(translated by Ann Goldstein)
I haven’t read any of the novels that make up the Neopolitan quartet that made this famously pseudonymous writer a literary superstar: my sister has them, tells me they’re good but she hasn’t finished them yet. This novel is well-written and furious. From the first line, “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table…” the book rockets through its 180 pages in a tight, self-flaggellating fury, at times you can almost hear the screaming.
Olga, the ‘abandoned’ wife and Mario, the husband, have two children and a big soppy dog called Otto. They live a comfortable early middle-age, middle-class life in Turin, where they have settled after several peripatetic years following Mario’s work around Europe, something which does, fortunately for Olga, leave her ‘more or less fluent‘ in four languages.
Olga was born and raised in Naples from where she dredges the memory of la poverella, local slang for “that poor woman”: a neighbour Olga remembers from when she was 8 years old. This woman’s husband left her, there was screaming and shouting but he left, and it broke this woman, who had formerly been a well-known and well-liked figure. She notes that her took ‘even her name‘, she was only ever referred as la poverella thereafter, when she was discussed or mentioned by neighbours. Olga becomes obsessed that this is to be her future.
The novel charts the weeks following Mario’s announcement: Olga is initially in denial and believes the infidelity to be a passing thing, consequently she tries to be ‘nice and calm’ when he calls, she tries to mollify him; then there is the admission from Mario that he is moving in with the much younger – and more beautiful, according to Olga – Carla, with whom he had been sleeping for around 5 years – which given that she is described as only being in her early 20s raises more anger in Olga; her spiralling into a full-blown breakdown in which she ceases to care for herself, the kids, the house or Otto; the boy and the dog fall seriously ill – there is a lot of bodily fluid, and cleaning up, before more fluid returns in her exaggerated ‘stink of motherhood’ – while her daughter castigates her repeatedly for being inattentive and a bad mother, and simultaneously, not nearly as beautiful or as much fun as Carla; to its nadir, when, after much fantasising about what the husband ‘does to‘ Carla which he never ‘did to’ her, she goes round to an older neighbour’s apartment, armed with a bottle of wine, the sole aim of the visit seems to be to debase herself sexually with this bachelor, with whom she has had almost no contact previously and with whom there has never been any flirtation – the evening ends predictably badly.
The fear of the loss of self, not just the fear of losing her name, is as much a theme of the book as the loss of ‘her man‘, and is cleverly illustrated when two-thirds of the way through, she does just that in a paragraph, mixing the first person and the third, naming herself, over again as if to reassert herself, before finally chastising herself, through the pain of a clip she has fixed to her arm, to reorientate herself as the “I” who has narrated the story thus far.
I got up, I hurried out of the room, closing the door behind me. I would have liked to have giant strides that would not allow me to stop for anything. Olga marches down the hall, through the living room. She is decisive now, she will remedy things…Yet I slowed down immediately, I couldn’t tolerate excitement, if the world around me accelerated, I decelerated. Olga has a terror of the frenzy of doing…she can’t tolerate the inner roar that will assault her, the pounding temples, the nausea, the cold sweat, the craze to be faster and faster, faster and faster. So no hurry, take your time, walk slowly, shuffle, even. Reset the bite of the clip on my arm to get me to abandon the third person, the Olga who wanted to run and return to the I, I who go to the metal door, I know who I am, control what I do.
Ferrante is clearly an author of no small talent: you see the characters and the settings clearly, the story bolts along – there is almost no slack in this short, unsettling novel. All the while, there is the underlying question of the identity of the woman as an individual; how does she avoid getting swallowed up as “mother” or “wife” or “la poverella“.
There will come a time when I sit down with My Brilliant Friend, probably on a sun lounger somewhere with a glass of red wine close at hand, and I look forward to that.