Elena Ferrante’s Master Class on Deceit
Her latest novel frames lying as a creative act.
“To tolerate existence, we lie, and we lie above all to ourselves,” Elena Ferrante observed in a 2002 interview. “Falsehoods protect us, mitigate suffering, allow us to avoid the terrifying moment of serious reflection, they dilute the horrors of our time, they even save us from ourselves.” For Ferrante, the falsehoods that people tell one another and themselves in everyday life—I am happy; I love my wife; I didn’t know what I was doing—are “lovely tales,” or “petty lies.” At moments when guilt and shame threaten our conscience, when they shake our deepest beliefs about who we are, petty lies stop us from looking too closely at ourselves.
Literary fiction is also a lie, according to Ferrante, but a lie that is “made purposely to always tell the truth.” The lies that fiction tells—once upon a time a person said and did this and that—are unmotivated by self-interest. Fiction is an illusion that tinkers with our sense of reality to lay bare the price we pay for our petty lies: Fiction shows us that narcissism and self-doubt impel us to hurt others; that we are quick to betray people who trust us; that love can be more destructive than hate. Central to Ferrante’s theory of fiction as an act of truth-telling is her conviction that the truth dawns more radiantly when glimpsed through the veil of fiction’s lies.
What can we learn about the conjunction of life and fiction from a work of fiction about lying? Ferrante’s exquisitely moody new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, is about a teenager named Giovanna who learns that the grown-ups in her life have been lying to her. She also learns that the contents of their lies are less intriguing than their styles of lying—exaggeration, omission, justification, obfuscation—which vary in their skillfulness, and in the pleasure and pain they afford. All lie differently from The Lying Life of Adults itself, which invites us to evaluate lying not only as a moral problem, but also as an aesthetic challenge—to ask whether a lie can ever be elevated into an art form.
We might ask this question of all of Ferrante’s writing. Her fiction teems with liars of every age, from the insecure children of her beloved Neapolitan quartet, to the anguished adults of her early novels, to Elena Ferrante herself, an authorial persona who claims that she resorts to lying to shield herself. Unlike the Neapolitan quartet, which spans more than half a century in the lives of two friends, The Lying Life of Adults concerns itself with adolescence—a time when deception and self-deception loom large, and growing up means learning to catch oneself and others in the act of lying. Everything that entails—ridding oneself of childish illusions, recognizing the hypocrisy of adults, suffering romantic disappointment—is standard fare for novels of adolescence. But for Ferrante, whose novel bestows on familiar experiences an ardent, unreal shimmer, growing up also involves learning how to cultivate a talent for deception that approaches a talent for writing fiction.
The quartet began with intensity, in a violent, working-class neighborhood of Naples, but The Lying Life of Adults opens amid the educated, affluent, and peaceable. Giovanna’s father is a teacher at a prestigious high school and an aspiring Marxist intellectual, “an unfailingly courteous man” whose love and admiration she desperately desires. Her mother teaches Greek and Latin and proofreads romance novels. Giovanna’s best friends, pretty Angela and poetic Ida, are the daughters of her parents’ best friends, the wealthy Mariano and Costanza. All seem content in their bourgeois happiness—until the day Giovanna, then 12, overhears a conversation between her mother and father.
Giovanna recalls the conversation from an unspecified present: “Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” We have no reason to doubt her account. “Those words,” she tells us, “remained fixed” in her mind as a cruel judgment on her pubescent body and poor performance in school. But we soon discover that what her father actually said was worse: She was “becoming like his sister,” her estranged Aunt Vittoria, “a childhood bogeyman, a lean, demonic silhouette,” whose vulgarity and cruelty her noble father has detested for as long as Giovanna can remember.
Reversing the quartet’s story of upward mobility, Giovanna descends from her home atop Naples’s highest hill to the industrial neighborhood where Vittoria lives, determined to discover the truth of her aunt’s estrangement. Her father begs her “to put wax in [her] ears like Odysseus.” But Giovanna listens as Vittoria tells the agonizing story of her love for a married man named Enzo, their affair exposed by Giovanna’s father, no longer a heroic man but a puritanical, petty bourgeois opportunist. Vittoria describes the sublime feeling of “fucking,” “an adherence to pleasure so desperately carnal” that Giovanna finds herself shockingly aroused. “Tell your father: Vittoria said that if I don’t fuck the way she fucked with Enzo, it’s pointless for me to live,” her aunt demands. We know Vittoria’s pronouncement is a lie, but Giovanna is too overwhelmed by the pleasure the lie elicits to see it. The moralizing lies of her father and the eroticizing lies of her aunt loom before her like Scylla and Charybdis. To navigate between them safely, she must cultivate her own style of deception.
For Ferrante, lies, like literature, cleave to different genres, each with its own conventions of language. To her parents, Giovanna downplays her fascination with Vittoria, clipping her descriptions of her visit. To Vittoria, whom she starts to see regularly, she begins “almost inadvertently to invent” things about her parents, though she restrains herself from being too “novelistic.” To Angela and Ida, she lies about Vittoria recklessly, almost giving her “the capacity to fly through night skies or invent magic potions.” The quartet allowed its narrator, a writer named Lenù, to move among several different genres of storytelling: the fable, the romance, the realist novel. The Lying Life of Adults makes the same imaginative experiment available to readers. “I’m not wise, but I read a lot of novels,” Giovanna says of her education in lying. “Instead of my own words, phrases from books come to mind.”
The books she begins with are the epics her father loves to quote. Then her lies start to toggle between fable and romance, with their enchanted objects (she imagines a bracelet Vittoria gives her as possessing magic) and fairy-tale archetypes (she casts Vittoria as an evil witch). Yet the more Giovanna lies, the more she flexes her nascent powers of perception and narration. Her inner world, her imagination, grows critical, rebellious, and she starts to see the “well-ordered world” of her parents with unnerving clarity. She discovers that a more melodramatic configuration of lies (reminiscent of the quartet’s later books) has corrupted her family’s happiness. There is her intellectualizing father’s long affair with Costanza, which he justifies artlessly, in “a frenzy to redeem himself by listing his grand reasons, his pain and suffering.” There is her mother’s improvisation of “nostalgic little speeches” about her estranged husband’s goodness, honesty, and fidelity.
Giovanna deems these lies “offensive,” and is as repelled by their self-serving sentimentality as she is, eventually, by Vittoria’s romantic vulgarity. Part of learning how to lie, Ferrante suggests, is learning how to judge lies based on their aesthetic merits. As we grow up, some varieties of lying must be cast aside: We know too much to accommodate their obvious falsity, their clichés, their failure to reconcile us to the intractable realities of life. What makes the adults seem so stunted is that none of them lies with elegance or verve, with imagination or originality. As non-novelists—teachers of the classics, proofreaders of romance—their lies borrow tropes from the fiction they produce and consume: romantic idealization, passivity in the face of passion, a feeling of fatedness. Yet, as Giovanna soon realizes, the lies designed by their literary culture are too reductive to give meaning to her quest to understand her sudden alienation from her life.
the lying life of adults is not an epic, a fable, or a romance like the novels Giovanna’s mother proofreads. It is not a bildungsroman or Künstlerroman in the way the quartet is. It is a novel of disillusionment, as the literary critic Georg Lukács once described the category: a novel that strips away its young protagonist’s major social relationships to elevate her interiority to “the status of a completely independent world.” From its origins in Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, the genre explores an individual’s struggle to adapt private fantasies and illusions to an outer world hostile to them. The word Ferrante uses to describe this feeling of discordance is estraneità: “extraneousness,” “noninvolvement,” or, as Ann Goldstein beautifully translates it, “estrangement.” When Giovanna embraces her father, but draws no comfort from his familiar scent, she is overwhelmed by “a sense of estrangement that provoked suffering mixed incongruously with satisfaction”—suffering from the rupture with her family, from the loss of a shared world; and satisfaction at how her distance allows her to see her parents and aunt anew, her outer gaze clarified by her inner state of homelessness.
The novel’s second half shows how estrangement might allow Giovanna to approach, blindly, haltingly, more elevated forms of lying than what her parents have offered. The catalyst is Roberto, a classic Ferrante love interest. He is a brilliant scholar of religion, a Neapolitan boy who has found success as a young man in Milan but remains attached to his origins; he is engaged to an attractive, if insipid, girl from Vittoria’s neighborhood. When she meets Roberto, Giovanna, now almost 15, tells him she is reading a book about “the search for lost time,” and he praises her intellect. She tells herself the lie that comes fluently to all teenagers: “Become his friend, only that, and show him that, somewhere inside me, unknown even to myself, I possess the qualities he needs.”
A pointedly Proustian story of fantasy and desire unfolds. Call this kind of lie the self-deception of infatuation. It rarely lasts, as Ferrante knows, but as long as it does, it allows Giovanna to live lies that only intensify the desire they seek to suppress. Around Roberto, Giovanna projects an aura of intellectual purity, compassion, and wisdom, and strives to be as good as she believes him to be. His work is about “compunction,” which he describes to her not as moral scrupulousness, but as “a needle that had to pull the thread through the scattered fragments of our existence.” That he will let her down is inevitable—from the moment they meet, we know he will never live up to her illusions. But her infatuation allows her to discover that the compunction of which Roberto speaks is key to what some liars, like some novels, do. They create the appearance of a unified self, smoothing the painful and unassimilable edges out of our histories; they offer a false sense of consolation, which we accept, eager not to look too hard at ourselves.
What kind of novel is best at transforming lying into an art form and fiction into a truthful lie rather than mere consolation? Not the epic, not the romance, and not the Proustian novel, which labors to create a single self out of the fragments of existence. The answer can be found at the very beginning of The Lying Life of Adults, when Giovanna describes the story to come.
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.
Everything the sentence suggests—that the “I” who speaks from within fiction is elusive; that writing is like weaving a fabric that conceals and reveals the life beneath; that this fabric will never redeem life’s suffering—is a description of Ferrante’s own fiction.
The novel alludes to the quartet as it closes, and Giovanna (the reader) and her poetic friend Ida (the writer) leave for Venice together, vowing to become “adults as no one ever had before.” On the one hand, the ending could be read ironically, as a version of the thrillingly cliché adolescent illusion that running away from home will free us from the ties that bind. On the other, the embrace of friendship over family and romance could signal the beginning of a superior and entirely truthful lie: the writing of the novel itself, a collaborative examination of the past by two people—both Giovanna the liar and “the one who at this moment is writing.” Whether the one who is writing is the older Giovanna or her friend Ida, the echo of the intertwined protagonists of the quartet, Lila and Lenù, is clear.
The end of The Lying Life of Adults suggests that the way to reckon with the “snarled confusion of suffering” is literary partnership—that this marvelously disconcerting novel of disillusionment is a product of the grace extended to the liar by the writer. Only the writer’s truthful lies can mirror the liar’s petty ones with the clear sight needed to affirm the intensity of her past. Only the writer knows how to conjure desire; sympathize with misjudgment; rebuke carelessness; disappoint mercifully. Always, Ferrante’s fiction reminds us that sometimes you need someone else to help gather the scattered fragments of your existence. A writer is a friend who can find the thread of your story when you are too blinded by your lies to grasp it yourself. She can give you the beginning and end you need—if not in life, then in fiction.
This article appears in the September 2020 print edition with the headline “Lying as an Art Form.”
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