The Days of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante (2002)


(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.

One day just after lunch Olga’s husband Mario tells her he is leaving her. Olga; abandoned by her husband though not really believing he means to stay away permanently – having the rug ripped away she is left floundering. Left in the apartment with her two children and the family dog, Olga experiences a dark and frightening descent into a loss of identity. Haunted by the memory of a woman from her childhood who earned herself the name the ‘poverella’ she too was a woman abandoned, left destitute. Trying to maintain a good relationship with Mario, not ready to face up to the realities of her marriage, she recalls the flirtation her husband had with the young daughter of her friend some years earlier. Olga walks the streets of her city, at odds with who she is and where her life has taken her. Becoming a distant, distracted mother, Olga is often rather neglectful while she is locked into her own despair. She clings to her children , selfishly thinking more of her own wants than their needs.

“Even if I tried to tell myself that I had given him nothing, that the children were mostly mine, that they had remained within the radius of my body, subject to my care, still I couldn’t avoid thinking what aspects of his nature inevitably lay hidden in them. Mario would explode suddenly from inside their bones, now, over the days, over the years, in ways that were more and more visible. How much of him would I be forced to love forever, without even realizing it, simply by virtue of the fact that I loved them? What a complex foamy mixture a couple is. Even if the relationship shatters and ends, it continues to act in secret pathways, it doesn’t die, it doesn’t want to die.”

It is soon apparent that her husband has another woman, and fury and bitterness consume her. Taking her anger out on whoever is in her path, Olga’s behaviour spirals out of control. Olga must still try and cope with daily life – but her children have to make their own way home from school, the dog has to be exercised but Olga is struggling to maintain normal everyday life. She can’t accept at first that her marriage could be over. She imagines that she can make Mario return to her, first by demonstrating how without him the family is unable to operate as normal, then later by showing how they are coping well. Olga enlists the children’s help in her deceptions but the children just seem to become more bewildered by the situation, more distrustful of this new mother. When Olga comes home one day to find her husband has let himself into the apartment and taken away earrings which he had bought for her, Olga rashly arranges for the locks to be changed. Despite having been – as her young daughter later reminds her – rather stupid about locks in the past, Olga consents to the fitting of a complicated double lock. Bills go unpaid, the phone no longer connects to the outside world, a mobile phone gets broken, and an infestation of ants must be dealt with.

Carrano, the solitary musician who lives in the apartment below is drawn into Olga’s fragile existence when she finds his wallet and returns it late one evening. The awkward, mutually unsatisfying sexual encounter the two have on this occasion testament to Olga’s need to have somebody want her.

So when her son and the dog both fall ill at the same time, and she finds herself literally locked into the apartment Olga must draw on reserves which she doesn’t even feel that she has in order to look after her family. Olga has to face up to the fact that things have changed, that her life won’t simply return to how it was before.

There is so much to admire in this novel, Ferrante’s writing is extraordinarily good, there is an uncomfortable honesty in her depiction of this abandoned wife. I have read – since finishing the book that the novel was greeted with some controversy upon its publication in Italy in 2002 because Olga is often hard to sympathise with, her behaviour as a woman and particularly as a mother makes it hard for us to like her. In time Olga faces up to an entirely new view of Mario starting to see him through the eyes of others, she is surprised at what she finds.

“What a mistake, above all, it had been to believe that I couldn’t live without him, when for a long time I had not been at all certain that I was alive with him.”

I am looking forward to discussing this with my book group there is in this slight novel much to talk about. I can’t help but wonder about the anger which oozes from this novel, where it might have come from – and whether the story of Olga is that of the author about whom we know so little.