Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.
(Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights,” second stanza)
Dear friends and readers,
A few weeks ago a good friend, Kathy, who writes a thoughtful varied blog on the books she reads and her experiences, wrote a blog on Ann Goldstein’s English translation of Elena Ferrante’s <Days of Abandonment. She had bought it by mistake and meant to buy Elsa Morante’s Storia (History), but when she began this one was pulled in and praised it highly. Her description persuaded me this would be the sort of subjective woman’s novel delving profound emotions and thoughts originally and absorbingly. The sort of thing that (to go for an English example) Margaret Drabble did in The Waterfall; Carol Shields wrote much softened variants (Mary Swann, Unless) in the US, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights is the stuff raw, uncompromising, exhilarating.
The type is seems most congenial to Italian writers, Natalie Ginzburg (Le voci della sera, Voices of the Night), Anna Banti’s Artemisia Gentileschi.
One I read recently which shared in this genre is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Falling, only she complicated it by making the center a male sexual predator;or Margaret Atwood with her pronounced feminism. Surfacing? . Chantal Thomas combines the mood with the essay, Souffrir (Coping with Freedom). Men can write in this genre too: Tennessee Williams’s The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, recently Colm Toibin, The South.
It’s important to know what genre this kind of book belongs to, and what it seeks to perform. They mean to break taboos, to move (as George Eliot put it in a meditation in Middlemarch) onto the other side of silence to explore abysses women walk by or in and how they can emerge.
Movie come in this genre too, sometimes mistakenly referred to as Brontesque, or Bronte-like. In fact the Brontes do not break taboos, but show why they exist. The source may be a book, another movie, it does not have to be a book of this type, so Before the Rains, and its significant (if you want to understand the popularity of the Austen movies), that Jennifer Ehle, a quintessential Elizabeth Bennet, plays the wife who leaves her husband here:
Here we watch the “other woman” (Nandita Das) destroyed.
Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment as translated by Ann Goldstein came and I was too busy or tired for quite a while to pick it up, but when I did, I found myself compelled to go on to the end. I write about it here to recommend it to others.
Kathy’s blog will tell you the central gist of the novel; also Jean Hanff Korelitz’s review in the Canadian Times praising the book.
This is a subgenre which revels in expressing what people might think inexpressible and what cannot be communicated to someone who has not experienced the same, or with great difficulty: a review of Anne Carson’s Nox included the line “The bereaved cannot communicate with the unbereaved.” Yes. It’s not a ritual of remembering but of the experience here and now. At one point someone comes to fix the locks in her house — because she’s frightened now living alone. Well she can’t cope with the mechanism, and locks them in and then locks them out. It’s not funny from the standpoint of the novel, but rather how to a confused mind all becomes bewilderment.
I want to address Kathy’s comment it’s Kafkaesque. Yes, we are in a paranoid world where the heroine is helpless against her husband leaving her. She seems utterly dependent on him and she describes other women as being the same.
But I’d like to say for me it goes beyond this: implicitly it addresses so many novels, memoirs, movies, I see or read — especially those by men. Here is the other side of silence it seems to say. In so many novels we see women from the outside; this tells of the inward life of one woman when the world she was told she had built by shoring up her husband and her relationship with him crashed. On his say so.
Her case is the husband has abandoned the woman but then the narrative is filled with fierce outcries. One can read it as radically de-contextualized; there’s a sense that it doesn’t matter what are the details; it’s the experience on offer that we live through.
I find it cathartic, and at moments profound in the way this kind of book can be. As Olga reaches an abyss of letting go, breaking taboos of thought, refusing to act out what she has been trained to for years (the person who shops, cooks, cleans, does bills, is controlled endlessly for all), we get these raw great passages, long lyrical. One is about the years of having very young children, which for some women includes breast-feeding (the “acid of vomit”, the smells, regurgitations, swellings of body, and impatient children, and insights about need); another on the man going off to work; this one is at the heart of the book because the heroine’s electrification comes from the breakup of this love relationship around which her world (and many women’s worlds) was constructed:
Everything was so random. As a girl, I had fallen in love with Mario, but I could have fallen in love with anyone: a body to which Fe end up attributing who knows what meanings. A long passage of life together, and you think he’s the only man you can be happy with, you credit him with countless critical virtues, and instead he’s just a reed that emits sounds of falsehood, you don’t know who he really is, he doesn’t know himself. We are occasions. We consummate life and lose it because in some long-ago time someone, in the desire to unload his cock inside us, was nice, chose us among women. We take for some sort of kindness addressed to us alone the banal desire for sex. We love his desire to fuck, we are so dazzled by it we think it’s the desire to fuck only us, us alone. Oh yes, he who is so special and who has recognized us as special. We give it a name, that desire of the cock, we personalize it, we call it my love. To hell with all that, that dazzlement, that unfounded titillation. Once he fucked me, now he fucks someone else, what claim do I have? Time passes, one goes, another arrives …
Among other things what happens is she meets the husband and his new girlfriend (naturally much younger than she) in the street and she tries to beat them up, becomes wildly violent. I’ve seen analogous examples of this in descriptions of how women can come to want to murder a man who has left them (court cases) and do it, and not care if they are punished afterwards. What they want is to stop this thing from happening which so humiliates them.
She considers suicide. Not thoughtfully but cleans her medicine cabinets. (Now and again she cleans the house steadily). Then gets two bottles of sleeping pills, a big bottle of cognac. Sits there. Then throws it all away.
She offers herself up to have sex with the one person left in her building during this hot August, a musician who we can see is a depressive man. A remarkable scene where sex is written about with great frankness — not romantic at all (to connect threads).
The boy and girl (her children) bother her — they are upset. The boy has urinated on the girl’s bed and the girl complains. Interesting to me apparently the girl makes it a habit to threaten her mother physically. This time with pinching. I would not tolerate this for a minute but have been told some women do — as they tolerate their children being cruel to the smaller ones. So often children are idealized; especially in movies. They are presented as innocent and sweet and the adults hug and play with them. Not reality at all.
She cleans the mess and then realizes she has been neglecting the dog, Otto.
The dog is huge, her husband’s, not her choice to have such a large animal in an apartment, but she takes Otto out to teh park to run and to play. Something begins to click as she realizes it has held itself in. Trained. It licks her as they go out, then in the park it pisses, shits, romps, wants to play with her. Is grateful to her.
It’s then something breaks. She writes: I”t seemed to me if I were behind him, holding tight to the leash, I would feel again the warm air on my face, my skin dry, the ground beneath my feet.”
I feel she is taking a turn for the better. It may not hold, but it’s a sign.
Still Days of her Abandonment go on in much the same vein until we come to what I was waiting for: she runs out of money (at least for a time). Remarkable sardonic humor over scenes where first she lies, then when her lies are ignored, goes to the offices, and wonderful (I’m ironic here) finds there is no one to complain to anywhere. She does begin to get money from the husband, but it’s that moment where we see how society is set up to deflect her utterly, a wall.
Gradually she becomes calmer and a friend of a friend gets her a job as a translator of correspondence and reading foreign correspondence for someone. One of the more memorable passages for me is when a friend comes to “reason” with her: yes, it’s terrible how your husband has treated, but you don’t want to deprive the children of him and other things like that. It reminded me of how Lady Russell in the film 1995 BBC Persuasion (Nick Dear) speaks to Anne Elliot of how she’s got to get out — go to Bath; you only think you dislike it. Olga has been violated utterly over the course of 15 years, blamed for not being able to cope when it was she who coped with what is hard to cope with and now she is to accept, submit. She does actually: she begins to send the children over to the father and his lover for weekends, and the children (being children) are often mean: they will say how the new girlfriend is better at this, prettier, and what a great time they had.
As the novel moves on it and she begins to accept what has happened, she does become less passionate, and probably for many more probable. Time speeds up.
At first her husband looks better and younger, but within a year or so he has returned to his sloppier heavier looks. We begin to piece together information to discover he’s a real shit in business dealings too. Her friends invite her over and she has to endure their trying to find a man for her. It ought to be hilarious she says, but it isn’t. She is taken to a nightclub and sees the depressed musician in her building in his public self, looking accomplished, making beautiful music. The novel ends with her beginning a quiet friendship-love affair with him. Its last sentence:
I pretended to believe him and so we loved each other for a long time, in the days and months to come, quietly.
To me it’s probable throughout. For example the creature who suffers most in the novel is the poor dog, Otto. He eats poison by mistake and Olga just doesn’t have the strength or whatever it takes to do for a dog to save him in time. The huband says it’s her fault the dog died. No. It’s his.
One particular passage from many of insight into what we do in relationships that we don’t like to face:
What a mistake it had been to close off the meaning of my existence in the rites that Mario offered with cautious conjugal rapture. What a mistake it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifications, his enthusiasms, for the ever more productive course of his life. 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 .. Where was his skin under my fingers, for example, where was the heat of his mouth. If I were to interrogate myself deeply –and I had always avoided doing it –I would have to admit that my body, , in recent years, had been truly receptive, truly welcoming, only on obscure occasions, pure chance: the pleasure of seeing, and seeing again, a casual acquaintance who had paid attention to me, had praised my intelligence, my talent, had touched my hand with admiration; a tremor of happiness at an unexpected . encounter in the street, with someone I had worked with in the past; the verbal fencing, or silences, with a friend of Mario’s who had let me understand that he would like to be my friend in particular, the enjoyment in certain attentions of ambiguous meaning addressed to me at various times, maybe yes maybe no, more yes than no if only I had been willing, if I had dialed a telephone number with the right excuse at the right moment, it happens it doesn’t happen, the palpitation of events with unpredictable outcomes.
The book could be read as a warning lesson. The outward outline is an older woman’s husband leaves her for a young woman and does it ruthlessly and remains unpunished, and there’s been a mildly praised film adaptation in this vein: I Giorni d’abbandono too.
Elsa Morante’s Storia (History), a long masterpiece, one of the important books of the 20th century, combines an outward objective male historical saga approach (she covers 1910 to 1950 and much is about the wars, politics, vast and objective drama of Italy) with this kind of subjective inward woman’s novel, for she has two narrators, much like Dickens’s Bleak House: there is the impersonal ironic narrator, and there is the woman, Ida, Iduzza, driven this way and that, a schoolteacher, married, the war comes, she loses family, place, money, then fleeing, raped, exploited, starving, driven with her epileptic child and their dog. She does do right by the dog insofar as she can; it does not survive and when it and the boy go, she does too and so the book ends.
I probably would have gotten more out of Days of Abandonment in Italian but I no longer give over time to reading Italian. The blurb about Ferrante suggests it’s autobiographical. We are told the author lives in Naples and this is her second novel (and that has sold well apparently) but she keeps her identity a secret. I imagine she must know more people in publishing and distribution and good translators that this suggests :)