Elena Ferrante had become a much-loved, internationally famous author before my sheltered academic-Victorianist ears had ever caught a mention of her name. The first mention, in fact, was at our Women in Translation month Twitter chat last August. I also discovered Han Kang at that Twitter chat and, now having read three books between the two authors, I can say with certainty that academia is missing out on a lot of the best of contemporary literature, no matter how much fuss is constantly made of shaking up the canon.
Not too long after that Twitter chat, the reclusive Elena Ferrante received a lot of press attention, clearly not of the sort she wants. The New York Review of Books published an exposé on Ferrante’s presumed identity. Since she began publishing in the 1990s, Ferrante has remained anonymous. In an email interview she described some of her reasons for concealing her identity: ‘The wish to remove oneself from all forms of social pressure or obligation. Not to feel tied down to what could become one’s public image. To concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies’.
In The Days of Abandonment, Ferrante does indeed create a representation of a woman’s breakdown that eschews all concern for social pressures and obligations. There are scenes that are very difficult reading from anyone’s perspective. There’s the extended scene where Olga and the children are locked in the apartment, apparently because Olga has become so weak and helpless she can no longer make the key turn, as the poisoned German shepherd lays in another room vomiting and shitting the last of his life away. I found other scenes and passages extremely hard to take as a feminist, like the scene where Olga forces herself to have sex with Carrano even through every second of it disgusts her.
When Olga’s husband leaves her and for a time completely abandons her to care for the children, dog and house on her own – at a time when she is emotionally devastated – the result of the strain is disturbing. Olga verges on a complete loss of control, teetering just on the edge for a period of a few weeks. During these few weeks, she goes to very, very dark places. And Ferrante takes us into those dark places with her, making us see from Olga’s perspective how bleak life seems as a result of the rejection and just how difficult it is to go on. I have to admit that the jury was out on this book for me throughout the most difficult parts. I honestly didn’t know how she would turn it around and pull me back into a position of sympathising with this character again.
But she manages it. Very effectively. When Olga starts to realize what a petty, small minded person her husband actually is, she starts to pull herself together. As she gains more evidence, often in the offhand comments others are making, she gains confidence and power. By the end of the novel, Mario’s affair-turned-relationship with a much younger woman clearly isn’t making him happy. By this time Olga no longer loves him and would never consider taking him back. She survives the emotional ordeal to be reborn into a much more confident, happier woman. The transformation had to be powerful to be believable. Ferrante achieved this power by making it very visceral and by bringing the reader right through every difficult detail with Olga.
Regardless of how uneasy much of the reading experience was for me, I found The Days of Abandonment to be such a page-turner. I had to know what was going to happen to this woman, whether I liked her or not. I’m really glad I allowed myself to be drawn all the way through the story to discover the feminist twist at the end. I haven’t read any other books by Ferrante (yet) but if this is her usual style, I can see exactly why a pseudonym is desirable. You have to be able to write with total abandon to be able to achieve what Ferrante does in The Days of Abandonment.
The Italian reporter who claimed to have discovered Ferrante’s identity did not definitively out her. The article is speculative and the evidence may well be coincidence. But it’s not the first and won’t be the last piece of press to debate Ferrante’s identity. The Italian press has previously speculated that she is actually a man, an argument that has much in common with the debate about the gender of the author(s) of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. I have trouble imagining academia taking up Ferrante as a new member of the canon since she’s not British, American or easily postcolonial, but she belongs there – as a feminist and as a woman writer whose identity (for some) overshadows her talent as a writer.