples.

Then, last Sunday, the Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti published a new theory. By studying public real estate records, he found that a couple connected to Ferrantes Italian publisher, Edizione E/O, had bought an expensive apartment in Rome in 2000, then another one this summer. Gatti also has documents from an anonymous source that he says show inexplicably large payments from the publisher to one member of the couple, more or less at the time you would expect Ferrante to be getting her big international royalties, and more or less in the right proportions as her sales increased. No one so far has seriously suggested he is wrong. No one likes him, either.

A mythic figure Two of Elena Ferrantes Neopolitan novels on sale in a bookshop in Rome. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

You will have noticed that I have not named the person Gatti identifies. In many interviews by email, Ferrante has said that being anonymous is crucial to her writing. I have gained a space of my own, she told Vanity Fair last August, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful. If so, then Gatti may have strangled any future Ferrante novels, a serious crime if you admire her work. At the very least, he has probably made her suffer.

In August 2006, when the Sunday Times was about to expose Zoe Margolis as the Girl With a One-Track Mind, whose explicit blogs about her sex life had attracted tens of thousands of readers every day, their acting news editor, Nicholas Hellen, sent her an email. According to Margolis, it explained all the details that identified her, including her mothers job and address. It added that they had photographed her outside her flat, but the picture was not particularly flattering. I think it would be helpful to both sides if you agreed to a photo shoot today so that we can publish a more attractive image, Hellen allegedly said. We would expect you to provide your own clothes and makeup. As the story will be on a colour page, we would prefer the outfit to be one of colourful eveningwear.

Margolis cried, and did not answer. There was no reason to reveal my identity, she says now. No reason to destroy the anonymity I had, other than to titillate their readers. Im still disgusted by their completely unjustified behaviour and I stand in solidarity with other writers who have gone through similar experiences. Months of fallout followed. Her work in the film industry became impossible. Often she had to field calls from friends who were being pestered by reporters.

Daniel Defoe, whose book Robinson Crusoe was first published under its lead characters name. Photograph: Hulton Getty

Richard Horton had the same experience. He was the police officer behind NightJack, which won the Orwell blogging prize in 2009. Like Margolis, he had begun writing anonymously because it let him be truthful without damaging his life. Like Margolis, he never planned to reveal who he was. Then he was exposed by the Times in his case, because his email was hacked. We had photographers camped outside the door and people trying to phone me at home, says Horton. The experience scared his wife and children. We had to go away for a few days until things died down. I regret what happened to them as a result of my identity coming out more than anything else.

Legally, Ferrante has no good options. As an Italian, which Gatti says she is, she would have the right to respect for her private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In order to bring a claim against Gatti or his publishers, however, she would need to demonstrate specifically that she had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to her real name. I dont think that public interest justifies the exposure, says Jeremy Clarke-Williams, a specialist in privacy and defamation law at Slater and Gordon, but I dont think we reach that stage, because I dont think Elena Ferrante would be able to show that she had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Gatti sharing details of her finances might put her on stronger ground, but she would only lose more privacy by going to court. If she wants this to go away, Clarke-Williams says, or quieten down at least, its probably better for her to do nothing, rather than launch a court case where the media can sit back and enjoy the show.

It is interesting that writers cannot reasonably expect to keep their names unpublished, given how many have down the years. Daniel Defoe published as Robinson Crusoe, Jonathan Swift as Lemuel Gulliver (with phoney portrait). Aphra Behn published pseudonymously. So did Henry Fielding. Samuel Richardson was anonymous and Jane Austen was just a Lady. Horace Walpole, all three Bronts and George Eliot all had noms de plume, and Eliots stuck. Even today, the famously anonymous are everywhere you look. Theres the world-famous artist Banksy, and one of the worlds most famous computer scientists, Satoshi Nakamoto, who invented bitcoin (and is probably not Craig Wright). The Old Bailey has just convicted one of Britains most famous journalists Mazher Mahmood, or the Fake Sheikh of conspiring to pervert the course of justice with one of his pseudonymous stings. Then there are the bloggers, including the Gay Girl in Damascus (who turned out to be none of those things). The Guardian itself has spawned the Secret Footballer, Secret Teacher, Secret Actress and Secret Policeman. It is clear that people often do expect to express themselves anonymously. Perhaps it is just not reasonable to expect things to stay that way.

It was pretty hard to have to keep such a big secret from people family, friends, colleagues, lovers, Margolis says. When I got my publishing deal, I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, but had to remain quiet. That was hard. To be so proud of something and not be able to share it is quite tough. The technical aspects are scarcely any easier. Brooke Magnanti is a research scientist who blogged as the call girl Belle de Jour until 2009 when, fearing that her identity was about to be revealed in a newspaper, she revealed it herself in a different one. She had managed six years of anonymity under intense pressure, and her own guide to online privacy shows it wasnt luck.

Highlights of the Magnanti method include: changing your email account twice a year and knowing which providers to avoid; knowing how to remove metadata from text documents and media files; learning how to use VPNs and Tor, and how to tell if your IP address is accessible; setting yourself up as a silent partner in a new company run by your accountant. At one point Magnanti installed a keystroke logger (which makes a secret record of all the buttons pressed on your computer) and found that someone close to me was spying on me when they were left alone.

Journalist Mazher Mahmood, AKA the Fake Sheikh, who conducted pseudonymous stings on public figures, after his conviction at the Old Bailey this week. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

Gattis justification for his scoop is vague. It centres on Ferrantes new book not a novel, but a collection of letters, essays and other pieces of nonfiction called Frantumaglia. According to its publisher, it answers many of her readers questions, but if Gatti is right, some of the answers are lies specifically that Ferrantes mother was a Neapolitan seamstress who spoke the Naples dialect, and that Ferrante herself grew up in the city until she ran away. He also contends that she is lying with a purpose: These crumbs of information seemed designed to satisfy her readers appetite for a personal story that might relate to the Neapolitan setting of the novels themselves.

To unmince those words, Gatti is saying that Ferrante wants people to believe she rescued herself through education from the slums of Naples, just as the Elena in her novels does. If people believe this, it would make the novels more than just the story of a woman overcoming poverty and patriarchy; it would make them an example of it happening for real. Seen this way, buying Ferrante becomes a kind of vote for feminism, and attacking her almost a vote against it; thus concocted sisterliness, not literary quality, explains the books success.

Whatever you believe, Im sure theres no need to explain why a man implying this would raise such fierce feelings. Even at the best of times there is a widespread view that female novelists are considered great more grudgingly than male ones. In any case, Gatti does not get close to proving that Ferrante had a scheme to deceive her readers, and proof is meant to matter to investigative journalists. Certainly, Ferrante is no Rahila Khan.

Who? In 1987, Virago published Down the Road, Worlds Away, a book of stories by a little-known British Muslim woman. Khans work, mostly about the hardship of Asian teenagers in modern Britain, had been broadcast on BBC Radio and much praised. An article in the Times Educational Supplement said that her first story almost persuaded me that literature still has some relevance to life.

Khan was shy about her fame, perhaps not surprisingly, although she took her shyness awfully far, never meeting or even speaking to her radio editor, her publisher or even her agent. There turned out to a simple explanation. She was the Reverend Toby Forward, an Anglican vicar in Brighton who believed that fiction by vicars wasnt taken seriously. When Virago found out, they were outraged, and withdrew the book from sale. Forward now writes childrens books, and has always argued, as Lionel Shriver did so shockingly at the Brisbane Writers festival last month, that fiction writers are supposed to imagine being other people. That doesnt mean you get it right, however. For instance, he imagined that Virago wouldnt mind.

Ferrante has no need to justify her anonymity. She can do whatever works for her. Interestingly, Clarke-Williams thinks that not even proven hypocrisy on her part would legally justify her exposure in the public interest. All shes doing is writing fiction which has struck a chord, and she may or may not have had the personal experience I think a writer of fiction is expected to make things up!

The late Harper Lee never hid her identity, but did manage to stay out of the public eye for much of her life. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Even so, it is worth considering her other choices. JD Salinger, Harper Lee and Thomas Pynchon have all shown that novelists need not conceal their names in order to be little-known. On the contrary, by making her identity a secret, Ferrante inevitably made it much more interesting, not least because it gave people cause to wonder whether she had something autobiographical to hide. She seems to have been drawn into all those interviews in an effort to explain herself.

She has mentioned being inspired by Jane Austen, whose anonymity made a great impression on me as a girl of 15, but Charlotte Bront is instructive, too. She published Jane Eyre as Currer Bell, with her sisters Emily and Anne being Ellis and Acton. Besides being averse to personal publicity, they had chosen pseudo-male names because of a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; indeed, rather than spending all its energy on Jane Eyre, the world spent much more on guessing who Currer Bell was, and especially which sex. This just made Charlotte more reluctant to reveal herself, which was torture when she realised that several of her literary heroes Dickens, Thackeray, Martineau were eager to meet her if she would just drop by. By the time her next novel, Shirley, was published, she was worried that her mail would be opened at the local post office. (A reminder that hacking was not invented with computers.) In the end, she gave in.

The point then, as now, as always, is that you cant seek attention for your work and hope that none seeks you. You cant choose absence. You can only choose to be yourself, or to be a mystery, and people who dont love mysteries cannot love novels either. Besides, of course it matters who the author is, at least eventually. Otherwise there could still be someone saying that Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, even Pride and Prejudice, were too good to be written by a woman.

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Elena Ferrante: literary storm as Italian reporter ‘identifies’ author

Claudio Gatti says he has solved one of modern literatures biggest mysteries but fans criticise his report as an intrusion

It is, arguably, the biggest mystery in modern literature: the true identity of novelist Elena Ferrante. But when one of Italys investigative journalists claimed to have unmasked her on Sunday, the response of many in the literary world was to ask why he had felt the need to do so.

Writing for the New York Review of Books and Il Sole 24 Ore, journalist Claudio Gatti said he had been able to identify the author of My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the highly acclaimed Neapolitan series as a Rome-based translator who once helped run a publishing imprint of Italian writers.

But her publisher and high-profile authors asked why Gatti had acted the way he did. Sandro Ferri, Ferrantes publisher and one of the few people who is known to know her identity, said he was appalled by the attempt to unmask a woman who has purposely steered clear of the limelight and has always said that she only wanted to write books.

We just think that this kind of journalism is disgusting, he told the Guardian. Searching in the wallet of a writer who has just decided not to be public.

Readers called the alleged scoop an intrusion into the life of one of the worlds most influential female writers. Some were afraid it would stop Ferrante from ever writing again, saying the story had been driven by the ego of the reporter and the New York Review of Books.

Some said there were far more worthy targets of investigative journalism.

Pamela Paul (@PamelaPaulNYT)

Who else here would rather uncover Trump’s taxes than Elena Ferrante’s identity?

October 2, 2016

Kimberly Burns (@kimberlyburnspr)

Shameful. If Elena Ferrante doesn’t write another book, it is because of the attention-hungry egos of Claudio Gatti & @nybooks editors.

October 2, 2016

Jojo Moyes, the British author who wrote Me Before You, said the issue boiled down to something very simple: that Ferrante may have had good reason to write under a pseudonym.

Jojo Moyes (@jojomoyes)

Re those last RTs. Maybe Elena Ferrante has very good reasons to write under a pseudonym. It’s not our ‘right’ to know her.

October 2, 2016

Gattis conclusion was based on his review of payments that were allegedly made by Ferrantes publisher, Edizione E/O, which Gatti said showed that the main financial beneficiary of Ferrantes extraordinary success was Anita Raja.

Rajas name will be familiar to those who have long followed the speculation over Ferrantes identity, as it has been raised in ruminative Italian press reports for years never with any solid evidence.

In his piece, Gatti pointed to Italian real estate records that allegedly showed Raja and her husband, Domenico Starnone, buying multimillion euro properties in Rome around the time that Ferrante became an international sensation.

Gatti reported that neither Raja nor Starnone had responded to repeated requests for comment.

In response to the criticism, Gatti said Ferrante was arguably the most well-known Italian figure in the world, and that there was a legitimate right for readers to know … as they have made her such a superstar.

He said Ferrante and her publishers acknowledged as much when they agreed to publish a autobiographical work called Frantumaglia, which Gatti said was full of untruths about Ferrantes personal story.

In it, Ferrante points to a quote from Italo Calvino: Ask me what you want to know, but I wont tell you the truth, of that you can be sure, saying she liked the passage.

I believe that by announcing that she would lie on her own autobiographical essay, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown, Gatti told the Guardian in an email.

Indeed, she and her publisher seemed not only to have fed public interest in her true identity but to have challenged critics and journalists to go behind the lies. She told us that she finds them healthy. As a journalist, I dont. In fact it is my job to expose them.

While dozens of articles have been written over the years speculating about Ferrantes true identity, Ferrante has always zealously guarded her anonymity, saying it gives her the protection she needs to write in the sometimes brutally honest style that millions of people have been drawn to.

Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator and allegedly the author Elena Ferrante. Photograph:

Readers and critics particularly admire Ferrante for her ability to capture the inner lives of women, a feat that the author has always suggested requires her to be shielded from public scrutiny.

Asked by the Guardian in an email interview earlier this year why she protected her anonymity, Ferrante said it was partly to shield the Neapolitan community from which she drew her inspiration. But there were other reasons, too.

The wish to remove oneself from all forms of social pressure or obligation. Not to feel tied down to what could become ones public image. To concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies, she wrote.

When asked in a 2015 email interview in the Financial Times about her characters emotional breakdowns, experiences that are described as dissolving, Ferrante said she had seen the phenomenon in her own mother.

We experience too many ties that choke our desires and ambitions. The modern world subjects us to pressures that at times we are not able to bear, she said.

In another passage, she explains the sometimes savage world she grew up in, where men could be violent to correct women.

In comments that could resonate in the media storm surrounding her identity, she wrote: Today much has changed but I still think the men who can really be trusted are a minority maybe (and this is what I tend to believe) its because male power, whether violently or delicately imposed, is still bent on subordinating us. Too many women are humiliated every day and not just on a symbolic level.

According to Gatti, Raja has worked as a German translator for Edizione E/O and helped to run an imprint there, Collana degli Azzurri, in the 1990s, which published about four books by Italian writers, including Ferrantes first novel. Among other works, Raja has translated the works of German writer Christa Wolf.

If Ferrantes identity is ever confirmed and it may never be it would at least end speculation, particularly in the Italian press, that Ferrante is actually a man.

In an article by journalist Rachel Donadio published in the New York Review of Books in 2014, Donadio said the suggestion was more telling about contemporary Italy than about Ferrantes work, before repeating the assertion that it could be Domenico Starnone, Rajas husband, or Raja.

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Love and Rockets to Wonder Woman: 20 comics and graphic novels to look forward to

From the return of an underground classic to the rebirth of a superhero, here are some of the titles to pick up in late 2016 and early 2017

Exits by Daryl Seitchik (Koyama Press, September)
Seitchik follows up her Ignatz award-nominated Missy comics with a debut graphic novel focusing on mirror-store clerk Claire Kim, who hates herself and the world she lives in. Claire spends her days showing customers their reflections while dreaming about erasing her own: a wish that ends up coming true. ZA

Photograph: Drawn and Quarterly

Cheap Novelties by Ben Katchor (Drawn & Quarterly, September)
Subtitled The Pleasures of Urban Decay, this collection of one-page strips featuring real-estate photographer Julius Knipl was originally published in 1991. Twenty-five years on, its observations of what is lost as cityscapes evolve and shift due to gentrification and changing demographics are still fresh and relevant. DB

Equinoxes by Cyril Pedrosa (NBM, September)
The second of Pedrosas books to be given an English translation, Equinoxes promises to be another work of watercoloured gorgeousness. Divided into four sections (to correlate with each season), it follows several unconnected people who, as they seek equilibrium and meaning, begin to cross paths. ZA

Mooncop. Photograph: Drawn & Quarterly

Mooncop by Tom Gauld (Drawn & Quarterly, September)
Gauld will be no stranger to Guardian readers, with his cartoons appearing in the paper and online every Saturday. In Mooncop, he turns his deceptively simple style to a tale that is both heartwarming and sad; the story of the last policeman on the moon at a time when the novelty of the lunar lifestyle is fading for almost everyone else. DB

Photograph: Koyama Press

Cat Rackham by Steve Wolfhard (Koyama Press, September)
Wolfhards early, out-of-print Cat Rackham comics are collected here in one satisfyingly comprehensive volume. Although it fills him with existential dread, Rackham still gets out of bed every morning to somehow, yet again, find himself mired in trouble of the strangest kind. ZA

Fatherson by Richie Pope (Youth in Decline, September)
Popes career has been on a rising trajectory these past few years, as he established himself with layered, sophisticated narratives such as last years Newdini, and his superlative illustration work. This latest book, a touching and surreal narrative of fatherhood, looks set to further cement his reputation as a fine contemporary talent. ZA

Photograph: Self Made Hero

Dal by Baudoin (Self Made Hero, October)
Self Made Hero continues its trend of exemplary graphic biography with this piece on Salvador Dal by French creator Edmond Baudoin. The three-time Angoulme international comics festival award winner was commissioned by the Pompidou Centre to put together this look at the life and work of the surrealist extraordinaire. DB

Detail from the cover of Nightlights. Photograph: Nobrow

Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez (Nobrow, October)
An impressive year for Nobrow looks set to continue with Alvarezs charming childrens story about fear and creativity: Every night, tiny stars appear out of the darkness in little Sandys bedroom. She catches them and creates wonderful creatures to play with until she falls asleep, and in the morning brings them back to life in the whimsical drawings that cover her room. Until somebody finds out. ZA

Photograph: Oni Press

Space Battle Lunchtime by Natalie Reiss (Oni Press, October)
GBBO and Masterchef fever makes its way to comics with a galactic twist. Amateur pastry chef Peony finds herself the sole earthling contestant in a popular TV cooking competition. Excited about the opportunity of a lifetime, doubts soon arise as Peony realises that the show shoots on location on a spaceship and her alien competitors dont play nice! Reiss brings the story to life with some joyfully expressive, colourful art. ZA

Detail from the cover of Rolling Blackouts. Photograph: Drawn & Quarterly

Rolling Blackouts by Sarah Glidden (Drawn & Quarterly, October)
Continuing the grand tradition of graphic journalism most eminently practised by Joe Sacco, Sarah Gliddens remarkable Rolling Blackouts adds a new twist to the form. Glidden accompanies a team of journalists through Syria and Iraq and her muted watercolours record not only the lives of people in war zones but the way the media interacts with them. Highly recommended. DB

Photograph: Self Made Hero

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by MR James, Leah Moore and John Reppion (Self Made Hero, October)
Jamess ghost stories have been fertile ground for adaptions on TV and radio: now husband-and-wife writer team Moore and Reppion, along with four different artists, have brought four of Jamess most famous and well-loved spectral tales Canon Alberics Scrap-book, Lost Hearts, The Mezzotint and The Ash-tree to graphic novel form (and just in time for Halloween). DB

Liberty Annual 2016 (Image, November)
This yearly release from Image comics features a wealth of graphic talent telling the stories of true heroes who have made a difference in the world. Ordinary people who take a stand, suffragettes, campaigners and activists all get a look in from creators including Mary and Bryan Talbot, Paul Pope and Anina Bennett, with proceeds going to the censorship-busting Comic Book Legal Defence Fund. DB

Photograph: Cinebook

Clear Blue Tomorrows by Fabien Vehlmann, Ralph Meyer and Bruno Gazzotti (Cinebook, November)
Clear Blue Tomorrows provides an amusing dystopian set-up: engineer Nolan Ska travels back in time to prevent the ruling dictatorship made possible by the inventions of one FG Wilson. His plan? To encourage Wilsons first career of novelist. But the man who will eventually become a seemingly immortal despot turns out to be a poor author, and its up to Nolan to serve as his ghost writer. ZA

Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto (Viz, November)
Taking its name from the dilapidated yellow Nissan Sunny used by the residents of a childrens care home as a refuge and play area, this is the sixth and final volume in Matsumotos melancholy, beautiful series. Each chapter serves as a story in itself, with Matsumotos art reinforcing the emotional current of the narrative: dreamlike, yet rooted in something tangibly real. ZA

Photograph: Image Comics

Paper Girls, Volume Two (Image, November)
Brian K Vaughan, Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilsons homage to 1980s horror and sci-fi is a delight; think Stranger Things but with more girls and more aliens. Its probably not wise to leap into Vaughans convoluted plot with this second collection of the monthly comic, but youve still got time to catch up with book one before this is out. DB

Photograph: Image Comics

Rumble 3: Immortal Coil by James Harren and John Arcudi (Image, December)
Formerly a great warrior who has been reduced to a sorry, vestigial creature, Rathraq looks to avenge himself with the help of Bobby and Del, a couple of normal twentysomethings. The third instalment in what is an overlooked gem, this series is filled with wit, heart and fantastic art from Harren. A stellar example of how entertaining and impressive graphic storytelling can be. ZA

Detail from the cover of Harrow County volume 4. Photograph: Dark Horse

Harrow County Volume 4: Family Tree by Cullen Bunn (Dark Horse, February 2017)
Harrow County is one of the best and creepiest horror titles on the market, from writer Bunn and artist Tyler Crook. True southern gothic, its steeped in rural folklore and dark doings in the woods, with teenager Emmy discovering she is the carrier of a shadowy, witchy legacy, in a landscape haunted by creatures and myths both benign and alarming. DB

Photograph: DC Comics

Wonder Woman: Rebirth by Greg Rucka (DC, March 2017)
In her 75th year, Diana of Themyscira Wonder Woman to you and me gets the DC Rebirth treatment, a new project by the comics giant to reposition their classic characters in a bid to make some sense of their tangled continuity. Writer Rucka, with artists Nicola Scott and Liam Sharp, has been making Diana relevant for 2016 since summer in monthly comic form; the collected edition of this beautiful new series is out in spring. DB

Uncomfortably Happily by Yeon-Sik Hong (D&Q, March 2017)
Drawn & Quarterly brings Korean cartoonist Yeon-Sik Hongs acclaimed tale of a young couple who leave the noise of the city in order to live off the land to English for the first time. Her characters soon discover that living remotely on a mountain-top comes with a unique set of obstacles, as they tend their crops, fight depression in the intense solitude, and tramp through snow on grocery runs. ZA

Detail from the cover of the forthcoming issue of Love and Rockets. Photograph: Supplied

Love and Rockets by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics, autumn)
Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez are the darlings of the independent comics scene thanks to their 35 years spent creating Love and Rockets. These anthologies are most famous for Jaimes punky Locas stories, featuring Maggie and Hopey, and Gilberts epic Heartbreak Soup, set in a remote South American village. After a few years being released in album form annually, theyre returning to regular magazine publication this autumn. DB

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A ‘radical alternative’: how one man changed the perception of Los Angeles

In the 1960s, British architectural critic Reyner Banham declared his love for the city that his fellow intellectuals hated. What Banham wrote about Los Angeles redefined how the world perceived it but what would he think of LA today?

Now I know subjective opinions can vary, the journalist Adam Raphael wrote in the Guardian in 1968, but personally I reckon LA as the noisiest, the smelliest, the most uncomfortable and most uncivilised major city in the United States. In short, a stinking sewer …

Three years later, Raphaels words appeared in print again as an epigraph of Reyner Banhams Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies the most exuberantly pro-Los Angeles book ever written. Ever since publication, it has shown up on lists of great books about modern cities even those drawn up by people who consider Los Angeles anything but a great American city.

Somehow, this book that drew so much of its initial publicity with shock value (In Praise (!) of Los Angeles, sneered the New York Times reviews headline) has kept its relevance through the decades, such that newly arrived Angelenos still read it to orient themselves. But what can it teach us about the Los Angeles of today?

An architectural historian a decade into his career when he first visited, Banham knew full-well that his fellow intellectuals hated Los Angeles. How and why he himself came so avidly to appreciate it constitutes the core question of his work on the city, which culminated in this slim volume.

The many who were ready to cast doubt on the worth of the enterprise, he reflected in its final chapter, included a distinguished Italian architect and his wife who, on discovering that I was writing this book, doubted that anyone who cared for architecture could lower himself to such a project and walked away without a word further.

The project began when Banham brought his shaggy beard and wonky teeth to Los Angeles and declared that he loved the city with a passion, in the words of novelist and Bradford-born Los Angeles expat Richard Rayner. Teaching at the University of Southern California, who put him up in the Greene brothers architecturally worshipped Gamble House in Pasadena, Banham had a privileged base from which to explore. But what he went looking for, and the way he wrote about what he saw and felt, redefined the way the intellectual world and then the wider world perceived the city.

Reyner Banham with his shaggy beard and wonky teeth in 1968. Photograph: Peter Johns for the Guardian

Not that he declared his love right there on the tarmac at LAX. Banham initially found the city incomprehensible a response shared by many critics, wrote Nigel Whiteley in the study Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future.

Banham first attempted to publicly explain this cutting-edge metropolis, saturated across its enormous space with electronic devices, synthetic chemicals and televisions, in four 1968 BBC radio talks. He told of how he came to grips with LAs embodiment of the experimental: its experimental shape and infrastructure, the combinations of cultures it accommodated, and the experimental lifestyles to which it gave rise.

But even an appreciator like Banham had his qualms with the result. In Los Angeles you tend to go to a particular place to do a particular thing, to another to do another thing, and finally a long way back to your home, and youve done 100 miles in the day, he complained in the third talk. The distances and the reliance on mechanical transportation leave no room for accident even for happy accidents. You plan the day in advance, programme your activities, and forgo those random encounters with friends and strangers that are traditionally one of the rewards of city life.

Nevertheless, to Banham this un-city-like city held out a promise: The unique value of Los Angeles what excites, intrigues and sometimes repels me is that it offers radical alternatives to almost every urban concept in unquestioned currency.

In his subsequent landmark book, Banham enumerated Los Angeles departures from traditional urbanism, as well as from all the rules for civilised living as they have been understood by the pundits of modernity, with evident delight. It seemed to legitimise a model he had already, in a 1959 article, proposed to replace the old conception of a single dense core surrounded by a wall.

Civilised living in suburban LA. Photograph: University of Southern California/Corbis via Getty Images

Banham foresaw the city as scrambled egg, its shell broken open, its business yolk mixed with its domestic white, and everything spread across the landscape, its evenness disturbed only by occasional specialised sub-centres. A visitor to Los Angeles today might hear the city explained in just the same way: as a network of nodes, a constellation of urban villages, an exercise in postmodern polycentrism.

Banham put another finger in the eye of traditionalists who insisted that a city should have just one strong centre with his short chapter A Note on Downtown, which opens with the words, … because that is all downtown Los Angeles deserves.

From its fetishised structures such as the Bradbury Building and Cathedral of Saint Vibiana to its brand new office towers in their standard livery of dark glass and steel, Banham wrote that everything stands as an unintegrated fragment in a downtown scene that began to disintegrate long ago out of sheer irrelevance, as far as one can see.

The books contrarianism reflects the contrarianism of Los Angeles itself, which, insofar as it performs the functions of a great city, in terms of size, cosmopolitan style, creative energy, international influence, distinctive way of life, and corporate personality [proves that] all the most admired theorists of the present century, from the Futurists and Le Corbusier to Jane Jacobs and Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, have been wrong.

Filled with photographs and diagrams, Banhams book on Los Angeles divides its subject up into the four ecologies of its subtitle: the beaches and beach towns of Surfurbia; the Foothills with their ever more elaborate and expensive residences; the utilitarian Plains of Id (the only parts of Los Angeles flat enough and boring enough to compare with the cities of the Middle West) and the famous, then infamous, freeway system he dubbed Autopia: a single comprehensible place, a coherent state of mind in which Angelenos spend the two calmest and most rewarding hours of their daily lives.

The 1893 Bradbury Building in downtown LA was an unintegrated fragment in Banhams eyes. Photograph: Michele and Tom Grimm/Alamy

Between chapters on the citys ecologies, Banham examined the buildings found in them. Populist, stylistically promiscuous, tradition-agnostic and often deliberately impermanent, Los Angeles architecture has, of all the citys elements, drawn distain the longest. There is no reward for aesthetic virtue here, no punishment for aesthetic crime; nothing but a vast cosmic indifference, wrote the novelist James M. Cain in 1933.

More than 40 years later, Banham saw a stylistic bounty of Tacoburger Aztec to Wavy-line Moderne, from Cape Cod to unsupported Jaoul vaults, from Gourmet Mansardic to Polynesian Gabled and even in extremity Modern Architecture.

He discussed at length the LA building known as the dingbat a two-storey walk-up apartment-block … built of wood and stuccoed over, all identical at the back but cheaply, elaborately, decorated up-front, emblazoned with an aspirational name such as the Capri or the Starlet.

In defining dingbats as the true symptom of Los Angeles urban id, trying to cope with the unprecedented appearance of residential densities too high to be subsumed within the illusions of homestead living, Banham diagnosed the central and persistent tension, then as now, between wanting to grow outward and needing to grow upward.

Banham drew out the meaning of Los Angeles ostensibly disposable buildings not by venerating them, nor denigrating them, but simply by seeing them as they were. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour would advocate the same approach in their own urban classic, Learning from Las Vegas, published the following year: Withholding judgment may be used as a tool to make later judgment more sensitive. This is a way of learning from everything.

Still, even appreciators of Los Angeles might take issue with this method when Banhams non-judgmental attitude at least toward the aesthetics of American commercial culture starts to look like advocacy for bad taste.

The self-absorbed and perfected Watts Towers. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Non-appreciators of Los Angeles certainly did. The painter and critic Peter Plagens, author of an 11,000-word excoriation in Artforum magazine entitled The Ecology of Evil, went so far as to label Banhams book dangerous: The hacks who do shopping centres, Hawaiian restaurants and savings-and-loans, the dried-up civil servants in the division of highways, and the legions of showbiz fringies will sleep a little easier and work a little harder now that their enterprises have been authenticated. In a more humane society where Banhams doctrines would be measured against the subdividers rape of the land and the lead particles in little kids lungs, the author might be stood up against a wall and shot.

Uncowed, Banham followed the book by starring in Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, a 1972 television documentary that followed him through one day in the city that makes nonsense of history and breaks all the rules, and inspired within him a passion that goes beyond sense or reason. Stops on the tour included Simon Rodias handmade Watts Towers (a totally self-absorbed and perfected monument) to Los Angeles characteristic fantasy of innocence (prominently marked on all the maps in his book); the overgrown sections of the old Pacific Electric Railways rusting rails that once tied the whole huge city together; the decrepit canals and beachside bodybuilding facilities of Venice; and a Sunset Boulevard drive-in burger joint.

There, Banham asked the painter Ed Ruscha, plainspoken and painstaking observer of American urban banality, what public buildings a visitor should see. Ruscha recommended gas stations.

Banham pre-empted objections to Los Angeles urban form by claiming the form matters very little, having already written that Los Angeles has no urban form at all in the commonly accepted sense. Yet whatever it does have, he argued, has produced a fascinating, and sometimes even efficient, set of emergent urban phenomena.

Come the day when the smog doom finally descends, he narrated over aerial shots of Wilshire Boulevards double row of towers and frame-filling neighbourhoods of detached houses, … when the traffic grinds to a halt and the private car is banned from the street, quite a lot of craftily placed citizens will be able to switch over to being pedestrians and feel no pain.

Cyclists on Venice Beach … though much of LA is not bike-friendly. Photograph: Alamy

The end of the car in Los Angeles? Bold words for the man who called Wilshire Boulevard one of the few great streets in the world where driving is a pleasure after having, like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original, learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original.

But just as the languages heard on the streets of Los Angeles have multiplied, the language of mobility has changed there, as has much else besides. How legible would Banham, who died in 1988, now find it?

The smog that supposed bane of the citys postwar decades which he always downplayed has all but vanished. The time of apparently unlimited space to gratify an obsession with single-family dwellings has given way to one of construction cranes sprouting to satisfy the new demand for high-density vertical living. They stand not just over a downtown risen miraculously from the dead, but the specialised sub-centres scattered all over greater Los Angeles.

Though the ban on private cars hasnt come yet, no recent development astonishes any Angeleno who was there in the 1970s more than the citys new rail transit network, which started to emerge almost 30 years after the end of the Pacific Electric. It ranks as such as a success of funding, planning and implementation (at least by the globally unimpressive American standard) that the rest of the country now looks to Los Angeles as an example of how to build public transportation and, increasingly, public space in general.

Readers might scoff at Banham calling the Los Angeles freeway network one of the greater works of man but he has demonstrated more of an ability to see beyond it than many current observers of Los Angeles. Even though it is vastly better than any other motorway system of my acquaintance, he wrote, it is inconceivable to Angelenos that it should not be replaced by an even better system nearer to the perfection they are always seeking.

Banham felt downtown Los Angeles only deserved a short chapter dedicated to it. Photograph: Alamy

Banham also foresaw the rise of the self-driving car, so often mooted these days as an alternative solution to Los Angeles traffic woes. But cars that drive themselves (as distinct from Baede-kar a then-fantastical voice navigation system dreamed up for Banhams TV doc, that bears an uncanny resemblance to those every American driver uses today) come with problems that Banham also predicted all those years ago. The marginal gains in efficiency through automation, he wrote, might be offset by the psychological deprivations caused by destroying the residual illusions of free decision and driving skill.

Under each outwardly celebratory page of Banhams book lies the notion of change as Los Angeles only constant: no matter how excitingly modern the car and the freeway, their day will come to an end; no matter how comfortably idyllic the detached house, it too must fall out of favour, or into impracticality, sooner or later.

Some of the elements that drew Banhams attention have, after their own periods of disrepute, turned fashionable again. Even the humble dingbat has found a place in the future of the city, becoming the object of critical study and architectural competition.

Banham also saw the future of Los Angeles in other unprepossessing buildings, especially one striking and elegantly simple stucco box on La Cienega Boulevard. Its architect? A certain Frank Gehry, then almost unknown but now one of the most powerful influencers of the built environment in not just Los Angeles (his current high-profile project involves re-making the citys famously dry, concrete-encased river), but other cities as well. The Toronto-born starchitect became his adopted hometowns architectural emissary just one of the myriad ways in which Los Angeles has influenced the rest of the urban world.

These days, the rest of the urban world also influences Los Angeles. No longer labouring under the delusions of total exceptionalism that prevailed in Banhams day, it has, with its towers, trains, parks and even bike-share systems, made strides toward the liveability so demanded by 21st-century urbanists. It now even resembles (if faintly) New York, Boston, London, and Paris those thoroughly planned, non-experimental cities where, Banham lamented, warring pressure groups cannot get out of one anothers hair because they are pressed together in a sacred labyrinth of cultural monuments and real estate values.

In its impressive bid to incorporate older metropolitan virtues and play by the rules of good urban design, modern Los Angeles ignores the possibility of becoming a similarly sacred labyrinth at its peril. Keeping Banhams Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies on its syllabus will hopefully protect against the dire fate of losing its rule-breaking experimental urban spirit.

The engineering-trained author regarded Los Angeles as a kind of machine. Though it has come in for a badly needed overhaul of its interface in recent years, nobody has yet written a users manual more engaged in the city on its own terms as Banham did 45 years ago.

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