Ferrante narrates through the stories of different women how the “value” of a body can be raised or reduced with a word, or especially with a gaze, and how these attributions affect one’s life.
It would be too easy to utter sentences which are blended with pleasure and admiration one after another to define Elena Ferrante’s literature. Eventually, none of these sentences would be enough to express the sanguine feelings that she evokes in the reader. Ferrante’s literature –we think we can call her works as such– not only does not narrate anything in binaries, but pivots around the contrasting situations and feelings that can coexist and the difficulties of finding one’s way in the commotion of contradictions that this concomitance entails. In this piece, we will try to touch on some of these situations with reference to her latest novel The Lying Life of Adults and to articulate what we find stimulating not only for our personal lives but also for feminist politics.
In the Neapolitan Novels, although the narrator remembers the past, each and every age has been narrated with the language specific to that age’s particular way of thinking and feeling. In The Lying Life of Adults, the narrator Giovanna also narrates, feels, and relives her past through the language of a girl (it is also noteworthy that the author makes readers feel the state of leaving behind). What is narrated in relation to the poverty and class metaphors of the early 90s Naples is a coming-of-age story focusing on the adolescent years (and much more than that) spent in uptown and downtown neighborhoods. Ferrante tackles adolescence not as loss of childhood but a period of getting acquainted with the adult world and its strategies and opportunity to make one’s own way. Uptown and downtown neighborhoods of Naples, people with heavy accents, people speaking perfect Italian, the tension between the desire for leading an academic/intellectual life and being from middle- or lower-class. All these are indispensable elements of Ferrante’s novels which are interwoven with many layers of details.
In the Neapolitan Novels in Ferrante’s literature, even though the characters wish to sever their ties with their origins and distance themselves from their origins or find their bearings, they end up facing the horror of turning into that person from whom they have been fleeing all along or finding themselves on the margin of this possibility. In the Neapolitan Novels we read about Lenu’s feelings about her mother and how she sees herself from the eyes of her mother or we see Nino becoming a man like his father who had abused Lenu as a child and cheated his wife or we witness how Lila, who wanted to run away from her family gradually puts down her roots in her neighborhood. The inescapable “fate”, the bond that cannot be formed – this is perhaps the main issue that Ferrante constantly returns to. Ferrante tells us that “climbing up the ladder of social classes”, running away from what one sees and the efforts to build something “better” are not linear processes and even more importantly they are not linear feelings. She, of course, addresses how violence plays an essential part in all this. The social mangle, which seems like fate and from which it is not always possible to step out; the recurrent cycles which cannot always be broken, and which offer the reader psychoanalytical readings. Common aporias and quagmires that Ferrante refrains from naming and into which we read different meanings at times when they cross paths with our own lives.
In The Lying Life of Adults, adolescence is not depicted as a moment of passage, transition, transformation or finding oneself as it is done in the widely circulating and easy to recollect images, but rather it is located as a way of being in this world when both emotional and physical chaos does not eschew manifesting itself and forces us to confrontation. Giovanna, in this complicated and difficult period, manages to comprehend the necessity to see men clearly, to understand women and to create her own path in all these relations. She figures out that the criteria and the “secret” of being an adult is not telling lies but constructing the somehow ongoing order through organizing those lies.
“Do you really think I’m very beautiful? Be careful what you say: my face has already changed, and because of my father I turned ugly; don’t you, too, play with changing me, making me become beautiful.”
In the Neapolitan Novels we see often how Lila’s beauty can be both a luck and a curse and how the gap between the physical features and the self-perceptions of the characters shape their lives. Again, in this book words such as beauty, ugliness, slimness, and grace tell us not only the characters’ appearances and expectations of themselves, but also their emotional states, values, class positions and the extent to which they have succeeded in realizing themselves in society. Additionally, none of these adjectives are fixed; they do not refer to static patterns that necessarily have to happen. In the beginning of the book, the sentence which disrupts the natural flow of the characters’ lives as well as their “ideal” family order, and thus sets into motion the plot, seems as if it is solely related to the destruction of an adolescent’s perception of her body. However, after a while we understand that when Giovanna’s father tells her that she is as ugly as her aunt (father’s sister) Vittoria, he points at an existence that he does not want to become, his efforts to realize himself in total opposition with that existence, and hence to a class marker which he does not want her daughter to carry. Ferrante narrates through the stories of different women how the “value” of a body can be raised or reduced with a word or especially with a gaze and how these attributions affect one’s life. Therefore, once Giovanna hears these words, she begins to question, lose and rebuild not only her own body, but also her own moral beauty and the order of which she feels to be a part without questioning. However, in Ferrante’s stories, there is no way of belonging without questioning or a rupture without a return.
“What power men have, even the most small-minded, even over courageous and violent women like my aunt.”
Despite men’s unqualifiedness and hypocrisy, all the spaces that women open in their lives and all the efforts they show to love and forgive men show how men build their lives over the labor and sacrifices of women, and love is not a sublime emotion but one of the strongest tools of patriarchy. This is so much so that a man who has left his home for another woman makes her ex-wife run his chores, and another man, who has died, continues to run the lives of all the women and children that were in his life through his portrait hung in the living room. The relations of hostility and admiration between men and the status that they want to have are based on their consensus or fight over women and property.
Giovanna’s struggle is to locate herself in a world which is offered to her by the adults. In her struggle, she is both alone and suffering as much as she is free (and particularly against men) very cool. The core of the matter is not refusing what adults do. Ugly might mean the opposite of beautiful, but also it might mean refusing what is immoral; it might not be the case that the truth counters the lie, but it might be that the reason for which one lies is the opposite of lie. Ugly might be identified as a family life that one wants to get out of and beauty with fragile truths that might be broken any second. This way, Ferrante separates those singular situations which regimes of oppression pairs off and links together those conditions of human life and learned behaviors which seem to be contrasting. This creates in some readers the response of “what is the problem here exactly” or a sense of unease against the characters (It is possible that Ferrante would have tittered at some of the comments on Goodreads saying “this is it”).
“Why, if you dig even a little, do you find sex in all things, even the most elevated; why, to describe sex, is a single adjective not sufficient, why does it take many—embarrassing, bland, tragic, happy, pleasant, repulsive— and never one at a time but all together; is it possible that a great love can exist without sex, is it possible that sexual practices between male and female don’t spoil the need to love and be loved in return?”
The most fundamental commonality of uptown and downtown Naples where similar social relations in the guise of different worlds pervade is the sexuality in the lying lives of adults. Albeit with different motives and instincts, the sexuality of the characters who do not dare to be open about their desires that lead them to lie to, deceive and harm others around them. And there are also children who discover their sexuality, learn to take pleasure from their own as well as their peers’ bodies and experience that sexuality means to share pleasure. The fact that the story is a coming-of-age story makes it inevitable for impulsiveness involved in sharing pleasure to be disrupted with sociality. Ferrante turns this situation into an opportunity to tell us about girls who are, on the one hand, stuck between sexual coercion, disgust and the feeling of obligation to prove themselves, and who have started to break taboos about sexuality, on the other hand. As the girls grow up, they observe male-female relations thoroughly, rethink about themselves accordingly, and subject the experiences of adults to a critical and intelligent scrutiny in their struggle to become a woman.
Ferrante meticulously humanizes evil and the banality of evil, and she transforms this evil, which is touched by everyone once in their lifetime or which is deeply desired but not acted upon (and for this reason led to self-love), into a condition of humanity. Ferrante’s stories tell us that our relationship with evil, which we believe to be not on the surface and which we hide by finding faults with it, is not so sophisticated after all. But as a theme tackled by Ferrante, we still see that everyday evil is not something which lacks depth. On the contrary, it diversifies our comprehension. In Ferrante’s literature, which does not give place to dichotomies, the absolute good or evil does not exist. For instance, there are no good mother-daughter relations. And what is bad is not deprived of goodness. Women do not run away from or leave men simply because they are violent and behave badly. But this does not deny the vitality of the experience which women spread by word of mouth amongst themselves. Therefore, the literature of Ferrante appeals to and carries away the confrontational reader who not only is open to oneself and confronts oneself but also acknowledges the fundamental constitutive role of violence. With a mischievous expression, Ferrante tells how our characteristics which we admire and proudly display in public are interwoven with all kinds of detailed obsessions. Ferrante, who can get so close to the mood and behavior of an adolescent also shakes our perception which sees adolescence as a phase before adulthood.
Understanding that which is so “melodramatic” in Giovanna’s adolescence leads us to grasp the lives of adults organized by “ordinary” selfishness/evil/lies/obsessions/insecurities. Ferrante tells us that the world (even if we choose to pretend as if it is) is not a place where we can skillfully construct cause and effect relations and easily make ourselves “better” by directly acting against the injustices and inequalities. This point of view and this world which is blatantly free of dualities, and the inseparable and contentious relationship between the social and the personal are quite familiar to feminists. The seminal aspect of Ferrante’s literature for feminist politics is not simply the fact that women express their subjectivity –one cannot help but be astonished with the fact that this is something which is still ignored in this century. What is inspiring in Ferrante’s violent stories that tell us about women’s failures, resistances and struggle skills is how she narrates the complexity of social and class relations that are entangled with gender and how she shows us the different forms, alliances and reproduction capacities of patriarchy. And in so doing, she never underestimates hope and the power to break the cycle. She never underestimates the power of women who say no.
Translator: İpek Tabur
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan
Excerpts: Elena Ferrante. The Lying Life of Adults. Trans. Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions, 2020.