A Woman – Sibilla Aleramo (tr. Erica Segre & Simon Carnell)

Billed as the first Italian feminist novel, A Woman is a remarkable piece of work that charts the downward spiral of a woman to a point of no return, only to claw back and display courage in reclaiming her life.

This unnamed woman is our narrator and from a certain vantage point several years later, she is now looking back on her past and recalling the events that have led up to her present circumstances. So there’s the benefit of hindsight, and also the necessary distance gained from those events to be able to analyse her situation with a certain modicum of detachment.

Our narrator’s first memories are of her childhood in Milan, those carefree days when she is blessed with robust health, charm and intelligence. She is the apple of her father’s eye and they share a special bond, while her mother never stands in the way of her wishes. Our narrator’s formative years are shaped by her father who guides her in her studies and her reading. She always excels in class and there is every indication of a bright future in front of her.

However, being thoroughly self-absorbed, her idyllic childhood blunts her to the harsher realities at home. The father is a dynamic, charismatic man but quite the tyrant. The mother is a frail woman, resigned and unhappy. As a young girl, our narrator has no qualms about displaying contempt for her mother for being weak and afraid of her husband.

The months passed, my mother’s sadness grew, Father’s attentiveness towards her dwindled, as did the shared walks; and I, not a little girl anymore, continued to live my life as if it wasn’t threatened in any way. Why? I was as absorbed in my admiration for my father as I had been when a child, but this alone hardly accounts for my blindness. Perhaps Mother herself, in her painful reticence about her illness, was avoiding an all too immature confidante: one who was too exclusively devoted, moreover, to the very person who was the source of her suffering.

When the father is presented with an opportunity to manage and lead a factory, the family relocates from the bustling metropolis of Milan to a smaller working class seaside town in the South. It would mean a disruption in her studies, but our narrator is not daunted and is struck by the beauty of the place. She begins to show an interest in working at the factory and the father encourages that ambition.

Things coast along smoothly until a tragic event causes our narrator’s best laid plans to go completely awry. When in a fit of abject despair, the mother attempts suicide, our narrator is shocked to the core. The mother survives, but her actions cast a pall of gloom over the entire family.

Subsequently, the mother’s over apologetic stance and feeble attempts to placate the father (in vain) only make matters worse. But the incident casts a new light on the father and changes the way our narrator perceives him. Disillusioned on learning that her father is having an affair, he is no longer the ideal she considered him to be, and when during a heated argument she sides with her mother, she is fired from the factory.

And herein lies the irony – Utterly alone and anchorless, our narrator finally begins to understand her mother, of her travails, of why she is so unhappy in a loveless marriage. At her most vulnerable, our narrator is lured by the attentions of a man working at her father’s factory and she gives in to him, if only to escape the desolate environment at home. After a night when he sexually assaults her, she is coerced into marrying him, and from then on even the most fragile connection she shared with her father finally breaks leaving her isolated.

In her marital home, our narrator is faced with the painful reality that there is not much to distinguish between her own predicament and her mother’s plight. With love and respect virtually absent in the marriage, the husband is a devious, cruel man subjecting her to persistent mental and physical abuse.

Utterly tormented, the only silver lining is the birth of her child, a son whom she loves unreservedly, who gives her a fresh purpose in life, whose upbringing and welfare gets her through her darkest days. But even then, moments of desperation seep in, and eerily similar to what her mother went through, our narrator’s fragile state of mind ultimately snaps as she plunges rock bottom.

And yet, unlike her mother who has plunged into the depths of mental illness, our narrator escapes that fate on the strength of two things – her deep love for her son and a fire that burns inside her to chart a new path fuelled by her passion for writing. Her vocation for writing finds an outlet when she is offered a position at the offices of a feminist magazine in Rome. There, surrounded by like-minded people and serious thinkers, our narrator experiences a broadening of her mind and an expansion of her worldview.

I realized that after a prolonged paralysis, my critical facility had seemingly expanded and intensified; and at the same time I discovered that I had a kind of heartfelt nostalgia for all the things that my education had lacked. Poetry, music, the arts of colour and form remained almost unknown to me, while the whole of my body longed for the rapture they might bring; the thought by which I lived sometimes wanted to take flight, to mingle with light and with sound.

A Woman, then, is rich with ideas and crackles with weightier themes – the limitations imposed by marriage on women of ambition, the obstacles they face in a patriarchal society, and how motherhood can be a fount of infinite joy and a weakness at the same time. But the theme that towers above all others is how crucial it is for a woman to respect herself, lead an independent existence and have her own thoughts and opinions.

But I sometimes tormented myself by thinking of the book that needed to be written; a book about love and sorrow that would be both harrowing and inspirational, relentless and compassionate; that would show for the first time what it was really like to be a woman now, and that for the first time would inspire in those unhappy brothers of ours, men, both remorse for the past and desire for a better future…

Was there a woman in the world who had suffered what I had suffered, who had received from both animate and inanimate things the lessons I had received, and who would know how to extract the essence from such an experience, to create the masterpiece that could properly represent a life?

Given that this novel was published in 1906, the originality of ideas on display is pretty astonishing and way ahead of its time. This was an era when opportunities for women were pretty limited with not many avenues open to make a mark for themselves, they were still fighting for various rights (for instance, it was in 1911 that Italy’s first national Feminist Congress was formed which called for divorce rights for women). Yet Aleramo, through our narrator, questions why marriage cannot be a union of equal partners and how women need to fight for their own individuality to bolster their self-worth and in the process command respect from their children. She also explores how women have the right to lead a life outside of marriage and motherhood, a topic that sparks debate even today.

But in the early 1900s, when the odds were heavily favoured towards men in a marriage, our narrator knows that once she leaves her husband she will lose full access to her child, a notion she finds unbearable. The dilemma that confronts her, therefore, is this – Should she stay in a demeaning marriage for the sake of her child she loves deeply knowing fully well the loss of freedom that it involves, or should she escape her fate to pursue her dreams and hope that her son understands and respects her decision later?

Aleramo’s writing style is formal and pretty intense throughout, and the feverish tone of the worldviews and emotions expressed make it a tad difficult to read the book for longer stretches of time – while exhilarating, it also leaves you catching your breath, but in a good way. Indeed, given how the mood of the book is so passionate, it makes sense to savour this novel in measured doses to let it all sink in.

Fiercely bold, brave and eye-opening, A Woman, then, is a paean to feminism with its core message centred on a woman’s right to choose freely the destiny that she desires.

To love, to sacrifice oneself, and to submit! Was this what all women were destined for?

Ties – Domenico Starnone (tr. Jhumpa Lahiri)

I became aware of Domenico Starnone a few years ago when I heard that his novels were being translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri whose short stories I had loved many years ago, and whose latest novel Whereabouts is most likely to feature among my favourite novels this year. Wanting to finally read him, I picked out Ties, a novel which I thought was brutal but also impressive.

In case it’s slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife. I know that this once pleased you and that now, suddenly, it chafes.

Thus begins Ties, a visceral, intense story of a marital breakdown and its damaging consequences for the parties involved, cleverly told through multiple perspectives.

The first section is where Vanda is writing to her husband, and it’s a letter that drips with rage, fury and frustration at him for abandoning their family and shirking his responsibilities of a husband and father.

We learn that Aldo, the husband, has given vague reasons for suddenly leaving for another woman – he feels trapped, desires freedom and the option of living life on his own terms. The defined boundaries of marriage and fatherhood are tying him down leaving no room to breathe. Vanda, however, is buying none of this nonsense, and rants at him in her writings. She accuses him of being a weak and confused man, insensitive and superficial. Aldo, meanwhile, vehemently describes his relationship with Lidia as purely physical, but Vanda believes he is lying. Deeply hurt and struggling to come to terms with her sense of abandonment, Vanda makes it clear to him that she is cutting off his access to their children.

In Section Two, several years have passed. Aldo and Vanda are now an old couple, they are together but it’s a delicately balanced existence – the fissure in their marriage hasn’t entirely disappeared, and a nudge in the wrong direction, can cause their relations to crack. Their children, Sandro and Anna, are grown up individuals living their own lives away from them. We learn that Aldo has achieved some success as a TV producer and writer but his fame has now dimmed. The couple is comfortable financially, a large part of which is due to Vanda’s obsession with money and finding ways of not indulging in wasteful expenditure.

The second section opens with the two of them going holidaying to the seaside, a vacation that turns out to be perfect, freshening them up considerably. But when Aldo and Vanda return to their apartment, they are in for a rude shock. Their home has been vandalized, and Vanda’s beloved cat Labes is missing. The house is a complete mess with objects strewn everywhere, although strangely no valuables have been stolen.

As Aldo begins to clear up the mess, he chances upon the letters Vanda had written to him all those years ago, and this sets off a chain of memories – his reasons for abandoning the family, his aching love for Lidia and his fragile, uncertain rapport with his children.  The second section is from Aldo’s point of view and he tells us how Vanda’s disintegration disturbed him, how his love for Lidia revived him, giving him a sense of purpose. Ironically, while deep in his relationship with Lidia, he is plagued by the same set of insecurities – that Lidia is likely to abandon him in the same manner that he left Vanda. Aldo eventually does crawl back to his family, but he finds the home atmosphere completely altered.

In Ties, then, Starnone presents to us a scathing but psychologically astute portrayal of marriage, of how one man’s actions can damage the entire family unit. The writing style is spare, furiously paced and intense especially when analyzing the characters’ motives. While betrayal and marital discord are its dominant themes, the novella is also a subtle exploration of love, parenting and the passage of time. In her fascinating introduction, Jhumpa Lahiri makes an illuminating point about how boundaries, structures, containers are symbols depicted in this novel both literally and figuratively. Structures provide a safe space but can also heighten feelings of entrapment. Boundaries limit chaos, but things can keep breaking down anyway.

Interestingly, the multiple perspectives give a sense of how there is never only one guilty party, of how in a marriage there are always two sides to the story. When we read the first section, we feel for Vanda because of the terrible treatment meted out to her, the insensitiveness and cowardice of Aldo. But as the book progresses, we realize that while Vanda is the wronged woman, she is no saint. She puts Aldo on a tight leash with the result that their relationship transforms into one of tyrant and slave. She is the one calling all the shots, and his opinions don’t matter. Even though Aldo’s actions have set their marriage on a downward spiral, one can’t help but sympathize with him for the way he is punished by Vanda.

And what of the children? In the third section, we are privy to their points of view…they are now middle-aged adults but the kind of lives they have chosen to lead gives a perspective of how damaged they have become thanks to the bitterness of their parents’ marriage.

He’d given up me, you, Mom. And I quickly realized he’d done the right thing. Away, away, away. Our mother, to him, was the negation of the joy of living, and us too, you and me. Don’t fool yourself, that’s what we were, the negation, the negation. His real mistake was being unable to give us up for good. His mistake was that once you’ve taken action to hurt people profoundly, to kill or, in any case, permanently devastate other human beings, you can’t go back. You have to accept responsibility for the crime through and through. You can’t commit a half-crime.

This excellent novella, finally, ends on a satisfying note and while the mystery of their parents’ ransacked home is resolved, there is a sense that the future will always be in a state of flux.

I must mention that I felt a sense of déjà vu when reading Vanda’s section and realized there are striking similarities with Elena Ferrante’s novel, The Days of Abandonment – the wife ditched by the husband for another woman, the rage seething within her, the burden she bears of caring for the children and the household singlehandedly and her gradual descent into despair. But Ties for me was the more interesting and therefore better novel because we are also presented with Aldo and the children’s points of view, which was the not the case with the Ferrante novel where we were only inside Olga’s head.

Ties, then, is an excellent reminder of how love, trust and respect are the foundations of a good marriage, and the complications that can arise from the lack of any of these attributes. Children, especially, are often caught between a rock and a hard place. Divorce is one option, but often frowned upon because of its negative consequences for children. But the logic of “sticking together for the sake of the kids” is deeply flawed too. Children in their own ways are perceptive and can sense the discord between their parents. They become subconsciously aware of the need to tread carefully so as to maintain that delicate balance in their homes. Sadly, this unbearable burden and the underlying guilt can often affect them too. There are no easy answers!

The Dry Heart – Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Frances Frenaye)

Natalia Ginzburg is making a lot of waves on Twitter these days, and rightly so. I had really liked Family Lexicon published by NYRB Classics and had also recently acquired Valentino and Sagittarius released by the same publisher. But it’s The Dry Heart that kept calling out to me…and having now read it I can say it’s another excellent piece of storytelling by Ginzburg.

The Dry Heart begins in a dramatic fashion with a matter-of fact pronouncement made by the narrator…

 I shot him between the eyes.

The ‘him’ is none other than the narrator’s husband Alberto, a man considerably older to her. What follows, thereafter, is an unsentimental, psychologically astute tale of an unhappy marriage told with astonishing clarity.

Our narrator and Alberto first meet at a doctor’s office and from thereon begin to see each other regularly. Our narrator is a woman in her late twenties living independently in the city. But it’s a dull existence. After teaching literature to eighteen girls huddled in a cold classroom, she spends her evenings and nights at a dingy boardinghouse made worse by a bunch of noisy neighbours. Weekends at her parents’ home in Maona in the country are even more tedious.

Her meetings with Alberto therefore are imbued with some degree of novelty and offer respite from the tedium of her narrow existence. During these initial days, in the first throes of a possible blossoming of romance between the two, our narrator is quite happy. Walks by the river, Alberto reading Rilke poems to her, long conversations in cafes add much colour to her life. And yet something is amiss. While she talks openly about herself and her family, all the while thinking up interesting topics of conversations to amuse Alberto, it seems like a one-sided effort. Alberto finds her company charming but remains largely inscrutable, he is reluctant to delve into the details of his life.

At first I didn’t mind Alberto’s unwillingness to talk about himself, but later I was disappointed and asked him a few questions. His face took on an absent and faraway expression and his eyes were veiled with mist like those of a sick bird whenever I inquired about his mother, or his work, or any other part of his life.

Having been alone for so long, our narrator consciously overlooks this aspect of Alberto’s personality. She also wonders whether she is in love with the idea of Alberto rather than Alberto himself, of what he could be rather than what he actually is.

A girl likes to think that a man may be in love with her, and even if she doesn’t love him in return it’s almost as if she did. She is prettier than usual and her eyes shine; she walks at a faster pace and the tone of her voice is softer and sweeter. Before I knew Alberto I used to feel so dull and unattractive that I was sure I should always be alone but after I got the impression that he was in love with me I began to think that if I could please him then I might please someone else, too, perhaps the man who spoke to me in ironical and tender phrases in my imagination.

It’s a relationship that raises conflicted feelings within her. For instance, the idea of marrying Alberto and being intimate with him repulses her, and yet on the days when he is away, she is so gripped by loneliness that the thought of not seeing him unsettles her.

The two eventually marry, but the marriage is doomed from the beginning. The bare facts of this union are presented to us on the first page itself and therefore not a spoiler – Alberto and our narrator were married for four years, they had a baby and the baby subsequently dies.

We had been husband and wife for four years. He had threatened often enough to leave me, but then our baby died and we stayed together. Another child, he said, would be my salvation. For this reason we made love frequently toward the end, but nothing came of it.

Alberto is a terrible husband, lacking empathy, warmth and trust so essential in a marriage. He is away from their home for long stretches of time and resorts to lies to cover up his absences. But it’s imminently clear to both the reader and our narrator that he is secretly seeing the only woman he has ever loved – Giovanna – who, ironically, is married to another man and has a child of her own.

As the drama unfolds, the reader increasingly begins to feel that the narrator’s life before marriage had its merits after all. Atleast she was independent then even if her circumstances were far from ideal. On some level, the narrator is painfully aware of this. And so it’s fascinating that she prefers to remain wedded to her flighty husband rather than part ways and reclaim some dignity. However, so fearful is she of loneliness that she mistakenly equates being alone with being lonely. Her way of thinking is in striking contrast to that of her cousin and confidante, Francesca, who revels in living life on her own terms and refuses to be tied down to any committed relationships.

The Dry Heart, then, is a novella that takes us into the anxiety riddled mind of a woman trapped in a loveless union – her insecurities, her dashed expectations, her inability to walk away when there are clear signals telling her to do so, and the circumstances that compel her to eventually crack. It’s a tale that plunges into the chilly waters of loneliness, desperation and bitterness. The prose is stripped of any sentimentality, the narrator’s voice is unemotional, unvarnished…she states things the way they are, and if her seething rage is palpable, it just about stays under the surface, always in control.

I have only read two books by Ginzburg but it’s apparent that she excels at depicting a range of oddities in relationships, whether it’s the quirks and foibles of various family members as seen in Family Lexicon, or the shortcomings and failures in marriage as in this novella.

Chilling, direct in what it wants to convey and deceptively simple, The Dry Heart charges ahead at the pace of a thriller but without any liberal doses of twists and turns that are so definitive of the genre, and it’s all the more powerful because of that. It’s an absorbing story where Ginzburg, through the magic of her writing, transforms the raw material of a dull marriage into a unique, rich finished product brimming with psychological depth.

Fascinatingly, it ends just as it begins…

I shot him between the eyes.

A Month of Reading – November 2020

November turned out to be another slow reading month for me. I barely read anything in the first week as the US Presidential election drama made me anxious. Subsequently, things improved. But despite focusing entirely on novellas this month for the Novellas in November challenge, I did not read as much as I would have liked.

But the good thing is that the books I did read were very good. My favourites of the bunch were CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING and NOTES TO SELF.

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT by Elena Ferrante (Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

When Olga’s husband Mario suddenly decides to opt out of their marriage, her life turns upside down, and so begins her downward spiral into depression and neglect.

What stands out in The Days of Abandonment is Olga’s voice – she is brutally frank in conveying her thoughts and feelings, minces no words, and is almost always angry, sometimes uncomfortably so. At its core, the novel touches upon the themes of how absurd conventional definitions of womanhood can be, while also highlighting the trials of motherhood. 

CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING by Julia Strachey

Set over the course of a single day, this is a funny, beautifully penned novella centred on the wedding of our protagonist Dolly Thatcham, with an ill-assortment of guests congregating for the event including her possible former beau Joseph. It’s a gem of a novella focusing on the themes of missed opportunities and consequences of things left unsaid.

NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine

This is a collection of radical, honest and unflinching essays on personal events that marked Pine’s life – caring for an alcoholic parent, the crippling grief of infertility, taboos around female bodies and sexual violence. There are a total of six pieces in the book, but to me the second essay called ‘From the Baby Years’ was the standout piece in the collection and worth the price of the book alone.

DESPERATE CHARACTERS by Paula Fox

Sophie and Otto Brentwood are an affluent couple having a seemingly well-established life in Brooklyn, New York. But when Sophie is viciously bitten by a cat she tries to feed, it sets into motion a set of small but ominous events that begin to hound the couple – a crank call in the middle of the night, a stone thrown through the window of a friend’s house and so on. Sophie is subsequently plagued with fear and anxiety and is reluctant to visit the doctor even though the worry of contracting rabies is not far behind. Otto is concerned with carrying on his lawyer practice by himself, after his partner Charlie quits to start out on his own. In writing that is sophisticated and perceptive, Paula Fox presents to the reader a tale of a gradually disintegrating marriage.

THEATRE OF WAR by Andrea Jeftanovic (Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle)

Through the motifs of theatre and drama, Jeftanovic weaves a tale of a fractured family devastated by war and trauma, not only in their country of origin but also in their adopted homeland. Told in three parts through the eyes of Tamara, it’s a fragmented narrative that tells us of her parents’ broken marriage, how the ghosts of war continue to haunt her father who has lived it, and the debilitating impact it has had on their family dynamic, and her own struggle to pick up the pieces and move on.  

THE APPOINTMENT by Katharina Volckmer

A young woman embarks on a razor sharp monologue addressing a certain Dr Seligman and touches on topics such as the origins of her family, her troubled relationship with her mother, her conflicted gender identity, her affair with a married man called K who is a painter and paints on her body, sexual fantasies involving Hitler and the legacy of shame. I have had a great run with Fitzcarraldo titles this year, and at barely less than 100 pages, this was an interesting, fascinating read.

As December begins, I plan to read the first two books in Susan Cooper’s DARK IS RISING series along with the PENGUIN BOOK OF CHRISTMAS STORIES. Given that I am going through a bit of a reading slump, let’s see if I can stick to this plan.

The Days of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

Last year, I read the four Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante and I was blown away. Not surprisingly, the books found a place on my Best of 2019 list, and I was keen to explore some of her standalone works.

The Days of Abandonment was the one that was calling out to me and I also felt it was a perfect fit for “Novellas in November” (#NovNov)

The Days of Abandonment is a vivid, visceral tale of a woman’s descent into despair after she is abandoned by her husband.

From the very first page, Olga (our narrator) is devastated when Mario, her husband, communicates his intention to leave her.

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me.

At the time, Mario does not give any explicit reason, other than the fact that it’s all too much for him and he wants to leave. While Olga is shocked, she also feels certain that this is only a phase – Mario had expressed this very intention many years ago, only to come back to her again.

Olga, meanwhile, must grapple with the day to day life of taking care of her two children – Gianni and Illaria – and their dog Otto, while managing the house and paying the bills. They reside in Turin. At the same time, Olga refuses to accept Mario’s abandonment, and spends every waking moment trying to figure out what went wrong, and what needs to be done so that he comes back. But when she somehow learns that Mario has deserted her for another woman, Olga loses control.

Seething with anger and immense rage, Olga goes on the offensive – she speaks roughly with her friends and acquaintances, hurls abuses and resorts to foul language when interacting with others, and at one time even physically attacks Mario when she spots him with his new love Carla, in a shop.

Thereby begins Olga’s downward spiral into depression and gross neglect. Finding herself standing at the edge of a precipice and staring into an abyss, Olga struggles to adapt to the cruelly altered circumstances of her life.

At times when examining her situation, Olga is haunted by the image of the poverella (poor woman), a dominant presence in her childhood. The poverella in question was also abandoned by her husband and reduced to a state of utter despair, cutting a pathetic figure. Olga, at the time, vows never to slip into the same situation, but in her present sorry state, she can’t help but identify herself with that woman.

As the days go on, completing household chores, performing the duties of a mother, and tackling other practical problems of everyday life begin to take its toll on Olga as she overwhelmingly feels she is trudging through wet cement.

Don’t succumb, I goaded myself. Fight. I feared above all my growing incapacity to stick to a thought, to concentrate on a necessary action. The abrupt, uncontrollable twists frightened me. Mario, I wrote, to give myself courage, had not taken away the world, he had taken away only himself. And you are not a woman of thirty years ago. You are of today, take hold of today, don’t regress, don’t lose yourself, keep a tight grip.

She starts faltering, until one day things simply hit rock bottom. Has Olga reached a point of no return? Or, will she succeed in climbing out of this hole, and clawing her way back?

I was not the woman who breaks into pieces under the blows of abandonment and absence, who goes mad, who dies. Only a few fragments had splintered off, for the rest I was well. I was whole, whole I would remain. To those who hurt me, I react giving back in kind. I am the queen of spades, I am the wasp that stings, I am the dark serpent. I am the invulnerable animal who passes through fire and is not burned.

What stands out in The Days of Abandonment is Olga’s voice – she is brutally frank in conveying her thoughts and feelings, minces no words, and is almost always angry, sometimes uncomfortably so. She is immensely self-aware in a way that is fascinating and compelling. At its core, the novel touches upon the themes of how absurd conventional definitions of womanhood can be, while also highlighting the trials of motherhood. As readers, we are forced to wrestle with our feelings, because while Olga’s neglect of her children in her dark days can be hard to fathom, we also can’t help but empathize with her.

The Days of Abandonment, then, is in many ways an apt title for this powerful novella. On one level, it refers to the obvious fact of Mario leaving Olga. But, on another level, it also conveys a sense that Olga is losing her identity, that her sense of self has merged with that of the poverella, and that there is not much to separate the two women.

The Days of Abandonment is a great entry point for those who have never read Ferrante’s books before and do not want to commit to her Neapolitan Quartet yet, although I do think the latter is much superior.