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Essay
By Invitation
Lies That Tell the Truth: Tiziana de Rogatis on Elena Ferrante’s New Novel

September 2020 will see the publication in English of Elena Ferrante’s latest novel, The Lying Life of Adults, translated by Anne Goldstein for Europa Editions (translation of La vita bugiarda degli adulti, Edizioni E/O, Nov. 2019). Very successful in Italy, the novel tells the story of the adolescent Giovanna, born and raised on the hill of Vomero, a well-to-do and refined Neapolitan neighborhood. Giovanna’s passage into adulthood entails a voyage into Naples’ underbelly, where her father comes from, where the terrible and outlandish aunt Vittoria lives, and where they speak a language that is not hers. Giovanna chooses to begin her tale at the moment of her father’s realization that she, his daughter, was growing to resemble his despicable sister, Vittoria. Lying—a habit Giovanna falls into quickly as she tries to navigate two very different worlds—is the solid structure on which the adults around her have built their lives.

I have asked Tiziana de Rogatis to speak to Arcade about The Lying Life of Adults. De Rogatis, herself a Neapolitan, is an associate professor of Comparative Literature at the University for Foreigners of Siena and a major scholar of Elena Ferrante. Her Elena Ferrante’s Key Words (Edizioni E/O, 2018; translated from the Italian Elena Ferrante: Parole chiave by Will Scutt for Europa Editions) has gained great success since its publication in English, in December 2019. On January 23 of this year, the book was, in fact, number 50 on Amazon’s chart of best sellers in Italian Literature. Elena Ferrante’s Key Words is an analysis of the major themes of Ferrante’s oeuvre. It is a conceptual roadmap that leads to a deeper understanding of the author’s poetics while connecting the dots of its universe. The book cover bears Elena Ferrante’s praise for de Rogatis: “I greatly admire the work of Tiziana de Rogatis. She is a reader of deep refinement. Often I think that she knows my books better than I. So, I read her with admiration and remain silent.” (San Lian Sheng Huo Zhou Kan magazine, China)

In your review of The Lying Life of Adults (Repubblica, Nov. 29, 2019) you notice that the only restriction Giovanna’s very liberal father gives his daughter is never to speak Neapolitan. It is very common for parents of the Neapolitan middle class to forbid their children to speak Neapolitan so that they can separate themselves, intellectually, from the lower middle class and the working class. Their mission is successful only to an extent since the young will learn the dialect anyway, although a dandy version of it that is, in form and content, far from the guttural expression of the city’s underbelly. Yet, unlike the quartet, the Neapolitan dialect finally appears in writing in Ferrante’s latest novel: how do you see this change in Ferrante’s work?

de Rogatis: The Lying Life of Adults is an original novel because Giovanna’s narrative voice is no longer one linguistically on the border between the working-class and the bourgeois worlds. This voice is entirely marked by the hypocrisy of the progressive petty bourgeoisie. In this context, the Neapolitan language is like an iceberg that suddenly emerges and breaks the surface of the fiction. At the same time, Neapolitan is the bearer of other forms of fiction: in short, there is no romantic dualism between authentic popular and inauthentic bourgeois. Neapolitan has an explosive function but the rubble generated by the explosion reassembles in an even more inauthentic picture.

Zia Vittoria, this powerful force of corruption and destruction, and yet bearer of truth, not only shows several traits of Lila’s personality, but also holds a very similar function in the structure of the novel: she is the power Giovanna has to reckon with on several levels like Lenù had to do with her brilliant friend. Would you agree?

de Rogatis: Zia Vittoria is the emblem of the ambivalence of the Neapolitan language of which I spoke earlier. Indeed, she brings—as you rightly point out—liberating and unsettling features strongly inspired by the demonological code of the witch, to which even the character of Lila is connected. At the same time, however, this anarchic and vital magma does not have the emancipative charge that moved Lila. In this sense, and much more fully than Lila, Zia Vittoria expresses the reactionary background of the Neapolitan sub-proletarian culture. If, on the one hand, the existential sexual experience that Aunt Vittoria develops is exceptionally instinctive and carnal; on the other hand, her sexual morality is retrospective and false. With it, the aunt exercises a despotic power over all the young women who gravitate around her.

This is, as you wrote, a bitter novel. Giovanna negotiates the world of the adults around her with as many lies as she deems useful. She comes into adulthood by discovering and using the power of lying even before her family universe, built on deception, falls apart. What is Ferrante leaving her reader with, this time?

de Rogatis: Ferrante leaves the reader with a reflection on failure. With this novel, the author attempts to scour the failure of progressive culture’s great projects of emancipation and education, as well as the failure to rework an ending and a trauma: those of a dualistic geopolitical system (capitalist world / socialist world ) which is lost precisely in the years of Giovanna’s formation, the Nineties of the Twentieth Century immediately following the collapse of the Berlin wall and the fatwa on the Satanic Verses of Salman Rushdie. All this comes in the novel as an investigation into the linguistic rhetoric of the characters, who—like a bone marrow now emptied of internal decalcification—recite some political and anthropological liturgies void of meaning.

What new terms would you now add to your collection of keywords in Ferrante’s work?

de Rogatis: Surely, I would now work on the keywords lie and truth, by both showing how truth can be dictated by a lie (the lie that resides in the form of Ferrante’s fictionality built on hyper-romance) and conveying how the deconstruction of a lie is a truth that can, however, generate other lies (this is the novel’s narrative mechanism declared right from the title), and, finally, I would identify the foundation of these two new keywords in the great Italian writer Elsa Morante.

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Elena Ferrante

The success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (2011-14) has sparked worldwide buzz in and out of academia, in literary journals, and in book clubs. Ferrante is the author of eight novels, a collection of papers related to her work as a writer, Frantumaglia, and a children’s book, The Beach at Night. [fn] 

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When it comes to Ferrante, we may feel, indeed, stranded on a beach, at night, left there to collect the tokens of her presence and whereabouts in this world. The tokens are words and in them we find the lucid exactness of worlds inhabited by characters who are as vivid and real as she is elusive. They deal with what the author has called frantumaglia, a term she borrows from her mother and her Neapolitan dialect (frantummàglia): "it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause" (Frantumaglia, Kindle edition). Ferrante’s compelling narrative dives into terribly muddy waters and surfaces from them with the strength of truth, where truth means not moral clarity but the unmistakable verity of naked human emotions. The origin of the word frantumaglia is very material; it refers, in fact, to a pile of fragments from broken objects that cannot be pieced together again.

This Colloquy seeks to bring together in one ongoing conversation, from a variety of intellectual perspectives, the voices of the international discourse about Ferrante’s novels and the significance of her work in the contemporary literary landscape.

As for who Ferrante might be, I propose again her response to a reader who sought to know her identity: "[. . .] what is better than reading in a room that is dark except for the light of a single reading lamp? Or what is better than the darkness of a theater or a cinema? The personality of a novelist exists utterly in the virtual realm of his or her books. Look there and you will find eyes, sex, lifestyle, social class, and the id" (Frantumaglia, Kindle edition)

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