THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT
By Elena Ferrante
August 25, 2006
The template for the hot-blooded Italian best seller “The Days of Abandonment” is familiar, in fiction and in life. But the raging, torrential voice of the author is something rare. Using the secret of her identity to elevate this book’s already high drama, the author (Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym) describes the violent rupture of a marriage with all the inner tranquillity that you might associate with Medea. When her book’s heroine has the temerity to invoke Anna Karenina approaching the railroad tracks, the analogy is actually well earned.
“I had an excessive reaction that pierced the surface of things,” summarizes 38-year-old Olga, the novel’s scorned narrator. This is an accurate assessment, if an understated one. From the book’s first page, Olga has had a wrenching response to the news that her husband, Mario, wants to leave her. He explains “that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere” while the children are quarreling and the dog is sleeping – on an ordinary day, out of the blue.
“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,” Olga says. There is a stillness to this moment, but it won’t last long. Soon the whole world around her seems to resonate with peril and grief. She is haunted by a memory of marital fighting from her Neapolitan childhood, replete with “drawn-out cries and laments that reached the piazza, as far as the palm trees with their long, arching branches, their fronds vibrating in fear.”
Many a female novelist has let her fronds vibrate through this kind of domestic meltdown. Popular American writers have a way of reducing this situation to its most banal, self-pitying components. First comes shock. Then self-loathing. Then there’s anger. Then the husband’s girlfriend emerges, prompting the scorned wife’s self-righteous fury. She languishes miserably until a new man appears on cue, Prince Charming-style.
Ms. Ferrante offers a kind of extraterrestrial take on these same developments. True, Olga’s two children act up (her son threatens to get piercings and dye his hair green), but nothing here really happens in an ordinary way. The writer is immensely self-aware and her frankness is stunning, in ways that justify the novel’s claim that Olga is a writer. She has sometimes wanted to write books that are light (“stories full of breezes, of filtered rays where dust motes danced”) and sometimes embraced a darker side (“to gaze downward and feel the vertigo of the depths, the blackness of inferno”). To its great credit, “The Days of Abandonment” delivers both kinds of passion.
Olga is desperate enough to try anything at first. She writes Mario letters. She takes their daughter to the hospital, hoping to attract his attention. She tries to tempt him back with an immaculate house (“It’s all clean, even you,” her daughter remarks with surprise) and with the sensual allure of her pasta sauce with meatballs. But her fingers exhibit a certain Freudian weakness: “The more the anguish increased, the harder they found it to close solidly around things.” As a consequence, Mario finds broken glass in his pasta and is that much more reluctant to come back.
Then Olga coarsens. “As a girl I had liked obscene language, it gave me a sense of masculine freedom,” she recalls. “Now I knew that obscenity could raise sparks of madness if it came from a mouth as controlled as mine.” The sparks of madness begin to fly wildly, even when Olga changes the locks and thinks the workmen are taunting her. (“Was that why those two men kept speaking to me, laughing, of keys, of keyholes, of locks?” ) When she strikes out at Mario and his 20-year-old girlfriend, it is with a physical fury that rips clothing and draws blood.
“The Days of Abandonment” is Ms. Ferrante’s second novel. (The first is to be published here next year.) Its popularity in Italy is understandable, since both its emotional and carnal candor are so potent. Once Olga begins seeing herself as, in Simone de Beauvoir’s words, a woman destroyed, she begins a downward spiral that includes hallucination, terror of poison and grim sexual self-abasement with her aging neighbor.
Mario has destroyed her confidence, Olga says, as if he had wadded it into a ball and thrown it into a wastebasket. Now she loathes her physicality, “I who until four months ago had been only ambrosia and nectar.” Even worse, she finds herself with a man in whom she barely arouses any feeling. The author renders this episode with sad, graphic, warts-and-all acuity. Later, in an uncharacteristically facile manner, she turns this event into the beginning of redemptive romance.
“The Days of Abandonment” has been published by Europa Editions, a new (and, on this evidence, excellent) source for European fiction for American readers. It has been translated into English by Ann Goldstein, who gives it a breathless grammatical momentum and keeps it slightly off-balance. The translation is occasionally idiosyncratic in ways that only heighten its meaning. Of Mario, the book says in both English and a universal language: “He was as if blinded by the blonde.”