Lying as an Art Form
The Atlantic|September 2020
Lying as an Art Form
Elena Ferrante’s new novel about adolescence explores the power of fictions.
By Merve Emre

“To tolerate existence, we lie, and we lie above all to ourselves,” Elena Ferrante observed in a 2002 interview. “Falsehoods protect us, mitigate suffering, allow us to avoid the terrifying moment of serious reflection, they dilute the horrors of our time, they even save us from ourselves.” For Ferrante, the falsehoods that people tell one another and themselves in everyday life— I am happy; I love my wife; I didn’t know what I was doing—are “lovely tales,” or “petty lies.” At moments when guilt and shame threaten our conscience, when they shake our deepest beliefs about who we are, petty lies stop us from looking too closely at ourselves.

Literary fiction is also a lie, according to Ferrante, but a lie that is “made purposely to always tell the truth.” The lies that fiction tells—once upon a time a person said and did this and that—are unmotivated by self-interest. Fiction is an illusion that tinkers with our sense of reality to lay bare the price we pay for our petty lies: Fiction shows us that narcissism and self-doubt impel us to hurt others; that we are quick to betray people who trust us; that love can be more destructive than hate. Central to Ferrante’s theory of fiction as an act of truth-telling is her conviction that the truth dawns more radiantly when glimpsed through the veil of fiction’s lies.

What can we learn about the conjunction of life and fiction from a work of fiction about lying? Ferrante’s exquisitely moody new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, is about a teenager named Giovanna who learns that the grown-ups in her life have been lying to her. She also learns that the contents of their lies are less intriguing than their styles of lying— exaggeration, omission, justification, obfuscation—which vary in their skillfulness, and in the pleasure and pain they afford. All lie differently from The Lying Life of Adults itself, which invites us to evaluate lying not only as a moral problem but also as an aesthetic challenge— to ask whether a lie can ever be elevated into an art form.

We might ask this question of all of Ferrante’s writing. Her fiction teems with liars of every age, from the insecure children of her beloved Neapolitan quartet to the anguished adults of her early novels, to Elena Ferrante herself, an authorial persona who claims that she resorts to lying to shield herself. Unlike the Neapolitan quartet, which spans more than half a century in the lives of two friends, The Lying Life of Adults concerns itself with adolescence—a time when deception and self-deception loom large and growing up means learning to catch oneself and others in the act of lying. Everything that entails—ridding oneself of childish illusions, recognizing the hypocrisy of adults, suffering romantic disappointment— is standard fare for novels of adolescence. But for Ferrante, whose novel bestows on familiar experiences an ardent, unreal shimmer, growing up also involves learning how to cultivate a talent for the deception that approaches a talent for writing fiction.

THE QUARTET began with intensity, in a violent, working-class neighborhood of Naples, but The Lying Life of Adults opens amid the educated, affluent, and peaceable. Giovanna’s father is a teacher at a prestigious high school and an aspiring Marxist intellectual, “an unfailingly courteous man” whose love and admiration she desperately desires. Her mother teaches Greek and Latin and proofreads romance novels. Giovanna’s best friends, pretty Angela and poetic Ida are the daughters of her parents’ best friends, the wealthy Mariano and Costanza. All seem content in their bourgeois happiness— until the day Giovanna, then 12, overhears a conversation between her mother and father.

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September 2020