James Wood reviews Elena Ferrante’s novels in The New Yorker, so now seems like a good time to paste the review I wrote of one of that Italian writer’s novels for The Europa Challenge Blog.
I once heard a lawyer with years of experience in family law assert that everyone who gets divorced is “crazy” for at least a year afterwards. By inviting us inside the head of her divorcing narrator in “The Days of Abandonment,” the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante lends support to that view.
Ferrante’s books are tough reads. Having “pre-read” this one and discovered that some graphic and extreme unpleasantness was in the offing, I was tempted to bag it and return it to the library.
But graphic and extreme unpleasantness can’t be a dealbreaker if you’re going to read 21st century literary fiction. I’m glad I didn’t succumb to my momentary impulse, because Ferrante’s tale of the thoughts and actions of 38-year-old Olga, the narrator, in the wake of her husband’s leaving her for a mistress half his age and only just out of her teens, blew me away, as Alice Sebold’s cover blurb promised.
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me,” Olga tells readers at the novel’s outset. In the wake of that “it’s not you, it’s me” declaration, Olga describes how behind her outward calm, “a wave of anguish and rage was growing that frightened me,” particularly once she learns that there’s another much younger woman behind her husband’s departure.
Her circumstances bring back the desperation and deterioration of a similarly bereft neighbor from her childhood, “La Poverella.” Olga remembers her mother and associates remarking “when you don’t know how to keep a man you lose everything.” Like La Poverella, Olga tries to hold it together and to get her husband back. Neither is within her power.
Olga’s unflinching description of even her most unflattering thoughts and actions are part of what make Ferrante’s story so compelling. Early on, in a flashback to her college days, Olga remembers “As a girl I had liked obscene language, it gave me a sense of masculine freedom. Now I knew that obscenity could raise sparks of madness if it came from a mouth as controlled as mine.” And indeed it does: she gets into a riproaring fight with her husband, and, with the children in the next room, lets him have it with both barrels, as Marie notes in her review. “Speak like what? I don’t give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife?…What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me?…Let’s talk about it!…[I]n order not to disturb the gentleman, not to disturb his children,, I’m supposed to use clean language, I’m supposed to be refined, I’m supposed to be elegant!….”
Describing her descent into deep, self-destructive depression, Olga muses “What was I? A woman worn out by four months of tension and grief.” When a series of unrelated and grim crises hit at once, she realizes she must pull herself together, but she has such difficulty in doing so that she gives her preteen daughter a sharp paper cutter and instructs her to prick her with it if she perceives that her mother is becoming “distracted.” Confused and repulsed, the child asks how she will know whether Olga needs a prick. Olga responds, “A distracted person is a person who no longer smells odors, doesn’t hear words, doesn’t feel anything.”
Her daughter does have to prick her, the crises get resolved—though not all happily—and Olga begins her climb out of depression and back to normal life. Throughout Ferrante’s taut storytelling, we feel Olga’s emotional and even physical pain. Even in translation, Ferrante makes every word in every sentence count. I’m looking forward to reading “My Brilliant Friend,” her newly published Europa novel, which I have at the top of my TBR list.