Abandonment, Motherhood and Creativity in Books by Elena Ferrante and Jenny Offill
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I had gazed at Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels in the bookshop many times and felt more than a little defeated. They had a shelf all to themselves, their attractive covers facing outwards, beckoning. Then this My Brilliant Friend trilogy became a quartet and that was it. There was no way I’d be able to plough through them all and there was no point in beginning something I’d be unable to finish. As a mother of five youngish children, reading time is snatched. Little bursts here and there. Poetry, short stories, slim novels. Yet my curiosity about Ferrante was growing along with her soaring reputation. Writing under a pseudo name with her identity a mystery seemed to be fuelling her literary fire. I wanted to experience this sensation too. In the end I was saved by a Guardian Books podcast. During a discussion on the Ferrante phenomenon one of the presenters mentioned her earlier works, saying that she preferred them, especially one of them. I returned to the bookshop to find a handful of delightfully slim early Ferrante books in a different section. I plucked The Days of Abandonment (translated by Ann Goldstein) from the shelves and made off to the cashier like a dog with a bone.
The experience I had reading it was like no other. From the opening sentence – ‘One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me’, the reader accompanies the writer into a headlong descent of body, mind and spirit. It is wholly immersive. The narrator, Olga, is a thirty-eight year old writer with two young children. Her reactions to her husband’s departure include denial, followed quickly by rage, jealousy and loss of control and they make for very raw reading. I found myself calling out for her not to do certain things, as if I knew her and wanted to protect her. Yet I also found the book, despite the dark material and candid depictions of marital crisis, loneliness and a sense of a loss of identity, surprisingly humorous. I was certainly laughing in some parts at the dry wit of the narrator’s voice.
It is through the tension between the Olga’s ambivalence about motherhood coupled with her drive to work creatively that intrigues me the most in this book. Using the term ‘the stink of motherhood’ she at times seems to hate her children while at other times she clearly needs them to help her stay on course. When her daughter dresses up in her clothes and make-up, Olga is repulsed by the sight of her. ‘I felt a shudder of loathing…She looked to me like an old dwarf’. She reacts violently, dragging her daughter to the bathroom and immersing her head in the bath full of water. ‘I rubbed her face energetically. Reality, reality without rouge. I needed this, for now, if I wanted to save myself, save my children…’ She struggles to find the space for her writing within the work of motherhood, to quieten the demands of her children and of her own mind in response to them. ‘I sat down at the desk. I had to hold onto something, but I could no longer remember what…I stared at my notebook, the red lines under Anna’s questions like a mooring’.
When I stumbled upon Jenny Offill’s excellent and (also) fittingly slim second novel, Dept. of Speculation I was struck by the similarity of themes between these two books. Offill’s narrator is an ambitious writer who has recently become a mother. She struggles to find the energy and commitment for both writing and parenthood. Her marriage is also in distress.
‘My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things’. Ambivalence is the key concept driving this novel and it is beautifully played with. The tedium and frustrations of being plunged into motherhood run alongside the sudden realization of the joys of having a child. The annoyance of a second book not getting written runs alongside the fulfilment of having a book already published. The story, like Ferrante’s, gives us a rich insight into the interiority of the narrator’s life. The structure lends much to this as we are treated to little bursts of her mind’s eye which are at times poetic, dream-like, seemingly unrelated. The text is peppered with proverbs, searching for meaning. The narrator is nameless, as if her current state of ambivalence should not be pinned down. She becomes a ghost writer of someone else’s book, lending a spectral quality to the text. Perhaps she feels like a ghost of her own past creative life, before motherhood, before marital crisis.
‘Evolution designed us to cry out if we are being abandoned. To make as much noise as possible so the tribe will come back for us’, the narrator tells us. By writing about abandonment in a raw, philosophical and wry manner this is exactly what both Ferrante and Offill are doing.