By Katherine Franco
The Lying Life of Adults
Written by Elena Ferrante and translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions, 2020
When I teach, I assure my students I am not an adult. I am one of you, I convey. I, too, am disgusted by adults. I, too, find their ways unseemly and deceiving. I communicate our likenesses: I have not sold out; my brain is lively; I can keep up.
My teaching practice likely derives from Alice Munro’s ‘Miles City, Montana.’ Munro’s 1986 story raises questions of adulthood through her (initially young) narrator’s experience of child Steve Gauley’s funeral. Specifically, Munro offers an investigation of implication and––more importantly—complicity of adults. More specifically, the involuntary and tacit induction into adulthood upon one’s first entrance into the world.
What exactly is the tragedy of Steve Gauley’s funeral? Does the tragedy of Munro’s narrator lie not in Steve Gauley’s death itself, but in her witness to the death? Or in the fact that her assessment of the adults present at the funeral––those who ‘gave consent to the death of children and to my death not by anything they said or thought but by the very fact that they had made children’––will inevitably ring true of the narrator herself one day down the line? Perhaps that we are all complicit? Despite it all, Munro’s story rings with the intrinsic joy of fiction—on the page, we all blame the adults, pit ourselves against them, throw off the reins.
Lying, in Elena Ferrante’s anticipated latest novel The Lying Life of Adults (Europa Editions, 2020), is simultaneously a deviation from and induction into adulthood. Ferrante asks: is childhood a series of subversive lies, to counter the lying life of adults––or does the contradictory nature of my previous clause indicate an inability to escape this complicity even within childhood? The ability to lie, in the most psychological terms, marks theory of mind and maturation; it is a game, but also a marker of cognitive development.
The Lying Life of Adults arrives almost three decades into Ferrante’s pseudonymous career, the first novel release following her lionised Neapolitan Novels—the final volume’s English translation published in 2015—and stint as a Guardian columnist. When you picture Ferrante’s face, you likely are picturing that of her longtime American translator Ann Goldstein. Ferrante’s invisibility presents an unlikely limelight for a translator: the release of The Lying Life of Adults marks a Zoom book tour for Goldstein, now celebrated by the literary world in her own right. Any Ferrante sees a touch of the Neapolitan Novels’ Lila Cerullo in The Lying Life of Adults’ Aunt Vittoria; a touch of her previous narrator Elena Greco in our newly acquainted Giovanna Trada who, too, is equally ugly, anxious, inadequate. Those familiar with the Neapolitan Novels remember Ferrante’s copper pot ready to implode at any moment, the looming possibility of an earthquake to undo world order; The Lying Life of Adults offers the instability of all things on a more interpersonal scale.
‘Tell the truth,’ Giovanna utters early in The Lying Life of Adults, after asking her friends, ‘Do I have a scowl on my face? Do you think I’m getting ugly?’ They, of course, respond, ‘Not at all.’ And only then does Giovanna mandate, Tell the truth. Giovanna’s directive ‘Tell the truth’—uttered to her school friends Angela and Ida—is the sort of game with which any school girl is familiar: an expectation of scrupulous truth-telling, with the simultaneous expectation for lying predicated on the maintenance of friendship.
The line between the joke, gioco, and truth is thin in The Lying Life of Adults. ‘Had Mariano merely been joking or, joking, had he carefully spoken the truth?’ Giovanna asks early in the novel. It’s the same thin line between so-called reality and lies that Ferrante negotiates in one of her quintessential mirror scenes later in the novel. When Giovanna’s friends ask whether she wore any clothing as she stared, cloaked in jewels, into her bedroom mirror, Giovanna narrates, ‘I said no, and the lie gave me such relief that I imagined if I really had done it I would have tasted a moment of absolute happiness. So one afternoon, to prove that, I transformed the lie into reality.’ A lie here foreshadows; it is not deceitful but instead generative, both in the context of Ferrante’s novel and for the reader herself. From Giovanna’s lie is born action; from Ferrante’s lie (the act of fiction writing), her novel is born.
Giovanna’s Tell the truth is reminiscent of Ferrante’s dissenters and examiners who command that she Tell the truth in the form of confessing her ‘true’ authorial identity. Most famously, Claudio Gatti’s command to Tell the truth in the form of a 2016 New York Review of Books op-ed, wherein he attempted to ‘unmask’ Ferrante on the basis of her financial records. Ferrante seems to interrogate the very impulse that motivates Gatti in The Lying Life of Adults, via Giovanna’s obsession with professed truth. What truth can possibly exist—when fragmentation underlines everything; when one day someone feels broken to the core, another day a good docile unified subject; when one lies only to translate the lie into the truest act possibly committed? ‘I perfected my method of lying by telling the truth,’ Ferrante writes in the novel. We can flip it, a truth-statement gone awry: I perfected my method of truth-telling by lying.
If there’s an authorial fetish for lying, Ferrante has it. But Ferrante’s fetish for lying is only as fervent as Western culture’s obsession with truth and realism. Ferrante, through her pen name, through her own characters' obsession with lies and distortion, reveals a desperate attempt to avoid ‘consent to the death of children,’ as Munro writes—to the complicity in death and capital of which all humans must take part.
I speak of capital, for Ferrante speaks back to capital in her attempt to defy market demands. To remove herself from the lying lives of adults who run publishing houses, presses, journals. To align herself with we, who are also adults, but now identify with the pseudonymous fugitive; we who also want to take part in a defiance of realism through her omnipotent, mythic status. We want to lie with you, Ferrante, if only to avoid the lies that run our everyday lives.
If Giovanna lies, only for it to become reality, Ferrante also illustrates the reverse process: a most seemingly concrete reality, that only becomes a lie in a moment’s time. When Giovanna meets the much mythologised Aunt Vittoria early in the novel, the reality of her life seemingly dissipates—or rather, is revealed as a lie. ‘Everything your parents told you is false,’ Aunt Vittoria reminds Giovanna. The same occurs with the (quite literal) state of affairs throughout the novel wherein parents sleep with other parents, and teenagers ultimately dream of doing the same.
Fiction and lying: is it a means of avoiding complicity—or becoming complicit? Does all art attempt to avoid complicity—a kind of play in which one can distort, avoid ‘consent’ to, the facts of life? Or is art-making a kind of self-absolution of one’s status as an adult: a more grandiose version of my utterance to ten-year-old pupils? I am not one of them—every novel states, as it gestures to its repulsive adults—because I am over here, observing them with detachment. Complicity remains the right question for Ferrante’s novel, and for Steve Gauley’s death, and for Ferrante’s pseudonymity: there is no way to rise above death; adults; the becoming of an adult; the mandate for unified and authentic subjectivity (in a public means, in the case of Ferrante’s authorship). The alternative? A self-conscious practice of lying.
I deceive my writing students and pray they deceive me. After all, writing and storytelling are the highest form of deception, as Ferrante’s novel gestures. Ferrante, from her simple use of an alias, is one for giochi: a self-conscious act of gaming her reader. Or perhaps reminding her reader that we always game and play when we read. To not do so is not to read; to tell the truth, as reader and author alike very well know, is to fail. To ‘tell it slant,’ in Dickinsonian diction—to fragment oneself via pseudonym—is to suggest the fragmentation inherent and available to all selves. This practice, Ferrante indicates, is far truer than any alternative.
To ‘tell it slant’ is, historically, a queer act. To tell queerness slant is Ferrante’s act. The girls only ever kiss and touch as a game—a game not unlike the performance of pseudonymity. But to discount Ferrante’s depictions of queer and lesbian relationships in The Lying Life of Adults simply because they arise from girlish play is to miss Ferrante’s point. To discount the contents of ‘play’ is to discount the truth inherent to such moments, a truth more true than the somber unsatisfying marital sex featured in the Neapolitan Novels’ Elena Cerullo’s marriage and the heterosexual hookups littered throughout her most recent novel. A performance truer than the final sexual transaction that concludes The Lying Life of Adults: a sexual exchange, as earnest as it might be, that culminates in ‘sticking my tongue as far as possible past his teeth.’ (Fairly queer despite the transaction’s surface straightness.) A performance truer than the final scene of the novel wherein Giovanna and Ida promise one another ‘to become adults as no one ever had before’: a task if not impossible then certainly a kind of game. To read Ferrante as queer is not to dethrone her place in the contemporary canon of ‘female friendship”–– a seeming fear, evidenced by a lack of rigorous queer studies of her novels. To feel that the two are mutually exclusive is to lack the imaginative politics to understand Ferrante’s work: to touch, feel, play, kiss, and speak with utmost freedom and fluidity.
‘When I stood apart from my parents at Steve Gauley's funeral and watched them,’ Munro's narrator of ‘Miles City, Montana’ confesses, ‘I thought that I was understanding something about them for the first time. It was a deadly serious thing. I was understanding that they were implicated. Their big, stiff, dressed up bodies did not stand between me and sudden death, or any kind of death.’ Through these literary modes of lying in the form of fiction, Ferrante (or Munro) urges us to defamiliarise ourselves with sudden death, with the world of adults. Adults are reasonable—and consenting and complicit, through their reason; alternatively, adults consent and are made reasonable for that very reason. Giovanna’s bloody sex at the end of the novel should not be understood as exceptional in its grotesque quality but instead a marker of the grotesquerie that underlines all things. To understand this scene as ‘grotesque’ might be the problem altogether; to not see all things as grotesque and uncanny might be the more urgent problem.
To be a good adult is to spend one’s adulthood, as Ferrante does, asking, ‘What happened, in other words, in the world of adults, in the heads of very reasonable people, in their bodies loaded with knowledge?’ Ferrante urges us to remain vigilant and wary of adults, especially as adults. To continue to challenge those allegedly reasonable people, those knowledge-filled flesh bodies. Who walk with so much authority! Who think themselves all firm and fixed! To ask what happened is to avoid complicity; to ask it to an obsessive extent is likely neurotic, but is nevertheless to refuse repulsive reasonability. Ferrante demands it; we follow.
Katherine Franco read English as a Visiting Student at Mansfield College this past year. She would like to work toward a theory toward something.
Art by Charlotte Bunney