Literary Hub

10 BOOKS ON ECSTATICALLY MAD WOMEN

JESSIE CHAFFEE READS DEEPLY INTO EMPTINESS, FEAR, DESIRE, AND ELATION

July 3, 2017  By Jessie Chaffee

When I was 22, I developed an eating disorder, an experience equal parts horror and euphoria that took me outside of myself, turning me into someone I wasn’t, or perhaps revealing a part of me that had always been there. Intellectually, I recognized that I was negating, erasing, and isolating myself. But my emotional experience was not one of loneliness or loss. On the contrary, I often felt painfully clear, high, satiated, connected to something more than myself. I felt ecstatic.

By the time I sought help, I was whittled down, haunted, and searching for a way to describe those months when I had disappeared from my life. I had always identified as a writer, but anorexia stripped me of words, alienating me from the world as I previously understood it and from the language I used to give shape to that world. In its wake, I was searching for a new language, one that, as a lifelong reader, I hadn’t yet witnessed in literature.

And then a close friend handed me a copy of Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight. Like many people, I had read Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a retelling of Jane Eyre from the perspective of Bertha (aka, “the madwoman in the attic”), but this novel, published decades earlier, was different. It was unlike anything I’d ever read in its depiction of a woman who is losing herself to the seduction of alcoholism, the ghosts of her past, and the increasingly self-destructive decisions she makes as she tries to survive both. What was new was not the content but the telling. Rhys collapses the distance between the reader and her protagonist. We don’t witness Sasha’s descent; we live it. We feel the too-small dirty hotel room, the jeers and stares of strangers who may or may not actually be there, the grief and weight of memory. And we feel the messy intermingling of emptiness, fear, desire, and elation as reality unravels, and language with it, along the beautiful and horrific knife-edge of addiction.

Good Morning, Midnight gave me not only a mirror for my own experience, but it altered completely the type of work I wanted to produce as a writer. I consumed the slim, used paperback in a single sitting—and consumed is the right word, as it nourished me, became a part of me, and then left me hungry for more writing like it. From Rhys, it was not a far leap to Marguerite Duras and then Elena Ferrante and Claire Messud, all women who write about women on the fringes grappling with the most foundational questions of meaning and identity. These writers deal in contradictions, in the seductive gray areas where the high lives, in the things that might destroy us but that we nevertheless pursue. Their protagonists are complicated, flawed, brilliant, extreme, and, quite often, ecstatic.

I began writing my novel out of a desire to be in conversation with those writers, and to give language, through fiction, to an experience that had left me mute. In the writing I realized that there was another group of women writers whose stories I needed to read—the Catholic mystical saints, women who claimed a direct relationship to God through their ecstatic visions, and who recorded those visions in fiery and sensual language. Their vitae read like the ancestors of Rhys and Ferrante. Their ecstasies were not always celebrated—they were also used as evidence that they were possessed, deceitful, or calculating in their ambition. But like the protagonists of their contemporary counterparts, the saints’ telling leaves no room for doubts as we live the experiences with them.

Below are my favorite works about ecstatic women brought to life by my favorite women writers. These narratives don’t grant us the safety of distance or room for judgment, but place us within the protagonists’ realities, daring us to feel what they feel, and suggesting that if ecstasy is madness, then we the readers are mad too. 

Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment, tr. Ann Goldstein

Written before the uber-popular Neopolitan novels, this slim, visceral work follows a woman’s violent struggle to make meaning in the chaos and isolation that follows the dissolution of her marriage:

I was not the woman who breaks into pieces under the blows of abandonment and absence, who goes mad, who dies. Only a few fragments had splintered off, for the rest I was well. I was whole and whole I would remain. To those who hurt me, I react giving back in kind. I am the queen of spades, I am the wasp that stings, I am the dark serpent. I am the invulnerable animal who passes through the fire and is not burned.

Kwbu

Likely Stories: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

FEB 9, 2017

Intense adult story of a woman suddenly and inexplicably abandoned by her husband.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I have been a fan of women’s literature for many years.  One such author has eluded me until a recent article discussed the Italian writer, Elena Ferrante.  My first actual encounter with Ferrante’s works occurred after a trip to the marvelous independent bookstore, Inkwood Books of Haddonfield, N.J.  I asked the clerk about Ferrante, and she suggested the “Neopolitan Quartet” of novels, which was sold out, but she did have a copy of the Days of Abandonment.  Across the street from the shop was a coffee bistro, so I went for a coffee and a scan of the novel.  About an hour later, I was hooked, and I accepted the fact this was a powerful novel by a writer I could not let slip by me.

Days of Abandonment tells the story of a woman abandoned by her husband, Mario, who takes up with a young woman, Carla, half his wife’s age.  The novel begins, “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.  He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarrelling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator.  He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice.  He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me.  He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere.  Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink”   This is the tiniest of sparks which will turn into a conflagration of immense power.

Readers, I want to make you aware this is an adult novel based on a single chapter when Olga vents all her rage, jealousy, and fury, in a scene of a rather explicit and volcanic nature.  A reader will know when it starts, so it is easy to skip.  This novel is the most incisive and detailed account of the agony a woman undergoes when she is abandoned by her partner.  The prose is mesmerizing and gripping.  I could barely put it down for a moment.  Here is a scene when Olga decides to seek revenge on her husband with a man from her building she despises.  [Carrano] “again brought his lips to mine, but I didn’t like the odor of his saliva.  I don’t even know if it really was unpleasant, only it seemed to me different from Mario’s.  He tried to put his tongue in my mouth, I opened my lips a little, touched his tongue with mine.  It was slightly rough, alive, it felt animal, an enormous tongue such as I had seen, disgusted, at the butcher, there was nothing seductively human about it.  Did Carla have my tastes, my odors?  Or had mine always been repellant to Mario, as now Carrano’s seemed, and only in her, after years, had [Mario] found the essences right for him” (80-81).  You can now skip to page 88.  Not for the faint of heart, this novel is a masterpiece of the inner workings of the mind of a woman.  5 stars.

Magnet

FROM THE DESK OF MATT POND PA: ELENA FERRANTE’S “THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT”

I’m looking up at a coffee shop full of strangers, and I can’t help but think that we seldom welcome people as they are anymore—including me. The curation of our profile and personhood is just about the slipperiest slope out there.

The Days Of Abandonment. There are some reviews that consider the descent of main character to be clichéd. After a lifetime of familial dedication, Olga is abandoned by her husband Mario. She goes down, disrupted and scouring the depths of sanity.

While the signposts may be similar to those that have already appeared, the description and intensity of the Olga’s dive are incomparable. It’s a palpable pain that brings me closer to a grief-case I’ve grown accustomed to hiding from everyone, including myself.

Both disturbing and real—from here on out, I’m on a treasure hunt for everything that matters. A quiet quest for all that beguiling dirt beneath our shuffling feet.

Brazos Bookstore

We’ve told you about our 2016 #BrazosBest picks. We’ve all run down our individual top ten lists. But now, one final list to end of the year: the books that affected us the most, whether new releases or classics. We asked each member of our staff one simple question: What book did you read in 2016 that you’ll remember the best, that sums up the year?

2016 has been, um, complicated, for many reasons, but these books helped us get through the ups and downs.

by Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein (translator)
ISBN: 9781933372006
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Europa Editions – September 2005
$15.00

Why has it taken me so long to read Ferrante?? I’ve been meaning to start the Neapolitan novels for months now but, intimidated by the volume, I chose to start with THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT. What a ferocious, explosive novel! An instant classic for “nasty women” everywhere.
Augusta

San Francisco Chronicle

The karaoke book club: where women talk literature, then sing

We began because we needed to talk about the fever. For some, it begins with “The Days of Abandonment”; for others, with “My Brilliant Friend.” But one thing is sure: Ferrante fever doesn’t break.

Readers around the world are riveted by Elena Ferrante’s portrayals of friendship, love and loss, and the social, cultural, political frameworks that have everything to do with desire versus possibility. Her books are gloriously and unabashedly about girls and women. Their covers, the subject of several articles, dare you to call the work women’s fiction. The author herself is famously pseudonymous, asking readers to focus only on the work.

And we do. Last year, Aimee Phan and I found ourselves texting about Ferrante. We agreed that reading her novels was an intense, immersive experience, and one that we wanted to talk about. We should have a book club, Aimee said, and before we knew it we did: a group of women, writers, living in the Bay Area and, as it happens, Asian American. Our first goal: the Neapolitan quartet.

It turned out that we also shared an enthusiasm for karaoke and the particular joy of singing ’80s and ’90s songs at top volume in a private room. And so our karaoke book club was created. We gather for dinner to discuss Ferrante, writing and literature, with a dash of gossip, and then we sing. If this sounds strange, I can only say: Try it. The pairing makes the gathering not just a conversation but an event.

It was already election season when we started our club, so it’s no wonder that many of our conversations were underpinned by the political climates in the Neapolitan novels and in our lives. How women were treated and viewed, and so often disrespected and dismissed. How often women faced punishment for their ambitions. How the governmental and social structures in Naples, circa 1960s and beyond, kept systems of sexism in place, and what it meant to challenge these.

The novels revolve around two women — Elena, the narrator, and her closest friend and sometime frenemy and sometime soul mate Lila — who navigate girlhood and womanhood under the watchful gaze of so many boys and men. Both Elena and Lila yearn to write, create, learn and become. It wasn’t just that all of us in our book club could understand that; it’s that on some level, big or small, we had felt and experienced the same.

Some book clubs are a reason to get together. Some have authors visit or Skype in. Ours feels like community and creativity, each holding up the other. Like when we talk about how Ferrante writes about writing and the feelings of self-doubt that come with it.

Or when we talk about Nino, the bad-boy figure of the Neapolitan novels (everyone knows or has dated a Nino). It happens, too, when we’re at karaoke, yelling out songs from the girlhoods that none of us, ever, really leave behind.

"Frantumaglia" Photo: Europa Editions

Photo: Europa Editions

“Frantumaglia”

Recently a few of us got together to discuss “Frantumaglia” (Europa Editions; $24), a recent collection of Ferrante’s interviews, letters and excerpts of some previously unpublished material. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, which began at a restaurant and carried over into email. The participants are Kirstin Chen, author of “Soy Sauce for Beginners”; Vanessa Hua, author of “Deceit and Other Possibilities” (and a columnist for The Chronicle); Beth Nguyen, author of “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” “Short Girls” and “Pioneer Girl”; and Aimee Phan, author of “The Reeducation of Cherry Truong” and “We Should Never Meet.” Also in the club are Reese Okyong Kwon (“Heroics”), Frances Hwang (“Transparency”) and Rachel Khong (“Goodbye, Vitamin”).

Aimee: I feel like I’m reading these books at the perfect moment in my life: I am in my late 30s, I have two children whose lives consume me (both positively and negatively), and I’m still trying to be a productive writer. Many of her protagonists are also at that moment in their lives: When they are overloaded with responsibilities, both mundane and profound, and they also have a strong sense of wanting to maintain their own individual identities. And at the same time, Ferrante moves beyond this particular reliability — it seems like she can go anywhere in her prose without any need for a transition. She can talk about politics, history, philosophy, sexuality, loneliness, and I willingly go with her, without ever questioning it. I don’t know any writer who can do that for me.

Vanessa: I was gripped by her portrayal of the complicated relationship between women, and what women face — and continue to face — when they attempt to move past traditional gender roles. As the daughter of immigrants, I was interested in the outsider narrative, Elena and Lila both striving to find their place in the world, but struggling to fit in for reasons of language, for reasons of assimilation and class. As a writer, I’m interested in how she approaches her craft, creating characters and circumstances that propel us through a lifetime’s worth of friendship.

Beth: “Frantumaglia” is a bit jarring, because it takes us out of the world Ferrante has created and gives us glimpses into the author’s world, and her process. Before this, I never wondered about Elena Ferrante’s life. I never really thought about it, because it was like she didn’t really exist as a writer you could access. But when I read this, I was like, now I know she writes on the second floor. She writes in a small space and there’s a balcony. She doesn’t like heights. She has two daughters. And then I started thinking about hey, what does she talk about with her friends in real life? Do they know who she is as a writer? Can they talk about their writing, or is it totally off limits? How does she negotiate her everyday life?

Vanessa: Yeah, her cover story is that she’s a translator.

Beth: But to have a cover story with your own friends — like a veil of secrecy?

Kirstin: She didn’t seem to have a clear answer for that. “Frantumaglia” isn’t really Ferrante’s, in a way. It’s a collection of her work, but it doesn’t seem guided by her. I mean, there’s no narrative arc.

"My Brilliant Friend" Photo: Europa Editions

Photo: Europa Editions

“My Brilliant Friend”

Vanessa: I thought about the mysterious founder of bitcoin. People don’t really know, but they want to know because it’s as if knowing the origin must mean or reveal something. I never cared or wondered about which theory was correct about who Ferrante actually is. It didn’t matter to me at all. I mean when we read books as kids, did we think, you know, I want to know everything about Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott?

Beth: This is why reading as a child is magical, because it’s so much about just the book.

Aimee: There’s something nice about speculating, when you’re reading Ferrante’s novels, how much is her? Without having an answer and without getting an answer. It makes it one’s own experience.

Kirstin: I was so interested in Ferrante’s deep love for Lila. That she was her favorite, unequivocally.

Vanessa: Yet she doesn’t tell the novels from Lila’s point of view.

Kirstin: Because Lila is too magnetic.

Aimee: There are lines when I thought I hated Lila and then — oh! Absolutely the opposite. At the same time, Elena is complicated, too. She’s the good-girl narrator and then she’s not. Which makes her, in a way, more deceptive than Lila. Lila’s life has so many highs and lows, because she’s living on her own terms and she refuses to capitulate.

Beth: I loved the frantumaglia idea, the way her mother described it. The jumble of fragments in your mind that can weigh you down. It made a lot of sense.

"The Story of a New Name" Photo: Europa Editions

Photo: Europa Editions

“The Story of a New Name”

Vanessa: The question of influence always comes up with writers. What are your influences; what is your origin story. But frantumaglia is interesting because there’s that note she adds about being disturbed by it, and she’s so disturbed that she has to write about it to get it out of her body. So the frantumaglia idea is a darker take on influence, which is fascinating.

Beth: Still, Ferrante does say several times that writing puts her in a good mood. Though publishing does not.

Vanessa: Ferrante is the kind of author who, once you read their work, you want to read all of it. I feel like that’s really rare.

Beth: She writes a lot about how her absence gives her this creative freedom that she could never have otherwise. Do you think that would be true for any of us, ever, if we decided we would leave social media and all that, and we would just write?

Kirstin: I’m not sure that’s possible for us anymore!

Aimee: Yeah, you’d have to be committed to it from the very beginning, as Ferrante was, in order for it to work. And then I wonder what it costs to keep that going.

Vanessa: I thought about these emerging nonfiction writers whose first publications are incredibly personal and revealing memoir pieces. They’re so confessional, like “I slept with my dad!” And they don’t realize that they can never get away from that.

Beth: Did you notice that whenever people asked about her literary influences, she would always cite Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf — and I don’t think she ever mentioned a single woman of color.

"Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay" Photo: Europa Editions

Photo: Europa Editions

“Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”

Vanessa: Yeah, as usual, writers of color are pretty much never mentioned as influences — except by other writers of color.

Beth: So what do we think about that? What do we think about race and Ferrante? I mean, do we read her the way we read Jane Austen — you know, like it’s a period piece? I think that’s how I read them, and so I have a different level of expectation.

Vanessa: In the books, the characters are outsiders, trying to move from one social and educational class to another, and that’s totally relatable. The struggles are similar.

Kirstin: It’s funny; hers is a world in which it doesn’t occur to me to think about race. It’s so much about regional difference.

Vanessa: I thought it was interesting how Ferrante insisted that the translators not try to render dialect as sounding like dialect. Instead there are markers like, this character says that in dialect and this one said that in Italian. It’s a kind of equalizing move.

Aimee: I think we’ve been pretty critical about American writers when they don’t address race, when their stories are incredibly white. But we don’t put that same standard on Ferrante.

Vanessa: Minority readers can see a mirror in nonminority characters, in white characters, but people don’t always assume that the reverse can happen.

Beth: I think part of the enjoyment of reading period pieces, honestly, is that as a person of color I can be like, yeah, I don’t have to go through the whole racial negotiation.

Aimee: I do identify with Lila feeling so trapped in every decision she made. She’s super smart and she’s thinking so much about self-preservation. And no matter what she does — she’s stuck. What choices are really available to her?

"The Story of the Lost Child" Photo: Europa Editions

Photo: Europa Editions

“The Story of the Lost Child”

Kirstin: I see a lot of writers trying to get away from the inevitable “what about your book is autobiographical” by writing historical fiction.

Beth: Do you think all writers tend to write the same stories or subjects over and over, like Ferrante?

Kirstin: I think we write about what we’re obsessed with, and sometimes that obsession just stays. Ferrante even says she starts with the same voice each time, which seems amazing to me.

Aimee: I think the role of the translator is incredible. They know both worlds — they know everything.

Beth: The translation is another layer of remove, which is totally interesting. There’s the author, there’s “Elena Ferrante,” there’s the translator, and then there’s us.

Later, over email, we reflected on the origins of our book club and what it means to have karaoke be part of it:

Aimee: Usually when I read a really good book, I can gush about it to my partner, whether or not he has read it yet. But with the Neopolitan novels, I felt a need to discuss them not only with other women, because of the incredible way Ferrante handles female perspectives and confronts the overwhelming power of misogyny in this world, but because of what the books said about being a female writer and thinker, and making choices that are not complementary to wifehood or motherhood. Her characters felt so radical and brave, and yet incredibly nearsighted and selfish at times, which is how we all have felt. I liked how passionate these women were, and how Ferrante showed those consequences. As for karaoke — I love karaoke and I love reading. They are both outlets and inspirations, so they make total sense!

Kirstin: I appreciate Ferrante’s writing, first and foremost, I think, for the rawness and the rage. Everything I read in my creative writing classes throughout college and grad school was understated and elegant and wry. That’s what I understood good writing to be and that’s what I aspired to write. When I sink into one of the Neapolitan novels, it really feels like I’m drowning in Ferrante’s words (In a good way! Like drowning in chocolate or something). I’m very struck by Elena’s isolation in the Neapolitan novels, by how much she has to figure out on her own because she simply has no one to turn to. I’m so grateful for our book club. All of this — writing, publishing, academia — would be such a huge puzzle — and so much less fun! — if I didn’t have all of you. And there’s something about the campiness of karaoke that appeals. We all write literary fiction/nonfiction, and karaoke is kind of the opposite of that, almost subversively so.

Beth: The depth of Elena and Lila’s friendship, with all of its complications, and the secrets and secret ambitions both women keep — for me this is real talk, real life. Very often, the Neapolitan Quartet is realism doing some of the best work it can do, showing us that we are not alone. I love that Ferrante is a forthright feminist and that these books are so unapologetically about the lives of girls and women. I use that word “unapologetically” because I feel like, for too long and still, people feel the need to justify that, as if the experiences of girls and women aren’t universal or literary enough. Ferrante knows she doesn’t have to justify that, and I think something about our book club is similar. We don’t have to explain our Ferrante fever; we revel in the feeling of it. The karaoke, too. We go with the feeling (of the writing, of the song) and trust that it will take us somewhere we need to go.

Vanessa: When I first tried reading “My Brilliant Friend,” I couldn’t get much past the section on their girlhood. So many neighbors, so much infighting and squabbling. Yet I knew how passionately people devoured the series, and when Aimee suggested the book club, I was eager to try again. The second time around, the book resonated and I quickly finished reading it, and then the entire quartet. What seems like the minutiae of childhood, I grew to understand, is foundational to understanding the dynamic between the two women, and social and economic forces they are up against their entire lives. Over dinner and drinks, we talk about how the book moved us and made us think about the world as women, as writers. It’s a fun way to engage our intellect. By contrast, karaoke is pure emotion — the highs so high, the lows so low. We’re going back, way back, to the songs we sang along to at prom or played while cruising around with our friends. Likewise, Ferrante’s Lila gives us access to her innermost thoughts and feelings in her childhood and adolescence — all her life, she is raw and honest and restless, like any great karaoke ballad.

 

European Literature Network

My Feverish Ferrante Summer: Three #RivetingReviews of Elena Ferrante’s early novels by Rosie Goldsmith

Over three days this summer, before the unmasking of the identity of Italy’s most famous writer,Elena Ferrante, I sat down on our terrace in Italy to read and review for you Ferrante’s first three novels translated into English. My Italian friends insisted they were even better that The Quartet. They were right. And The Lost Daughter is the best of all of them.

I’ve decided to publish my reviews as I wrote them this summer, before the unveiling. She will always be for me ‘the writer Elena Ferrante’. I read and reviewed the complete Neapolitan Quartet exactly a year ago, on the same terrace, overlooking the mountains of the Alpi Apuane in Northern Tuscany. They disturbed and excited me. Ferrante today plays a large role in my literary life and I suspect she always will. No one rivets me quite like Elena Ferrante.
So here are my #RivetingReviews of Elena Ferrante’s first three novels in English – all translated by the incomparable Ann Goldstein, all published in the UK by Europa Editions.

 

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT (I Giorni dell’Abbandono)

(2002 Italian/2005 English)

The narrator Olga is thirty-eight, a burgeoning writer, a mother of two children, married to Mario, a successful academic and living in Turin.

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarrelling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me… closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.

So begins this ground-breaking, earth-shattering novel, with the breakdown of Olga and Mario’s ‘happy’ marriage after fifteen years; the first novel from Ferrante to be translated into English, setting out for us the confident tone, bold ideas, razor-sharp observations and precipitous literary heights that reverberate through all her work; as if, with these early novels, she is building up to her War and Peace, her Anna Karenina (Ferrante obviously loves Tolstoy) – the famous Naples Quartet. Olga is ofcourse originally from Naples. Ferrante’s defining links with Naples are ever-present.

The women we meet in her novels are all in some way like Olga – obsessive, fearless and trying to understand the absence of sense – the phrase that Mario uses about this own life and their marriage when he leaves her. But Olga is the one to examine this absence, not Mario, who quickly moves on to a new life, leaving her to imprison herself within the four walls of her mind, her life and her home in Turin.

‘Happiness’ is rare in Ferrante’s books and marriages are rarely ‘happy’. The breakdown of this marriage and this woman’s life is described in intimate detail. Olga documents her personal hell after discovering her husband’s infidelity; the depths of her self-degradation; the cruelty, obscenity, perversion and violence she becomes capable of; her animal madness and the monster she unleashes in herself as she goes to the darkest depths of myself and before she is able to return to some kind of adult normality. Ultimately she does not follow her much-read Anna Karenina to her death but instead enters a whirlpool sucking me in, emerging to find a form of enlightenment, not happiness but enough ‘sense’ to live with.

No other writer I know delves as deeply into a woman’s heart and mind as Ferrante, and with such beautiful, lyrical and scorchingly hot prose. As a reader I feel I’m swimming in a whirlpool of excruciating honesty.

Olga is different from Ferrante’s later heroines in that she is initially likeable and straightforward. A protagonist you care for, can like and feel sympathy with when her beloved husband leaves her and her children.

Life had been drained out of me like blood and saliva and mucus from a patient during an operation.

But as always Ferrante ends up risking the alienation of her readers by making her characters quite unpleasant and unlikable in their self-destruction and self-analysis. I doubt Ferrante cares. She doesn’t need to care. This is immersive, essential, honest, painful and vital writing. No wonder, I often think, she wishes to remain anonymous. This way she enjoys total artistic freedom.

What can we deduce about the identity of Ferrante from this book, and the issues and style that reappear in future novels? She knows about motherhood, marriage and children; about friendship, grief, academia, the writer’s life, publishing; she knows about clothes, dressmaking and fabrics (!); she knows Italy and especially Naples and has obviously travelled internationally.

How literary and lyrical Olga is! Like the women in most of Ferrante’s novels she loves words, books and writing. I myself jotted down whole chunks of her novels, so as to imprint their depth and detail on my brain. For example, this, on grief: I was the sentinel of grief, keeping watch along with a crowd of dead words. And on writing: I spent the warm mornings of early autumn sitting on a bench in the rocky garden, writing. In appearance they were notes for a possible book, at least that’s what I called them. I wanted to cut myself to pieces—I said to myself—I wanted to study myself with precision and cruelty, recount the evil of these terrible months completely. And finally: In order to write well, I need to go to the heart of every question, of a smaller, safer place. Eliminate the superfluous. Narrow the field. To write truly is to speak from the depths of the maternal womb.

 

TROUBLING LOVE (L’Amore Molesto)

(1992 Italian; 2007 English)

Like all ‘classics’, you imagine Ferrante to have been around ‘for ever’, but she hasn’t and has only existed in English for ten years. But what a distinctive style, from this very first novel (in Italian). Before she wrote it, she extracted the promise of anonymity from her Italian publishers EDIZIONI E/0 – who have honoured her promise. Ferrante wrote to them:
I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. This anonymity she believed would give her a space of absolute creative freedom, a freedom all the more necessary because her books stick “a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected.

In this novel, ‘the troubling love’ described is that between mothers and children, husbands and wives, men and women – and, as we know from Lina and Elena, in the Quartet – between women too; describing the violence, passion and cruelty of this love with torrential prose and exquisite elegance. Naples is dirty, dark, passionate, loud and dramatic. No one is content. Relationships are unhappy.

What is the source of the seething suffering that Ferrante exposes in each novel? Why is she so raw and bleeding? The more I read her books the more I want to interview her, to know about her, because I simply can’t imagine that at least some of what she writes stems from truth. There is a relentless, ruthless drive to the writing; a breathlessness, as if she’s whispering to us, let’s make the pages burn with my writing, let’s make the men suffer who torment us.

 This is not just feminism or any -ism but a unique view of life, which is so daringly honest that thousands of readers round the world are saying ‘thank you’ (and some ‘no, thank you’!). Ferrante always digs deep and says things that others dare not say. The storylines are riveting (what an achievement) but it’s the pace and lack of pauses and paragraphs in the narrative that make you turn the page in breathless anticipation. Then there’s the thrill of that first sentence of each novel:
My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno.

The abuse, violence, obscenity, humiliation, fetishes and disgust of ‘Troubling Love’ are ‘real’ but at a poetic remove. Delia, the 45- year oldest daughter of Amalia – whose death is the pivot of the novel – is the narrator. She relates horror upon horror of her family life while simultaneously reliving it and analysing it. By writing the horrors down she understands, we understand, why they happen. This is the confessional novel at its most profound and painful. It is a novel of recovered memory.

Delia revisits her past and the people closest to her. A single act, when she was five, changed their lives for ever. We get a portrait of Amalia, a beautiful and vital mother who refuses to allow a brutal, psychopathically jealous husband to take over her mind and body (whilst she enjoys the fetishist attentions of another man). It is a portrait of a child’s spiteful blame and jealous love of a mother. Delia blames Amalia for ruining her life and reducing it to that of a dessicated, loveless automata. She explores her complex love-hate relationship with her mother by going back, digging deep and confronting the men who dominated both their lives. There are also moments of joyful release, bursting out of the novel like fireworks, but at heart it is very troubling.

Delia’s empathy and identification with her mother, and her cruel judgement of her, mean that by the end of the novel the two selves, mother and daughter, collide in a spectacular firework finale.

 

 

THE LOST DAUGHTER (La Figlia Oscura)

(2006 Italian/2008 English)

Three Ferrante novels in three days! I feel as though I’ve been galloping through a long night, through hail and rain and snow and lightning and tropical storms. The cumulative effect of reading Ferrante in one gulp is exhaustion and elation. I am convinced now – more than I ever was reading The Quartet (and observing the passion and fame that now surrounds her) – that Ferrante is a major biographer of women’s lives. No, she is not a man. No man could ever write in this way about the unexplored, unexplained (till now), mysterious, hidden, shameful and exultant inner, intimate lives of women and about their sexual, emotional and creative yearnings.

Ferrante has told me things about myself, and the women I share this planet with, that I have never heard before or – to be honest – wanted to confront. We critics speak of her writing as ‘raw’ and honest. I don’t warm to her women much; they wouldn’t be my friends: in fact, the more I read her, the more distanced I feel from the Ferrante-archetype she seems to be describing in each novel.

Leda is the narrator here. Is she perhaps Elena Ferrante? Of all the novels this is my favourite. All her novels are different; they are also all the same. The protagonists are intelligent, questioning mothers, daughters and wives who are also writers or academics. They were born in Naples and spend much of their later lives questioning their identity and shaking off their origins. The women often have similar names – Elena, Leda, Lina. There are always dramatic turning points and revelations and confrontations – mostly with themselves. Often their lives are ‘perfect’ on the surface but, as they themselves reveal, they are ‘imperfect’ beneath. The stories are visceral and shocking. In each novel, the protagonist turns herself inside out.

Leda is nearly fifty, a successful, internationally respected Professor of English Literature at Florence University. She was born in Naples but left to study. She married another academic and had two daughters, Bianca and Marta, who though they never appear in the novel are described in such great detail that we feel we know them too. Leda divorced a long time ago, her daughters live in Canada with her ex (who seems, for once, a nice man with not too many flaws – unusual for men in a Ferrante novel!) and Leda lives a comfortable existence alone as an academic.

When my daughters moved to Toronto, where their father had lived and worked for years, I was embarrassed and amazed to discover that I wasn’t upset; rather, I felt light, as if only then had I definitively brought them into the world. For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them. The house was neat, as if no one lived there, I no longer had the constant bother of shopping and doing the laundry.

The novel begins with a bang (typical Ferrante) – a car crash. Within just two pages Leda describes how she crashed her car after returning from her summer holiday and lands in hospital, with her family and friends gathered around her, even coming all the way from Toronto. She survives, the only serious wound in her left side, an inexplicable lesion. But why did she crash the car? At the origin, she tells us, was a gesture of mine that made no sense… because it was senseless.

Leda decides that she won’t talk to anyone about this gesture except ‘us’. For the rest of the novel she confides in us (her readers) the details of her summer on the beach and her growing obsession with a young Neapolitan woman, Nina, and her toddler daughter, Elena, playing together on the beach with a doll. Who is the lost child here? Leda, Elena or Nina, or indeed Bianca and Marta? Prepare to gallop through the wind, rain and sun to find out. And then go and lie down (as I had to!).

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

 

Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.

The Wonky Bookshelf

The Days of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante

elena ferrante's the days of abandonment book cover

The Days of Abandonment is so raw that it makes for a heartbreaking read that is both unsettling and uncomfortable.

From the beginning you are thrown into mind of a narrator who is circling the drain following her husband’s departure. Struggling to cope with her two children, and the dog, our abandoned wife starts to break down.

It’s such a brutal depiction of femininity, motherhood and what it’s like to lose yourself. It’s like a scalpel has scraped away the facade of marital bliss and left us with a woman scorned who becomes mentally unstable. Ferrante’s writing is amazing in parts, sloppy in some, and her interesting observations and frank descriptions offer an unapologetically brutal take on the female psyche.

It’s a book that will have an impact on any reader and whilst it is short, it is very heavy with uncomfortable content that it seems much longer. The first half is nothing short of amazing but Ferrante loses her way in the second half.

Nonetheless, this is a book that will stay with me for a long time purely for how human and haunting it is.

The Guardian

Fourth of July reading list: from the Hamilton biography to Elena Ferrante

With the tumult of the election and current events, relaxing will be a priority for many Americans over the holiday. Here are some books to whisk you far, far awayMan sleeping with book on chest, close-up.

After living in the United States for over 10 years, here is what I have learned about the Fourth of July: it is more of a barbecuing holiday than anything else. The main idea is to get yourself to a lake and lay about drinking weak American beer, preferably from aluminum cans.

This lifestyle is, however, conducive to reading. This is a particularly excellent year to read a physical paper book, come to think of it, as it will keep you away from your phone and consequently the horrorshow that is current global events. It is my job to follow current literary trends and releases, so here are my recommendations for you.

For the history-and-biography-minded

Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is already on the American bestseller lists so it hardly requires my recommendation. The book was first published in 2005, but it has been resurrected from the remainder pile by a certain musical you have perhaps heard of. Now that knowing something about the founding fathers has become a trendy thing, I sense a national craze for doorstop-sized accounts of American statesmanhood coming on. Somewhere Doris Kearns Goodwin is salivating for an R&B rendition of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Still, if reading serious American history is your bag, I’d recommend leavening the celebrations with Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Gordon-Reed’s book was among the first to properly substantiate and argue for the long-rumoured connection between Jefferson and his slave. She’s also expanded some of her research into the more recent The Hemingses of Monticello, if you simply want a heftier-looking book.

For the thriller-and-mystery-minded

Mass market paperback thrillers are a dime a dozen. The trick is to find something that actually sticks to the ribs. This fall will bring a new release from one of the best crime writers working today, Tana French. But that book, The Trespasser, is actually her sixth. She has five novels you can buy right now, though you should read them in the order in which they were published, starting with In the Woods. I can do you no greater favour in life than recommending that you read her books.

French is not very American, of course. (She lives in Dublin.) Among American writers of the moment, my favourite mystery writer is probably Laura Lippman, whose Wilde Lake was released in April. Her protagonist, Lu Brant, comes to discover that a crime buried in her past was more complicated than it looked. Haunting and atmospheric, it lingers with you after you’ve read it – which I did in a single night some months ago.

For the romance-minded

I read almost no romantic fiction, in part because I barely believe in romance in the age of Tinder. So in my mind, if you like love stories, this Fourth of July is as good a time as any to read Elena Ferrante’s novels. It’s a particularly good idea to start with The Days of Abandonment. The protagonist is at the end of her marriage and at the end of her psychological rope, too. If you like to feel abject despair, this book will work wonders for you.

In this category I would also recommend, with qualifications, Emma Cline’s The Girls. The metaphors are laid on with a trowel but the central spine of the book, the story of a girl who slowly becomes enamoured with a cult leader not unlike Charles Manson, rings true. Love takes many forms, and sometimes it takes a form that leads you to a murderous religious cult whose evils end up marking you for life. Am I right?

For the ‘literary’ reader

Summer is always a tricky time to recommend new literary fiction. The big releases do not hit until fall. But Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others won an informal poll of friends as to the year’s best literary novel so far. Two friends, only somewhat alike in temperament, compete as film-makers and for the affections of the mysterious Jelly, a kind of romantic anonymous caller. Like all of Spiotta’s books, it’s a bit hard to describe so briefly, but it’s really a kind of intellectual page-turner: her searing intelligence carries you swiftly through to the end.

The other book that people have been lavishly praising this year is CE Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. Morgan, a somewhat reclusive writer, only produced one novel before this, a much slimmer, elegant volume called All the Living. The Sport of Kings, which is about race the world of horse racing, is a more substantial beast. In the New Yorker, recently, Kathryn Schulz deemed it “enormously flawed, ceaselessly interesting, and strangely tremendous, its moral imagination so capacious that it overshadows its many missteps”. In a year not much marked by moral imagination on the part of leaders, at least you can spend the holiday finding it in a novelist.

Heavenali

The Days of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante (2002)

image

(Beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein)

The circle of an empty day is brutal and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.”

Having read all four of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet last year, I thought I knew what to expect from The Days of Abandonment. Chosen by my very small book group for our May read I was very much looking forward to a book I had suggested, however I was completely taken by surprise by the tone of this novel . In time, I am glad to say, I came to love The Days of Abandonment, but it did take me a little while to be convinced. The Days of Abandonment is on the face of it the story of a woman’s descent into despair following the ending of her marriage; however it is much more the portrayal of her actual breakdown, in all its ugliness and misery. I was ill prepared for the anger and gut wrenching raw intimacy of this novel – at times that anger is almost visceral – and there are moments when the reader really would rather look away.

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Finding time to write

Books of the Year 2015

These are not necessarily books published in 2015, but the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year, which is why I’ve held off with this post till long after all the ‘best of’ lists have appeared. I’ve read 170 books this year, so you can imagine that whittling it all down to just 10 favourites is an impossible task. So instead, here are the books that spoke to me most at various points throughout the year.

When I Grow Up, I Want to Be…

Not to copy their style, but to capture something of their fearlessness.

Elena Ferrante: The Days of Abandonment – I probably will have to read more of her at some point, although I’ve resisted the Neapolitan tetralogy so far (because of the hype)

Emily Books

The Days of Abandonment

By Elena Ferrante

Olga’s husband Mario has just left her and her two young children for a younger woman, with zero warning. Over the next two days, her world falls apart: a sick child and a misbehaving dog derail her sanity completely, and she becomes literally trapped in her apartment. A sense of outsized dread and terror builds with each sentence, making the book impossible to put down til the final page. Olga’s interiority is so skillfully rendered as to be horribly familiar to anyone who’s ever been devastated by loss and grief.  So, well, not our most lighthearted pick, but a perversely enjoyable read nonetheless and an overdue introduction (for us, at least!) to this great author’s work.

Elena Ferrante is an Italian novelist whose books are published in the U.S. by Europa Editions. Her most recent novel is the acclaimed The Story of the Lost Child.

Flavorwire

50 Great Books About Deliciously Bad Women

BY

What is it about bad girls that is so alluring? Maybe it’s the seized power they signify, or the agency their badness implies, or just the comebacks and leather jackets, but I always love the “bad” women in literature best. Here are some books that are blessed with such mavens, whose antics range from mere misbehavior to pure evil, who are antagonists and antiheroines and just plain heroines who just also happen to be jerks a lot of the time. Some of these characters are deeply lovable despite their flaws, and some readers just love to hate. But no matter what, they will delight you in all of their badness. Read on for some deliciously bad ladies of literature, and if I’ve missed your favorite, sing her praises (er, or shriek her name in terror) in the comments.

The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante

The narrator of this extraordinary novel’s husband has just left her, and as the book unfolds, so does Olga. She ignores her sick children. She throws screaming fits in public. She makes dismal attempts at sexual encounters with her neighbors. She thinks the worst things and develops a keen taste for what she calls “obscene language.” She is bad — but her badness is a reaction to grief, to abandonment, to despair, and her abject rage will make you love her.

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The Sidney Morning Herald

Elena Ferrante review: Three novellas that show the Neapolitan’s development

July 25, 2015

Andrew Rieme

<i>The Days of Abandonment</i>, by Elena Ferrante.

I’ve heard it said that only women can fully appreciate the achievement of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian novelist of obsessively guarded privacy. It is certainly true that I have never experienced the agony of childbirth. I have never known the adolescent trauma of inexplicable bleeding. Nor have I felt what life is like for a single woman – an abandoned wife or one that has left her husband – forced to deal with her grief and fury. I have not felt the love-hate that Ferrante’s protagonists harbour against their mothers and children, or their jealousy of younger, more attractive women. I have not suffered the sexual indignities and outrages her characters endure.

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Tweed’s

Elena Ferrante, Part 1: The Early Novels

Translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal

 

You might know Elena Ferrante as that anonymous Italian author nobody knows anything about. In the only interview she’s given—conducted by her publishers and featured in the Paris Review—Ferrante explains that the reason she has completely shunned public life and uses a pen name is so readers focus on her words and not her persona. Unlike most authors, who are pressured to tweet and post about their new publications and reviews, and who sheepishly implore friends and fans to attend their readings, Ferrante says her anonymity has allowed her to avoid “the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media.” Self-promotion feels cheap because it cheapens the work of art; the focus becomes the author and not the author’s books. While avoiding this trap, Ferrante has been able to write some truly phenomenal books—so phenomenal that she herself has become a phenomenon.

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The Guardian

On my radar: Bryony Lavery’s cultural highlights


Dramatist Bryony Lavery has written prolifically since the 1970s, recently adapting Treasure Island for the National Theatre. Other works includeHer Aching Heart and Frozen, which won the TMA best new play award in 1998 and received four Tony nominations when it was produced on Broadway. Her work for BBC radio includes an adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Childrenand the Sony award-nominated No Joan of Arc. Lavery was artistic director of the Gay Sweatshop theatre company and founded feminist cabaret group Female Trouble. She is on the judging panel for the Bruntwood prize for playwriting, which is open for entries until 5 June.

Book: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

This is about a woman with two children whose husband announces that he’s leaving her. She really goes wild, exacting revenge and damage on everybody. Then she retrieves her sanity and loses her love for him, and it’s brilliantly savage.Elena Ferrante is a wonderful Italian writer; I’m halfway through My Brilliant Friend, about a long-term friendship between two women in Naples.