Book Review: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

abandon

Book cover for the Europa edition of The Days of Abandonment

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.

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Book cover for the audio-book edition of The Days of Abandonment

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

 

Book Review: Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano

Honeymoon

Book Cover for Honeymoon by Patrick Mondiano

It is perhaps a sad testimony to how parochial my reading has become.  There was once a time where I knew almost every Nobel Prize for Literature winner–would have yearly bets with colleagues and follow the London odds makers’ short lists.  And while my knowledge was primarily eurocentric/american, I was an early reader of the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz before he won and I understood that his time was eminent and important. (My sister, after a trip to Egypt, had turned me on to him. I don’t know how, but she brought me back two uncorrected proofs of his novels.)

But again, I am increasingly ignorant of the world’s literature.

Which is why discovering Patrick Modiano is such a wonderful treat. The French Modiano is the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature winner. And until a New Yorker review of his most recent novel, I had not heard of him nor his winning. Lately, I must have my head very deeply buried in the sand.

patrick-modiano-illustration

Patrick Modiano illustration by Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Media

Honeymoon (published in 1990 in France/1995 in the U.S.) is the novel I decided to start out on. The language is direct, bare and sparse–reminding me much of the first half of Camus’ The Stranger. But the story is intricate and convoluted, told in such an honest style that makes the intricacies and coincidences of life seem matter-of-fact.

There are two stories that braid themselves around two middle and connected ones. On the first page the narrator discovers that a woman in the hotel in Milan where he is staying has committed suicide.  He then learns that he had known her once decades when she and her husband had picked him up hitchhiking and had taken him in and cared for him for several days.

This coincidence sets the man on a quest–of sorts. After his wife and his business partner (her lover) drop him off at the airport where he is to fly to Rio de Janeiro for business, he disappears. He takes a plane back to Milan and then returns to Paris, where he goes to ground and hides in the outer arrondissements.

His purpose is to make sense of the woman’s suicide, of her life.

We find that he has been obsessed with this couple for a long time, ever since his youth, long before the knowledge of her death. He has taken numerous notes, cut out clippings, and prepared to write a memoir of the couple, and so he tells us of their hardships and trials during the Nazi occupation of France.

While we at the same time are following his exploits in the Parisian neighborhoods, aware of his wife’s comings and goings, and preparing for a new life in his rougher world.

All the plot threads, in a way, revolve around a single newspaper clipping from the 1940s searching for the woman who suddenly went missing when she was sixteen years old. (From what I have learned, the actual clipping is what sent Modiano himself to fashion his story.) She had simply stepped out of the Metro and  moved from one world–a constricting and dangerous world in Nazi occupied Paris–to another. Her abrupt relocation parallels the narrator’s who moves from his bourgeoise life as a documentary filmmaker married to a high-fashion model to an uncertain world in the boondocks of Paris, seeking for understanding of the couple who once showed him much kindness.

I said that I had started out on Patrick Modiano by selecting Honeymoon It is only a starting point. I look forward to picking up another.

 

Quote 45: “The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition … .”

Sabina's Bowler illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

Sabina’s Bowler
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina’s life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. … each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Mother’s advice: “if you have nothing nice to say…”

motherson

I went to the movies on Monday afternoon to see a film that I had been wanting to see for the past month or so. But I left the theater greatly disappointed. And as I walked up 3rd street, I thought to myself, I am not even going to write about this one.

And I think I am right.

I am not a critic–of film, books or music–I simply enjoy these things. And I enjoy writing about them and sharing my enthusiasms about them. But, I don’t feel comfortable bad-mouthing the ones I don’t like. On Wednesday I posted a piece about a book I didn’t like and I feel more than a little discomforted about it.

In this vast “blogosphere” where everyone so easily can send out his or her opinions, I want to rein myself in. Of course, BAD ART exists–there are books that are dreadful, movies that are deadening, music that irks me, but they will find their own levels of acceptance, they will find their own audiences (or not) without my weighing in.

And besides, I don’t have the time to waste on negativity.

After all, all creativity is risk…risk of missing the mark, of being misunderstood, of being ripped apart. But one has to put it out there and let it find its own life. (As Woody Allen says, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”)

coffeeshopSo, I’m sitting in a shop having a coffee after the movie and am asked what I thought. “I didn’t like it,” I say, and I give my reasons, listen to counter-positions, discuss the pluses and minuses. This is good, this is what Art should engender–conversation, dialogue, thought, and, yes, even judgment.

But is there really a need for me to blast it on the internet? I’m not so sure, but I don’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong; I will point out inconsistencies in the things that I like, choices and perspectives I disagree with, differences and surprises that throw me, things I see as flaws or would have wished the artist had done differently.

But with things that I don’t like…?  Well, as my mother would say, “if I have NOTHING nice to say, I’m not going to say it.”

Book Review: Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1966 Susan Sontag

illustration by jpbohannon 2013

Susan Sontag (1933-2004)
illustration by jpbohannon 2013 (based on painting by Juan Bastos)

There is a danger in reading memoirs, diaries, journals. Certainly, there are times when our angels are shown to have feet of clay. Or other instances, when we weigh the turmoils and angst of a particular life with the end product that impelled you to read the memoir in the first place.

But with Sontag it is quite, quite different.

Next to even her young self, I feel so inadequate, so shallow, so wasteful of time.

Here is a young woman–14 years of age when the journals begin–embarking on a intellectual career that would put most of us to shame. Her reading lists, her “to-do” lists, her debates with herself, her analysis of events, readings, concerts and people she meets, her experiences, all are more fervent, more intelligent, more thoughtful in the years between her 14th birthday and her 30th, than mine have been for most of my life.

Susan Sontag bookcover

I teach a group of extremely bright 18-year old boys. They have great intelligence, and some are quite creative. But every so often they need to be reminded that their superior intelligence is frequently measured within the very small pond of our school.  Here’s what I read them from Sontag’s journal:

…Yet we do exist, + affirm that. We affirm the life of lust. Yet there is more. One flees not from one’s real nature which is animal, id, to a self-torturing externally imposed conscience, super-ego, as Freud would have it–but the reverse, as Kierkegaard says. Our ethical sensitivity is what is natural to man + we flee from it to the beast…

I ask them to describe the person who would write this in his or her personal journal.  And they are always far off…in both gender and age.  Sontag wrote this (a snippet of a much larger journal entry) two weeks after she had turned 17!  Already her depth of reading and understanding and active thoughtfulness is evident.

Immediately in this first volume of the journals, one meets a brilliant, thoughtful intelligence. She attended Berkeley at the age of 16, transfered to University of Chicago, married Phillip Reiff–a sociology professor–at 17, taught at the University of Connecticut when she was 19, and attended graduate school at Harvard, where she got her degree in philosophy and theology. And throughout these years, she recorded her thoughts and criticisms and interpretations, as well as her fears, her doubts and her insecurities.  As her marriage began to falter, she received a fellowship to Oxford and then moved to Paris. When she moved back to New York in 1959 (26 years old), her marriage was dissolved and she had gained custody of her son. Established in New York, she began teaching at various colleges, completed her first novel, The Benefactor, and witnessed her reputation as part of New York’s  intelligentsia begin to grow.

These are the years covered in the volume. Aside from the inquisitiveness, interpretation, and analysis of what she reads, sees and watches (she was a rabid film-goer), there is the struggle of understanding who she was. The marriage was unsatisfying, the lovers often hurtful, and in reading the journals we see a young woman trying to discover herself and come to terms with her own individuality, her own bi-sexuality, her own identity. There are times when one feels she is too hard on herself…when one wants to warn her, NO, this is going to end bad, but then again, one can’t.

Beginning when she was 14 and ending when she was 30, the journals are remarkable for their honesty and the peek into her rigorous mind.  But at the end, one is moved by the ever-going struggle between her sexuality and her intelligence, by the vulnerabilities and insecurities she reveals in her two major love affairs with Harriet Sohmers Zwerling  and Irene Fornés.  For her extraordinary mind struggled continually to understand the extraordinary pull of the flesh.

Her last two entries for 1963 read:

The intellectual ecstasy I have had access to since early
childhood. But ecstasy is ecstasy.

Intellectual “wanting” like sexual wanting.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

Reborn is the first of a proposed three volumes of journals. The next volume–As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh– covers the years 1963 to 1964, when Sontag develops her reputation, her political activism, and her writing. It is now on my “to-read” list.