Alone With Language

By David Kurnick

You could tell it like a fairy tale: a malevolent father who curses his daughter with ugliness; a comely prince who, some difficult years later, lifts the curse by praising the girl’s beauty. An enchanted bracelet, invested with mysterious power by the father’s hated and feared sister, who practices the “terrible arts” of a witch. Ferrante’s readers will recognize some of these features of The Lying Life of Adults from the Neapolitan Quartet, where a doll or an account book or a pair of elegant shoes could also take on a quasi-magical character. But of course the main locus of uncanny power in the earlier books wasn’t an object but a person. Lila, the “brilliant friend,” was the home of enchantment in the quartet; or, more precisely, enchantment lived in the relation between Lila’s uncanniness and the watchful narrator, Lenù—a relation that electrified the social and historical fields the two women navigated, making everything dangerously meaningful.

Giovanna, the narrator of The Lying Life, has no such singular Other with whom and against whom to perceive the world. She moves into young adulthood over the course of this novel mostly on her own, and only half-believing in the magic she projects onto her surroundings. She loves the father, whom she seems to recognize—even as he speaks his terrifying words—as a limited adult with problems of his own; she knows intuitively that the vision of her aunt Vittoria as a witch is the result of family lore that has made her into a “childhood bogeyman,” and she understands that her own attraction to Vittoria is not some dark destiny but a natural outgrowth of that family legend. Very little escapes the general sense of disillusionment announced in the title: there’s an idealized male figure who at first appears not unlike the quartet’s Nino Sarratore. But where Nino was dramatically unveiled after long years as a shallow rake, Roberto seems to be what he seems to be—thoughtful, complex, no saint but no demon. Even the lesbian eroticism that some readers wanted more of in the Neapolitan novels causes no narrative cataclysm when is given more prominence here.

Giovanna’s aloneness is that of the classic Bildungsroman, of course, but it also feels like a classed fact and a historical one. In the Neapolitan Quartet, the working-class Greco family is so teeming with siblings that when I glanced recently at the character cheat-sheet printed at the head of the first novel I hardly remembered some of their names (Peppe? Gianni?). Giovanna’s precarious middle-class position is precisely sketched: her father, “an intellectual fairly well known in the city,” teaches philosophy and history at “the most prestigious high school in Naples,” while her mother teaches Greek and Latin at a different school and supplements the family income as a proofreader of romance novels. Giovanna’s status as an only child is clearly a feature of their class aspiration. More startlingly, we learn early on that Giovanna was born in 1979. This the first of Ferrante books to focus on this younger generation: Giovanna could be the daughter of any of her previous novels’ narrators (at a certain point, she appears to go through an echt-90s Goth phase). The Lying Life of Adults is, accordingly, less about the turbulence of class mobility than its troubled residues. Like Ferrante’s earlier narrators, Giovanna experiences Neapolitan dialect as an alluring threat, redolent of poverty and sex and violence. But the threat operates over the distance of a generation.

The distinctive status of dialect here hardly lessens the magnetic power that the spoken word exercises in the novel, though. “Two years before leaving home,” the novel opens, “my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” The line will recall Ferrante’s readers to the striking moment in her essay collection Frantumaglia where she reflects on her first reading, as a teenager, of Madame Bovary. Ferrante reports her fascination with the scene in which Emma strikes her daughter, who falls and cuts her cheek. Emma unforgettably responds not with compassion or remorse but with aesthetic revulsion: “It’s strange how ugly this child is!” Ferrante says the line preoccupied her for years as a mystery about gender: “In certain phases of my life I’ve imagined that only a man could conceive it,” while “in other periods I’ve believed, bitterly, that men who are masters of writing are able to have their female characters say what women truly think and say and live but do not dare write.” These lines tempt us to receive The Lying Life of Adults as Ferrante’s long-delayed response to Flaubert, her decision to seize those words and put them back in the father’s mouth where they originated.

But even as we register the inevitability of this interpretive path (Ferrante herself has after all set us on it), we might recognize the traps that await. A few pages into the novel we learn that the attribution of ugliness is Giovanna’s paraphrase of her father’s actual words, which were: “She’s getting the face of Vittoria.” The revelation of narratorial unreliability happens without fanfare, but we shouldn’t underestimate its significance. The inaugural scene of being wounded and shaped by language was, it turns out, really one of creative misprision. Some people might just call it “lying”: the father’s curse was as much Giovanna’s invention as his, a speech act she has conjured into the world for opaque reasons of her own, but certainly from some desire to give her life shape, texture, sensation (the curse, after all, effectively launches her sentimental education). Even when Ferrante has ensconced her heroine in tentative middle-class privilege—privilege that here feels strangely like sensory and social deprivation—her novel has its Other in language: a medium of enchantment and disenchantment from which she wrests sheer narrative momentum. Is it a weakness or a strength of this book that at its conclusion I turned the page, expecting and wanting the play of illusion and disillusion to keep going?

David Kurnick teaches English at Rutgers University. He writes about the nineteenth-century and contemporary novel, and has translated work by Álvaro Enrigue and Julio Cortázar. 

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