The Days of Abandonment

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT

                                                                                                                                                                    by Elena Ferrante

 

A Review

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 There sometimes erupts in our midst a voice so powerful that it cannot be ignored. That speaks in words rooted in reason, yet appeals unabashedly and undeniably to emotion. That questions and answers, pleases yet puzzles, appeases then assaults, scorns and shocks. That carries us aboard a roller coaster of discovery and sensation, motoring relentlessly and ruthlessly through the tortuous bends not only in the story that it is narrating but in our own lives as well, revealing us to ourselves.  And that continues to echo in our minds long after it has spoken its last.

Elena Ferrante is one such powerful voice of contemporary fiction. A voice that I had been hypnotised by in her Neapolitan series, leading me on to The Days of Abandonment. A comparatively slim offering but just as compellingly hypnotic.

The storyline is threadbare. One April afternoon, Olga, a woman of 38, finds herself suddenly and inexplicably dumped by her husband Mario. A man whom she had loved sincerely, for whom she had put her own career on hold, with whom she had two young children, and who had grown to become the fulcrum of her existence, exits. At first in denial, she persuades herself that this is at most a temporary aberration, or an “absence of sense” as he had occasionally shown in the past, and that he would inevitably return. His wilful duplicity is however revealed when she discovers that a pretty young woman has been in his life for some years. Age supplanted by youth in man’s quest for (carnal) gratification.

Grappling with her changed reality, she is frequently accosted by the memory of the poverella from the neighbourhood where she grew up, the abandoned wife who slides from happy well-being to impoverished desolation and ultimately commits suicide.

The days and months that follow are a painful but failing struggle to retain a semblance of normalcy, to go through all the routine steps of living each day, both for herself and for her children. And then one horridly hot day in August, the day after a bizarre sexual escapade with her cellist neighbour, she finds herself physically and mentally trapped in her apartment. Suffering from a deep derangement, disturbing hallucinations, a spiralling down into a dark abyss of rage, anguish and despair, she battles through and thankfully resurfaces to retrieve her sanity. This newfound mental equilibrium, though precarious, is supported by a clear realisation that she no longer loves her husband, and by a desire to return to the essence of her earlier self by effacing all of his impressions on her personality.

Ferrante places the woman’s psyche under a gigantic microscope, ferreting out with forensic precision its multiple layers, facets and complexities. There were several instances in the first half of the book when I felt like screaming at Olga in frustration. Woman! Get a grip! And a life of your own! But therein lies Ferrante’s genius, ruthlessly exposing the man centric whorls of the protagonist’s life, her pitiable lack of self-esteem, her defining her very raison d’être through her husband, and her abject confusion on desertion, and then delving so deep into her agony that one suspects it to be her own. One needs to have both loved and lost to depict in such elaborately textured and resonant detail all the nuances of that suffering.

The writing is brilliant. Simple language, raw at times in matching Olga’s naked pain and anger, hard-hitting in the portrayal of man-woman relationships, examining the mother and child dynamics without placing motherhood on its customary virtuous pedestal, and rutally explicit in describing sexual episodes. Little actually happens in terms of events or narrative, Mario and his girlfriend hovering mostly on the periphery of her real space though completely swamping her mind and heart. Yet there is a pace in the writing that keeps in step with Olga’s accentuating mental turmoil, shifting gears from an even rhythm in the opening chapters, upping the momentum when she gives in to a maniacal rage on seeing Mario and Carla together, and then hurtling through during the crescendo of her near breakdown.

Yes, there were times when I felt it all to be a relentless onslaught of details, when I (prudishly) squirmed at the sexual imagery, when I wondered, good so far but where exactly is this headed? But this isn’t the usual narrative. Nor is it a new one, this track has been trodden many a time before. No, this is a mirror that shows a woman what she truly is, how and why she thinks and feels the way she does, how and why she submerges her own persona to accommodate another’s, how and why she is confounded when the anchor that she has moored herself with is suddenly wrenched away and she is cast miserably adrift, and what then. The mirror is neither flattering nor sympathetic.

There were so many concepts thrown up, so many expressions and phrases that made me go, Wow!
Cutting oneself to pieces to look for something within, which could, in fact, be a calling card for Ferrante’s writing.
The preference for stability in affections and the threat of sinking through the security net of relationships.
Or, disparagingly describing grief as gaudy.
Or again, reality without rouge.
What is the face, she asks, but a disguise of our living nature?
Or again, her crazed fear that the “odour of motherhood” had ruined her appeal.
Or then the passage where she comments “What a complex foamy mixture a couple is,” assimilating each other’s attributes.
Her brooding that her children would become a “half-caste din”.
The casual remark that she loved the dog Otto but only after his death.
So so many….

Hold that mirror and look if you have the appetite for reality. Reality without rouge.

Random Thoughts on Random Days

There are days and there are days. Just like that. On some days I feel as if life sucks, and that everything I do turns awry. My best laid plans go kaput and I am either frustrated or angry or disheartened. I might wake up with an uncomfortable foreboding that things are likely to go terribly wrong, and I go to bed with the notion of zilch, of having achieved absolutely nothing or, worse, having ruined some. Yet, mixed with that is a strange relief that I’ve managed to survive. Phew.

 

It is odd how on such days I don’t even notice the things that are quietly going on as they should, the little parts of my routine that carry on undisturbed, allowing me to focus my energies on the ones that are not. They figure nowhere on my radar.

 

And then there are those days when I awaken with all the positive energy possible. When everything I do succeeds, and when I attempt something really difficult, pushing my luck just a tad further, that succeeds as well. I don’t see the things that are amiss, the little spokes in my wheel that I toss out with scant ado. I smile and power through them all, going to bed with that feeling of being uniquely blessed and a happy conviction that all’s wonderfully right with my world.

 

Of course, there are plenty of normal days, the mixed bags of the moderately good and bad. The ones that I live on my own, with no extra help or interference from any real or imaginary supernatural forces, as if I have escaped their attention and hence their benevolent or malign influence altogether.

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(Image Source : Pinterest. The Art of Black and White Photography: Techniques for Creating Superb Images in a Digital Workflow Hardcover by Torsten Andreas Hoffmann, 2008)

There are those I know who put it all down to my mood, an innately temperamental disposition. As if it were an entity on and of its own and that I choose to succumb to it instead of harnessing it to my will. That I allow myself to be pulled up to dizzying heights or plummeted to dismal lows like a capricious self-indulgent yoyo, instead of rolling along that even keel that typifies the consistent and serene. That all days, they argue, are essentially alike and that it’s just over-imaginative me that’s reading more into the calendar than there really is, deflecting the source of my own internal flux on to powers that may or may not even exist. Hyper, is their favourite word of accusation.

 

Spontaneous and passionate is how I would prefer to describe myself. But, really, who is buying? And who am I kidding? Yet, to encapsulate all my hurtling through my highs and lows in that one rogue ambiguous word, mood? Bah!

 

In fact, my specially bad and good days have been happening ever since I’ve been a child. I remember getting punished for reaching school just a little late, getting stumped by a particularly foul Chemistry test, not finding my voice in my music classes, quarrelling over absolute trivia with my sisters at home, getting hauled up by my parents for something that I hadn’t really done, and so on, a cumulative series of miseries. And then there were superlative Maths tests, followed by rare periods of lucid Chemistry, creating magic in music, finding that book that I had always wanted to read, spending extra time with friends, reaching home atrociously late yet going happily unnoticed and unscathed.

 

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(Image Source : Wikipedia) 

I also remember my mother poring over her Panchaang, the Hindu almanac, sifting through the auspicious and inauspicious days and hours. Amavasya, she would shake her head, and we would avoid travelling or wait one more day before trying out or buying something new, as the moon had played truant and we had to await its return to our skies. And, of course, there were those days when our planets, moon and stars were all supposedly well aligned, when we could confidently undertake new ventures and forge new beginnings, for they were destined to succeed. I was, and still am, rather sceptical, and I would, and still do, vehemently hold that any day could be a perfectly good one, and that every day carries the potential of turning out to be a perfectly nasty one, regardless of the moon’s and planets’ itineraries. I neither believe nor disbelieve in astrological charts, I simply prefer to disregard them. I suspect that my good and bad days have their own endogenous logical cycles though unfathomable to me, and will occur regardless of what is or is not foretold by my horoscope, palm lines, tarot cards, numerological configurations, etcetera.

 

Of course, there are periods of deep anxiety and wretched vulnerability when we may be sorely tempted to decipher that cycle and read beforehand the end of its troughs, containing the dark gloom within a manageable finite, looking ahead towards the predicted upswing and keeping ourselves afloat till then. But would that not then rob me of whatever autonomy I believe I have? Make me a willing puppet of forces unknown to me? Or alternatively, try to second guess everything and sidestep the given trajectory of my life? Is that even possible? Who really knows? I don’t. And I would rather struggle with my frustrating ignorance and swallow my perhaps pitiable abhorrence of uncertainty than lock my belief in another human’s soothsaying prowess. Steer clear of clairvoyants.

 

So I muddle through my calendar, acknowledging days as superb, horrid or just average, but in retrospect. And while the last category may be what life is mostly made up of in terms of sheer volume, it’s the challenges of the other two that really get me going, make me walk that extra mile, spurring me to explore that mysterious fork down the road. Think. Feel. Create. Live. Giving full vent to my spontaneity and passion. With a clear understanding that the knowledge of the yoyo’s lows can be just as powerful and productive as that of its highs. And bounce between the alternating nadirs of despair and zeniths of bliss with an abandon as uninhibitedly exaggerated as these words may sound. For I know not how to be otherwise.