How do we write and speak about adolescence? In both general discourse and literature, what place do the sour events of that phase of life have? Precisely that of a “phase,” a phase out of which we grow. When Giovanna’s grades fall, early in The Lying Life of Adults, her mother offers “as an excuse the changes of early adolescence” – you can remedy the marks because you can surmount the distractions of adolescence.
Or when Giovanna sulks at dinner, her father’s friend Mariano simply teases her tempers – your irritation is a joke, G, you better learn to control. Since adolescence is a phase, we can skip paying attention to its currents. It’s best to dismiss it as “those years”, because we can be better than that, we become better than that. Don’t we?
The bildungsroman of course would agree. Not that it explicitly invalidates adolescence. But you gotta abandon it, after a journey through the harsh realities of the world, for dignity. Prince Hal must leave the tavern and take the crown; the boy from Araby must rise above the sentiment of romance and see its futility. Measured steps. Emotions clean and clear. Order, in sync with the world.
If someone wrote a novel about Giovanna’s father, it could easily be a bildungsroman. Andrea. The scholar in the squalor, who, having blotted his sister’s face from his photographs, having buried the memories of his vernacular relatives, crosses over from the lowly Neapolitan streets of his youth to the higher Naples of his adulthood, dining with men and women of intelligence, teaching the classical languages at university. A growth to grace.
Giovanna doesn’t want to do any such thing, and so The Lying Life of Adults is not a bildungsroman. She’s anti-order, and anti-father, a father who begins the story of the novel: “My father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” From here it’s free-fall into lapse, a fling with Satan. Giovanna doesn’t turn a deaf ear to his statement, but she doesn’t sit alone and mourn either. She can’t be satisfied with an explanation from her mother or a consolation from her father. She’s not looking for (re)form and order. She wants to enter that sentence, dwell in it, dissect it, explore it all.
So she needs to meet Vittoria, her aunt, her metaphorical namesake, “in whom ugliness and spite were combined to perfection.” She has to scrape the blotch off her face in her father’s pictures. She just must roam the cemeteries and excavate her father’s early days. The disavowed demands attention. The ugly, the chaos, the angst, the phase. Elena Ferrante’s latest novel, The Lying Life of Adults, translated to English by Ann Goldstein, narrates the mercurial life of adolescence.
It’s like Giovanna’s father’s words, the first lines of the novel, have an incantatory quality to them. She attaches the ugliness from them to everything about herself, birth to beauty. “These were the problems I had caused when I was born,” she remarks in self-denigration; and in front of the mirror, she laments her body, with those hopeless, helpless phrases: “if I just had a nose like so, eyes like so, ears like so.”
As we follow her through the seven sections of the book, her disgust for herself diffuses towards the entire crew around her: her besties Angela and Ida, the aunt she pursues with such thrill, her later chaperone Giuliana, her first crush Roberto, her parents – everyone is sucked into that first line and blasted as ugly spots of enquiry on the canvas she’s painting.
It’s not a surprising paradox that her deprecation is accompanied by, or fuelled by, some dramatic self-importance. Take this passage as an instance:
“There’s no need for my mother to give me the map, I’ll get it, I’ll study it, and I’ll walk to Aunt Vittoria’s. I’ll walk for days, for months. How that idea seduced me. Sun, heat, rain, wind, cold, and I who was walking and walking, through countless dangers, until I met my own future as an ugly, faithless woman.”
Days. Months. Sun. Wind. Ugly. Faithless. Giovanna makes a jewel out of her angst. These lines, and the paragraphs before and after them, exude narcissism: there’s no need for other people in my life, the world is against me anyway, I’m capable of living by myself, and I’m better anyway. To estrange herself from the world, and then play righteous is her style. Ferrante’s feat is in the clarity with which we apprehend Giovanna’s self-imposed torment.
After a while, Giovanna is bothered not only by how people behave with her, but just by how they live their own lives. With authority she adjudicates people’s existence, despite her little experience and imagination. In an elaborate paragraph, she chastises her mother’s grief, “a bitter sarcasm alternating with a quiet cult of memory,” which to her is pathetic. Her father’s calmness is cowardly. Giovanna’s anxiety is sickly. Her alternative is to be drenched in the colours of raw rage and resentment, and those who choose normatively nobler paths she hates.
Things we don’t acknowledge
It’s in such episodes that you’re exhausted and Giovanna is so unlikeable. Already the suffocating intimacy of a first-person narrative from someone like Ferrante is exacting – she sucks you into the psyche of her characters – and you have to live inside an irritable teenager. But how much implicit martyrdom can you take, towards the general turns of life at that? “My suffering wouldn’t end or diminish.” Really? Her mother weeps, and she says, with an utter lack of care, “How much we all cried, I couldn’t stand any more tears.” You want to shake her and make her see sense. Look, if you can’t offer help, you can shut up at least.
How ironic that would be though. We’d be doing exactly what she’s doing. If not with the same reasons as her, if not to the same extent as her, we all give in to the pretensions of our lives, as do the other characters of this novel. It’s so easy otherwise to attribute vanity to youth and wisdom to adulthood. It’s easier when you hear the indulgence of her first love:
“I began to think of him as of the silhouette of a very distant mountain, a bluish substance contained within heavy lines. Probably – I said to myself – no one in Pascone has ever seen him with the clarity I was capable of there in the church.”
But how different is that from the “cult of memory” that Giovanna’s mother builds about her husband? Or Vittoria’s tombstone of love that reads like an erotic utopia? What about Andrea, who can’t simply and coherently talk about his love? Giovanna rightly observes that “a man so devoted to reflection and study, capable of conceiving the most gleaming sentences, could at times, when he was overwhelmed by emotions, make such muddled speeches.” Are these adults not adults yet, then?
But they are. It’s just that…adulthood is a lie. And Ferrante’s novel, three hundred pages of quick and honest prose, does its best to shatter the facade of adulthood. The lie in the lying life of adults is to think that we’re past the vanities, agitations, desires, and irritabilities that we project on teenage. To have claimed, as I did in the beginning of this piece, that the novel is about adolescent life was my unconscious participation in this lie. I wanted to distance myself from those affects, considered juvenile and ignoble, but the novel is clear: it’s not about a time in one’s life, it’s about those affects of life that are banished from acknowledgement.
We are meant to read this
They’re banished from writing too. These, Giovanna’s lines, are the stuff of diary entries, stuffed away from the eyes of readers, for their insignificant woe and unprocessed writing. At best, they can be a writer’s rehearsal, practice before the debut, but not yet art. These agonised, immature scribbles can’t look up to the standards of writing: reflective, cathartic – an attempt to make sense of the chaos. You know, with rounded edges and an arc and a movement towards completion.
But it’s not really the writing that’s criticised, is it? It’s the content. Those affects are of suspension – you wallow in them – and not of propulsion – you don’t evolve through them; so they are base feelings in which to base writing. Mere navel-gazing.
It may be that these are the unsaid assumptions of everyone rating halves and ones to The Lying Life of Adults on popular websites: it’s “sick” and “superficial,” “full of untruth,” “ridiculous” due to its “high melodrama,” and “nothing like Ferrante’s previous books.”
As descriptions, these accusations are true. The Neapolitan Quartet has evolutions, The Days of Abandonment has resolutions. But this novel – it bends every rule on the sheet. It’s highly imitative, first of all. Giovanna tries her hand at all the storytelling traditions she knows: the epics from her father – Vittoria becomes an “aunt-witch” imposing evil magic arts on her family, the mother fills “jars and jars with tears”; and much later, “lines of poetry, sentences from novels, words read in books” come to Giovanna as stock phrases and cliche responses. The narrative itself is all hurt and its epiphanies.
As for Giovanna herself, she doesn’t even pretend to want closure. “I thought I was hideous and wanted to be more hideous,” she says at one point, changing her make-up, clothing, irritating her people, and being irritated by them. Pages later, she has sexual encounters with a dull boy after confessing that “a very violent need for degradation was growing inside me – a fearless degradation, a yearning to feel heroically vile.” Vileness in action is heroic to Giovanna, as nastiness in speech is heady. She invests in all the wrong things, you can say, she invests in, stays in, desires to stay in the ugly.
But we shouldn’t find the novel guilty for giving us this. We are meant to read only this. Ferrante offers no writerly comment, and writes only as much as her character can, because she cares nothing about the redemptive potential of writing, as much as she does about the moods and motions of Giovanna’s psyche. Are petty affects banished from writing? Then try this, she’s telling us.
She’s decoupling the value of writing from its content, and that’s the biggest achievement of The Lying Life of Adults. Angst can be written, pettiness can be read. And writing may not elevate its characters, even as it spotlights their immediate lives. Thus the ending is abrupt, as if it’s impossible to achieve closure. This should have been foreseeable anyway, given the disclaimer in the first paragraph:
“But I slipped away, and am still slipping away, within these lines that are intended to give me a story, while in fact I am nothing, nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion: only a tangled knot, and nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.”
Writing is intended to give Giovanna a story – a beginning, a journey, and an end – but it doesn’t. We only get tangled knots. We’re exploring the eternal process of slipping away, not redemption.
What adults do
So, we can’t take her final promise seriously: “to become adults as no one ever had before.” There’s no sense of becoming anything anyway – the novel ends with the same affects with which it begins. The real thesis of the novel is here, in Giovanna’s realisation that it’s “impossible to stop growing up.” By which I don’t think she means to say that there’s always so much to learn, but that we can never be the past-participles, the grown-ups, the completed stories, the beautiful people. These are lies that cover the dirty puddles in which we swim. We’re always in the present continuous, growing up, slipping away.
Only, she’s honest about it. She can read the lies that construct her pretty family, but she can read herself too. She is conscious of the moments in which she lies, of the pleasures they give her. She registers her brain concocting an episode that will hurt her father. She recognises that she is predisposed to use certain tones and dialects that will win favours or stab hearts. And in “an ugly moment, maybe the worst of those ugly years,” a scene before meeting her crush Roberto, Giovanna tells us how she has built “elaborate strategies” not only to hurt and betray, but also to shield herself from the ugliness of that betrayal.
“Like my aunt,” she adds, “like her brother, my father.” And like Enzo, Giuliana, Margherita, all other adults, everyone ever.
So well has she done this all through the novel, that we may not pay attention to the unreliability of her narration. She suggests this with the same honesty she has about everything else. We frequently encounter phrases like “an approximate summary” or “like this more or less,” when she’s relating people’s dialogues and dispositions. How she may have twisted them to fit her lines, we’ll never know.
But the point isn’t to know the truth. It’s to live with the lies, because we do that anyway. The Lying Life of Adults. Not adult lives that lie, for “lying” as an attribute of life, a condition. If you’re living, you’re lying.
The Lying Life Of Adults, Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions.