‘We’re identical’

Christopher Tayler

  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
    Europa, 419 pp, £11.99, September 2014, ISBN 978 1 60945 233 9

A woman’s husband leaves her, she’s determined not to lose it, she loses it, she gets herself back together: that’s the plot of Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment (2002). Olga, the narrator, a mother and stalled writer who’s 38 at the time of these events, knows that words like ‘angry’ are often used to diminish and dismiss legitimate grievances, and understands the staginess of ‘those moments that you read about in books, when a character reacts in an unexpectedly extreme way to the normal discontents of living’. You are a modern woman, a strong woman, she tells herself, not a knick-knack to be broken by a straying man. So it’s all the more disturbing, and believable, when her psychic defences begin to come apart, releasing torrents of compulsive, bilious rhetoric and leaving her exposed to the world with no roles or habits that might protect her from its impact.

The Days of Abandonment, like the books Ferrante published on either side of it, Troubling Love (1992) and The Lost Daughter (2006), was admired for its analysis of the perils of being a daughter, wife and mother, and for the wit and rawness of the narrator’s voice. (In Italy the three novels have been gathered in one volume as Cronache del mal d’amore, ‘Tales of Lovesickness’ or ‘Tales of Heartbreak’.) Part of the novels’ power over readers, and much of their cult appeal, has to do with the narrators’ brisk observations. Motherhood, one of them reflects while cleaning up some puke, can make her feel ‘like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping … leaving on me the odour and taste of their gastric juices’. Men ‘always have something pathetic about them, at every age’. Olga – who worries ‘that obscenity could raise sparks of madness if it came from a mouth as controlled as mine’ – finds much to say about love and sex after her faithless husband’s exit:

As a girl, I had fallen in love with Mario, but I could have fallen in love with anyone … We are occasions. We consummate life and lose it because in some long-ago time someone, in the desire to unload his cock inside us, was nice, chose us among women. We take for some sort of kindness addressed to us alone the banal desire for sex. We love his desire to fuck, we are so dazzled by it we think it’s the desire to fuck only us, us alone. Oh yes, he who is so special and has recognised us as special. We give it a name, that desire of the cock, we personalise it, we call it my love. To hell with all that, that dazzlement, that unfounded titillation. Once he fucked me, now he fucks someone else … Time passes, one goes, another arrives.

Asked recently to name a book that made her laugh, Ferrante went with Portnoy’s Complaint, and like Philip Roth’s her novels are concerned, in a way that’s clever and distanced but also consciously intense, with giving voice to parts of the self that not everyone puts on display. There are other similarities: a provincial city – Naples, Newark – that functions as the centre of the universe; an emphasis on the struggle between anarchic self-expression and the imperatives of a traditionalist literary training; even, in her recent novels, a depiction of generational and national experience with a special focus on sexual politics and the new left. I don’t want to push the analogy much further, but calling her ‘the best angry woman writer ever’ – the camp-trash director John Waters’s jokey blurb – carries much the same order of insight as Jacqueline Susann saying, post-Portnoy, that she’d like to meet Roth but wouldn’t want to shake his hand.

Elena Greco, the heroine of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, shares quite a few biographical details with Olga. These details make her look like a stand-in for Elena Ferrante, but that’s an acknowledged pseudonym, which is where people get nervous. The worry – or, it seems, in some quarters, the hope – is that Ferrante is a front for a shadowy collective, a husband-and-wife team or, worse, a balding bloke whose guerrilla strike against identity-political orthodoxies got awe-inspiringly out of hand. Whoever’s pulling her strings scatters teasing allusions with one hand – Elena, ‘almost in secret’, researches an essay on ‘the invention of woman by men … Defoe-Flanders, Flaubert-Bovary, Tolstoy-Karenina, La Dernière Mode, Rose Sélavy and beyond’ – while, with the other, tapping out communiqués from a wholly credible author-figure. Ferrante’s written statements and interviews, many of them available in English in Fragments (2013), indicate that she grew up in postwar Naples, has a classics degree, studies, teaches, translates, is a divorced or separated mother, has spent time away from Italy, and writes under a pseudonym to protect her family’s privacy and ward off her inner censor. Personal publicity, she writes, would defeat the aim of her novels, which were assembled ‘precisely to give a less circumscribed meaning to individual experience’; the self on the page is fair game but ‘the rest is curiosity, academic publications, wars and skirmishes for visibility in the marketplace of culture.’

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