The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

She’s such a shit, Olga. Don’t get me wrong, everybody is, with the possible exception of the downstairs neighbour. The kids are shits. The ex-husband, his shag, the friends, the vet, the locksmiths. But as we enter the falling-apart world of Olga, and we do so from the perspective, impossible to escape, of The Neapolitan Novels, it’s an echo. Her female narrators are repugnant. In this case it’s not because she’s disintegrating. It’s just because. I suppose because she’s talking of herself. If that is so, Ferrante is a particularly honest writer. One hopes never to meet her.

I’m also not sure how long she can get away with writing books with the principle character a writer who isn’t really very good. Any writer who needs to keep explaining to their audience ‘as if it were’, ‘it was like’, ‘like’ but above all, ‘as if’ ‘as if’ ‘as if’. Such a lazy way to write. And almost every phrase that comes after the big sign – simile coming – is dreadful.

On the plus side, full marks to her for recording surely the most disastrous excruciatingly embarrassing (for the reader) sex scene ever. In minute detail. I will present this for you, it gives a good idea of the book as a whole. She has come downstairs on purpose to have sex with her rather retiring neighbour, whom she scarcely knows. Lucky Carrano. He has just kissed her, understanding that this might be the right thing to do….[The square brackets comments are mine, once or twice I couldn’t resist.]

At that instant I had only an unpleasant impression, as if he had given the signal and from then on all I could do was to sink by degrees into repugnance. In reality I felt above all a blaze of hatred towards myself, because I was there, because I had no excuses, because it was I who had decided to come, because it seemed to me that I could not retreat.

‘Shall we begin?’ I said with a false cheer.

Carrano gave an uncertain hint of a smile.

‘No one is forcing us,’

‘Do you want to go back?’

‘No…’

He again brought his lips to mine, but I didn’t like the odor of his saliva, I don’t even know if it really was unpleasant, only it seemed to me different from Mario’s. He tired to put his tongue in my  mouth, I opened my lips a little, touched his tongue with mine. It was slightly rough, alive, it felt animal, an enormous tongue such as I had seen, disgusted, at the butcher, there was nothing seductively human about it. Did Carla [the shag] have my tastes, my odors? Or had mine always been repellent to Mario, as now Carrano’s seemed to me, and only in her, after years, had he found the essences right for him?

I pushed my tongue into the mouth of that man with exaggerated eagerness, for a long time, as if I were following something to the bottom of his throat and wished to catch it before it slid into the esophagus. I put my arm around his neck, I pressed him with my body into the corner of the sofa and kissed him for a long time, with my eyes wide open, trying to stare at the objects arranged in one corner of the room, define them, cling to them, because I was afraid that if I closed my eyes I would see Carla’s impudent mouth, she had had that impudence since the age of fifteen, and who could say how much Mario liked it, if he had dreamed of it while he slept beside me, until he woke and kissed me as if he were kissing her and then withdrew and went back to sleep as soon as he recognised my mouth, the usual mouth, the mouth without new tastes, the mouth of the past.

Carrano sensed in my kiss the sign that any skirmishing was over. He put his hand on my neck, he wanted to press me even harder against his lips. Then he left my mouth and planted wet kisses on my cheeks, on my eyes. I thought he must be following a precise exploratory plan, he even kissed my ears, so that the sound echoed annoyingly against my eardrums. Then he moved to my neck, he bathed with his tongue the hair at the nape, and meanwhile he touched my chest with his broad hand.

‘My breasts are small,’ I said in a whisper, but immediately despised myself because it sounded as if I were making excuses, excuse me if I can’t offer you big tits, I hope you enjoy yourself anyway, idiot that I was, if he liked little tits, good; if not, the worse for him, it was all free, a stroke of luck had fallen to this shit, the best birthday present he could hope for, at his age.

‘I like them, ‘ he said in a whisper, while he unbuttoned my shirt and with his hand pulled down the edge of the bra and tried to bite my nipples and suck them. But mu nipples, too, are small, and the breasts eluded him, falling back into the cups of the bra. I said wait, I pushed him away, I sat up, I took off the shirt, unhooked the bra. I asked stupidly: do you like them, anxiety was growing in me, I wanted him to repeat his approval.

Looking at me he sighed:

‘You’re beautiful.’

He took a deep breath, as if he wished to control a strong emotion or nostalgia, and just touched me with his fingertips so that I lay on the sofa with my chest bare and he could gaze at me more easily.

Lying there, I saw him from below, I noted the wrinkles of his aging neck, the beard that needed a shave and showed flecks of white, the deep creases between his eyebrows. Perhaps he was serious, perhaps he really was captivated by my beauty, or perhaps they were only words to ornament a desire for sex. Perhaps I remained beautiful even if my husband had rolled up the sense of my beauty into a ball and thrown it into the wastebasket, like wrapping paper [one of her many likes….if only she could resist them.] Yes, I could still make a man passionate, I was a woman able to do this, the flight of Mario to another bed, another flesh, had not ruined me.

Carrano bent over me, licked my nipples, sucked them. I tried to abandon myself, I wanted to eliminate disgust and desperation from my breast. I closed my eyes cautiously, the warmth of his breath, the lips on my skin, I let out a moan of encouragement for me and for him. I hoped to notice in myself some nascent pleasure, even if that man was a stranger, a musician perhaps of little talent, no quality, no capacity for seduction, dull and therefore alone.

Now I felt him kissing my ribs, my stomach, he stopped even on my navel, what he found there I don’t know, he moved his tongue in it, tickling me. Then he got up. I opened my eyes, he was rumpled, his eyes were bright, I seemed to see in his face the expression of a guilty child.

‘Tell me again that you like me,’ I insisted, short of breath.

‘Yes,’ he said, but with a little less enthusiasm. He put his hands on my knees, parted them, slid his fingers under my skirt, caressed the insides of my thighs, lightly, as if [warning, bad simile coming] he were sending a probe into the dark depths of a well.

He didn’t seem to be in a hurry, I would have preferred everything to proceed more quickly. Now I thought of the possibility that the children might wake up or even of the hypothesis that Mario, after our tumultuous encounter, frightened, repentant, had decided to return home that very evening. It even seemed to me that I could hear Otto barking joyfully, and I was about to say the dog is barking, but then it seemed to me inappropriate. Carrano had just raised my skirt and was now caressing the crotch of my underpants with the palm of his hand, and then he ran his fingers over the material, pressing, pushing it deep into the fold of my sex.

I moaned again, I wanted to help him take off the underpants, he stopped me.

‘No,’ he said, ‘wait.’

He moved aside the material, caressed my bare sex with his fingers, entered with his index finger, murmured again:

‘You’ve really beautiful.’

Beautiful everywhere, outside and in, male fantasies. Was Mario doing that, with me he had never taken his time. But maybe he, too, now, in the long night, somewhere else, was spreading Carla’s thin legs, letting his gaze rest on her cunt half covered by the underpants, lingering, his heart pounding, on the obscenity of that position, making it more obscene with his fingers. Or, who knows, maybe it was I alone who was obscene now, abandoned to that man who was touching me in secret places, who, in no hurry, was bathing his fingers inside me, with the casual curiosity of one who isn’t in love. Carla, on the other hand – Mario believed this, I was certain that he believed it – was a young woman in love who gives herself to her lover. Not a gesture, not a sigh was vulgar or sordid, not even the coarsest words had any power against the true meaning of their intercourse. I could say cunt and cock and asshole, they were not marked by it. I marked, I disfigured, only my own image on the sofa, what I was at that moment, rumpled, with Carrano’s big fingers rousing in me a fund of muddy pleasure.

Again I felt like crying, I clenched my teeth. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t want to burst into tears again, I reacted by moving my pelvis, shaking my head, moaning, murmuring:

‘You want me, it’s true that you want me, tell me…’

Carrano nodded yes, pushed me onto my side, pulled down my underpants. I have to leave, I thought. Now what I wanted to know I knew. I am still attractive to men. Mario took everything but not me, not m y person, not my beautiful charming mask. That’s enough with my ass. He was biting my buttocks, licking me.

‘Not my ass.’ I said, moving his fingers away. He touched my anus again, I moved him away again. Enough. I drew back, I stretched a hand toward his bathrobe.

‘Let’s get it over with,’ I exclaimed. ‘Do you have a condom?’

Carrano nodded yes but didn’t move. He took his hands off my body, showing a sudden sadness, and leaned his head on the back of the sofa, stared at the ceiling.

‘I don’t feel anything,’ he murmured.

‘What don’t you feel?’

‘An erection.’ [Well, who would after ‘Let’s get it over with’?]

‘Never?’

‘No, now.’

‘Since we started?’

‘Yes.’

I felt myself flare up with shame. He had kissed me, embraced me, touched me, but he hadn’t gotten hard, I hadn’t been able to make his blood burn, he had roused my flesh without rousing his, ugly shit.

I opened his bathrobe, now I couldn’t leave, between the fourth floor and the fifth there were no longer stairs, if I left I would find the abyss.

I looked at his small pallid sex, lost in the black forest of hairs, between the heavy testicles.

‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘you’re upset.’

I jumped up, I took off the skirt that I was still wearing, I was naked, but he didn’t even realise it, he continued to look at the ceiling.

‘Now you lie down,’ I ordered him with false calm. ‘Relax.’

I pushed him down on the sofa, supine, in the position in which until that moment I had been.

‘Where are the condoms?’

He gave a melancholy smile.

‘It’s useless at this point,’ and yet he pointed to a chest of drawers with a gesture of discouragement.

I went to the chest, opened one drawer after another, found the condoms.

‘But I was attractive to you…’ Again I insisted.

He hit his forehead lightly with the back of his hand.

‘Yes, in my mind.’

I laughed angrily, I said:

‘You have to like me everywhere,’ and I sat on his chest, turning my back to him. I began to caress his stomach, going slowly lower and lower along the black track of hairs to where they were thick around his sex. Carla was fucking my husband and I couldn’t fuck this man, a man alone, without opportunities, a depressed musician for whom I was to be the happy surprise of his fifty-third birthday. She ruled Mario’s cock as if it belonged to her, she made him put it in her pussy, in her ass, which he had never done with me, and I, I could only chill that gray flesh. I grabbed his penis, I pulled down the skin to make sure there were no lesions and put it in my mouth. After a while Carrano began to moan, it sounded like braying. Soon his flesh swelled against my palate, this is what the shit wanted, this is what he was waiting for. Finally his prick emerged strong from his belly, a prick to fuck me with, to make my stomach ache for days, as Mario had never fucked me. My husband didn’t know what to do with real women: he dared only with whores of twenty, without intelligence, without experience, without teasing words.

Now Carrano was agitated, he told me to wait: wait, wait. I moved backward until I was pressing my sex against his mouth, I left his penis and turned with the most disdainful look I was capable of. ‘Kiss it,’ I said, and he kissed me literally, with devotion, I felt the shock of the kiss on my pussy, old food, the metaphoric language I used with Mario evidently wasn’t his, he misunderstood, he didn’t realise what I was really ordering him to do, I don’t know if Carla was able to decipher my husband’s suggestions, I don’t know. With my teeth I tore open the condom wrapper, I put it on his prick, come on, get up, I said to him, you like the asshole, deflower me, I never did that with my husband, I want to tell him about it in every detail, put it in my ass.

The musician struggled out from under me, I remained on all fours. I laughed to myself, I couldn’t contain myself thinking of Mario’s face when I told him. I stopped laughing only when I felt Carrano pushing forcefully against me. I was suddenly afraid, I held my breath. A bestial position, animal liquids and a perfidy utterly human. I turned to look at him, perhaps to beg him not to obey me, to let it go. Our glances me. I don’t know what he saw, I saw a man no longer young, with his white bathrobe open, his face shiny with sweat, lips pressed in concentration. I murmured something to him, I don’t know what. He unclenched his lips, opened his mouth, closed his eyes. Then he sank down behind me. I supported myself on one side. I saw the whitish stain of semen against the wall of the condom.

‘Never mind,’ I said with a dry explosion of laughter in my throat, and I tore the rubber off his already limp penis, threw it away, it stained the floor with a viscid yellow stripe. ‘You missed the target.’

They don’t call him Lucky Carrano for nothing. Not only does he get this great sex scene, but he ends up with the chick. In between the two he is roundly abused by Olga whenever possible, which doesn’t stop her getting him to dispose of her dog when it dies, probably because she doesn’t get the vet in to look at it. It could have been worse. Her son seems quite ill while the dog is dying and she doesn’t get in the doctor either – well, not until he’s on the mend again.

I do get cracking up. But somehow, in the end I don’t really feel like she’s really telling it how it is. She’s telling us what she wants us to know. And I’m not sure whether that’s Olga’s fault or Ferrante’s. I wonder if it matters?

 

 

 

 

 

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My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

When I was seven my father disowned his family. It was, he explained at the time, because he did not want us to be raised in the culture of violence and ignorance that made his family what it was. Although from the stories I heard from him, I had some picture in my mind of what that meant, it was really only upon reading this series that I have a clear sense of what we escaped. In fact, my father’s family is Calabrian from the area where John Paul Getty III was held after being kidnapped. Far more violent than the pussy Neapolitans.

So, on a personal level what I got from this was an inkling of what my life might have been like, had my father not made that decision. The culture is violent, the people, all relationships on all levels. The language is not violent, it is violence. That is the purpose of dialect, to express violence and threats and anger and powerlessness and vitriol and abuse.  It is a weapon. Having read these books and lived through the sometimes terrifying behaviour of my father I wonder whether it is learned or genetic. I do so hope it isn’t something I can’t undo in me.

I felt part Elena so often I stopped counting. Not just because my father, despite his best intentions, could not save us entirely from this life because he could not save us from himself, but for so many decisions she made as a child, growing up, and then as an adult. It’s an excruciatingly painful business, watching a person in a book do incredibly idiotic things as she does in her personal relationships all the time, knowing that one has done them all with no better capacity to explain than this series does.  How could she have got involved with Nino, even as a teenager, let alone as an adult. The only thing that makes me realise that it is permissible within the constraints of the book is that I’ve done the same stupid, stupid things.

I was unable to put down the first volume until I’d finished it. The most fantastic end to a book I’ve ever read by the way, and endings are impossibly hard to do. Two weeks in Melbourne, back to Adelaide and I discover that there is one shop where I can buy them. Imprints Booksellers, thank you! I bought the other three volumes and read them back to back over the course of a week. Does one need a review after that statement? A friend in Melbourne who is an Italian literature academic started reading the first and called up uni to say she wouldn’t be in that week. Unputdownable does not in the slightest exaggerate the effect of these.

Peter at East Avenue Books put me onto this series. It’s a secondhand bookshop in Clarence Park specialising in literature – if you live in Adelaide you must go there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then you die by Michael Dibden

I’m woefully behind with recording my latest reading. The last few days I’ve zipped through another Michael Dibdin I happened upon at the book market near here. I keep thinking I must have read all the Zen books, but not only had this one been avoiding me, I find I must also have missed the one before it. I say that because I’m sure this one would have made more sense if I’d slotted it into the correct order. It’s an odd book, the structure and storyline being somewhere between idiosyncratic and inadequate. I wish to veer towards the former, simply because it has that easy style that makes this series so attractive, not mention, Zen is a character of whom one never tires. However harshly this book may be criticised, I say it’s definitely worth reading if you like Zen. And how could you not?

Medusa by Michael Dibdin

It seems to me that in general one expects living authors to run out of words before breath – entirely unreasonable, I know, but there it is. Dibdin died too early, making this an unexpected treat, an Aurelio Zen I thought I’d read but hadn’t, I realised leafing through it in a bookshop in Australia.

As usual, I love the food details, minor thoughts one files away in brain under cooking. Atrociously ignorant about a country for which I hold a passport, I’ve probably learned as much about Italy from the Zen series as from any other source. Politics, culture, history abound without ever seeming like a substitute for a story.

On top of all that, an antiquarian bookseller has a big part. For what more could one ask?

Carofiglio continued

A bout of flu with a bronchitis chaser saw me struggling with the history of science and such like that I’m trying to focus on at the moment. It was a splendid excuse to knock off the rest of Gianrico Carofiglio’s collection of books featuring Guido Guerrieri:

Involuntary Witness
Reasonable Doubts
Temporary Perfections

It is hard not to be delighted with these. There is always an interesting recipe, one that sends you out in search of ingredients. Guerrieri both boxes and cries, and this is all completely believable. You don’t even think about it while you are reading. Carofiglio is very experienced with the workings of Italian law and this shines through. The stories feel real and indeed there is nothing remotely thriller-like about them. In three of the four in the series of legal procedurals, Guerrieri defends a client without solving the case. This in itself is unexpected – one assumes that the defence is going to be based on identifying the real culprit and yet this path is never taken.

I unreservedly recommend these and finish with a nice episode from Temporary Perfections. Guerrieri has a strong imagination, he is often in a world removed from the one around him. Having been asked in this story to do something out of his experience, to be a private investigator, it sends him into a reverie of fictional investigators and what they might do – Guerrieri’s friends are his punching bag and books, he is quite a loner.

As I walked out onto the street, with a studied gesture I pulled up the collar of my raincoat, even though there was no reason to do so.

People who read too much often do things that are completely unnecessary.

A Walk in the Dark by Gianrico Carofiglio

One of several books I bought speculatively at OffTheShelf in Geneva recently in their bargain area. And indeed it was. Five CHF for a splendid legal procedural set in Bari, southern Italy. Not only a great read, but I seem to have acquired a new Italian ingredient, botargo, and a recipe for it. What more could one expect from a book?!