A very good friend of mine—an Italian woman—has lately been going through a very rough patch in her marriage. These last few years have been filled with much drama and melodrama, with betrayals and reconciliations, with threats and recriminations, and with lots and lots of pain.
I know much of this because she is also a very good and honest writer, and, at times, I have been a sounding board/early reader for her essays as she finalizes them prior to sending them out. With these, I am a bad critic because I cannot separate the raw, emotional writing from the woman I know and care about. The quality of the writing seems secondary to the pain being displayed. So I can’t focus on the writing as I should.
This was also the case when I first began Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Immediately, it too draws you in with the story of an intelligent woman–a writer–blindsided and abandoned by a careless husband. It too draws you in with the raw pain, the self-doubt, the self-incrimination of one who has been abandoned.
And Ferrante’s writing is such that we forget easily that this is all a fiction–we believe we are reading the true story of a real woman who is in pain and confusion and despair.
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave,” reads the very first sentence.
And thus Olga, the narrator, is demolished. Her sense of self-worth is destroyed, her understanding of her past is shakened, her hope for the future vaporized. And through Ferrante’s words we feel that abandonment greatly.
Like one grieving at a death, the narrator experiences all the varying emotions of loss: she is in turn defeated and determined, angry and frustrated, confused and clear-minded. Besides the trauma of her husband’s leaving, she must also deal with the business of raising two children and running a household.
At times, Olga can also be quite funny in her frustration and anger. Once when she goes to the telephone offices to complain that her service has been cut off, she is told that all complaints must be phoned in. Where do I go, she asks “if I want to spit in somebody’s face”? And her attacking her ex the first day she sees him in the street with his mistress is very funny–and satisfying.
There is a sex scene–one that ends prematurely and unsatisfyingly for Olga– in which Olga attempts to grasp some sense of self-worth, and while sad and pathetic, it also highlights Ferrante’s skill as a writer for it is well-written and unique and believable–never an easy thing to do when describing sex.
There are sick children and dying dogs and grumpy natives and the usual manipulations that accompany a formal separation between couples. And through it all we see Olga hit bottom, recover and then survive.
At one point, Olga says, “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.”
And this is what Ferrante herself has done with her novel–she has stripped away the “superfluous,” she has asked the essential questions, and she has written from the very depths.
One reviewer wrote that The Days of Abandonment could have been written only by someone who has experienced the pain and despair of sudden separation, and implied that this is Ferrante’s own story. I don’t know if that is true or not.
I do know that such an assumption is a critical fallacy, and it demeans the artistry that Ferrante possesses. The Days of Abandonment is a novel; it is a piece of fiction. Whether Ferrante has drawn on her own experiences or not does not matter. She has created a work of art that stands on its own.
Olga’s story is ours to read, to think about and to empathize with. And in the process, she becomes someone we care about and worry about and celebrate with.
It is like having a good friend tell you her story.
The Days of Abandoment by Elena Ferrante
translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa editions, 2005