Elena Ferrante’s Class Dramas

The Lies We Tell Ourselves

Elena Ferrante’s class fictions.

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Over the course of 2018, the pseudonymous Italian novelist Elena Ferrante wrote a weekly column for The Guardian’s Weekend magazine. The pieces were later collected and published as Incidental Inventions, a title sufficiently vague to allow for the capaciousness of her themes; Ferrante wrote on everything from climate change, jealousy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and botanophobia to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet sci-fi classic Solaris. The 1972 film, which Ferrante admitted to rewatching “at least once a year,” follows the crew of a space station orbiting Solaris, a distant planet that appears to have the power to materialize the subconscious preoccupations and buried memories of the astronauts on board. A psychologist named Kris Kelvin is dispatched to investigate these disturbing phenomena and wakes up one morning to find his deceased wife, Hari, in his bed and very much alive. In terror, he tries to destroy the phantasm by launching Hari’s body into space, only to find her back in his room later that night. In her column, Ferrante wrote about being transfixed by Hari’s “serene yet furious refusal to be eliminated.” The film’s power, she concluded, “lies in the female character, in that memory of a woman who can’t vanish into oblivion.”

Readers of Ferrante, of which there are many more now thanks to the efforts of her English-language translator, Ann Goldstein, will no doubt find this reading of Solaris amusingly appropriate. The image of a woman disappearing and then reappearing as the projection of another person’s memory is the backstory of the four novels by Ferrante that came to be known as the 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.

My Brilliant Friend begins with the sudden disappearance of a 66-year-old woman named Lila Cerullo, a vanishing that shocks everyone but the narrator, Elena, her lifelong friend. She recalls Lila confiding to her 30 years earlier that she wanted to one day “disappear without leaving a trace.” The rest of the novel and the three that follow are Elena’s attempt to defy that wish, to write down on paper the story of their lives, from children growing up in postwar Naples to adult women navigating marriage, infidelity, motherhood, and Italy’s changing political landscape after the fall of Fascism.

In Ferrante’s most recent novel, The Lying Life of Adults, we are pulled yet again into the story with the tale of a missing woman, Aunt Vittoria. Unlike Lila, she has not disappeared altogether but is estranged from her brother, Andrea, and her 12-year-old niece, Giovanna, who narrates the story. While Giovanna and her parents live in a middle-class section of Naples, Vittoria has remained in Pascone, the working-class neighborhood in the city’s Industrial Zone where she and Andrea were raised. Throughout the novel, we get conflicting stories from Vittoria and Andrea about what led to their estrangement. A dispute about who should inherit their mother’s apartment following her death was certainly the breaking point, but there had long been tension between them. Early on, it becomes clear that Andrea is frustrated that his sister did not respond to the poverty of their childhood in the same way he did: by leaving Pascone behind with no qualms or doubts and embracing the tastes and habits of the Italian bourgeoisie. But what takes longer to be revealed is that Vittoria is perhaps no better, that her working-class pride may not be as sturdy as she wants her young, wide-eyed niece to think.

Extramarital affairs abound, and it is tempting at first to think that the lies of the novel’s title are those relating to romantic betrayal. But we soon realize that the lies that dominate the story are the ones people tell—often to themselves—about how they relate to class. As the working-class characters toggle back and forth between feeling proud and ashamed of their background, and as the ones with means rush to identify themselves with the working class, Ferrante disentangles class from class identity, showing how the latter is far more subject to lies and self-deception and constitutes a slipperier, more unstable and contradictory form of experience. At a time when class is often framed as a common denominator with the greatest potential to unify people across different identities, The Lying Life of Adults is a bracing reminder of the complexity of class and of the variegated ways in which human beings process what they lack and decide to fill that void.

Giovanna and her parents’ middle-class life in the upper hills of Naples is quiet and orderly. Her father teaches history and philosophy at one of the city’s most prestigious high schools and has earned a reputation as an intellectual. He debates Marxist philosophy with his friends over dinner, while his wife, who teaches Latin and Greek, proofreads romance novels for extra money. Everything is going according to plan—that is, until the news breaks that Giovanna, till now a model student, is getting poor marks, especially in mathematics. Her parents discuss the emergency in their kitchen, with her mother suggesting that it’s just the usual disruptions of early adolescence. In frustration, her father blurts out that “adolescence has nothing to do with it; she’s getting the face of Vittoria.”

Giovanna is thrown into a crisis after hearing this, explaining, “In my house the name Vittoria was like the name of a monstrous being who taints and infects anyone who touches her.” Fearing that her father finds her ugly, she resolves to find her aunt and see this wretched face for herself. Over time, it becomes clear that Andrea’s outburst had little to do with appearances, Vittoria’s or otherwise. Giovanna’s report card stirred his deepest fear, namely that despite his best efforts, he has not successfully escaped his humble origins, that the taint of poverty and social dysfunction lives on genetically in his only child.

It proves to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Giovanna’s yearning to see Vittoria results in numerous visits to her house; she becomes transfixed by her aunt and the people she meets in the dirty and mysterious Industrial Zone, including the older boys she will later experiment with sexually. Over the course of the novel, she comes to crave the debasement she thinks this life imprints on her: “A very violent need for degradation was growing inside me—a fearless degradation, a yearning to feel heroically vile.”

The narrative geography of The Lying Life of Adults feels uncannily inspired by the Latin and Greek texts that Giovanna’s mother teaches in school. When her father finally relents and allows her to visit Vittoria, he warns her to fill her ears with wax, “like Odysseus.” However, in the geography of Naples that the book presents, we get something more akin to Dante’s Inferno, with Giovanna descending from her parents’ home high up on Via San Giacomo dei Capri to Vittoria’s apartment in the Industrial Zone, down near the water. “The space where my father’s relatives lived,” Giovanna explains, “was undefined, nameless. I knew only one thing for certain; to visit them you had to go down, and down, keep going down, into the depths of the depths of Naples.”

Once in the Industrial Zone, Giovanna finds herself in a polluted section of the city marked by “cemeteries, wastelands, fierce dogs, gas flares, [and] skeletons of abandoned buildings.” But when she knocks on Vittoria’s door, she is greeted by a woman who looks nothing like the monster her parents sketched. In fact, her father was correct to invoke the Sirens, as “Vittoria seemed to me to have a beauty so unbearable that to consider her ugly became a necessity.”

Vittoria, who works as a maid and dropped out of school in the fifth grade, electrifies her niece. She is mercurial, passionate, and talks to Giovanna like an adult. She tells her about her passionate affair long ago with a married man named Enzo. “Tell your father,” she coaches Giovanna, “Vittoria said that if I don’t fuck the way she fucked with Enzo, it’s pointless for me to live.”

When Giovanna goes home after their first encounter, she struggles to contain her excitement. She knows her parents dislike Vittoria and, wishing to please them, insists that she found her aunt rude and unrefined. Her parents are initially satisfied, but secretly Giovanna has made plans to see Vittoria again. The lie exhilarates her, as does the feeling of being estranged from her parents by this secret friendship with their enemy. “I was euphoric,” she tells us, “as if the possibility of evil—what he and my mother in their couple’s language claimed to call Vittoria—gave me an unexpected exuberance.”

The reason for the estrangement between Vittoria and Andrea is contested by them both. Vittoria insists that it occurred following the death of their mother and disagreements about what to do with her home. She tells Giovanna that everyone agreed it should go to her, as she had no money, but that Andrea wanted them all to sell it and divide the proceeds equally. It is part of Vittoria’s theory that her brother, though he might cloak himself in high-minded rhetoric about literature, philosophy, and Marxism, is self-interested at heart. He is “attached to money, attached to things,” she tells her niece, adding, “I am not like your father.”

For their part, Giovanna’s parents insist that Vittoria is merely envious. “She refused to accept your father’s success,” her mother tells her. “Success in life. How hard he worked at school and university. His intelligence. What he has constructed. His degree. His job, our marriage, the things he studies, the respect that surrounds him.” But while Giovanna entertains the possibility that her parents could be telling her the truth, she’s having too much fun in Vittoria’s world to let it stop her—particularly once she meets Corrado, a young man who seems ready to satisfy her need to be degraded “without a fuss.”

Sex becomes a way for Giovanna to detach herself from Angela and Ida, the daughters of her father’s wealthier intellectual friends, Mariano and Costanza. When Angela learns that Giovanna has failed her exams, the girls have a tense exchange. Giovanna brags that she “talked to boys about sex in the bad words of dialect.” But when Angela merely registers disgust, Giovanna lashes out: “Only bitches like you study like parrots, get promoted and are respected by their boyfriends. I don’t study. I get flunked and I’m a whore.” Here, Ferrante begins to reveal that Giovanna’s view of the working class is not all that different from her father’s. She uses the friends she makes in the Industrial Zone as markers of authenticity and maturity that she can wield against the friends in her own social class, and in the process shows that she too stereotypes the poor as undisciplined, unintelligent, and promiscuous.

She is not, however, completely lost. There are moments when her skepticism toward her father’s quest for middle-class status just feels like the wrong answer to the right question. For instance, when Giovanna’s mother, seeing the changes in her daughter, tries to intervene, she insists that Vittoria only “wants to use you to prove that your father and I are all appearance, that while we have risen a little, you will plummet, and everything will even out.” But would it be so bad, Giovanna’s continued diversions seem to suggest, if everything did even out? Throughout the novel, Giovanna feels so close and yet so far from understanding that the way to rebel against her father is not to pretend to be poor but rather to want a world in which no one is.

Whatever sense of moral superiority Giovanna attaches to her proximity to working-class Pascone begins to unravel halfway through the book with the arrival of Roberto. He’s from the Industrial Zone, but he also attends university in Milan, where he has built a reputation as a promising public intellectual. He frequently visits his old neighborhood to see his fiancée, Giuliana, the daughter of Vittoria’s former lover Enzo. Everyone in Pascone regards Roberto as the neighborhood’s favorite son. Though he never says anything particularly insightful or profound, the fact that he has made it out renders him in some vague way “a particularly luminous fragment of that bleak background.”

As she grows closer to her friends in Pascone, Giovanna finds that some of them start behaving uncannily like her father: aspirational, status-obsessed, and desperate to attach themselves to a young man who is going places. Even Vittoria is anxious to show off to Roberto her middle-class niece who reads novels; class seems more amorphous in his presence. When Andrea learns that Giovanna has met Roberto (whose name he recognizes from his articles), he is shocked to learn that they met in Pascone—“as if,” she notes, “in the space of a few sentences, geography had become muddled, and he had trouble keeping together Milan, the Vomero, Pascone, the house where he was born.”

Roberto exposes how uneasy everyone is with their status and their assumptions about class. Yet he proves to have a complicated relationship with class himself. His engagement to Giuliana is itself fraught. With some embarrassment, he eventually admits to Giovanna that he is marrying Giuliana because she represents the streets of Pascone, his humble beginnings, a “debt” he has to pay, with little thought as to how this might make Giuliana feel—to be, as a wife, little more than a reminder for him of the bottom where he started.

In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third volume of the Neapolitan quartet, Lila has been forced to drop out of school, as happens with many of the poor children in her neighborhood, and has found a job at a sausage factory. There, like the rest of the employees, she works long hours in unsafe conditions with the ever-present threat of sexual harassment. Her childhood friend Pasquale invites her to a meeting of local communists, with the hope of convincing her to unionize her coworkers. Lila starts attending the meetings regularly, but she feels estranged by the language used by these middle-class leftist intellectuals in their pronouncements about “capital, about exploitation, about the betrayal of social democracy, about the modalities of class struggle.” When it’s finally her turn to address the group, she indignantly tells them that “she knew nothing about the working class. She said she knew only the workers, men and women, in the factory where she worked, people from whom there was absolutely nothing to learn but wretchedness.”

In The Lying Life of Adults, Ferrante seems to elaborate further on Lila’s frustration with the idea of a cohesive working class that would necessarily identify itself as such a thing in the first place. There is Andrea, who wants to rid himself of the trappings of his working-class upbringing, and Vittoria, who is too proud to admit she might want the same—if not for herself, then for Giovanna. Then there is Giovanna, who treats the economically depressed Pascone like an amusement park and working-class identity as a thrilling badge of authenticity that she can put on and take off at will, rather than acknowledging it for what it is—a difficult, increasingly impossible way to exist in the world.

The Lying Life of Adults lives in the emotionally fraught distance between the characters’ material reality and how they want the world to view them, and it offers an intimate study of the stress and agitation that comes from attempting to balance the two. Toward the end of the novel, Giuliana reveals to Giovanna that Roberto never asks her to read his work: “He’s sure I can’t understand.” Instead, he asks a wealthy girl in Milan with whom he spends a lot of time to look over everything he writes. “I have to get out of Pascone, Gianni, I have to get out of Naples,” Giuliana says in tears. “I want to get married and live in Milan and in a nice house of my own, in peace.” She shakes her head as she says it, because the only thing more difficult than admitting how little you have is confessing how much you want.

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