I recently watched a film by Andrew Haigh on DVD, 45 Years. It came with the usual plaudits, but was in an ugly word: boring. 45 Years never felt so long. Elena Ferrante The Days of Abandonment is, I guess, all the things 45 Years was trying to be, without sticking its tongue out in the form of a short novel and saying: Fuck You. The plot is very similar, a woman coming to terms with loss of the things she thought she knew and held true. In Ferrante’s opening Olga has been married for fifteen years to Mario and they have two children, boy and girl, the sickly Gianni and the more spiteful Ilaria and an Alsatian dog, Otto. The opening perfectly captures the wistful tone that quickly turns to fury and madness and then understanding.
One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, our children and admitted he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me.
A short-hand explanation here is to superimpose the however many stages of grief. Olga is in denial. She believes she can make thing better by being better, more herself than she’s ever been. Mario will then recognise what a terrible mistake he has made and everything will go back to the way it was before. But haunting Olga is the childish memory of the poverella, a woman from Naples, a kind woman that smelt good and gave children in the streets treats to eat and was married to a man from Abruzzi, who admittedly wasn’t up to much, but was her world and they had two children. When the man from Abruzzi left her for another woman, the poveralla lost everything, including the name she would be remembered by and drowned herself. The poverella turns up, a presence, in Olga’s apartment in Turin to warn her modern heir that her son has an infection and urgently needs a doctor and unless she gets the dog to a vet it will die as it has been poisoned. Olga knows that to be true, but she cannot open the front door. The key doesn’t seem to work and she is in such a daze Illaria is given the job of hitting her with a tool used in a botched attempt to open the door, whenever she zonks out. A task her daughter takes to with great zest, drawing blood from her shin.
Prior to this Olga herself had drawn blood, battered Mario in the street and tried to rip the earrings he’d once given her and were now worn by Carla, a student her husband had tutored when she was fifteen, and who he was now fucking and had probably being doing so since then. ‘For five years he had been secretly enjoying that body.’
But there is a kind of biblical lament of Olga’s memories (and all women’s) that give the book such a punch.
‘I thought only of him.’
‘Mario expanded. We contracted…’
‘I had gone with him when he didn’t have the courage to appear…’
‘I had taken away my own time and added it to his to make him more powerful…’
‘I had put aside my own aspirations to go along with his.’
‘At every crisis of despair I had set aside my own crises to comfort him.’
‘I had disappeared into his minutes and into his hours.’
Like the poverella, Olga has been erased. But unlike the poverella Olga refused to be erased. She questions instead what she had become. Not what Mario had made her become, what she had chosen to become, ‘a reed that emits the sound of falsehood’. Again there is that biblical tone, the most powerful knowledge is that of the self. ‘He was blinded by the blonde, but I have given myself the task of analysing point by point, our fifteen years together’.
As the poveralla said so long ago: ‘I am clean. I am true. I play my cards on the table.’
Elena Ferrante plays her cards on the table, some turn up aces, some twos and some trumps, but all are true. This is a powerful book which shows (not tells) what it means to be fucked over by a weak man, as so many woman are, and yet rise up again and claim her dignity. Olga come not to despise Mario, but understand him and herself better.