Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Stiliana's Review: Elena Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment

Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment. Europa Editions. 2005.

Ferrante’s second novel continues the daring plunge into the female psyche, which we saw in her first novel Troubling Love (Europa Editions, 2006). The Days of Abandonment explores the humiliation, physical and emotional, that a woman can inflict on herself. The novel is structured as the interior monologue of Olga, the outwardly perfect mother and wife, whose husband all of a sudden leaves her for another woman. But it is not this actual – and unexpected – act of abandonment that the text pursues; it is Olga’s gradual abandonment of her senses, her body, and her womanly and motherly behaviors that the novel narrates in a painfully sharp way.
The novel opens as Olga’s husband, Mario, announces he is leaving her. At first, Olga is able to hold her world together, remain calm and scrutinize her fifteen-year marriage in search of explanations. But the more she revives the past, the more the present escapes her. At first, she manages to maintain her composure, the measured speech and rational behavior of an intelligent woman and a devoted mother. But as she internally struggles with her husband’s betrayal, her body and mind begin to betray her too: her hands tremble, her fingers forget how to unlock the front door, her speech lapses into shrieking, her words morph into obscenities.
Even though the novel narrates several months of Olga’s life, the bulk of the text zeroes in on a single day – the day when her mind and body reach the lowest points of self-humiliation and abandonment. It is the day when her son, Gianni, has high fever and keeps throwing up in his bed; when her daughter, Ilaria, has to constantly stab her with a letter opener so that Olga can focus and attend to the sick boy; when the dog, Otto, dies amidst the malodorous mess of its own incontinence; and when Olga, still in her nightgown, herself pees and poops in the park. It is also the day when she begins to regain her senses.
Ferrante’s language is as acute and lucid as the shard of glass that cuts Mario’s mouth when he tastes his favorite soup Olga has prepared as a way of enticing him back. Ferrante’s vivid, visceral imagery stabs us with its unashamed clarity: we picture Olga’s still beautiful body defecating in the park, we see her slap herself until her nose bleeds and the blood stains her nightgown, we follow her as she removes her make up or obsessively washes her hair. We follow her as she examines her past – her sexual relations with Mario, her talent and ambition to write sacrificed to her husband’s career, her efforts to be the perfect mother and wife. Most of all, we watch Olga observing and analyzing herself – from the pimples on her chin to the memory of the abandoned Neapolitan woman who haunted Olga’s childhood.
But despite our intimate vision of Olga’s body and mind, she never appears vulgar or vile. She emerges from the days of abandonment a stronger woman, a woman who can fend for herself and her children, a woman who can love again. As a storyteller, Ferrante deftly incites our curiosity, the (almost voyeuristic) desire to see how far Olga will go into her breathtaking descent before she can recover and spring back up. And in her sleight of hand, Ferrante sets up a little mystery along the way – who is Mario’s mysterious lover?