Spoiler Alert: Reading Ferrante’s New Novel in Italian
By Martha CooleyFebruary 1, 2020
Nor have I read it in English. Nobody has. The English translation of Elena Ferrante’s new novel, La Vita Bugiarda degli Adulti [The Lying Lives of Adults], isn’t due to be published until June. So I’ve been reading the novel in Italian, or rather, it’s being read aloud to me in Italian. Not by a recorded voice, though; by a live one.
What’s it about, you’ll be wanting to know. Yet of course you don’t want to know, not really. You don’t want anything spoiled, do you?
It began with him reading to me. I asked him to.
I surrendered to this new experience for two reasons: I was impatient to read the novel before its emergence in my own language, and I wanted to see what effects its own language would have on me. We alternated reading the first 50 pages or so, until I realized that my reading aloud was interfering with my ability to respond to what I was reading. So I asked him to do it. It would be easier for me that way, I said.
Thus, I’ve been hearing the novel in a man’s voice.
Its narrator, however, is an adult woman who recounts various events of her early adolescence in Naples. Her tone, diction, and rhythms mutate subtly as she captures her younger self’s thoughts and feelings. She recalls dialogue as well, a fair bit of it, between and among characters whose speech ranges from formal Italian to Neapolitan dialect. The narrator doesn’t speak dialect, hasn’t grown up with it; she renders quick outbursts of it in a formally aberrant Italian.
We’re near the end of the novel. His fingers splay the pages so I can see: perhaps another 20 or so to go. His voice has become a little raspy.
The narrator’s emotional surround is like a set of concentric circles.
Her parents are in the first circle; a second circle comprises her father’s sister and another family, unrelated to the sister by blood but tightly linked to her by loss. The social worlds of the first and second circles — piccolo borghese in the case of the narrator’s parents, working class in the case of the aunt and her crew — constitute the third circle. Lodged between the first and second circles — straddling them, as it were — is yet another family: the mother and father are long-time friends of the narrator’s parents, and their two daughters are friends of the narrator.
Multiple pairs of eyes thus gaze upon the narrator as she enters adolescence, yet she is basically left to her own devices. Smart, observant, and witheringly critical, she lives mostly in her own head; now and then a hand — her own — moves between her legs, to ease the tensions, angers, and confusions that mark her life.
So what’s it actually about, this novel, you’re wondering.
It’s about the nature of being female, about concealment, about dissatisfaction.
While reading to me, he makes no attempt to impersonate the narrator or anyone else in the novel. He simply reads — reads well, fluidly, in a nicely inflected manner.
Low in pitch and volume, his voice is distinctly male. He doesn’t have a Neapolitan accent but a northern Italian one. Sometimes I have to ask him to speak up, or to slow down; it’s easy for him to gain speed without realizing it. Now and then he’ll stop reading, realizing he’s just botched a sentence’s syntax. Returning to the start, he’ll reread the sentence slowly, and I can hear where he went wrong.
The novel is about accountability and resistance to it. About who gets to say — rather, who can claim to know — what the truth is.
I’ve given nothing away thus far, right?
It’s been my choice not to follow along with a copy of the book as he reads it to me. I just listen.
I ask him to stop if I’m not tracking the story, else he has no way of knowing I’m momentarily lost. In stopping him, I interrupt his own tracking, and he has to do a bit of rereading to put himself back on the rails. We’re interrupted and interrupting for different reasons at different times.
The narrator reads a great deal, mostly novels. She reads alone, by herself. Her parents are teachers. Her father spends all his time with texts, her mother with student work she corrects at the kitchen table. The narrator dislikes school, its routines, the rote memorization, the dutiful studiousness required of her. She sees it as a training ground for hypocrisy. Behind a scrim of respectability, even the smart, well-educated adults around her are leading lives of falseness and bad faith.
The novel is about the ready intimacy of contempt, the scarce intimacy of trust.
Now and then, he or I call a halt to the reading so as to comment on a perceived infelicity in the prose — when something sounds “off” or awkward, or seems confusing.
At such junctures, it’s useful to have my own doubts and questions ratified or put to rest. Even more useful if he stops to single out something I didn’t realize would raise a red flag for a native speaker. When he tells me why it does, I see anew how much I don’t know of and about the Italian language. Yet I wonder, too, if the red flag is one only he would perceive, or if the word or passage in question would put any Italian-speaking reader on alert.
He is not any Italian-speaking reader. There is no one else I would let do this — read to me. In this situation, I want to believe we are equal partners in the experience of absorbing the novel. Yet he has more authority, I find myself thinking: he’s Italian, he knows the language as I never will, he catches nuances I can’t grasp. He’s closer than I’ll ever be to the world of the novel.
But he wasn’t ever an adolescent girl. And he isn’t now a middle-aged woman reassessing, decades after the fact, the terms of her enfranchisement in the adult world.
I am, though. So which of us has the authority, assuming either of us do?
The narrator looks back and recalls. In so doing, she also edits, omits, synthesizes.
Sometimes she says explicitly that this is what she’s doing. Sometimes she questions herself. She has her reasons for recalling what and as she does, and she may or may not be fully on top of those reasons.
All he and I know about her as she tells this story is that she’s now an adult: she made it through adolescence.
The novel is about lying — it’s right there in the title.
You’d still like to know what the story’s about.
It’s about communication. The vagaries thereof, especially between men and women, both in life and in books.
No, I’m not saying that, we say — I didn’t mean that, we say, it’s you who hasn’t understood. Or we say: You told me this but you meant that, didn’t you? Or we say: Why didn’t you tell me that? Or: This is what I meant. Or: I told you everything. Or: You haven’t listened. Or: I didn’t say what you think I said. Or: You’ve changed your story.
Or else we simply don’t say anything. We keep it to ourselves, whatever it is. We think, best to stay silent. Because no language works the way we wish it would. Because all speech is silence translated inadequately, even if apparently rendered very well. Because where words are concerned, we often have compunctions.
In the novel, compunzione is a recurring word. It is introduced by a character who doesn’t slot neatly into one of the concentric circles of the narrator’s emotional surround.
The character is male. He is intellectually nimble, a strong writer and public speaker. Living in Milan, he’s an escapee from the same working-class neighborhood in which the narrator’s father and aunt grew up — a section of Naples physically lower than the narrator’s middle-class neighborhood up in the hills, and marked by poverty, ugliness, and despair. As a young professor destined for a powerful career in academia, this man hasn’t ruptured — yet — his ties to his place of origin, to which he occasionally returns. But he’s doing what he wants to do, which, although it coincides with what some people from his neighborhood wish him to do, is in no way susceptible to their influence. He intends to make his mark, and he will not let Naples get in his way.
The novel is about impunity, which is available only to men. About getting away from, and getting away with. About those moments in an adolescent girl’s life when she realizes she’s being taken for a ride — and, too, when she doesn’t even mind, which makes her doubt and disdain herself.
I interrupt him rarely, and only if I haven’t gotten a word or phrase I feel I must understand.
No — I also interrupt if I have strong questions or feelings that arise not from incomprehension but from the novel itself, and I can’t keep listening until I express them. This is the same thing that makes me stop and stare into space when I’m reading silently to myself: so I can interrogate myself about my reactions. The difference now is that my interlocutor isn’t myself but the man who’s reading aloud to me.
In the novel, the narrator is riveted by the young male intellectual. By his fluid discourse, his acuity and focus, his self-confidence. By the apparent coherence of all he says and does. She submits to her idea of him, and this submission is costly. To his impunity she brings her liability.
The novel is about what men don’t have to pay for.
I’ve given away nothing, I assure you.
Reading is a private act; being read to is an intimate act.
I am challenging myself. Can you do this, I’m asking myself — can you absorb this book through his voice? Can you make his authority not matter?
I thrill to being read to by him, yet being read to by him is an imposition. When he reads to me, I want and do not want him there. I want and do not want his voice to be speaking the story. I want and do not want to tell him so.
The novel is about trust and the lack thereof. The novel is about how being female equates to being there for the taking. About how adolescent girls attempt not to be taken, and how they too take, and how they’re humiliated in either case.
There is no one in the novel with whom the narrator feels safe, no one she trusts. Until, perhaps, at the end, she does. Or did.
Have I given anything away?
He and I have just now finished reading the book.
When The Lying Lives of Adults emerges in English, I will read it by myself. Then I will reconsider the voices — the narrator’s, the translator’s; his, mine.
Also, the author’s.
In an interview published shortly after the novel’s release in Italy, the author is asked why, by the end of the tale, the main male figures — those whom the female characters compete for — seem destined for irrelevance. As long as we women compete for men, answers the author (using “we,” Ferrante self-identifies as a woman), they will never actually be irrelevant. And maybe it’s not even a good thing that they become so. But they must earn a different kind of relevance, she adds, and for this to happen, the first step is for women to stop competing for them and to earn our own relevance, absolutely regardless of theirs.
What is the relationship, I wonder, between relevance and authority? Is the former meant to be earned, the latter granted?
The adolescent girl in the novel, says its author in the interview, no longer gives any credit to those who prescribe the right way to live, think, read, write. She’s seduced only by the unexpected, which sweeps away all such constructions in a few seconds.
Not granted, no. The girl sweeps away authority.
Yet she also seeks it.
The novel is about loss of virginity. Virginity as a kind of inner consistency.
The interviewer observes that Ferrante’s earlier novels have lent female friendship a literary dignity it never had before. There is no literary dignity, responds Ferrante, without a strategy of writing that tends toward the representation of inconsistency. None of our feelings are univocal, she says, yet in order to survive, we tend to chase to the margins whatever seems superfluous or disturbing to us. Literature has the duty not to do this, unless it chooses to be uplifting. But if it goes down that road, it harms itself. For now, she concludes, chiaroscuro seems called for.
I should point out that Ferrante’s responses in the interview were in Italian. I translated them into the English you have read here. I, not he.
The man who has read the novel to me is not the only person toward whom I have contradictory feelings, but he is the only one with whom I feel safe having them.
In this I am fortunate, as the novel’s narrator is not. I trust and am trusted.
I’m still challenged, though, by the work of encountering a girl’s story through his voice.
I could tell you what happens in it. I could tell you everything, couldn’t I?
Of course not. The question is whether one can tell anything.
After finishing the book, he and I sit quietly, in separate and shared silence.
You want to know who he is, don’t you?
What it means to spoil something — the novel is about that, too.
Martha Cooley is a professor of English at Adelphi University and the author of two novels, The Archivist and Thirty-Swoons.
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