The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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SEPT 2020 Issue

Elena Ferrante's The Lying Life of Adults

Elena Ferrante
The Lying Life of Adults
(Europa Editions, 2020)

“The time of my adolescence is slow,” recalls Giovanna Trada, “made up of large gray blocks and sudden humps of color, green or red or purple. The blocks don’t have hours, days, months, years…. The color counts more than any date.” Yet even when Giovanna tries to recall some specific “hue,” as the narrator of Elena Ferrante’s latest novel, her youth and its changes confound her: “As soon as you look for words, the slowness becomes a whirlwind and the colors get mixed together like the colors of different fruit in a blender.” She claims she’s failed⎯yet at this point she’s carried us more than midway through her initiations, in a novel never less than propulsive. She’s whipped up her “lumps of color,” a young woman’s passions, into an irresistible frullato, a tangy Italian cornucopia.

Neapolitan, specifically, since The Lying Life of Adults takes us back to the city of Ferrante’s world-conquering Quartet. In that set, the opening twosome (the basis for the HBO series My Brilliant Friend) comprise a coming-of-age, like this narrative. Also, in them as in the latest, the driving tensions include those between the slum underclass and the cultured upper crust. But then, quite the opposite of the Quartet, the new novel puts the well-to-do front and center. Giovanna lives in Rione Alto, literally an “elevated neighborhood,” the child of respected academics. Her hurly-burly begins when she insists on a trip down to the hardscrabble “Industrial Zone.”

On those mean streets, Giovanna’s father had his own coming of age, and in wrenching himself free, heading uptown, he left behind festering ill will. As his daughter gets to know that side of the family, she sets old wounds oozing, and this mucks up her own attempts, messy to begin with, to grow and get somewhere. Before long the moil has her parents floundering as well, revealing still more ugly peccadillos, and in response their horrified child goes bitchy and goth. Giovanna even loses a year at school, in this book, as in the Quartet, a mark of shame. It’s at just this low point, on another visit to the wrong side of the tracks, that the girl’s smitten by love. “A violent pain in my chest,” the new emotion seems also a savior: “only that wish, only that hope, only that prayer could keep me from immediately, now, falling down dead.”

In short, Ferrante’s in her wheelhouse. A “violent” intensity might erupt at any minute, an adolescent mood swing might hit like a tsunami, and yet the story maintains a canny and scrupulous realism. This author couldn’t be more alert to psychology’s delusions and society’s con games. She’s both a cool cat and a bleeding heart, combining both in passage after passage that, just for starters, speak volumes about the skill and vitality Ann Goldstein brings to her translation. More than that, the pairing reasserts bedrock novelistic values, recalling Tolstoy and the 19th-century masters. Such classic strengths have a lot to do with Ferrante’s worldwide success; she’s the anti-Calvino, the anti-Bolaño, calling fiction away from any folderol and back to men, women, money, property, and pain.

Which isn’t to say the author lacks imagination. Her breakout second novel Days of Abandonment (2002), which some still rank as her best, performs an autopsy on the corpse of a very different family, a long way from Naples. Then too, its protagonist is well past Giovanna’s age, as is Amalia in Troubling Love (1992) and other major Ferrante players. In Lying Life, some elements feel familiar, like the commitment to reading and what it can accomplish, yet everything is given some unexpected spin.

This time, unlike in the Quartet, none of the women show bruises of domestic abuse. One girl gets slapped, as part of a larger melee between some boys—a swift and savage business—but the one who truly suffers is the ostensible winner. Shamed by what he’s done, he quits town that night, and similar invisible damage compels all these men. Giovanna’s bootstrapping, intellectual father, Andrea, bursts eventually into an aria of remorse. Throughout, the teenager discovers some high feeling only to witness the destruction it wreaks in an adult: “It’s a sudden blindness, you don’t know how to keep your distance, you crash into things.” At first, the icon-smasher is Vittoria, the father’s sister, abandoned to poverty. She indeed shares juicy stuff, but the girl’s mother Nella may have more shattering revelations; she ends up the novel’s most tragic figure. “What happened,” Giovanna wonders, “in the world of adults…? What reduced them to the most untrustworthy animals, worse than reptiles?”

Overall, the Trada family earns the significance lurking in the Italian word suggested by their name: tradire, to betray. Yet it’d also be a betrayal to suggest that Lying Life provides unrelenting gloom. Rather, the reading feels vivid and various, dappled with rich ambiguity. Small victories poke up throughout, and each allows the girl to pull a bit freer from “the ugly Naples… the terrible Italy that no one can change.” When she suffers love’s wallop, at age 15, the melancholy Giovanna is seeking to shock even her raggedy kin; she comes to Sunday service in “a tight, low-cut shirt.” Yet by that juncture her looks have already taken on a chameleonic power, one she can’t yet understand, though she glimpses it both in the mirror and in the eyes of others. Aunt Vittoria herself exclaims: “Madonna, what a figure.” Then with all this on her mind, lightning strikes: Giovanna falls for a church speaker, Roberto. Another of Ferrante’s social migrants, someone who’s escaped the favela via brainpower, and this not only reignites the protagonist’s drive to learn, but also helps her harness the dynamic potential of her body.

Religious questions occupy a surprising amount of the second half; Roberto and Giovanna even spar about the Gospels. Such talk offers a new alternative to the unflagging shrewdness about low humanity, and the counterpoint soars to fresh heights in the closing chapters. These generate an exquisite suspense between flying free of old webs and collapsing into them, and eventually assert the drama’s core feminism: “I was much more than a cute… small animal with whom a brilliant male can play.” Better than that, however, it invests this argument with a fresh, volatile humanity. Only 16 at the close, our girl is nonetheless a wised-up heroine, game for “betrayals… much more ferocious.” Ferrante has hatched another beautiful monster.


John Domini

John Domini contributes regularly to the Rail. His latest book is a memoir, The Archeology of a Good Ragú.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues