Elena Ferrante’s narrator, Olga, whose husband has left her, is too wrapped up in her own misery to remember, really, that other people exist. But there is one figure from her Neapolitan childhood she can’t forget: a neighbour, a bustling matriarch of the old school with large skirts and a clutch of nurtured offspring. She was jovial, gossipy; she distributed sweets and kindnesses. She also had a silent husband, who followed obediently in her train until – one day – he rebelled, and ran off with another woman. And then the weeping began, and the breast-beating, and the wailing. She would be seen shuffling painfully down the street, a handkerchief wound round nervous, wringing fingers, her eyes hollow and skin white. The whole neighbourhood prayed for her. Little Olga would hide under the table where her mother and company were sewing and talking, talking and sewing: the poverella, they would sigh; this is what happens to an abandoned woman, a woman a man has chosen not to love. The warning was drummed into her along with the woman’s moans: be careful, the morality tale ran, or you’ll end up like the poverella, dried out and shrunken. The poverella, for her part, tried to poison herself, and failed; but not long afterwards her corpse was found washed up near Capo Miseno. There is no living without the husband.
This story, with its operatic chorus of old wives and Mediterranean courtyards and magical realist sense of community, appears to be very different from the body of Ferrante’s novel, which is unrelentingly gritty. Olga is now 38 and lives with her two children in grey Turin. Her husband has left her for a girl half her age. Her furies are unrestrained, and uncensored: she spits obscenities onto the page. When she accidentally comes across her husband and his adolescent lover in the street, she attacks them physically. She rips her husband’s shirt from his body, throws him against a plate-glass window; he collapses, bleeding, to the ground; she kicks him repeatedly in the ribs. The attack – for all its self-abasement – is also a riot of pleasure.
‘When I had had enough I turned to Carla,’ she says, as if she had achieved fulfilment; and then a fantasy unfolds. ‘I wanted to drag along her beautiful face with the eyes the nose the scalp the blonde hair, I wanted to drag them with me as if with a hook I’d snagged her garment of flesh, the sacks of her breasts, the belly that wrapped the bowels …’ And it descends from there – I have censored what follows. A person, in this imagination, is a Websterian mask, a mass of viscera and bodily functions. Teeth and nails aren’t sufficient to penetrate it; she needs a male extension and chooses a fish-hook. She also needs words; and her words – their violence, their ‘candour’ – are what caused the noise that followed the book’s Italian publication, in 2002. Ferrante was said to have revealed, uncompromisingly, what lies beneath a woman’s suffering. A woman is alive without a man: by speaking out, she won’t be taken as a poverella.
Ferrante has kept her identity a secret, and has given only one interview, to the magazine Unità; she suggested there that by remaining pseudonymous she is more easily able to avoid self-censorship, since with no public persona to maintain she can say what she likes. Naturally, the mystery around her led some people to insist that she must be a man. Her English translator, Ann Goldstein, who sends queries via her Italian publisher and has never been permitted to talk to or email the author, appeared in the Italian papers to say that ‘it would take a man of extraordinary sensitivity to penetrate so deeply into the mind of a woman,’ and that the narrative voice is unquestionably feminine. I don’t doubt that Ferrante is a woman, but ‘femminilità’ is a misleading or at least a reflexively oversimplifying defence.
Here is a passage from Ferrante’s first novel, L’amore molesto (which was published in 1992 and has recently been translated by Goldstein as Troubling Love).The narrator is visiting a clothes shop that had been frequented by her mother, Amalia, and is shocked by the female customers:
They behaved with that man the way my father imagined women behaved, the way he imagined his wife behaved as soon as he turned his back, the way Amalia, too, perhaps, had for her whole life dreamed of behaving: a woman of the world who bends over without having to place two fingers at the centre of her neckline, crosses her legs without worrying about her skirt, laughs coarsely, covers herself with costly objects, her whole body brimming with indiscriminate sexual offerings, ready to joust face to face with men in the arena of the obscene.
To the narrator, the customers in the shop are grotesques. The proffered cleavages, the spread legs: this pre-emptive embrace of male pornography is, she thinks, an alarming way of asserting female power. Their behaviour is determined by the men they think they are free from. In The Days of Abandonment, Ferrante has cut the shocked reaction and eradicated all ambivalence – there are no multiple perspectives, no daughters imagining fathers imagining wives – and we are left with Olga’s pornographic imaginings alone. And Olga, despite her protested independence, is shaped and moulded by the husband.
But perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. She is more like the poverella than she cares to admit. A wife being abandoned by a husband is a tantalising subject for fictional exploitation. In the drama of separation there are acts and reprises, momentous scenes and sorry lapses. Olga experiences them all, from disbelief to understanding, from self-abasement to murderous fury. When Mario threatens to return to explain himself and make amends, before it is revealed who he has left her for, she decides to dress up and make his favourite dinner – perhaps her calm, wifely competence will coax him back. But she can’t quite keep a handle on things. She breaks a wine bottle, and mops up the mess before he arrives; but halfway through the meal – at a delicate moment, with the children in bed – he takes a large, reassuring mouthful of meatballs and pasta; only to find blood spurting from his mouth, his palate pierced with glass. This might be the closing scene from an episode of The Sopranos. It’s a perfect tableau vivant, the apparently penitent husband’s emotions rapidly changing as he fears he’s been murdered, the wife’s mortification turning to rage as she realises what he’s just admitted.
The poverella also exerts a more subtle, witchy influence on Olga’s narrative. Olga walks her dog with a stick in hand, and remembers the stick she was swishing through the air when her mother first told her that the poverella had died; when the dog misbehaves she finds herself lashing him with her switch as he yelps. Waiting in her suffocating apartment for news of Mario, she ventures onto the balcony, which ‘extended over the void like a diving-board over a pool’, as though tempting her to jump. She leaves the building to follow a lead as to the whereabouts of her now absconded husband and his mistress, and finds herself – at night – in a part of town she doesn’t know. She enters ‘a vast courtyard … the walls studded with balconies, not one without a sheet – they would surely have concealed, behind one of those cloths put up to bar the indiscreet eyes of the neighbours, their happiness at being together’. This is the night-time inverse of the courtyards she was brought up in. Those sheets, hung from railings, would in a different context look like a festival. It is only her state of mind that causes her to interpret them as barriers.
Barriers play a large part in her account. She spends almost all her time at home, within four walls. But walls and doors don’t always function as they should. While the children are at school one day, she finds streams of ants entering from every corner of the flat. She tries to find the entry points and plug them up, but her grandmother’s recipes – talcum powder and lemon peel – won’t stop the flow. She locks the children into a bedroom but they won’t stay where they’re put. The front-door latch seems insecure, so she has the locks replaced. Two men come to the apartment and joshingly show her how the new mechanisms work – insert this key horizontally, this one vertically, wiggle, wiggle. ‘Locks become habituated,’ one says insinuatingly. ‘They have to recognise the hand of their master.’ She worries not only that she has led them on by having lost the ability to judge a situation – to preserve a frosty appearance in front of strangers, to gauge their level, to relate at all – but also that material things won’t obey her command.
In her distraction, it isn’t a surprise that when an accident happens and she has to get help she finds that the locks won’t budge. The family is trapped and the door is shut; she enlists her daughter to hammer on the floor in the hope of rousing the neighbour; she leans over the balcony to smash the glass of the window below with an iron rod attached to a rope. This is her lowest point, but it isn’t an ending. Metallic objects, cut glass, resistant locks, tools: these unmalleable things occasionally puncture the surface of her narrative – as when her daughter cuts her with a paper-knife to wake her from a seeming trance – but it takes a great deal of outside pressure to break through the barriers of her solipsism. The only really solid presence in her account is the accounting itself. ‘I spent the night and the following days in reflection. I felt occupied on two fronts: I had to keep hold of the reality of the facts while sidelining the flow of mental images and thoughts; and meanwhile try to give myself strength by imagining I was like the salamander, which can pass through fire without feeling pain.’ Thoughts of the salamander have been prompted by a lizard that entered the apartment in an earlier invasion. This is a novel in which the notion of the external – an observed object, an autonomous human being – has no functional meaning. Everything Olga encounters becomes part of her pattern of thinking, and is accommodated as though it had always existed. This, rather than any graphic ‘candour’, is what makes Ferrante’s writing extraordinary. Objects that have infiltrated their way into the narrator’s brain later resurface in different forms. Olga describes Turin as ‘metallic’. She would never know why, and neither does a reader – or not until an accumulation of knives and hooks and keys and gates has made the connection plain.
‘Quando si scrive non bisogna mai mentire,’ Ferrante said in her interview with Unità: when one writes one never needs to lie. But even if they pretend that fiction can be true to life, most people accept that certain real-life circumstances depend on a certain kind of falsehood. A more normal story of abandonment would include phases of self-deception (‘I’m all right really’) and soothing mantras (‘other people have it worse’). It would also include the possibility of seeing yourself through other people’s eyes and from other points of view. A model in this regard is Anne Carson’s verse sequence The Beauty of the Husband (2001), which is subtitled ‘A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos’. Those ‘tangos’ might seem flippant, but they have a serious meaning: following their separation, the husband and the wife perform a kind of dance – advance, retreat, step, counterstep – that is observed, as if dispassionately, by the abandoned woman. But by not weeping and wailing – and by occasionally lying – Carson’s speaker is not being false to her feeling. The feeling is in the gaps, in what she can’t bear to say, and her reticence is the only means of defence she knows. Silence turns out to be revealing of more real-life complexity than an unrestrained outpouring can ever be. By not speaking as herself, by removing the need for reticence, Ferrante fills in the gaps. The result, I’d say, is less ‘real’, but reality isn’t the only test.