days of abandonment

Glauco Rodrigues, Untitled [Diving in the city of Rio de Janeiro], serigraphy, 1987.


Considerations on the book by Elena Ferrante

days of abandonment, by Elena Ferrante, tells the story of Olga, a 38-year-old woman, serene and satisfied, who is suddenly abandoned by her husband and falls into a whirlwind of encounters with dark scenarios, past and present. Left by her husband Mario, with a son, a daughter and a dog, in peaceful Turin where she had moved a few years ago as a result of his work, Olga, deeply stained by the pain and humiliation of abandonment, is sucked into the ghosts of her life. childhood that take over the present and lock it in an alienated, frightening and intermittent self-perception. Thus begins a process of ruinous fall, marked by mental and behavioral disturbances that result in an altered state of consciousness about oneself, reality and the prospect of resuming life.

The narrative is seductively organized into 47 chapters, but its deep structure seems to mathematically express movements demarcated in three stages: the non-acceptance of the separation, the hope of returning, the confirmation of the betrayal and the end of the marriage (chapters 1-17), the disorders with the risky, desperate, unbearable daily life and the development of a borderline condition (chapters 18-33), the attempt to resume the meaning of life from other parameters (chapters 34 to 47).

Elena Ferrante's contemporary style pushes us onto a slippery slope that blurs the boundaries of sense and delusions, in addition to panic caused by forgetting that puts her life and the lives of humans and non-humans under her care at imminent risk.

Reading zigzags us into the deep well of mental and practical disturbance and pulls us out to take a breath from the petty and urgent demands of everyday life. At various times we are summoned to life based on the routine problems of a broken cell phone, leaking water from the bathtub, paying the bill, etc. In this way, the banal and commonplace emerge as dimensions that rescue us from the madness and seduction of death.

From everything comes a suffering, blurred and pragmatic view of life, expressed in a language that transits between the assertiveness of everyday needs and obligations that call us to the reality of people, things, the many forms of life, technology and circumstances and the obscurity of figures from within, little understood, but inscribed in our psychic structure and that insist on jumping to the surface when we least expect it.


The non-acceptance of separation

The book begins by recounting an afternoon in April when, after Sunday lunch, while the children were playing and the table was cleared, Mario (40 years old) tells Olga (38 years old) that he wanted to leave her. After this unexpected sentence, apparently without any new facts, Olga begins a process of accumulating the wreckage of a fifteen-year marriage with two children and a dog, describing a daily life lived in an apartment in Turin, Piedmont Region, northern Italy.

Olga came from a family in Naples, Campania Region, southern Italy, and grew up witnessing high voice tones, sudden movements, noisy feelings, thunderous expressions and felt compressed by these customs. She left town aged 20 to work for an airline in Rome with the intention of never returning. At the age of 22, she met Mario, got married and resigned so that she could follow him in his work as an engineer. They left Italy and lived in Canada, then in Spain and Greece.

During the relationship, Olga identified only two critical incidents: one when they were still dating and Mario broke off the relationship but came back after a week saying that he felt a great emptiness away from her; another when they moved to Turin and Gina, Mario's engineering college classmate, an intelligent woman from a wealthy family and a widow with a 15-year-old daughter, Carla, helped them to settle down in the city, strengthened friendships and Olga felt that mother and daughter harassed Mario. This situation led the couple to a discussion, distance and reestablishment of the family routine.

In this way, Olga felt that the separation would not take place, firstly because he left behind all his belongings; second, because she sensed that he would review his position, think better of it and return home.

In the first week, Mario spent every day, in the late afternoon, talking to Gianni (11 years old), playing with Ilaria (8 years old) and walking in the park with Otto, the shepherd. Olga was getting ready to receive him as she longed for his return. He was withdrawn, vague, and self-deprecating, citing childhood delusions, inability to develop true feelings, and professional drift. She listened to him carefully and was understanding and available to help him overcome this moment of crisis.

One day he said to Olga: “living together, sleeping in the same bed, turns the other's body into a clock, a gauge of life that goes away leaving a trail of anguish” (p. 37). She understood that he couldn't stand the rush of life and blamed her.

She, in turn, was upset and began to remember obscure figures from her Neapolitan childhood, poverellas (poor women abandoned by their husbands) who have lost everything: comfort, dignity, beauty, self-esteem, last name and respect from the community. She went into a wave of uncertainty and insecurity.

Facing the growing anguish, the weakness of the body and the mental disorder and the practice imposed by the condition of poverella, for two weeks, Olga got up one day feeling dizzy, ran to put the house in order, tended to the children, walked with the pastor and waited for Mario to visit. She bought a wine, made a red sauce, meatballs, roasted potatoes with rosemary and macaroni. The idea was to invite him to dinner and put him against the wall because she couldn't take his uncertain stories anymore. However, the feeling of exhaustion and overwork without pleasure led to disasters such as knocking over the sugar bowl in the kitchen, bursting the bottle of wine when she tried to freeze it and cutting her hand with the can opener. She cleaned everything as best she could and when they were at the table she was direct: “-Have you fallen in love with another woman? Who is she? I know her?"

Mario tried to appear resourceful and claim that that question was out of place, but in the middle of the discussion and dinner, methodically chewing a fork of pasta with sauce, bit something, groaned in pain and started bleeding from the mouth. It was a sliver of glass that slipped unnoticed into the food. He got up suddenly, knocked over the chair, offended Olga's small-mindedness and madness, and left, slamming the door. She, faced with the expression of hatred manifested by Mario and unknown to her until then, was horrified by the unforeseen scene.

From that moment on, we come into contact with a cutting narrative of Olga trying to convince herself about the unlikely return of her husband, the desperation of trying to understand what happened, what led him to make this decision, what she did wrong, what happened to him and where did the marriage fall apart. She remembered that she had abandoned everything to follow Mario and correspond to his customs, his culture, intelligence and professional career. She had abandoned her teenage dream of being a writer. It informs us, quickly, that when she was young she had her pretensions and thought she wanted to write stories of women with many resources, women with indestructible words and not a manual for the abandoned wife.

He says: “I didn't like the page too closed, like a blind pulled down. I liked the light, I liked the air between the slats. I wanted to write stories full of air currents, filtered rays through which the dust dances. And then I loved the writing that makes you look down from each line letting you feel the vertigo of depth, the darkness of hell” (p. 17).

Mario has disappeared and Olga desperately seeks news through common friends. In her eyes he was tall, handsome, cultured, educated and very attractive. She discovers that he was in another relationship, with a younger woman. So he began to ponder, day and night, the sexual madness he was going through with his new wife, adopted a vulgar vocabulary to refer to possible whores and lost himself in the fantasy madness of “nights of copulation with him on top of her groping her ass sweaty” (p. 19) “the sated faces of those who do nothing but fuck. They kissed, bit each other, licked each other” (p. 23).

He abandoned the house and the children, developed insomnia and, on sleepless nights, walked the dog in the square in front of the building he lived in. On one of these escape routes, he meets Carrano, the musician neighbor on the floor below, in his eyes, a curved, thin man, with long legs, heavy walking, gray hair, dark figure and expanded by the instrument he carried. He, distracted, tired and returning from a concert, stepped on Otto's coconut, slipped and almost fell. He went to her and said: “-Did you see? I ruined my shoe. ”

Embarrassed Olga apologized, energetically called the dog and put him on a leash. He reacted by saying that he didn't need to apologize but he should take him for a walk on the other side of the woods because many people had already complained. She said: – I'm sorry, my husband is usually careful…” – “Your husband, I'm sorry, is rude. Tell him not to abuse. I know people who wouldn't hesitate to fill this place with poisoned meatballs” – I won't say anything to my husband. I no longer have a husband” (p. 20-21).

It was the first time that Olga became aware of criticism that other people had made of Mario. Could he not be as perfect as she had believed?

This occurrence is followed by a spiral dive into obsessive thoughts added to the sudden overload of tasks that throw Olga into a set of setbacks, affecting her ability to think, feel and behave clearly. She loses contact with reality, disorganizing her behavior and reducing her concentration on carrying out her daily responsibilities.

One day, at the beginning of August, walking through a neighborhood in Turin trying to solve the problem of the telephone line that had been disconnected for non-payment, Olga sees Mario walking in a public square hand in hand with Carla, Gina's daughter, now with 20 years. At that moment she understands that he had been cheating on her for about five years. She can't control herself, she crashes her car when parking, she attacks Mario with slaps and punches, she tries to hit Carla, but her outburst of brutality is contained by him. Many passers-by witness the scene and do not intervene.

That same night, after putting the children to sleep, Olga thinks about ending her life, but sees the driver's license of the musician neighbor she had found in the square when she was walking with Otto and changes route. She does her hair, grabs a bottle of wine and goes to Carrano's apartment trying to escape deep and painful feelings of envy, jealousy, anger and betrayal. She feels like “the wasp that stings, the dark snake, the invulnerable animal that crosses fire without getting burned” (p. 73). She has sex with him, however, even oscillating between sense and delirium, she manages to understand that there is no attraction and no love there, just an escape route from the deep abyss in which she finds herself in free fall.


Mental and behavioral disorders

Next, we are faced with a detailed, tense and fast-paced narrative that makes up the heart of the book (chapters 18 to 34).

The day after meeting Mario and Carla and visiting Carrano, in the hot summer of Turin, with the children on school holidays and unable to take them for a walk on the beach or in the mountains, with the city empty and the disappearance of Mario; Olga puts herself between life and death “hovering like a tightrope walker” (p. 41) in the apartment's setting. There are moments of panic and dread that seem to last an eternity as she becomes aware that the gear on the apartment door is jammed, her son Gianni is vomiting, with a headache and a high fever; Pastor Otto having bouts of spasms and releasing a substance with a horrible smell through his mouth and intestines and Ilaria desperately asking for her mother's care and not being able to bring her to the normality of a coordinated action.

Olga oscillates between the castrating ghosts of her childhood, the memory of the years she lived with Mario and the desperate present of lives that require her care and responsibility. She says to herself, “I just had to quiet the inner vision, the thoughts. Pieces of words and images got mixed up, ran over each other, circled quickly like a cluster of wasps, giving my gestures a terrible capacity to cause harm” (p. 89). She knew she was falling off a precipice that was destroying her brain and her ability to control. If she asked “where am I? What do I do? Why? […] Nothing was held back, everything slipped. It was necessary to restore oneself in the midst of chaos” (p. 103).

He remembered that, in the absence of the children during the weekend spent with their father, he had fumigated the house to kill the ants that appeared that season, and that maybe Gianni and Otto were getting sick from the poison spread by his action. At the same time, she plunges into existential thoughts that paralyze her and prevent her from medicating Gianni, cleaning the vomit from the bed, helping Otto, cleaning his secretions and guiding Ilaria's collaboration.

The stove on, the water leaking in the bathtub, the cell phone broken, the bill overdue, the phone turned off, the traffic light turned off, the shoe tight, the door lock changed, the children’s hunger are commonplace calls and daily routines that oblige Olga to slide between the layers of her deep self and the reality of life.

In this desperate scenario, she looks at herself in the mirror and – perhaps in an appropriation by Elena Ferrante of Lacan’s mirror stage – she becomes aware of her lack of control, her fragile resistance, as well as her strong bond of love and affection for children and by the dog. It transcends the frontal image of the mirror and reaches “the hidden geometry” of the many elusive and disorderly sides that cross the process of self-formation. She understands that “the meanings, the meaning of her life with Mario […] were just a light at the end of adolescence, an illusion of stability. From now on, it was necessary to trust the strangeness more than familiarity, and moving from there […] slowly restore confidence and become an adult” (p. 120).

Olga understands that her body disobeyed and her attention was lost, “she was unable to establish hierarchies, above all, she was unable to worry” (p. 106). In an attempt to “remedy and hold on to the edge” she gives Ilaria a paper cutter so that the girl would physically hurt her every time she varies, slips and disconnects from the urgency of the real. She needed the anchorage of physical pain to “restore a measure” weakened after four months of tension, pain and days of abandonment. It was necessary “to start writing well again. Delete the superfluous. Reset the field. Turn the page. Redraw the edges of the body” (p. 123).

Thus, in the midst of the lack of control and with the help of Ilaria, Olga manages to manage noisy strategies that call the attention of Carrano, the only resident who remained in the building during the summer vacation. She is able to locate the paracetamol, medicate the son, and instruct the daughter to monitor her brother's temperature. Meanwhile, she isolates Otto in the laundry room, watches his last minutes of life, cleans up his mess and wraps him in a bag to spare children from seeing him dead. In the middle of the day, the doorbell rings and she finally manages to open the door. The children think it's Mario, but it was the neighbor who came in from the street and stopped by to see if she was okay and if she needed any help. She welcomes him and says, “I have a dirty job for you” (p. 144). The dog had to be buried.

Carrano, since the previous night, had been affected by Olga's beauty, sensuality and fragility. He was a man of shy, polite and silent gestures with the capacity to participate in the family tragedy of that hot day, full of senselessness.. Olga felt that her tears had dried that day.


Restoring the meaning of life

The chapters of the last segment of the novel (35 to 47) involve us in a narrative rhythm wrapped in a temporality of slower events that seek to resume everyday life and the meaning of existence. The time parameter is indicated with the expression “a few weeks later”.

Olga felt that her body had gone through the heavy experience of death, Otto had taught her things and now she could allow herself the lightness of life. She picked up her pieces and understood that she no longer loved Mario. She repeated to herself: “the worst is over”. She needed to relearn “the flat certainty of ordinary days”. She had found herself at the bottom of a hole and it was necessary to “relearn the calm step of someone who thinks he knows where he is going and why” (p. 145).

On the same day, he sought to diagnose Otto's death with the veterinarian he trusted. She consulted her pediatrician for Gianni and found that nothing was his fault. Otto's death was caused by something poisonous, probably found and eaten on the street, and Gianni's illness was brought on by a rotavirus.

A few weeks later, he resumed the good manners of soft speech, the assurance of a bookish tongue, and the exercise of kindness. Using the right words reassured her. She sought to find the right tone in future relationships with the children and with Mario. She released the children to spend more time with their father on weekends. She resumed meeting with some friends. She started to identify new relational opportunities and was open to listening to comments that pointed to Mario's arrogant, insensitive and opportunistic behavior. She felt “as if she were standing on the ledge of a well, in a precarious balance” (p. 165).

She attended a concert by Carrano and recognized, in disbelief, a taller, thin, elegant man, with hair that gleamed a precious metal, seductive, with a chest, arms and hands that guided and seductively played a cello.

She felt that the occurrence of so many lacerations due to her carelessness had thrown her into the fine rope of a plot that she now gathered and held firmly with her own hands. She recognized that “that man downstairs had become the guardian of a mysterious power that she hid out of modesty, courtesy and good manners” (p. 174). He, in turn, silently brought her flowers, helped children in street fights, gathered objects lost by Olga in the vicinity of the building and watched her with desire.

A few weeks later, with the help of friends, he found work at a car leasing agency to handle international mail. One day she was surprised by the visit of Mario and Carla who went to complain about the services that the company had provided them on vacation in Barcelona. Olga, seeing the arrogant treatment he was dismissing, the attendant proposed to take care of those customers. She showed up at the reception desk, caused astonishment and a good impression by her gentle conduct of protocol and took the opportunity to inform Mario about her bad moments, Gianni's illness and Otto's death. Mario shuddered and asked: – Did he die? – Poisoned. - Who was? - You. - I? - Yes. I found you to be a rude man. People respond to rudeness with malice” (p. 176).

Two days after that meeting, Mario visits the children with gifts and asks Olga if she has stopped loving him. She replies: “- Yes – Why? Why did I lie to you? Why did I leave you? Why did I offend you? - No. Just when I felt betrayed, abandoned, humiliated, I loved you so much, I wanted you more than at any other time. - And then?

- I don't love you anymore because, to justify yourself, you said that you had fallen into the void of meaning and it wasn't true. – Yes, it was. – No. Now I know what a void of meaning is and what happens if you manage to get back to the surface. You do not know. At most, you glanced down, got scared and covered the hole with Carla's body” (p. 181).

Mario was uncomfortable, informed her that he would prepare the procedures for the separation and told her that he couldn't stay all weekends with the children because Carla was tired, needing to study for the tests and the stress with the children could disturb the their relationship, after all, she was the mother.

Three days later, on her way home from work, Olga finds a button and a hairpin on the apartment doormat that she liked very much and had lost in her rush. Carrano rescued them and handed them over. It was the silent little kindnesses of care he extended to Olga, Gianni, and Ilaria. Many others came and one weekend after the children left for Mario's house, Olga bathed, put on her makeup and knocked on the neighbor's door again.

He thought with gratitude of those months, that with discretion, “he had striven to re-weave a trusting world around me. […] He wanted to tell me that I no longer had any reason to be discouraged, that each movement was narrable in all its reasons, good or bad, that in short the time had come to return to the strength of the links that link spaces and spaces together. the times” (p. 182).

Olga saw him as a man with a dense life and he seemed to her the person she needed at that moment. “It was an attractive shadow behind frosted glass” (p. 183). She kissed him and he asked her about what happened after the first time they met.

"- It was really bad? She replied: – Yes – What happened that night?

“I had an overreaction that broke the surface of things. - And then? - Falls. – And where did you stop? - Nowhere. There was no depth, there was no precipice. There was nothing” (p. 183).

They held each other for a while and, in silence, reinforced and reinvented the sense of fullness and joy. “They loved each other long, in the days and months to come, quietly” (p. 183).


Elena Ferrante

What about Elena Ferrante? A pseudonym of an Italian author, recognized worldwide that does not show her face or give any clues to her identity.

In the few interviews given in writing and all of them through his Italian publishers, he explains that he opted for anonymity in order to be able to write freely and not allow himself to be influenced by the public image caused by the reception of his books. He claims that he "has already done all that he could have done for his books by writing them". There are several possibilities for revealing his identity and also that he was born in Naples, mainly due to the detailed descriptions of the city and the customs present in his work.

He has been writing since 1991, the year he published his first novel. L'amore molesto (a troublesome love, in Brazil), converted into a memorable film by Mario Martone. His Neapolitan tetralogy was also converted into the film the genius friend, by Saverio Costanzo. another novel The dark daughter (2006) (the lost daughter), featured the adaptation of Maggie Gyllenhaal, receiving three nominations for the 94th. Oscar 2021. Netflix currently airs a series titled The lying life of adults directed by Edoardo De Angelis and inspired by the homonymous novel (SECCHES, 2023).

In this mystery, however, reside objective certainties: “the gigantic force of his literature, the refusal of the artificiality of language, the immersion in the deep conscience of the characters and the brutal honesty, as disturbing as it is redeeming: confessing feelings of abandonment, jealousy, envy and shame is also becoming aware of one's affections and freeing oneself from illusions” (Second part of the book).

Elena Ferrante's prose invites us to visit our deep cavities and access our existential dilemmas of forgetting our children, unconscious ghosts, death drives, precarious balances, painful abandonment, intimate betrayals that can stop or accelerate the understanding that every lived experience is contained in the psychic apparatus affecting our cognitive, physical, social and emotional development. Ultimately, this is what we count on.

Winnicott (1994) suggests that the fear of collapse is a universal phenomenon related to past experiences, individual and societal, in relation to the whims of the surrounding environment.[I] It represents the memory of the failure of a self-defense organization and, as such, this past situation becomes a matter of the here and now, experienced as a sense of annihilation, childish intrusions, invasion of failures, blind spots that put us in risk.

In this way, the expanded and frayed humanities portrayed in the characters of days of abandonment haunt us to look in the mirror and see the hidden geometry of the many disordered sides that make up the many layers of who we are and warn us that the collapse has already happened and what remains is the memory of the event that projects fear into the present and the future . Therefore, Olga sees nothing, neither depth nor precipice. Nothing new.

At a time when the civilizing process, national and international, flirts with neoliberalism, neoconservatism and neofinancism, all of them ideologically gourmetized into a soft Christianity – narcissistic, authoritarian and consumerist – that presents religion as an individual, media, entrepreneurial and social issue. social climbing; Elena Ferrante's narrative can help us resist and understand that there is nothing new in the front, the tragedy has already happened, we just have to have courage and mature based on the practices of caring for ourselves and others and on the affectionate and lasting bonds with neighbors, friends, collectives and the capacity to love quietly and without showing off.

*Deborah Mazza is a professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Faculty of Education at Unicamp.


Elena Ferrante. days of abandonment. Translation: Francesca Cricelli. São Paulo, Blue Library, 2016.


[I] I would like to thank Fernanda Ferreira Gil for recommending that this text be read.

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