Book Reviews

Elena Ferrante #ReviewWomen2015 | CHALK the SUN

Discovering authors whose works I've either never heard of, or for some reason passed by, is one of reading's great joys. Something—a friend's recommendation, an author interview read or heard, a change of heart—compels me to read one of the unknown or forgotten, and I find myself in the lovely spot of suddenly having an author's backlist to catch up on. Because the book, the writing, the everything is THAT GOOD. It's like finding $50 in your pocket, just as the clouds clear on a dreary day and the sun beams through.

I'm already in for two new-to-me authors this year, and 2015 isn't even three months old. The first was Lily King, whose Euphoria I waxed euphoric about last month; I read another of King's right away, and was enthralled once again: Father of the Rain. The second is Italy's enigmatic Elena Ferrante.

I don't have time to determine why these writers' previous works escaped my notice; I have too much reading to do.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.

And so begins Olga's descent into the heart of her own darkness. The Days of Abandonment packs a wallop of tension and cringe-inducing desperation into 188 pages of elegantly-rendered narrative. This isn't the story of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, this is THE nervous breakdown, in all its raw ugliness. We may tut-tut as we read Olga's hair-raising mayhem, but really, isn't this what we fear, in the wee hours, in our most vulnerable moments? As Shakespeare's Polonius declares in Hamlet, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."

The method is familiar: husband leaves wife for younger woman (in this instance, the very young daughter of a former family friend). Wife, who hasn't worked outside the home for many years, is left with the children, the house, the bills, and her own aging body. Disbelief, depression, anger, the divvying up of friends, the hope and fear of running into the ex and his paramour ensue. But Olga's madness? There is nothing expected in the way Elena Ferrante portrays Olga's domestic drama.

Olga's recounting of her freefall is detached and unsentimental. She tells it some years distant, but I also wonder if there is not some translation styling at work here. Although Ann Goldstein has translated all Ferrante's Europa Editions-published works, so I have to assume her tone is true to the author's own.

Contrary to that sense of emotional detachment, The Days of Abandonment is an intensely physical story. Olga is both obsessed with and horrified by her body, which at thirty-eight is showing the inevitable signs of age. She ruminates frequently about sex, reducing it to a purely animal act, torturing herself with images of her husband Mario, and his young lover, and then seducing her neighbor in a pathetic cry to recapture her crushed sexual self. Ferrante uses pain-an errant piece of glass in pasta sauce that pierces the roof of Mario's mouth; the threat of a mother to cut off her daughter's hands with sewing shears; a child's forehead smashing into the windshield to the sound of screeching car brakes--to frame Olga's sanity. It's almost as though pain is a stand-in for emotion: as long as Olga can envision pain and feel it, she'll be alright. She had reinforced locks put in the front door and at her lowest point, she struggles to open the locks, finally resorting to using her teeth. At one point, Olga asks her daughter Ilaria to poke her with a paper cutter if her concentration wanders

 

I immediately pulled my mouth away from the key, it seemed to me that my face was hanging to one side like the coiled skin of an orange after the knife has begin to peel it. ...For a while I let myself sink into desperation, which would mold me thoroughly, make me metal, door panel, mechanism, like an artist who works directly on his body. Then I noticed on my left thigh, above the knee, a painful gash. A cry escaped me, I realized Ilaria had left a deep wound.

 

Most disturbing is the toll Olga's depression takes on her children and Otto, the family dog. The upsetting scenes of abuse and neglect may well kill any empathy you develop for Olga as an abandoned woman. But without them, Ferrante's narrative would simply be a mildly prurient glimpse into the life of the newly forsaken.

Olga wrestles with her post-abandonment identity, and her struggle is an alarm bell the author sounds relentlessly as she mocks the absurd circumstance of marriage that calls upon women to set aside their professions and their physical freedom, to attend to home, family, husband.

 

I had carried in my womb his children; I had given him children. Even if I tried to tell myself that I had given him nothing, ... Still I couldn't avoid thinking what aspects of his nature inevitably lay hidden in them. Mario would explode suddenly from inside their bones, now, over the days, over the years, in ways that were more and more visible. How much of him would I be forced to love forever, without even realizing it, simply by virtue of the fact that I loved them? What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is. Even if the relationship shatters and ends, it continues to act in secret pathways, it doesn't die, it doesn't want to die.

 

What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is... Indeed. Foamy. An interesting choice of word. So sensual, evocative, invoking the fluids of sex, but also foaming at the mouth—a sign of madness, a rabidity of rage.

The Days of Abandonment is frank, gutting, oddly funny, and awfully sad. But it is not without hope, and throughout you are reminded that Olga survives her madness. Even swirling in its whirlpool, she has one hand above water, reaching, grasping.

Elena Ferrante's brilliance is withholding her judgment of her characters. She writes their truth and allows readers to create their own morality. Her writing, though not warm, is full of heat. The carapace of narrative rage cracks to reveal tender new skin beneath.

My Annual Jane: Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

Sense and SensibilitySense and Sensibility by Jane Austen My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“We have neither of us anything to tell; you because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing.”  Marianne Dashwood to her sister, Elinor.

And thus is Marianne’s yang to Elinor’s yin. Two halves of a whole, two women bound in love and in blood, as different and dependent as the sun and moon. Passion and logic. Emotion and propriety. ESFP and INTJ.

Jane Austen first crafted this story as an epistolary novel and titled it “Elinor and Marianne.” Although the structure would change as she revised the novel over fifteen years until it was published in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility, the relationship between these two young women remained its core.

But this novel isn’t about a conflict between sisters with opposing characters, one directed by Sense, the other driven by Sensibility. It’s about recognizing the sense and sensibility we each possess and how to release one and harness the other when love beckons and threatens in equal measure. It is about a quest for harmony and the embrace of one’s true self, about the ability to admit fallibility while still seeking personal growth. Sense and Sensibility is the Tao of Austen.

The moments of self-actualization are many and profound. Elinor’s is the least notable because she enters and remains the most centered and stable person; Colonel Brandon’s came many years before the novel takes place—we learn of it as he relates the sorrowful story of his lost love and the child he takes on as a ward; but John Willoughby, Edward Ferrars, Marianne Dashwood—each has a period of reckoning that challenges the weakest aspects of their characters and each arrives at a resolution.

Elinor may well be my favorite of Austen’s women (I hedge, because as soon as I reread Pride and Prejudice, I’ll claim it to be Lizzy). She is certainly the most dignified and humane. She is also the most relatable. Her compassion is justified and deeply-felt, which makes her uncharitable thoughts all the more delicious. In this comedy of manners, Elinor is above reproach, but beneath her unflappable surface is a wry sense of humor, prone to irony and exasperation.

Lucy was naturally clever; her remarks were often just and amusing; and as a companion for half an hour Elinor frequently found her agreeable; but her powers had received no aid from education: she was ignorant and illiterate; and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed from Miss Dashwood, in spite of her constant endeavour to appear to advantage.

And although Edward Ferrars does not make my heart thump in the slightest, not compared to the enigmatic Mr. Darcy, the dashing Mr. Knightley, or the heroic Christopher Brandon, I have the most tender of spots reserved for the most hopeless of introverts:

"My judgment," he returned, "is all on your side of the question; but I am afraid my practice is much more on your sister's. I never wish to offend, but I am so foolishly shy, that I often seem negligent, when I am only kept back by my natural awkwardness. I have frequently thought that I must have been intended by nature to be fond of low company, I am so little at my ease among strangers of gentility!"

Sense and Sensibility has Austen's most rousing cast of secondary characters, with the wicked witch Mrs. John Dashwood (portrayed with perfect insufferableness by Harriet Walter in the 1995 film adaptation. The one I must watch at least once a year), effusive, lovable busybody Mrs. Jennings, sly and silly Lucy Steele, and the preposterously mis-matched Mr. and Mrs. Palmer. But it is Elinor for whom I turn each page, in admiration and tenderness. It is Elinor who I most aspire to be, to create, who I wish I could have known, who I mourn because she is the closest connection to the author herself. Elinor had the Happily Ever After that Jane was denied.

“Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience- or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope.”

The Tao of Elinor. The Tao of Jane Austen.

And now. I’m done parsing. For that is Sense. I read Jane Austen to indulge my Sensibility. I sink into her novels and want them never to end. I cherish her language, I adore her characters, I marvel at the simplicity and perfection of her plots, I cry because love triumphs in the end. There is just no making Sense of why I adore Jane Austen. There is only Sensibility: Capacity for refined emotion; delicate sensitiveness of taste; also, readiness to feel compassion for suffering, and to be moved by the pathetic in literature or art. (Oxford English Dictionary; 18th and early 19th c. Usage); the ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity (Modern Usage).

Until next time, Jane.

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