Elena Ferrante’s beautifully-written novel, The Days of Abandonment, fell into my hands by mistake. I originally bought the book because I mixed up Elena Ferrante with Elsa Morante, author of History: A Novel. Their styles, however, are very different, and I was just musing about how much more diverting this witty but serious novel is than Morante’s tragic, harrowing World War II novel when I suddenly noticed Ferrante was not Morante at all!
This new women’s classic, translated by Lisa Goldstein, was first published in 2002 in Italy. It is Kafkaesque, but crossed with the realism of Marilyn French and Doris Lessing. It treats the feminist theme of a woman’s collapse after her marriage breaks up and her slow realization that she must live alone. Yet it is much more than a traditional story of divorce: the hours, days, and weeks are described with agony, spite, and humor in the strangely energetic voice of an enervated narrator. The Days of Abandonment is the story of Olga, a housewife deserted by her husband without explanation. Mario, an engineer, her husband of 15 years, had shown no signs of discontent. They had been living happily ever after, as far as she was concerned, with two children and a dog. Olga is mystified by his departure, and treats his desertion as a mystery.
“I spent the night thinking, desolate in the big double bed. No matter how much I examined and reexamined the recent phases of our relationship, I could find no real signs of crisis. I knew him well, I was aware that he was a man of quiet feelings, the house and our family rituals were indispensable to him. We talked about everything, we still liked to hug and kiss each other, sometimes he was so funny he could make me laugh until I cried.”
It is impossible for Olga, or any woman whose husband suddenly moves out, to believe it is forever. Olga is sure he will come back. He hasn’t taken his things. She fearfully remembers Gina, a past friend who had flirted with him, and how Gina had coerced him into tutoring Carla, her daughter, so she could spend more time with him. But that is long ago, and she is convinced his leaving is an aberration. Yet she sinks into depression and slowly loses herself. She can’t wash. She can’t put on makeup. She can’t hold it together for her two children, who become unruly and disrespectful. She stays up all night and writes letters to her husband she will never send instead of working on her book. And she can only clean the house when she knows Mario is coming over.
When she finally discovers with whom Mario is living, she loses it. She becomes violent: she beats Mario, furious that he had gone for the nubile over the mature, and that this option was even available to him at 40. The violence is unacceptable, and yet he is such a shit that any woman over 38 (Olga’s age) and probably most men, too, cannot help but applaud. Ferrante boldly makes it slightly funny, but it is very unsettling because this realistic behavior is taboo, especially in women. (Yes, we know it’s wrong!) Olga rages over Mario’s perfidy after her depression. The nature of his affair also breaks a taboo–and I’m more shocked by that than by the violence–but I’d better not reveal too much.
TThe Days of Abandonment is published by Europa Editions. In Italy it was a best-seller, and, according to the book jacket, Ferrante has shunned publicity and kept her identity secret.