Sublimely Ugly: On Elena Ferrante’s “The Lying Life of Adults”
By Sarah ChihayaOctober 12, 2020
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
“Ugly” appears so often in the novel that its form quickly ceases to hold, the way that any word repeated aloud (ugly — ugly — yugly — glyug?) almost immediately stops being a word. The effect of this repetition is not absurdity or confusion, but rather expansiveness. From the novel’s very first pages, it is clear that ugliness is not defined in terms of aesthetic pleasure or displeasure. Even the fighting words of the opening sentence, which seem so cruelly straightforward upon first reading, immediately shift and warp as our narrator, Giovanna, clarifies that her father didn’t simply claim that “Giovanna used to be pretty, now she’s turned ugly.” Rather, what he actually said is that Giovanna is “getting the face of Vittoria,” his long-estranged sister, in whom “ugliness and spite were combined to perfection.”
The intrigue of this phrase lies in its superlative degree: Vittoria is far more than just a homely woman, or just a mean one; she is perfectly ugly and spiteful, an awful ideal. In Giovanna’s imagination, she is accordingly granted mythic status — she appears as a creature who, like a demon or a deity, is somehow everywhere and nowhere, “a childhood bogeyman, a lean, demonic silhouette.” That the figure is only a silhouette is significant; even in photographs, Vittoria’s face has been cut out or inked over, leaving only a void. Seen this way, Giovanna’s fear of Vittoria, and of her own face morphing into that of her faceless aunt, is not the predictable teenage fear of becoming unattractive or unappealing. Rather, it is a fear laced with obscure desire, of being undefined, outside the social world of polite emotions that her bourgeois parents cultivate. This queasy anticipation is soon gratified. Upon meeting her aunt, Giovanna is shocked to find that “Vittoria seemed to me to have a beauty so unbearable that to consider her ugly became a necessity.” This beauty is as harsh and unmediated as truth. Only a word as powerfully elemental as “ugly” can contain it.
The dissolving margin between ugliness and real beauty, first articulated in this early meeting, quickly becomes more and more central to Giovanna’s journey of often bathetic discovery through her emerging sexuality, her family’s history, and the different social strata of Naples. The things she has been raised to believe beautiful — like her parents’ relationship and the institution of marriage, and ultimately, the romantic ideals of true love and passion — rapidly grow as brittle as flaking gold leaf. Instead, Giovanna is drawn to the lively mobility of that quality simply labeled “ugly,” which is, in its vitality and changeability, closer to beauty than any of the genteel prettiness of her childhood. It’s a thrilling ugliness that is first glimpsed in Vittoria, but spreads through the city as Giovanna learns to move through it: “Vittoria’s face, to my great surprise, had seemed so vividly insolent that it was very ugly and very beautiful at the same time, and so now I was hovering between the two superlatives, puzzled.” Giovanna is unable to process her suspension between these two violent aesthetic reactions, a state that recalls a dumbstruck response to the sublime. While Ferrante’s ugly/beautiful is in many ways dissimilar to Julia Kristeva’s definition of the abject, these two categories share an intimate relationship to the sublime, which Kristeva describes so evocatively in Powers of Horror: “As soon as I perceive it, as soon as I name it, the sublime triggers — it has always already triggered — a spree of perceptions and words that expands memory boundlessly.” Like Kristeva’s abject, Ferrante’s ugly is “edged with the sublime,” a keen edge that slices open experience and allows it to bleed out “boundlessly.”
“Ugly” breaks down and diffuses through the novel, getting everywhere, unprettifying everything. Honesty creeps in along with this pervasive spread. By the end of the novel, the aestheticizing and anesthetizing stories told by the adults in Giovanna’s life — her parents, her older crush, even Vittoria — are revealed to be meager ornaments that are easily stripped away from the truths that they attempt to cover up. As ugliness and honesty dilate unpredictably, filling the hollows of the plot, the terms that oppose them contract and ultimately collapse in upon themselves. Readers of Ferrante are trained to recognize that conventional beauty — or its frequent companions, goodness, or purity, or fidelity — are the lies the adults of the novel tell themselves to stay dully serene atop the calm surface of life. This is where background reading in her short early novels or the Neapolitan Quartet can offer readers a strong foundation in the workings of this particular world: caught between the powerful torque of the ugly truth — that unruly force that twists with a kind of hideous grace — and the order-making yet fragile veneer of polite deceit. Yet nowhere else, as much as in The Lying Life of Adults, do we see Ferrante’s splendidly harsh laws of physics so clearly laid out. Ugliness may hurt, but it is a hurt that strikes clean and true; ugliness may not be pretty, but sometimes it is unbearably beautiful.
The gorgeous ugliness of Naples is a major asset of a Ferrante novel. Many of the essays responding to The Lying Life of Adults so far emphasize its grounding in “Ferrante’s Naples,” an imaginary locale that’s already become as neatly packaged a tourist construct as “Joyce’s Dublin” or “Faulkner’s South.” I get it — it’s very tempting to place all of the books in an extended Ferrante universe. And indeed, there is critical value in constructing a multidimensional, intertextual sense of Ferrante’s Naples, both thematically, as a site of obsessive return, and sociopolitically, as a specific location loaded with real and mythological history. Ferrante herself clearly plays with and upon this repetition through the consistency of certain elements, even specific images, like the inevitability of inheritance — described as the aunt’s face emerging from the niece’s, or the body of the mother deforming that of the daughter — that can often make it difficult to tease these Neapolitan stories apart. All of them, and all of their finely nuanced visions of Naples, are united by a kind of feverish quality, at once sharply focused and blurrily nightmarish. This book has mothers, daughters, dolls, bracelets, insufferable intellectual men — all the things that Ferrante’s earlier works contain. These motifs encourage readers to connect all the dots all the time, and to blur the borders between these novelistic worlds, just as recurrent symbols (a bird, a rose, a mirror) and patterns of incremental repetition make it seem like all fairy tales might happen in the same dark wood, the same enchanted castle, to the same procession of nameless daughters.
But while the temptation to view Ferrante’s Naples as a single continuous space that absorbs all of her writing is compelling, its persuasiveness is a red flag. Instead of allowing the specific miasma of the Neapolitan Quartet to seep out and move through Ferrante’s other work, we must be suspicious of the smoothing processes of amalgamation or incorporation. The particular Naples of The Lying Life is not exactly the blurry-edged Naples of the Quartet, which in turn is neither the haunted, subterranean one of Troubling Love, nor the loud, dark Naples of memory that overlays the removed locales of The Days of Abandonment or The Lost Daughter. The uglinesses of all these books’ Naples are subtly different; laid atop one another, their imaginative maps form a harmonious, ever-expanding palimpsest, but not a single plan.
Along with the desire for a singular, shared Naples, another of the tacit assumptions of the Ferrante novel is that the first-person female narrator must always herself be the author of the book itself. Yet, as Merve Emre notes sharply in The Atlantic, this is not articulated in The Lying Life of Adults. Unlike the narrators of her earlier books, who are literary women, authors or editors themselves, Giovanna never declares herself a writer. Instead, she refers obliquely to “the one who is writing,” who may be her, or may be her childhood friend Ida (the only self-declared writer in the book), or may be someone else entirely. “The one who is writing” writes in conversation with Giovanna, but we don’t know if that’s the internal conversation of the past self with the present, or the external conversation of the interviewer and interviewee. It is the conversation that is signified, rather than the one with whom Giovanna converses, to whom she could be telling the story from a distance of decades or mere months, even days. This non-specificity of perspective gives the novel a necessary immediacy and contingency that none of Ferrante’s earlier accounts of adolescence possess; the reader has nowhere to ground herself but the present moment of the narrative.
The novel follows Giovanna from the ages of 13 to 16, the lurching years when every new experience is edged on one side with vague desire and the other with revulsion. It is also the age when the choice between wearing raw interiority on one’s face, or hiding it underneath the mask of comely politeness becomes necessary. One of the elements that The Lying Life of Adults captures best about early adolescence is the ugliest feeling of this time that Giovanna calls “those ugly years”: the involuted, self-loathing pleasure of the sulk. The teenage sulk is a phenomenon rarely expressed with sensitivity or accuracy; it is often caricaturized as a frivolous, playacting affect, where the sulker selfishly gives in to their pettiest negativities and lets them run rampant, at the expense of whoever happens to get in their way.
But sulkiness, as Ferrante shows us through Giovanna, is more than just pouting and flouncing. It is also an exploratory, masochistic impulse to lean right into ugliness rather than turn away from it. “I thought I was hideous and wanted to be more hideous,” says Giovanna, a feeling that I remember clearly from those early teenage years, a confrontational, challenging way of being in the world. Like the “ugly feelings” that Sianne Ngai theorizes in her book of the same name, sulkiness might be classed as “minor and generally unprestigious […] [e]xplicitly amoral and noncathartic.” Yet this type of affective response is no less real or readable — or generative — than its grander, more easily aestheticized cousins like anger, sympathy, or shame. Rather than blockages on the way to adulthood, as they’re often depicted, Giovanna’s teenage sulks are periods of growth, as she experiments with the effects of immersing herself in the ugliness of the world.
The novel ends with a moment as ugly as the harsh statement that begins it, but by the time the reader gets there, she’s learned to read ugliness in its infinite variety. Giovanna has also learned: rather than being frightened or titillated, she is simply “delighted,” choosing of her own will to confront ugliness directly, rather than to prettify it dishonestly. In so doing, we get the feeling that Giovanna is, unlike the lying adults she leaves behind, somehow ready to experience the world as it really is, endlessly expansive. And like the semi-grown Giovanna who leaves Naples at the end of the book with Ida, determined to “become adults as no one ever had before,” Ferrante has a spectacular way of diving cleanly into the depths of the ugly without wallowing in them, and of occasionally drawing a kind of wild, almost alarming elation from the ugliest encounters.
Trudging sweatily along the waterfront in August, resisting the urge to dip my toes in the horrible mysteries of the East River, it occurred to me that reading The Lying Life of Adults is like joyously plunging into a filthy city river on a hot day. You know the deceptively clear water is full of sewage and needles and condoms and that three-eyed fish from The Simpsons and unspeakable other things. Yet for a second it looks so cool, the soft lapping of waves is so tantalizing, that you forget you’re not at the beach. If you pause and think about it reasonably, the idea is revolting. But the plunge — might not the plunge be sublime?
Sarah Chihaya is an assistant professor of English at Princeton University. She is one of four authors of The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism (Columbia University Press, 2020).
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