The Days of Abandonment is the first novel translated into English by the Italian writer, Elena Ferrante. Published in Italy in 2002, it was later published in America in 2005. First of all, if you don’t know anything of Elena Ferrante, you need to read her interview with The Paris Review. A supremely private writer, Ms. Ferrante does not do interviews in person, she does not go on publicity tours, she does not even accept awards in person – she believes that a work of fiction, once writ, does not need an author. The work should speak for itself. And boy, does it ever.
The Days of Abandonment opens calmly, brilliantly with the following line:
One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table…
And thus begins the story of Olga, a writer, wife and mother, and her days of abandonment. Olga is a 38-year old mother of 2 and has been married to Mario for the past 15 years. She knows him well, so when he announces his intent to leave her and the children, pardon her if she doesn’t quite believe him. Olga knows that Mario needs his family, that the everyday routines and comforts of the life he knows will outweigh whatever whim has taken hold of him. They have encountered these sorts of marital/life doubts before and have always worked through them rationally and with voices lowered. This is Olga’s greatest defense mechanism – calm. She grew up in Naples, a childhood and place that she remembers as full of chaos and uncertainty; full of people prone to violent swings of emotion. Olga has always combated this upbringing with a studied and fierce calm in whatever situation she finds herself. She does not rush, she is not rash, she waits for every unpleasant emotion to “implode” inside of her until she is able to present herself as logically and rationally as possible.
As a couple of days pass, Olga begins to see things in Mario’s explanations for why he’s left, she starts to see that he is trying to make her be the one who says enough is enough, she doesn’t want him anymore. Because if she says this, he is free to move on to another life, another woman perhaps. Olga plans to have Mario over for dinner; she takes extra care over her appearance and makes Mario’s favorite pasta dish. During dinner prep though, things start to take a turn. Olga is nervous, she cuts herself on the can opener, knocks over the sugar bowl, smashes the bottle of wine to pieces on the floor. This slight slip in Olga’s carefully ordered world, an instance of a typical, everyday annoyance/things just not going right, is rendered so stark and tense in Ferrante’s prose. At dinner, Olga asks Mario if he has left her for another woman – he, naturally, doesn’t want to answer. She asks again, voice raised, very un-Olga like; yes, he answers, there is another woman and can’t she keep her voice down. To which Olga replies, angrily, “I will not lower my voice…everybody should know what you’ve done to me.” It is so vicious, this thing that he has done to her. After they resume eating, Mario cries out and pulls from his mouth a bloody piece of glass. He yells at Olga because is this why she asked him here? To put glass in his food. It is an accident, of course, the wine bottle broken earlier in the day. A shard of glass unknowingly fallen into the pot. But in this moment, we know that Olga will not be okay.
Olga’s collapse happens quickly – she forgets to pay the bills and the telephone is cut off, she forgets to take care of the dog, she can’t be bothered to make dinner for the children. Olga is obsessed with understanding her and Mario’s relationship and where she had gone wrong. She writes incessantly, questioning their whole life together, her own identity. Olga’s mental state is revealed further in the breakdown of her language – she is no longer calm. She speaks and thinks with a ferocity and vulgarity that is startling in both its rage and newness. She can think only of Mario and his new woman having sex – what is he doing with this new woman that he couldn’t or wouldn’t have done with her. She attributes obscene sexual thoughts to neighbors and random men she happens across – in a particularly harrowing scene she solicits a neighbor for sex and, lets just say it…isn’t romantic. One day Olga leaves the house, with no regard for the children incidentally, and sees Mario and his lover on the street. She attacks him – knocks him down, kicks him, rips his shirt and bloodies his face. It is a physical manifestation of all of her bottled rage and you kind of can’t help but be shocked and a little excited for her. The overt sexual passages and just raw anger are jarring but they come from a profound desperation that is even more heart-wrenching.
As the days pass we understand that mentally, Olga does not have it together. She cannot focus or prioritize her thoughts in any real way, and everything comes to a head one day when she is stuck inside the apartment with her children and the dog. After Mario left, she replaced the lock with a complicated reinforced door/lock mechanism. On this particular day, Olga cannot work the lock, her mind and hand simply cannot perform the action to get her out of the house. Her son has a terrible fever and stomach flu, while the dog is severely sick from what we can surmise is poison. Olga has no urgency; it isn’t that she doesn’t care that her child is sick and the dog is dying, it is more like she is incapable of understanding the severity of the situation and so is unable to have an appropriate reaction. She knows that she needs to clean her son’s sheets after he has been sick and that she should take his temperature and administer medicine, and she does begin to carry out these tasks. But she is distracted – she sits to write instead, to try the lock again, to argue with her daughter who wants to play dress up. It is like Olga is dreaming, or moving through water, and all you want to do is shake her. Olga realizes that she isn’t thinking, that she isn’t there, so she gives her daughter a task – anytime that Olga isn’t listening or is distracted, her daughter is to prick her with the letter opener. As a reader, it is a terrifying request because we know she is trusting her sanity to her 7-year old daughter. Finally, after what feels like hours, the neighbor comes to the door and asks Olga if she needs help. She does, desperately and she can finally see that reality. She asks the neighbor if he can open the door, which he does.
Was the door really locked? Or was Olga trapped in her own breakdown?
Yall, it has taken me 3 days to write this post because this book is so fantastic. It is hard to convey how raw and true Ferrante’s writing is – even in the most extreme circumstances, the most vulgar passages, you still believe in Olga’s reaction to her abandonment. Olga’s decline is a stark and tense journey that turns traditional ideals of femininity and motherhood on its head. I will absolutely be adding this to my rotation of re-reads.