All the Pretty Lies

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa Editions. 324 pages. $26.
The cover of The Lying Life of Adults

ELENA FERRANTE DOES NOT require privacy. She lays out her psychosexual-emotional range for all the world in multiple languages. She does not lock down her time, although she controls its use: one written interview in each language with each book. What she avoids is the parade, the opportunity for outsiders to evaluate aspects of her she is not ferociously driven to present. That is why she wrote a letter to her publishers in 1991, before they released her first novel, Troubling Love, before she knew whether she would find one reader or one million. In the letter, she gently refused to appear in person for press opportunities or readings. Instead, she would send her novels into the world to make their own way.

In 2016, after her epic Neapolitan quartet had been published to international acclaim, the Italian investigative reporter Claudio Gatti decided to unmask her. His justification: she had lied. He cited a letter she had written in 2002 to her publisher, subsequently printed in a collection of miscellaneous writings, Frantumaglia, in which she said she found lies useful on occasion “to shield my person, feelings, pressures.” Accusing a fiction writer of lying is like accusing a magician of cheating, but with his indignation afire, Gatti proceeded to track her by surreptitiously obtaining her publisher’s financial documents, vague though that information was. He decided she was the translator Anita Raja, who for a time ran an imprint at the company. Raja’s income had increased 50 percent in 2014, the same year the third volume of the quartet was published in the US and the series gained strong sales momentum. Was that $10,000 versus $5,000? One million dollars versus five-hundred thousand? For some reason he chose not to say.

The reporter would also have us believe that Ferrante’s echoes of German author Christa Wolf in her novels proves that she is Anita Raja, who is a translator of Wolf. It seems not to occur to Gatti that Christa Wolf is a startlingly brilliant writer whom many writers admire. In any case, using Christa Wolf as evidence of equivalence would be like saying the reclusive Thomas Pynchon is Stephen King because they both like George Orwell’s 1984.

“By announcing that she would lie on occasion,” the investigative reporter wrote, “Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown.” Gatti was annoyed that Ferrante, in an interview, said that Naples ran deeply in her being; Raja had been born in Naples but left it at age three. In interviews, Ferrante had claimed to have a Neapolitan mother who spoke in dialect; Raja’s mother was a German who escaped Nazi Germany. He wrote that “there are no traces of Anita Raja’s personal history in Elena Ferrante’s fiction,” and that “none of the details corresponds to the life and background of Anita Raja.”

For the story Gatti sees in the income reports to be true, most everything Ferrante put into words in her written interviews would have to be false. What would be her motivation? She isn’t a postmodernist, she does not delight in word games, she is not obsessed with “outwitting” her readers. Her contract with her audience is that she will bare to the bone human jealousy, shame, ambition, and attachment, among other unruly impulses. That kind of writer is unlikely to giddily set out to fool her readers. She would simply, in the stern tone she at times adopts, refuse the question. For Raja to be Ferrante, she would also need to demonstrate odd fixations, for example be someone who obsessed across multiple books and many thousands of pages about a city—Naples—that, according to Gatti’s hypothesis, she left as a toddler and then only reunited with in spirit after marrying a Neapolitan in Rome. The coarse brutality of that city would only have been imagined by her and not bled from her.

In other words, it is more believable to the investigative reporter that Ferrante is false at her core, than that he has the wrong woman.

What Gatti does not mention is that Ferrante chose her fierce privacy, her non-corporeal presence, with a specific purpose in mind: she wanted to avoid falsehood. “In the games with newspapers, one always ends up lying and at the root of the lie is the need to offer oneself to the public in the best form, with thoughts suitable to the role, with the makeup we imagine is suitable,” she wrote in 2002. “Lying about books makes me suffer,” she went on to say. “Literary fiction seems to me made purposely to always tell the truth.” She chose to conduct all interviews going forward in writing. This, Ferrante believes, is more honest. “When one writes one must never lie,” she wrote to a 2002 interviewer. In real life, she elaborated to a 2014 interviewer, she tries to avoid even “petty lies.”

ELENA FERRANTE has proved herself wily. When her absence from television and ruffled some who prefer a more public intellectual, she emerged with her epic Neapolitan quartet that begins with the resonant disappearance, the complete vanishing, of the star of the book.

Now, having allegedly been cornered by the investigative reporter due to her alleged sin of lying, Ferrante reappears with a novel devoted to deception, The Lying Life of Adults. It is as if her brilliant mind could not help but enjoy exploring the hundreds of facets of the dishonesty she had been so publicly accused of.

The Lying Life of Adults is about Giovanna, a Neapolitan girl, caught in the awful suspense of youth, not knowing how the story of her life will go. Her parents, both teachers, expect love and academic excellence. They also demand the truth, as do their close friends, who have two daughters around Giovanna’s age. “We had been brought up never to tell lies,” Giovanna says near the outset. And she, in an era before the cell phone, starts off not focused on playing games or accumulating experiences, but on being a little witness to the life of adults.

The lies begin almost at once, instant fictions. Her parents do not report their true responses to situations but responses they have agreed upon. Giovanna lies as she seeks more information and ultimately connection with her father’s mysterious estranged sister, Vittoria—a sibling he says set out to destroy him. Giovanna lies to her friends about what she wears when admiring herself in a mirror—nothing, except for a bracelet given by this newfound aunt; she then acts out this naked scene in solitude, because the lie holds such power. Giovanna can smell the perfume of a lie on her father. She suspects her aunt might even tell lies to a tombstone.

Lying is so much in the air right now that a reader might not realize that Ferrante specifically references subterfuge every few pages. The direct mentions flow past us, like traffic, leaving the sense that the story speaks more to the tangles of sexual desire—the impetus of so much lying over the ages—primarily because we have grown accustomed to accepting sex as the beginning or ending of stories worth telling.

IT IS A REMARKABLE feat to write a novel whose narrative is a disguise, a costume for the truer story pulsing beneath. Of course fairy tales often embed a lie at their center—the wolf in grandma’s clothing, the shiny apple that hides its poison, the supposed pleasure walk that Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother invites them on during which she hopes to abandon them. In The Lying Life of Adults, it is a golden bracelet—the one Giovanna got as a gift from her aunt—at the center of the tale: given as a present to one, stolen by another, purchased by yet a third. It has an origin story that is always expanding: Who did own it first? Its constantly revised history makes you wonder if a lie is just a tale that begins too late, that if you knew the beginning you would know the truth. But even when you think you’ve found the origins of a story, there’s always an earlier beginning.

This is not the first time Ferrante has obsessed about truth and lies. I believe that the ending of the Neapolitan quartet points to a powerful lie at the beginning of the epic, a lie as transformative as “Let there be light,” crafted by Lila to make Lenú what she becomes, to make the narrative exist, even if the narrative itself ends up betraying Lila.

At one point an adult says to Giovanna, “The truth is difficult. . . . Novels aren’t sufficient for it.”

Ferrante probably believes that, but she also believes its near opposite. Toward the end of The Lying Life of Adults, Giovanna’s friend Ida reads her a story she has written, naked in its exposition of Ida’s deepest feelings, and is rewarded. In this novel, only fiction tells the truth.

FERRANTE GENEROUSLY offers readers another way out of this thicket of falsehood. When Giovanna first sees her love interest lecturing at a church gathering, he mentions “compunction.” The odd word stands out in the swirl of his otherwise imprecise moral platitudes, and crops up repeatedly in the novel, glimmering as much as the reappearing bracelet.

Compunction—defined as the sense of guilt that immediately follows a wrong, or the sense of morality that stops one from committing a wrongful act—is not a great favorite of fiction. Most narratives get off the ground through reckless, unexamined acts. Compunction brings the consequences that drive fiction to a gear-grinding halt.

Compunction is the antidote to lying. It requires that a person be absolutely honest with herself. “We perform acts that seem like acts but in fact they’re symbols,” Giovanna’s father confesses to his daughter about his own extramarital affair.

The bracelet is a symbol of more complex exchanges, but Ferrante is saying sex, too, serves as a symbol for what is really exchanged. There would be no point in selecting one sexual partner over another were it not for the layers of meaning: her father slips into an extramarital relationship with a female friend through a warm sibling-like relationship that fills the void left by the absence of his fierce sister, Vittoria. Giovanna is drawn to an affair because of its symbolic power to indicate her importance: “I wanted to enjoy his respect, I wanted to discuss compunction. . . . I wanted to feel that I was much more than a cute or even very beautiful small animal with whom a brilliant male can play a little and distract himself.”

Her father too wants this young man’s regard; he is pathetic in his desire for it. But, through sex, a woman could steal a ghost of that regard from a heterosexual man. Her father has no such pathway. But then her pathway allows no true satisfaction.

GIOVANNA’S FATHER always told her, “The worst thing is to be a snitch,” a term resonant in mob-controlled Naples. Despite his intellectual achievements, her father still values the ethos of the street. The term also stands out in a book about lying. What is a snitch but a truth teller? In a world of dishonesty, the truth teller violates the rules. The origin of “snitch” also points to stealing. The snitch steals the truth and sets it free into the world. The love affairs are snitching too by the old definition—stealing the happiness of others.

In a revolutionary act, Giovanna refuses that path. She siphons sex of all meaning so she can go into the world as a new kind of warrior. She initiates herself through sex drained of narrative—just clothed bodies, with only their genitals exposed, briefly joining—thus magic-less. She drops the bracelet—the floating symbol of a bid for reciprocated love—at the scene of the experiment.

What if an adolescent set out to live a revolutionary life where objects were not forced into employment as stand-ins for love, or reckless acts for deeper desires? And what if that girl employed words, fully felt, fully weighed, written or confessed?

We could consider this a young-adult novel, but maybe adults would not want to pass on so much truth.

Elizabeth Mitchell is the author of Lincoln’s Lie: A True Civil War Caper Through Fake News, Wall Street, and the White House (Counterpoint, 2020).