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The enchantress of Naples: Elena Ferrante’s ‘The Lying Life of Adults’ reviewed by Geeta Doctor

It could be the air around Naples which breeds legends. Ancient myths crawl out of the Mediterranean and fill its crevices with hungry stories. The war-torn Naples as brought to life by the Italian writer, Alberto Moravia, is a city of betrayals — from Christianity, from fascism, from communism, but, more precisely, from itself. History has rarely been kind to Naples.

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Ferocious desires

It’s in this cauldron of unfulfilled desires that Elena Ferrante has set her stories, rising almost like a female version of Moravia. Ferrante locates the four Neapolitan novels in the 1950s. Women are just beginning to shed their traditional role as home-makers; artists and writers debate about where they belong. Communism is the golden apple, while at every street corner there is a poster for the capitalist way of life, usually with a drug peddler standing beneath it. Even though parts of the quartet have now been made into films, televised serials and plays, Ferrante herself prefers to hide behind her pseudonym. Leaving the question of ‘Who is the real Ferrante?’ to others, we can revel in her latest outing.

Once again, the reader is trapped in a familiar Ferrante world of deep desires and a ferocious need to be heard. Giovanna has just turned 13 when the novel begins. She overhears her parents talking. Her father, whom she has adored, confesses to her mother that he fears that their daughter is becoming ugly. He compares her to his sister, Vittoria. It’s a name that has never been mentioned in their household until then.

The enchantress of Naples: Elena Ferrante’s ‘The Lying Life of Adults’ reviewed by Geeta Doctor

The name and its suggestion of the physical loss of innocence or beauty creates the first of the many upheavals that will

torment Giovanna. We already know from the first line that the family will be split or violently torn apart. Never mind that it’s the same story in almost all of Ferrante’s novels. Her depiction of the duality that divides Naples, created by access, or the lack of it, to money and education, is reflected in the twinned lives of her characters. One girl may begin as beautiful and clever, the other not so gifted, until due to fate, or by Ferrante’s own desire to control the narrative, their trajectories are switched. Here the comparison is between the young Giovanna and the much older, coarse, impoverished, and domineering Vittoria.

Impassioned arguments

What links them is a golden bracelet, which, we are told, Vittoria gifted to the infant Giovanna. The bracelet is another familiar, almost magical device, that occurs in many of Ferrante’s novels in different forms. Here its meaning hovers delicately between the possessiveness of intense love and the carnality of sexual attraction. Are they opposed to each other or are they the same? Ferrante leaves the question hanging in the air.

There are impassioned arguments between Giovanna and Roberto, a deeply engaging young aspirant to priesthood, who offers her the consolation of Christian belief. They form some of the most bitter passages of the novel as Giovanna dismisses the message of the Gospel as ineffectual. Giovanna’s passion crackles as she chooses her very own form of exaltation, sexual gratification, but then so do all of Ferrante’s heroines.

In Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus on the cross is offered a last reprieve by the Devil. He chooses “the temptation of happiness”. Even as a confirmed Ferrante groupie, I must note that her heroines tend to opt for a much lower form of exaltation.

But we will not complain that she does not vary her stories except in the telling. As Moravia once said: “Every true writer is like a bird; he repeats the same song, the same theme, all his life. For me, this theme has always been revolt.”

As an aside, I must mention that the most famous of Moravia’s novels, Two Women, is a harrowing depiction of war as it affects the lives of a mother-daughter duo and that Sophia Loren played the mother in Vittorio de Sica’s film adaptation. And that Loren, the most famous of Neapolitan women, has returned to the screen at the age of 86. Viva Naples and its feisty women is all we can add.

The Lying Life of Adults; Elena Ferrante, trs Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, ₹699

The reviewer is a Chennai-based critic and cultural commentator.

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