Remembering my Italy, Elena Ferrante and female violence

I am ashamed that I never read Ferrante’s work until the recent media brouhaha over the self-appointed sleuth who went after her “real” identity and “found” it. Especially ashamed because I was a student of the Italian language, spent 5 months in Bologna and was well-acquainted with her stature on both Italian and the international stages.

I rarely did my homework, though.

Most of the time I spent in Italy, I was crying to my boyfriend on the phone, fighting with a certifiably crazy Brazilian roommate or — the worst — swallowing pasta that tasted under-sauced and under-boiled to my Korean palate.

I probably avoided Ferrante and other major Italian writers because of the emotional muck surrounding the self-pity I’ve felt regarding my time in Italy. I hated the thought of disappointing other people who assumed that I’d spent the entire semester in bella italia being serenaded in a gondola by men with honeyed words on their tongues and pomade on their hair, lost in dreamy contemplations of Petrarch and gorging on prosciutto e vino (well, that last part was true.) I couldn’t tell them how much time I’d spent in bed, hiding, how terribly afraid I’d felt of everything, how unreasonably alone, unable to adapt, failing to thrive, and blaming myself for it harshly at the same time.

That doesn’t exactly make good chitchat, and I had a peppy and blustery exterior to maintain. So I kept lying when people asked; “Oh yes, Italy was just amazing!” Lying compounds shame, but only 100% of the time.

But really, that was a long time ago.

Long after leaving Italy, after enough new traumas had replaced the sepia-tinted spectres of my semester abroad, I found myself fondly re-creating the tuna and cream pasta that my other, non-crazy Pugliese roommate taught me to make; making confident pronouncements about the legitimacy of potato slices and rosemary leaves on pizza; missing the simple and hard-to-explain pleasure of a pappa al pomodoro, a soup consisting of tomatoes and stale bread.

I thought food may have been the only thing that can bypass my strange, selective Italy aversion. And by far, I cannot find a single other victim of such an affliction, past or present, which makes me feel even more like an maladjusted freak.

But, alas, nothing like a feminist, philosophical and literary quandary to stimulate my bullshit ego-drama to take a back seat. Who dares violate the privacy of an author who took great pains to guard it? Especially for a woman!

I picked up The Days of Abandonment because, um, it was the first book that I found on Google that was available as a PDF. There, I admitted it. (I support the writers and artists I love by paying for their work! After ascertaining that I do, indeed, love them, through the means easily available to me! What I did was akin to reading a Kindle sample! Sue me for the sins of the internet age!)

All I knew about the book was that it was a story of a woman who was abandoned by her husband — with whom she had two children — for a much younger woman, barely in her 20’s. Good times.

Themes of heartbreak and abandonment hit me still a bit in the tender spots (two giant breakups in one year!) but I trusted a skilled writer enough to have me reach beyond the shallowness of my own pain-narrative.

I had judged well. Tragically, I was halfway into the volume when I realized that that is all that the PDF contained. Deceptive file! Half of the book! I hurried to purchase the Kindle version.

My hunger to consume the book was due to passages like the following. Here is a scene in which our protagonist, Olga, is on the street, trying to quiet her dog, Otto, who is barking aggressively at some neighbors:

By not lying down quietly as I had ordered, and continuing to bark, complicating the situation, he had — I was convinced — committed an intolerable act of disobedience […] When he didn’t stop I raised the branch that I had in my hand menacingly, but even then he wouldn’t be silent. This enraged me, and I hit him hard. I heard the whistling in the air and saw his look of astonishment when the blow struck his ear. Stupid dog, stupid dog, whom Mario had given as a puppy to Gianni and Ilaria, who had grown up in our house, had become an affectionate creature — but really he was a gift from my husband to himself […] spoiled dog, dog that always got his own way. Now I was shouting at him, beast, bad dog, and I heard myself clearly, I was lashing and lashing and lashing, as he huddled, yelping, his body hugging he ground, ears low, sad and motionless under that incomprehensible hail of blows.

Wow, okay.

Let’s count the things Ferrante accomplishes here. For context, Olga is a thoroughly average suburban housewife. We know this from previous passages. The tension builds when the dog does not stop barking, but don’t tell me that you’re not thoroughly jolted when the frustration actually explodes in physical violence.

We are not spared the sudden agony of the blow, knowing precisely where it landed; I felt the stinging in my own ear. Maybe even a ringing.

Ferrante introduces the symbolism forcefully. Olga sees the dog, and sees the husband that betrayed her. The dog quickly becomes an emblem of his selfishness, and her assault of the dog is her retribution to Mario. He, who left his whole life, wife and children behind, and took his grandmother’s earrings for his new lover. He, who offered some lukewarm half-apology with a puzzling half-smile. The beating builds into a frenzy — “lashing and lashing and lashing” and how much does this nakedly incriminate our narrator? Who can possibly be less sympathetic than an abuser of dogs?

How many first-person narrators — women, no less — do this? Displaying an utter lack of moral approval-seeking from the reader? A wife? A mother?

(Aha, and what is Mario, the cheater, the coward, but a dog? The symbolism goes both ways. The dog stands in for Mario, and Mario is no better than a dog.)

Then, without skipping a beat, from frenetic cruelty we move to a kind of horrible denouement. Our minds move with Olga’s eyes, in real time, down to the terrified, defeated, pathetic dog. In another instant, we see Olga through Otto’s eyes; the “hail of blows” could not have been comprehensible since no, dogs cannot understand cause and effect.

Senseless harm, gratuitous cruelty — it is what Olga suffered at the hands of her husband with his sudden, swift and cavalier abandonment of their nearly 20 year union. The same cruelty is what she had inflicted on the dog.

For the second time, the narrator incriminates herself. She has been horrific, yes; what is more horrific than someone who abuses a dog is someone who possesses the faculty to be able to see and feel from a dog’s perspective, and did it anyway.

So, Olga. There she is for you.

I marvel at Ferrante’s psychological daring. She crafted an utterly compelling narrator (a woman!) who easily transforms into a villain, and not the sexy, mysterious kind, either. The inexcusable kind that beats small animals. Then, she dares us to continue sympathizing with Olga.

And we do — or at least I do, because Ferrante skillfully introduces us to every single layer of despair and malice inside our own selves without denying us the grace of humanity.

Sopratutto per le donne.

… more on The Days of Abandonment next time.


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