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Ferrante’s ‘The Lying Life of Adults’: Another gentle portrait of adolescence

Rihan Najib | Updated on September 25, 2020 Published on September 25, 2020

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Girlhood in Elena Ferrante’s novels is a period of impassioned dreaming and scheming, a phase before the unrelenting dreariness of real life takes over. Her new novel is no different

In one of the most touching scenes in the televised version of Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s bestselling series Neapolitan Novels, two young girls — the protagonists Lila and Lenù — sit on a bench, both swaddled in a blanket, reading Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women out loud together. They are oblivious to the squalor and destitution of the poor tenements that surround them.

The Lying Life of Adults / Elena Ferrante / Penguin/RandomHouse / Fiction / ₹699

 

The book in their hand is more than a story — it is a promise. A book, they believe, in their full-hearted girlish innocence, will deliver them to a destiny beyond the poverty of the neighbourhood. It grants them the illusion that their life could turn out differently from that of the adults around them. In the course of the Neapolitan quartet, the fates of Lila and Lenù unravel, foregrounding the difficult and often traumatic negotiations that mark the passage from adolescence to womanhood in the context of Naples in the 1950s.

The rich fictive potential of adolescence is a territory that Ferrante returns to in her latest novel, The Lying Life of Adults, translated into English from the Italian original La vita bugiarda degli adulti by Ann Goldstein, who has translated several of Ferrante’s earlier works. With compassionate yet uncompromising scrutiny, the book follows the life of Giovanna Trada through girlhood to a precarious early adulthood, where she attempts to define herself through a hostile but ultimately weary indifference to the adults around her.

Coming after a considerable gap since Ferrante’s last books — The Beach At Night (2016), a children’s book that courted controversy for being too ‘mature’, and two collections of non-fiction previously published in Italian, Frantumaglia (2019) and Incidental Inventions (2019) — her newest offering was one of the most eagerly anticipated novels of this year.

Set in Naples during the ’90s, The Lying Life of Adults opens with an immediately arresting line: “Two years before he left home, my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” The story unfolds through the voice of Giovanna, the 12-year-old daughter of two teachers. When she falls behind in school and her teachers complain to her parents, her mother gently attributes the setback to the turmoil of adolescence. But her father proclaims bitterly, “She’s getting the face of Vittoria.” This throwaway remark, which Giovanna overhears, upturns her idyllic, genteel world.

To be compared to Vittoria, her father’s estranged younger sister, who is hated by her parents “the way you detest a lizard that runs up your bare leg”, comes as a disorienting blow to young Giovanna. She later seeks out and is enamoured of her aunt Vittoria, who is a loud, vivacious, impulsive and embittered woman. Through Vittoria’s retelling of all the real and imagined wounds inflicted on her, Giovanna encounters another reading of her parents — not as morally upright pillars of the community, but as conniving, mean-spirited and venal. As if to prove this, her father’s infidelity shatters two households. Amid the bedlam, she asks the central question of the novel, “What happened, in other words, in the world of adults, in the heads of very reasonable people, in their bodies loaded with knowledge? What reduced them to the most untrustworthy animals, worse than reptiles?”

Even though the book incisively probes the deceits of middle-class respectability, Ferrante excels in the delicate and careful construction of the meandering anxieties of girlhood — from incipient sexual experiences to the bewildering physical changes a girl’s body undergoes. She etches out their journeys with infinite tenderness, pausing at the cruel turns that womanhood takes. In the third novel of the Neapolitan series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), Lenù remarks bitterly, “How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments.” Girlhood, in that respect, is all the more poignant in Ferrante’s novels as a period of impassioned dreaming and scheming before the unrelenting dreariness of real life takes over.

Readers may be inclined to compare the gritty protagonists of the Neapolitan Novels with Giovanna, as they too inhabit Naples, and are concerned with intensely personal rebellions and compromises. Given her secular education and personal freedom, it would seem that Giovanna was everything that Lila and Lenù had aspired for when they were growing up in Naples of the ’50s. In a recent interview to a magazine, Ferrante discussed the comparable fates of her protagonists. Giovanna, she notes, is very far from Lila and Lenù, but “a small event jams the machine designed for her, and she starts to see herself as the damaged product of a duplicitous milieu”. Lila and Lenù, on the other hand, “have to laboriously fabricate the tools to help them break free of real and figurative poverty”, while “Giovanna finds those tools at home, ready to be used against the very world that has provided them”.

Despite the divergent routes that Lila, Lenù and Giovanna take, they are united by a single, deeply relatable thread of women, through centuries, straining at the leash to be the author of their own lives.

Rihan Najib is a Delhi-based writer

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Published on September 25, 2020
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