I don’t know what to name the terror, the horror that arises when one encounters a knowledge as difficult, unruly and violent as it is seemingly familiar or banal. But that sentiment is precisely what Elena Ferrante’s writing contains and exhumes. And in that, it is subversively unforgiving.
I remember telling a friend to learn Italian, if only to read the opening paragraph of La vita bugiarda degli adulti (The Lying Life of Adults, translated by Ann Goldstein). A few sentences in, Ferrante mentions “the right thread of a story,” and this phraseology of “threads” is often iterated in what I like to call the Ferrante-universe: a zone where literature, instead of “[indulging] the tastes of the readers” (Frantumaglia), destabilises and fragments them, and dissolves their margins (smarginatura), inserts them like wombs into the bodies of words, inviting readers to invent, to merge with a text.
The “I” in Ferrante’s latest novel is an adolescent girl, Giovanna, who overhears her father call her “very ugly.” He sees Giovanna becoming her estranged aunt, Vittoria, whose ugliness and monstrosity can “sully and infect anyone she touches” (my translation). Vittoria lives in the bottom of Naples – at the very base, far from Giovanna’s rione alto, in the space that can only be articulated or heard in dialect – which can be reached only by “falling down, further down, always further down.”
The city of Naples is even more foregrounded in this text, populated with names of Neapolitan streets and neighbourhoods that Giovanna devotes herself to studying. She runs her gaze through maps of the city in order to learn its many names, the names of streets in the industrial zone and the low peripheries and the suburban outsides. As Giovanna’s mother tells her, “...this is your city,” and, after all, as readers of Elena Ferrante would only know too well by now, none of us escapes our cities.
Characters in transition
Both acts and inabilities of leaving or escaping are well-pronounced in the third book of the Neapolitan Novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, one I recently re-read for the meeting of our Elena Ferrante reading group, Ferrante Fever, a few weeks ago. During our discussion, some of us reflected on how we cannot fully grasp Lenù – how she actively and vividly resists being completely understood, escapes any kind of containment, quickly aligns herself along the axes of others, and, moreover, how much she hides and prevaricates.
Not surprisingly, all of Ferrante’s elements and characters can easily, therefore, be called Janus-faced, not only in the sense that they all lie and deceive or hide to some extent, but also in the manner they correspond to the very figure of Janus in that they are animistic, porous portals which linger on the cusp of entries and exits, beginnings and transitions.
They all lead lying lives.
I did not find it strange, therefore, that while re-reading La vita bugiarda degli adulti, I found myself looking up Italian witchcraft, animism, and ultimately landed on a blog by the name of “The Traveling Witch” where its author, Avery Hart, writes: “animism is possibly the closest thing you’ll get to a universal belief in modern witchcraft.” In fact, it was Vittoria, the estranged and ugly aunt, who led me to think about witches.
Her ugliness, her bracelet, her dialect, her evil brings Giovanna in closer proximity to the knowledge of her own ugliness, innate evil and even the practice of learning how to speak in dialect. Vittoria is Giovanna’s portal into the other side of Naples and the beginning of realisations that animate her body, her city and her parents, friends and relations differently, disturbingly, distortedly. It’s interesting to note that this view of Vittoria, as someone who witches, arises from the fact that she is religious and is written or spoken of almost as a practitioner of stregoneria, inflicting harm in invisible, contagious, infecting ways.
And La vita bugiarda degli adulti is as much a story about this bewitching, this becoming, as it is about female adolescence: Giovanna obsessively scrutinises every part of her face, inspects the bodies of others, feels the shame of masturbation, makes sexual discoveries and encounters disappointments, fancies and loathes, and notes the gazes directed at her body, especially at her growing breasts which simply refuse to stop getting bigger.
The horror centred around and arising from female adolescence and its experience is apparent here, albeit not according to the conventions through which patriarchy usually and easily projects itself onto it. On the other hand, Ferrante’s text is not quite as neat a fit in the genre of female adolescence- horror either, but then, what would “Ferrante Fever” be if her texts were anything besides enthrallingly unruly, infecting, unstable, undoing?
What about the pleasure and anger that comes in equal measure when an author like Ferrante tells part of your story, ruptures the loneliness of your body’s experience and thoughts? There is something deeply unsettling and comforting in inserting and channeling oneself through the “I” of Ferrante’s narrators, be they Giovanna, Elena, Leda, Olga or Delia. They are all, as James Wood wrote, “women on the verge,” and sometimes I believe they are women looking, too, at my part of the world, my city and its lack of love.
La vita bugiarda degli adulti is generous in speaking of this lack of love and what happens to both people and cities in the face of it; Giovanna slowly crosses over into the part of Naples she and her parents have estranged, the part of Naples where Vittoria frequents the man she loved and lost, the part where Giovanna encounters the couple in love that contends a return to Naples. Vittoria’s bracelet keeps changing hands, losing and acquiring or making and unmaking significations.
Moreover, if one is to follow the foundation myth of Naples, one might realise that it was created of such stuff, from death, disappointment and unfulfilment. Parthenope, a Siren, failed to seduce Odysseus with her song and drowned herself (in Ferrante’s words, perhaps she erased or cancelled herself) into the sea, resulting in her body being cast ashore in the city we now know as Naples.
And my Naples is Bhopal, where the memory of the gas tragedy still lingers on the streets and their slow daze, in my mother’s words. At the very end of the book, I read Ida and Giovanna promise themselves to “become adults as no one else ever has,” and what a lie that is, and yet how true that is. I think of Ferrante as an organism of a writer that has lived inside my body, who knows this; she has instilled in me a fear of becoming my mother and my father, and has brought to light my first memory of feeling ugly especially next to my beautiful mother, of purposely tossing away the many kadas my grandfather brought from Amritsar with leftover hope. This is horror and ugliness, and this is Elena Ferrante writing it down for some of us.