‘I don’t at all hate lies,’ Elena Ferrante explained in Frantumaglia, her manifesto for authorial anonymity. ‘I find them useful and I resort to them when necessary to shield my person, feelings, pressures.’ Shortly after writing these words, Ferrante, who refuses all interviews and keeps her identity under wraps, was accused by an investigative journalist called Claudio Gatti of lying to her readers. She had allowed us to assume, Gatti revealed, that her hugely successful Neapolitan quartet — My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child — was autobiographical. But instead of being, like Lena, the quartet’s narrator, the daughter of a poor Neapolitan seamstress, Ferrante was the daughter of a German-Jewish teacher who had escaped the Holocaust. And the reason this mattered, Gatti concluded in his cloth-eared attempt at literary criticism, is because it showed that the details in her novels were made up.
By accusing a fiction writer of writing fictions, and presenting that ‘discovery’ as a major scoop, Gatti expected to be handed a Nobel Prize; instead he was placed in the village stocks. None of Ferrante’s fans felt in the least bit deceived. Her ‘lie’ was woven into the tapestry of her novels, which were all about new names, slippery identities and clever women outsmarting smug, sub-standard men. So it was inevitable, given her love of games, that Ferrante would, in her next book, take Gatti and his lie-detector test and play with them like a cat with a ball of wool.
The Lying Life of Adults is a coming-of-age story built on Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that ‘lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art’. The novel begins with Giannì, the daughter of aspirational parents, telling us: ‘Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was ugly.’ A few pages later she concedes that what her father actually said was that she was ‘getting the face’ of her aunt, Vittoria, from whom her father was estranged. Has Giannì therefore lied to us? Suggesting that she was getting the face of Vittoria, Giannì explains, was as bad as, if not worse than, actually saying she was ugly, because ‘in my house the name Vittoria was like the name of a monstrous being who taints and infects anyone who touches her’. The face of Vittoria instantly becomes a subject of fascination to Giannì, not least because in all the family photos Vittoria’s face has been cut out.
We are now led into familiar Ferrante territory. Vittoria, a feral beauty, lives in a working-class neighborhood and works as a maid. She might be a middle-aged Lila (the friend with whom Lena is fascinated in the Neapolitan quartet), and Giannì’s preoccupation with her is based on whether she finds Vittoria beautiful or ugly, and whether she believes Vittoria’s or her father’s versions of the past, which are centered on the origin of a bracelet which was given to Giannì but ends up in the possession of a number of other women. ‘Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many.’
Vittoria trades in hard truths. Having described what it was like making love to Enzo, her deceased lover (‘he put his dick inside me and held my ass with both hands’), she then orders Giannì to ‘tell your father: Vittoria said that if I don’t fuck the way she fucked with Enzo, it’s pointless for me to live’. Thus Vittoria guides Giannì into adolescence, and the art of lying. ‘I was learning to hide from my parents what was happening to me. Or, rather, I perfected my method of lying by telling the truth.’
Giannì is an unpredictable and unappealing narrator who variously describes herself as ‘a tangled knot’, an empty space, and a ‘container’ of ‘leaking granules’; but whether The Lying Life of Adults is a good novel or not is beside the point because Ferrante is a hypnotist. The opening sentence works like a swinging watch, and the reader is, for the next 300 pages, held under her spell. Ferrante achieves her mesmeric effect by numbing the reader with page after page of super-efficient and flavorless prose which push events forward like counters across a board, before throwing in a sentence of such devastating power that it gives us a heart attack.
This ‘snarled confusion of suffering’, Giannì warns us, is a story ‘without redemption’. Everyone in these pages behaves appallingly, and telling the truth serves no evident moral or artistic purpose. ‘The truth,’ as one of the lying adults explains to Giannì, and Ferrante explains to Claudio Gatti, ‘is difficult, growing up you’ll understand that, novels aren’t sufficient for it.’