Photo Credit: Cover of The Lying Life of Adults / Penguin Random House
The four novels in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan saga were a literary sensation when they appeared between 2011 and 2015. Now she’s back with a new novel in seven parts, The Lying Life of Adults, with a translation by Ann Goldstein. Though no less compelling than her blockbuster series, the smaller book will almost certainly have a diminished impact. That’s a pity, because it reminds us that—pandemic or not—our world is diseased, and cures aren’t easy to come by.
This new bildungsroman delivers what we have come to expect of Ferrante: charismatic personalities, toxic romances, a disparate milieu in Naples, and above all, an introspective female narrator. We meet Giovanna on the cusp of adolescence, much as we first encountered Elena Greco in Ferrante’s 2012 debut, My Brilliant Friend. Greco, whose name displays an affinity to the epic tradition, has given way to a young woman whose Christian name evokes the biblical author of the apocalypse. The story of the novel suits the new name.
This is not because Giovanna’s Naples of the 1990s is apocalyptic—it isn’t, or not quite, anyway. But the narrative does paint Naples as an irredeemably fallen landscape. Much of the story centers on Giovanna’s father, Andrea, a teacher and intellectual who commands admiration. But his speech, which skips across multiple registers, renders him a dubious figure. His estranged sister, Vittoria, vocalizes as much. She regards him and his pulled-himself-up-by-his-bootstraps tale as a lie, and rightfully so. Andrea’s dishonesty underlies the whole novel. Since before the birth of his daughter, he has pursued an affair with the wife of his best friend. The discovery of the affair throws Giovanna’s life into chaos. Her parents had once represented order in an otherwise confused existence. The unraveling of Andrea’s lies reveals that belief to have been an illusion.
Andrea’s devilish aura, first betrayed in the utterance that Giovanna resembles his ugly sister, augurs the novel’s zeal for theological transgression. For having overheard the remark, our narrator regards herself as the defective work of an imperfect craftsman (30-31). Were she a baptized Christian, this would be blasphemy. But Giovanna, like her parents, maintains a cautious distance from the Christian church.
That distance is underscored, ironically, by the biblical rhythms of the book’s narrative. Its segmentation into seven parts, for example, evokes the seven days of creation. Its dramatic episodes, beginning with Giovanna’s meetings with Vittoria, occur almost exclusively on Sundays, i.e. the Lord’s day. How to interpret this odd phenomenon? Is it mere chance? Perhaps, but the biblical origins of the phrase “the Lord’s day” are in the apocalypse, where the writer identifies himself to his brethren as John (Italian: Giovanni) and announces to them his distress and his visions on Patmos (Rev. 1:9-10). Giovanna, we suspect, is a descendant of Giovanni.
These biblical valences suggest that Ferrante’s Naples, for all its geographic specificity, represents a microcosm of the world. It teems with markers of urban decay, signs of existential tribulation. Violence is nearly as common as violent language. Heaps of refuse swell in the industrial zone where Vittoria dwells. And, good Lord, odors abound—and not just from those heaps of trash. More often than not, it is people who emit them, and each smell has a story. Giovanna perceives a foreign scent on Andrea before she (or we) learn of his infidelity. Corrado, an object of Giovanna’s romantic interest, repulses her with the “toilet odor” of his groin (143). She wonders, too, at the pungency of her own stench. It is not just Naples that is in decay—it is life itself.
Ferrante has a visceral preoccupation with bodies. In the Lying Life of Adults, she depicts many of them as if they suffered from the same family of maladies. Giovanna watches in disgust as a friend pulls clumps of hair straight from her scalp. It is likely a symptom of undiagnosed anorexia, but as with other characters, it manifests as a disease of the skin. So, too, does the illness of Don Giacomo, a parish priest whose words of encouragement lead the atheist Giovanna to pray in her desperation. The two meet by chance, and she is disturbed to see that large, violet blemishes have bloomed on his hand. Both cases, as with Giovanna’s and Vittoria’s passing moments of ugliness, are attributable to the wearying anxiety of life. Their diseased bodies—as if they were afflicted with a psychosomatic leprosy—bespeak an unavoidably harrowing existence. Lila Cerullo, the demoniac berserker of the Neapolitan tetralogy, summed up the reason for such an existence: “[…] it was the devil who invented the world […]” (My Brilliant Friend, 261).
In 2020, that sentiment—seized upon and developed in The Lying Life of Adults—reads as prescient. Much of America’s west coast looks literally like a hellscape. Fires have rendered cities dystopian. We see no end in sight to the pandemic that has claimed more than 200,000 lives in the United States alone. As if these catastrophes were not enough, we face profound social and financial crises, as well as the ongoing erosion of our democracy. Times are tough, although not in the same way as in Ferrante’s Naples.
But this is where Ferrante shines: for without slackening her taut narratives, she pushes us to reflect on the problem of evil—which affects us all, theists or atheists, Americans or Neapolitans. This knack owes to her precocious narrators and their attraction to older intellectuals. For all her troubles in school, Giovanna, as a fifteen-year-old, has a searing intelligence that intrigues Roberto, the fiancé of an older friend. He is a Christian scholar, transplanted from Naples to Milan. In their dialogues, where Giovanna probes the matter of suffering, we find the clearest exposition of what’s roiling Ferrante:
“Life makes me run away when it’s suffering.”
“You’re saying that you’re not content with things as they are?”
“I’m saying that no one should be put on the cross, especially by the will of his father. But that’s not how things are.”
“If you don’t like the way things are, you have to change them.”
“I should change even creation?”
“Of course, we are made for that.”
The dialogue mirrors the broader program of the novel. With its seven parts, Giovanna’s story presents itself as a modification to the creation of Genesis. In fact, it turns the creation narrative on its head. Whereas that story presents Adam and Eve as the children of a benevolent father who incur his wrath through sexual sin, Giovanna’s does just the opposite. She is the child of dishonest sinners (the case of her mother is more complicated) whose narrative culminates in a salutary sexual encounter.
In essence, the episode marks an end to her hellish adolescence. As the novel concludes, she is about to set off for Venice. Sex has not banished her from Eden so much as it has liberated her from Hell. What Ferrante has done in this inversion of Genesis is what Giovanna guessed she must do: she has changed creation. What does that mean in substance? She has, as she describes her intention in the book’s very first chapter, untangled the jumble of threads whose knot is her story. A new life emerges as the confusion of an old one is sorted through and re-ordered.
Ferrante’s novels conceive the world as a desperately grim place. Those who would peddle optimism become, usually, objects of derision—whether they are Christians who proclaim a benevolent deity, or young socialists who grow into middle-aged neoliberals. But relief from the sickness of life depends on something more painstaking and less sanguine. It depends on acts of self-interpretation.
How do we understand our own existence? It is this crisis of subjectivity that impels Ferrante to write. She states it best: “Life’s wounds are incurable and you write them and rewrite them in the hope of being able, sooner or later, to construct a narrative that will account for them once and for all” (Frantumaglia, 350).
One day, the pandemic will end. We’ll all still be wounded.
Daniel DiMassa is an assistant professor of German at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he co-directs the Berlin Project Center. He is currently writing a book on German Romantics as readers of Dante.