“Absence of Sense”: Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment

ferrantedaysRemember when I said I couldn’t think of a book that I actively hated, that I truly regretted having read? Guess what: I found one! I did finish reading it, partly because I wanted to be sure it didn’t pull some kind of switch on me at the end and surprise me into liking it better, but mostly because it’s pretty short so reading it all the way through didn’t require a great investment of time. It took some will power, though, because I really wanted to get away from it as fast as I could.

Why did I pick out The Days of Abandonment in the first place? I had heard of it because I have been reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, starting with My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, and though my initial reaction was not rapturous, I couldn’t deny the interest and power of her story of two girls grimly battling their way through childhood and adolescence. (I was interested enough to grab the third volume, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, away from Steve on my recent trip to Boston, and I’ll still read it.)

Why did I dislike The Days of Abandonment so much? Basically, take all the things I didn’t like about Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, then remove all the things I did like about Messud’s novel and add a lot more bile (metaphorical bile, but also literal, as in the kind your dog would vomit up if he ate strychnine). The novel is about Olga, a writer with two children who collapses into rage and depression after her husband leaves her for Carla, a younger woman. He attributes his departure to “an absence of sense.” At the end of the novel, Olga tells him he was wrong to excuse himself that way:

Now I know what an absence of sense is and what happens if you manage to get back to the surface from it. You, you don’t know. At most you glanced down, you got frightened, and you plugged up the hole with Carla’s body.

“An absence of sense” does perfectly describe her life during those abandoned days: she spirals emotionally out of control, she can’t manage housekeeping or childcare, she loses the ability to do ordinary things like lock and unlock her doors. She tries with unsuccessful guile to track her husband down, and then when, quite accidentally, she happens across him and Carla on the street she viciously attacks them. She tries to have an affair with her neighbor. She starts swearing a lot, screams at and threatens her children, and basically behaves like a nasty, incompetent, raving idiot. That’s all, of course, in some ways perfectly appropriate and understandable in the circumstances.  It seemed disproportionate to me, her complete disintegration less about grief than a woeful abdication of her self-respect and autonomy — but who am I to judge? So her dog dies and she puts her children through hell: everybody hurts, right? And I have to give Ferrante credit for presenting Olga’s bad behavior without a hint of softening or compromise. I can’t think of a novel I’ve read recently that has a main character so entirely devoid of redeeming qualities. She doesn’t do or say one nice or admirable thing for the entire 200 pages.

But why? Why put us — not to mention Olga — through that? In my post about The Story of a New Name, I wondered if “the critical enthusiasm for [Ferrante’s] novels is connected to the current anxiety about niceness in female characters: is anger the new obligation of the “serious” woman writer, or the new touchstone for critics of women’s writing?” I agree that the obligation of any novelist is not to be nice but to be interesting, but I found Nora’s anger in The Woman Upstairs tedious and Olga’s “absence of mind” repulsive. I guess I can’t rule out repulsion as an aesthetic effect, but I can opt against it, at least as the sole effect a novel has to offer. Just because for so long it was considered unladylike to show anger — just because anger needed to be admitted to the repertoire of women’s writing — doesn’t mean that in itself anger equals art. I thought Messud was “trying to make a broader political and feminist case for anger out of one woman’s very personal neuroses and bad judgment.” Now I think, well at least she was trying. I didn’t really see her point (I honestly didn’t think Nora had much to be angry about), but Ferrante doesn’t seem to have one: she’s just creating a spectacle, immersing us vicariously in Olga’s psychological and emotional catastrophe. It’s like confining her novel, rather than her protagonist, to the Red Room. Here, indeed, is “a mind filled with hunger, rebellion and rage.” But Bronte’s heroines are angry at something — and something systemic, too — and their novels are both protests against injustice and assertions of their right to transcend their oppression. The Days of Abandonment, in contrast, stakes everything on its skillful and ruthless portrayal of Olga’s unreason.

Olga does emerge, haltingly, from the depths. But here too what Ferrante offers is disappointing. Olga falls apart because her husband leaves her; her return to real life and self-control is measured through her response to another man. Again, you could say the same thing about Jane Eyre — but both she and Rochester work hard to earn their happy ending. I’m not against relationships in or out of novels; nowhere is it written that a love story must be a capitulation to patriarchy. But for me, Olga spends way too much time measuring her success according to how attractive or sexually active she is. Fine, this is the character Ferrante has created, and (again!) who am I to judge? I haven’t always handled my own personal traumas in ways that would stand up to scrutiny. I was sure happy, though, to reach the end  and be done with her– not to mention relieved that, bad as the experience was for me, the only actual casualty in the novel was the dog.

Note that I have given my reasons for not liking this novel. Sometimes (can I mention Madame Bovary and Edward St. Aubyn just once more?) when I dislike a novel I can nonetheless appreciate it, even admire it. I didn’t find anything admirable about The Days of Abandonment except, perhaps, its consistency. Oh, and I got that the locked apartment doors were probably symbolic! But I can see how someone would make a better, or at least different, case for it. Indeed, the cover of my handsome edition is adorned (as covers always are these days) with samples of effusive praise. I hated it, but maybe it’s not a bad novel. Maybe it’s a great novel! I don’t know. Feel free to defend it — but you’re more likely to convince me about it if you can avoid the following words: “searing,” “honest,” “raw,” “brave,” “exposed,” “unflinching,” or “naked.”

1 Comment to “Absence of Sense”: Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment

  1. Nan Wiener's Gravatar Nan Wiener
    October 19, 2015 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Love this review! When someone told me they thought the book was a wonderful depiction of sexual jealousy, I wondered why it didn’t succeed for me on that level. That’s certainly a worthy subject for a novel. But this felt just as demeaning to women as too much “niceness.” Instead, it’s “wow, gals sure are crazy!” Fatal Attraction is what comes to mind here. But you nailed it: disproportionate, woeful abnegation of self-respect and autonomy, devoid of redeeming qualities. Thank you!

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