Saturday, September 19, 2020

Elena Ferrante's The Lying Life of Adults--A Disappointment

I fell in love with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and read all four volumes, as well as the earlier novellas, at least three times each. The latest book, The Lying Life of Adults, just doesn’t measure up to the earlier works.

In The Lying Life of Adults there is the familiar Neapolitan setting and the signature Ferrante themes: fractured family ties; the pain of marital infidelity; the psychological costs of upward mobility; the complicated interplay of standard Italian and Neapolitan dialect; the experience of life in a female body; and the torments of adolescent sexuality. One of the pleasures of the novel is encountering Ferrante themes in new guises. However, while in the Neapolitan novels the narrative complexity and dazzling prose saved it from falling into melodrama, The Lying Life of Adults too often descends into soap opera.

It appears most Ferrante fans do not share my assessment of her new novel. From reviews I have read, my response is an outlier. Much more common is Dayna Tortoricia’s rave review in the New York Times which begins with “What a relief it is when an author who has written a masterpiece returns to prove the gift intact.”

I have yet to encounter a seriously negative review, although many generally positive reviews contain caveats about Ferrante’s control of her narrative. From Parul Sehgal’s New York Times review “But it’s also a more vulnerable performance [than her earlier works], less tightly woven and deliberately plotted, even turning uncharacteristically jagged at points as it explores some of the writer’s touchiest preoccupations.”

Judith Thurman in her New Yorker review comes closest in my mind to acknowledging the real weaknesses of The Lying Life of Adults: “Had this been a young writer’s coming-of-age story, one could praise its abundant flashes of brilliance and forgive its excesses. Coming from a master, its puerility is a mystery.” Thurman thinks the novel “has passages of electric dialogue and acute perception. But its crude hinting and telegraphing suggest an author who distrusts her reader’s discernment, and they made me wonder if Ferrante hadn’t drafted the story as a much younger writer, still honing her craft.”

The Lying Life of Adults lacks both the frequently incandescent prose and the fully developed characters of the Neapolitan novels. One of the great strengths of the Neapolitan novels was the creation of complicated characters with conflicting motives and values; to me, these bundles of contradictions were indeed real people. Giovanna, the teenage narrator of The Lying Life of Adults, will not stay with me as a real human being like Elena and Lila in the Neapolitan novels. I will not re-read The Lying Life of Adults over and over again to try to unlock the secrets of the novel. Once was enough.

More like the compressed time frame of the novellas than the sixty-year time span of the Neapolitan novels, The Lying Life of Adults covers four years in the life of the adolescent narrator Giovanna who, unlike Elena and Lila, leads a comfortable middle class life. Elena Greco is the classic striver focused on moving up in the world and escaping the poverty and violence of working class Naples; Giovanna’s family has already made that journey into the educated middle class.

Giovanna over hears her father, upset that she has gotten bad grades in school, remark “she’s getting the face of Vittoria,” his much despised sister. Obsessed with meeting her aunt, Giovanna descends into the lower depths of Naples to meet Vittoria and explore the world her father was desperate to leave behind. As Giovanna is dealing with the turbulence of adolescence, she learns of her father’s infidelity and struggles to cope with her parents’ divorce.

Fifteen year old Giovanna falls madly in love with her friend’s fiancé Roberto, a twenty five year old professor, who is in some ways reminiscent of the Neapolitan novels’ Nino Sarratore—a handsome, intense intellectual, a son of working class Naples who had climbed the class ladder and never looked behind. Unlike Nino, Roberto is deeply religious (albeit in an unconventional way) and retains an attachment for the working class world of his childhood.

Ferrante in the Neapolitan novels brilliantly described the frustrations of adolescent sexuality in the sexually repressed Italian working class culture of the 1950s; in The Lying Life of Adults she describes how those tensions play out in the sexually liberated world of the 1990s educated upper middle class. The novel ends with Giovanna’s sexual initiation with a man she dislikes, a scene reminiscent of Elena’s turning to the much despised Donato Sarratore to lose the burden of her virginity. Ferrante is known for her scenes of bad sex, and The Lying Life of Adults ends with a long drawn-out, clumsily written scene of truly bad sex. It lacks the emotional complexity, irony and occasional sparks of comedy that characterize such scenes in the Neapolitan novels.

An ironic perspective is for the most part missing in The Lying Life of Adults. For example, in the Neapolitan novels, the narrator, the mature Elena, describes her younger self’s comic misunderstanding of what she believed were Nino Sarratore’s overtures to her. Blinded by her own desire for Nino, at first Elena could not see what was unfolding before her eyes. The narrator’s ironic tone is one of the ways Ferrante from time to time reminds the reader that these are the recollections of an older woman viewing her younger self from the vantage point of maturity.

The Lying Life of Adults also lacks the Neapolitan novels’ skillful use of recurrent motifs, which serve to bind together the narrative strands of the novels, such as Elena and Lila’s dolls and Elena’s silver bracelet. The bracelet has become bound up with Elena’s emerging sexuality and the potentially dangerous attention it attracts. Like the dolls, the bracelet reappears at key points in the narrative, accumulating further associations and serving as a symbol of the bonds between women, of the experiences women share. With such recurrent motifs, Ferrante weaves the intricate tapestry of the Neapolitan novels. In The Lying Life of Adults, the bracelet reappears and is used in a similar way to tie together narrative strands, but here the symbolism becomes heavy-handed rather than suggestive.

Unlike the Neapolitan novels, there is little sense of the wider world in which these events occurred. The Lying Life of Adults does have a strong sense of place; we know we are in the geographic space of Naples. However, although the novel is generally thought to take place in the 1990s, we know little of the political events then roiling Italian society. Giovanna’s father refers to “disastrous times” but there is no explanation as to what this means. In the Neapolitan novels Ferrante has skillfully inter-woven the history of the corruption scandals of the early 1990s with the lives of her principal characters, such as Nino Sarratore, who was among the many politicians caught up in the Tangentopoli scandal (sometimes translated as Bribesville), which erupted in Milan in 1992.

If she had wanted to make the connection, Ferrante could have easily linked the lies of her characters in The Lying Life of Adults with the lying politicians desperately trying to cover up unbridled corruption. However, Ferrante in her latest novel is focused on personal relationships/family dynamics and shows little interest in integrating the personal lives of her characters with a fully realized social world. The approach is reminiscent of Ferrante’s novellas, which focus on private life and depict a female character at a crisis point—in this case Giovanna navigating the turbulence of adolescence while her parents’ marriage disintegrates.

In The Lying Life of Adults we have Ferrante’s themes without Ferrante’s astonishing talent. How do we account for this? Judith Thurman has suggested Ferrante had “drafted the story as a much younger writer, still honing her craft.” There may be another explanation. In 2016, journalist Claudio Gatti identified the pseudonymous author as Rome-based translator Anita Raja and speculated that her husband novelist Domenico Starnone might be her collaborator. In Italian literary circles Raja and Starnone had long been identified as the likely authors. To my knowledge there are four separate teams of linguists whose text analysis software concluded that there was a “high probability” that Starnone was the principal author. There will no doubt be linguistic analyses of The Lying Life of Adults; my guess is that Starnone will not be identified as the principal author and this may account for the relative weakness of Ferrante’s latest novel.

When writing In Search of Elena Ferrante ​, I turned to Starnone’s novels for further clues as to his contribution to Ferrante’s novels. In the three of his novels that have been translated into English, (First Execution, Ties, and Trick), I found thematic, structural, and linguistic similarities to Ferrante’s work. First Execution, like the Neapolitan novels, explores the ethical implications of political violence. Ties is strikingly similar to Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment; both novels begin with a man abandoning his wife and children for a much younger woman, leaving his wife distraught, angry and unwilling to accept her husband’s betrayal.

Daniele Mallarico, the narrator of Trick, like Elena Greco of the Neapolitan novels, longed to escape Naples and his difficult family; like Elena, through education and talent he managed to do so. Several of the details of working class life recalled by Mallarico in Trick are reminiscent of descriptions of Elena’s family struggling to deal with the difficulties of a large family living in a relatively small space. Elena at times speculates on what she might have become if she hadn’t had the strength to leave Naples, and what the far more talented Lila might have become if her family, like Elena’s, had allowed her to continue her education. Similarly, the elderly artist in Trick becomes obsessed with the roads not taken.

These similarities between Starnone’s works and those attributed to Ferrante strengthened the case for his co-authorship. However, I believed that if I could read those of Starnone’s novels that had not been translated into English, I might have an even stronger case. In a recent Atlantic article, Rachel Donadio, who has read Starnone’s works in Italian, provided further evidence for Starnone’s involvement in the works attributed to Ferrante. She analyzed his 2011 novel Autobiografia Erotica di Aristide Gambía, published the same year that My Brilliant Friend appeared in Italian. Donadio describes it as a “dizzying meditation on whether men can convincingly write about women and women about men." “Elena Ferrante” actually appears as a character in Autobiografia Erotica and the narrator, Aristide Gambía, decides he no longer wants to write about aging men: instead he will explore women’s lives, and “the battle … to become a new woman.”6 Both in Autobiografia Erotica as in his novels Trick and Ties, Starnone leaves many clues about his relationship to the fictional Elena Ferrante. It certainly seems like he wants to be found out.

If, as I now believe is most likely, Raja and Starnone are the co-authors of Ferrante’s novels, we have one author who shares the working class Neapolitan background of Ferrante (and her narrator Elena Greco), but not her gender, and the other co-author who shares the gender of Ferrante, but not her working class background. Gatti’s revelations have challenged the belief that there are aspects of the female experience that can only be fully understood and described by a woman writer, and have also challenged the widely held assumption that great literature must be the work of one mind, one visionary genius.

There are allusions to both gender bending and collaborative authorship throughout Ferrante’s work, almost as if she is providing clues to the authorship of her novels. Lila and Elena dream of writing a novel together and Elena credits Lila as the inspiration for much of her writing. What Elena refers to as the “play of shared creation” is a major theme of the Neapolitan novels. In Frantumaglia, Ferrante tells the story of Ariadne, suffering because she believes her lover Theseus has abandoned her on the island of Amathus. In order to console her, the women of Amathus write love letters to her, pretending the letters are from Theseus. Ferrante focused on “the women’s effort to enter the head, the words of a man” and “the women’s collaboration—a true harmonious group project—to feign a man’s psychic and lexical makeup.”

In her many interviews, Ferrante returns again and again to the idea of collaborative authorship and the belief that “a good writer—male or female—can imitate the two sexes with equal effectiveness.” However, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, many of Ferrante’s devoted readers insist that her powerful account of female experience must be solely the work of a woman.

Of course what really matters is the power of the text, not the gender of the author or authors. I had hoped for another extraordinary book from the author[s] writing under the pseudonym of Elena Ferrante, but The Lying Life of Adults lacks the narrative skills and the compelling prose of Ferrante’s earlier works. It is the first Ferrante book I will not re-read.

1 comment:

  1. In her many Interviews, Ferrante frequently refers to the concept of joint authorship and the assumption that "a successful writer, male or female, can equally effectively imitate all men." Nevertheless many committed readers of Ferrante maintain, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that his clear account of a female experience must be only a woman's work.

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