The Lying Lives of Adults starts with a misunderstanding: Giovanna, the protagonist, is 12. She is well into puberty, having been menstruating for a year. Her breasts seem to her over-large encumbrances inviting men’s unwelcome interest, and her burgeoning body is a profound source of shame. She hears her father say, prompted by her unexpectedly bad grades at school, that she’s becoming just like her aunt (“she’s getting the face of Vittoria”) which she translates into her being “very ugly.” Vittoria is the father’s estranged sister who is the face of everything “ugly” Giovanna’s parents have fought to leave behind of their working class origins which are “ugly” in all the nuances of that word, particularly in Italian: aesthetically (the dreary part of town they used to inhabit), coarseness (lack of education, dialect and bad language), morally (supposed “delinquenza” – criminality, and sexual immorality). This in contrast to the educated refinement of their bourgeois existence up the hill overlooking this squalor, unmarked by such taint. Giovanna is dressed in innocent pink and speaks a hypercorrect Italian.
Driven to discover the faccia (the face) with which she is apparently condemned to live, Giovanna insists on descending to this netherworld to seek out her aunt whom she discovers to be of such an unbearable beauty that she has to conceive her as ugly. And this is the thread I want to briefly explore––the paradoxical nature of the beautiful as ugly, especially in regard to Giovanna’s increasingly sexual body. This renders her an “object” of desire, initially abusively and self-abusively at the hands of one of Vittoria’s “godsons,” but also of the prurience of her father’s best friend who ogles her breasts; or in the utterance of a classmate, “her ass isn’t bad either, just put a pillow over her face and you’d have a great fuck.”
Much of the lying of the title is gradually revealed in the hypocrisy of the moral superiority assumed by Giovanna’s parents; but more particularly in the conflicting accounts of the break between Vittoria and her brother. It emerges most starkly in relation to a bracelet which Vittoria is surprised not to see on her niece’s wrist when they at last meet, and which she claims to have given her at her christening. Whatever the truth of the conflicting lies about this jewel’s legitimate ownership, part of its narrative importance is as an object of desire, envy, theft and above all possession, “as if the glitter of its stones, of its gold, scattered afflictions.” Vittoria’s discovery of it on the wrong wrist seemingly triggers the end of her parents’ marriage, hitherto apparently cloudless and idealized, if emotionally sterile. This rupture, Giovanna blames on her descent into the bruttezze of Vittoria’s world, and on her own irredeemable ugliness. She abandons pink for total black, and she dresses like a slattern, actively seeking self-degradation. It is at this point that she permits herself a casual blowjob with Vittoria’s “godson” despite her lack of interest and disgust.
Thus far, sex seems be to be degradation, possession and deception: the idealized adults in her life seem to have all treated persons and properties as objects of possession, expropriation and theft. Things turn for Giovanna when she encounters the apparently saintly Roberto who is in a relationship with Vittoria’s “goddaughter,” Giuliana. She resigns herself to his inaccessibility because of this commitment to her friend, but feels at least that maybe she might become spiritually beautiful if not physically. And thus starts the transition from love as ugly possession into selflessness and self-possession.
When the opportunity presents itself for her to go to bed with him, despite Roberto’s surprising willingness to deceive Giuliana, she foregoes it: if the rubies on the bracelet suggest passion, the constancy signified by its diamonds implies renunciation. She dumps the bracelet as an ill-omened gift on the floor of the boy she chooses to deflower her without pretense of love, on her own terms, with most of their clothes on, without kissing and without his touching her breasts. He is feared because of his criminal connections and is the epitome of “criminal Italy” which possesses whatever it desires. He is left bewildered, she––joyful and self-possessed, imparting the sense that she has redeemed the innocence of a now beautiful body, and of a sexuality, from which her upbringing had separated her, and to which her introduction had been noxious.
Richard Carvalho graduated in medicine before specializing in psychiatry, which led him to train as a psychotherapist and analyst. He was Consultant Psychotherapist at a London University teaching hospital, and now works in private practice. Among his publications is a study of the phenomenon of “smarginatura” in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, L’Amica geniale. (Carvalho, R. 2018. Smarginatura and Spiragli: Uses of Infinity in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Allegoria 77, 94 – 111.)