Translated from Italian by Serena Todesco
Elena Ferrante’s new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, is intense and bitter. The narrative does not follow up on the Neapolitan Quartet, but rather provides a different perspective from within the same space: the city of Naples. A brand-new feminine identity now takes center stage. This new identity is no longer a hybrid one moving between two worlds––a low-class and a bourgeois one, as was the case with Elena in My Brilliant Friend, or with Delia, Olga, and Leda, respectively in Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter. These women inhabited a sort of third intermediate space situated between the “plebeian” Neapolitan world and the bourgeois Italian one, both experiencing a reciprocal and continuous dissolving of margins––first of all, those of language.
Giovanna Trada––the female protagonist and narrating voice at the centre of The Lying Life of Adults––does not pretend to be bourgeois––she belongs to the petit bourgeoisie. She recounts her own teenage education after its conclusion (the story starts when she is twelve years old). At the beginning, Giovanna’s existence is forged entirely by the superficial conventions made plausible by the only urban space she inhabits with certainty––the Vomero Neapolitan neighborhood, endowed with a high position (both in a geographical and in a symbolic sense). For people living in the centre and in the low-class suburbs, the Vomero epitomizes normalization and homogenization.
Her insufferably decorous Italian language is the result of the first lie that has spawned Giovanna: the lie embodied by her father who, conversely, does come from the low-class suburb Pascone. He has managed to become a high school teacher and an intellectual boasting a certain prestige only by disavowing his closest relatives and his own shameful social origins. Within the frame of a liberal and permissive education, the only prohibition that this ostensibly progressive parent imposes on his daughter is that on speaking the Neapolitan dialect.
The shell of the “lying life” in Giovanna’s respectable existence breaks only when she accidentally overhears her father’s words: “She’s getting the face of Vittoria.” The father’s sister, Aunt Vittoria, embodies the archetypal witch, a “monstrous being who taints and infects anyone who touches her,” but carries the incarnation of an underclass vitality that is at once liberating and archaic. In this case, the aunt’s capacity to break through the facial features of her niece, to dissolve Giovanna’s bourgeois appearance, represents a magical key that holds together the alienation of a teenage self afflicted by menstruation, prominent breasts, and indecent smells, and Ferrante’s recurring theme of the boundaries of a selfhood burdened with a family heritage perceived as both a defect and a permanent stigma.
Giovanna’s Bildungsroman takes its cue from this trauma and from the need to get to know her aunt and with her, the whole low-class world which her father has denied her. However, here there is no true return to one’s origins, and neither is there the romantic fascination with the authenticity of the marginalized primitive. In fact, at the core of a complex system of unveiled lies is a bracelet given as a present by Vittoria to Giovanna for the latter’s christening, yet never delivered. Just as in one of the master intertexts in Ferrante’s writing––Elsa Morante’s House of Liars whose title this new novel explicitly references––the jewel (in Morante’s text, a ring with a diamond and a ruby) is an expedient aimed at showing how identities get eternally constituted through a theft from and an expropriation of a male/female other, in a continuous and mutual reversal of truth and lie. It is thus not by chance that the twists running through Ferrante’s plot will intertwine the bracelet with the story of Roberto, a young, ambitious and promising university researcher who, just like Giovanna’s father, hails from the Pascone neighborhood. All the girls love Roberto and compete for him, and yet he will reveal himself as merely wearing the mask of meek and contrite goodness, as the authentically deceitful character par excellence.
As she moves towards her adult life at the end of the novel, Giovanna goes through a rite of passage that will enable her liberation from bourgeois hypocrisy, from its false-bottomed narratives and expropriations, yet only in order to more consciously inhabit its emptiness. The trajectory of the story––set during the 1990s––indirectly calls upon a great emergency of our contemporary time: the alienation of teenagers from traditional educational projects. The “lying life” expresses this failure as it shows us the intellectual alliances of Giovanna’s father, her own dull scholastic experience, and Roberto’s cunning adaptation to his university career.
If the Neapolitan Quartet explored both the light and dark sides of female experience in the world, an experience which originated from the reading of a book (Little Women), here we are confronted with a system of lies that inhibits that same exploration. Therefore The Lying Life of Adults is the most bitter novel (or maybe the volume of another narrative cycle?) that Ferrante has written thus far.
Tiziana de Rogatis teaches Comparative Literature and Contemporary Italian Literature at the Università per Stranieri di Siena, and is the author of Elena Ferrante’s Key Words (Europa Editions, 2020).
Serena Todesco is a literary translator and independent scholar of contemporary Italian literature. Her monograph Tracce a margine (2017) examines questions of genre and gender in historical novels by contemporary Sicilian women writers. She is the author of many contributions in edited volumes such as Posthumanism in Italian Literature and Film (Palgrave 2020) and Sicily on Screen (McFarland, 2020)
This essay originally appeared in Italian, in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, on November 29, 2019.