In the first paragraph of Elena Ferrante’s story of a teenage girl’s progression towards young adulthood, we are powerfully returned to the world of the Neapolitan quartet. The narrator, having related the moment on which she believes her childhood turned, tells us that it remains fixed in time and place. But she herself “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”.
Nobody who has read My Brilliant Friend and its three successors – the pseudonymous Italian author’s quartet became a cultural phenomenon as it was published between 2012 and 2015 – would miss the echo of Lila’s “dissolving margins”, episodes in which she loses hold of the boundaries between herself, others and her surroundings. These moments become key to our understanding of both her internal fractures and those that repeatedly disrupt the narrative. But Lila’s life is described to us by her friend Lenù – and inflected by her apprehension of their relationship and by her gradual metamorphosis into the chronicler of their story. What difference, then, occurs when the central character and the events of her life appear to be unmediated?
In some respects, much remains the same; Lenù was interrogating her own life as well as Lila’s, and it was just as turbulent and often mysterious to her as that of Giovanna’s, the narrator of The Lying Life of Adults. But the lack of another in Giovanna’s life, of the close companion who both mirrors and violently distorts her experience of herself, represents a profound shift, plunging the reader into a kind of chaos that feels as though it might be unresolvable, an impenetrable singleness.
Giovanna is a single child, and her parents have also isolated themselves; her father, in particular, has cut ties with his family and, in her mother’s words, “had to climb a mountain with his bare hands” to reach a place of professional and social respectability. The incident that opens the novel is a rare foray back into that milieu; he tells his wife that Giovanna, whom he mistakenly believes cannot hear him, is becoming ugly and, more specifically, starting to resemble his estranged sister. Beyond Giovanna’s hurt arrives the consequence that she becomes fascinated, and then fixated, by the ghost of the monstrous Vittoria, and determines to begin a relationship with her lost aunt.
Lies are both plentiful and obscure: aside from Giovanna’s clandestine meetings with Vittoria, which involve a literal descent from the high parts of Naples where she lives to the poorer and dirtier Vomero, there are the different explanations for the enmity between Andrea, her father, and his sister. These contain all the stuff of melodrama: a broken love affair between Vittoria and a married man who died shortly afterwards, a scrabble for property between siblings, a natural mutual loathing exacerbated by Andrea’s ascent up the class ladder. While Vittoria lives a straitened life, Andrea’s is typified by books, conversation, argument and work. While she is loveless, he is married, with a child. But it is not a version of events to which she subscribes, telling her niece that, “I’ve had everything, I have everything. It’s your father who has nothing.”
In the novel’s present day, too, are confusions that seem only to multiply with examination. Is Giovanna’s mother having an affair with her husband’s closest friend, or are they simply consoling each other because their spouses are intimately entangled? (“Please don’t tell Papa,” begs Giovanna, when she confides her suspicions about her mother to her aunt, only to receive the response “Papa? You think Papa gives a fuck about the ankles of Mariano and Nella under the table?”) Why does Vittoria herself appear so close to her lover’s widow and to almost co-parent her three children?
When Giovanna’s father eventually leaves the family home for his mistress Costanza (also the mother of Giovanna’s two closest childhood friends), a spell is broken and Vittoria – permanently angry, vituperative and bullying, with flashes of vulnerability – has the upper hand, emblematised by a bracelet, a family heirloom, that changes from wrist to wrist, and is both coveted and rejected by multiple characters. Here, she occupies some of the same territory as Lila in the Neapolitan quartet: plugged into both the sublime and sordid aspects of desire, alive to the venality of others, and contemptuous of intellectual abstractions and bourgeois convention. In Ferrante’s scheme, the two women are simultaneously admirable and troubling, their fearlessness veering between honesty and the unhinged, almost too potent for us to see directly without the projections of those around them.
Throughout, Giovanna is the novel’s unsteady focus. She begins as a 12-year-old, and we follow her to just past her 16th birthday, when she has briefly crossed the threshold of Naples for Milan, in pursuit of an older man betrothed to someone else, who represents romantic promise and intellectual and spiritual freedom. For most of the intervening time, she operates in confusion, her allegiances to her parents in ruins, her sexual appetites bewildering, her inner world by turns seductive and abhorrent to her.
It is a gift to write so freely about the chancy formation of identity, and one that Ferrante exploits in a particular, peculiar way. Even allowing for the lost nuances of reading in translation – and this well-established partnership between author and translator suggests that readers in English are getting as true a version of the text as possible – she is breathtakingly cavalier about the grace and prettiness of sentences. Scenes tumble over one another, characters barge in and flounce out (including Giovanna’s would-be suitors, a pair of Shakespearean comic villains, in a yellow car), dialogue takes the form of staccato cut and thrust or long, unlifelike soliloquy.
And yet, if you submit to the constant propulsion, it is irresistible. Always, there is the sense of being held in a pattern, and of being distracted by its surface as shapes shift and collide beneath. Ferrante’s use of spatial dynamics – Vittoria’s ramshackle Fiat shunting between the high and low ground of a mythic city, a threatening graveyard, a claustrophobic train carriage – is always present. The socio-politics of Italy, in an unspecified time that feels like the not-too-distant past, subtly underwrite the characters’ actions. And throughout, we are placed in close proximity to those characters’ bodies, displayed or disguised, gazed at in mirrors and found unnaturally beautiful or irretrievably ugly, sometimes a reflection of their spiritual worth and sometimes entirely divorced from it.
As The Lying Life of Adults ends, there is another departure, and the promotion of another character, a hitherto sidelined young girl who has ambitions to become a writer and who has promised – or possibly threatened – to make stories from the lives of her friends and family. It feels like the start of something else; and on the evidence of this book, there is more to tell.
The Lying Life of Adults
Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions, 300pp, £20