The Fiction of Abandonment

Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment and Tamaz Chiladze’s The Brueghel Moon are both about the breakdown of marriage and the disastrous effects this has on the psyche of the person who is left behind. Both of them also show, with devastating clarity, how the abandoned partner then proceeds to wreak havoc on the people around them as they struggle to come to terms with their new situation and identity. They are anything but dry reads with a thesis, however.

BrueghelMoonChiladze is a Georgian poet, novelist and playwright and comes from a notable literary family: his mother was a poet, his younger brother was also a poet and journalist, credited with playing an important role in the resurrection of Georgian literature in the post-Stalinist era. Have you ever read a Georgian author before? No, neither have I – so it’s kudos to Dalkey Archive for opening up this chapter and this world for us. And it’s clearly a very different world indeed.

However, I can now add Georgia to my Global Reading Challenge – as an unexpected (and controversial) entrant for Europe. Yes, there has been some debate whether Georgia, which is located on the Caucasian peninsula, is in Europe or in Asia, but the population certainly considers itself more European than anything else.

‘Ultimately, the function of literature is to intensify mystery, not to solve it,’ Chiladze says in an interview – and he certainly succeeds in that. It’s the story of a psychotherapist, Levan, who is suffering a mid-life crisis and starts blurring the borders between his personal and his professional life. His wife leaves him just as the novel opens. Levan is baffled but emotionally frozen, yet soon embarks upon illicit relationships with not just one but two of his patients – the enigmatic Nunu (an astrophysicist who appears to know some state secrets and who perhaps was involved in her husband’s death) and the fragile, depressed Ana-Maria, wife of the French ambassador, who attempted to commit suicide. The points of view shift between these three main protagonists, sometimes within the same chapter, from 1st to 3rd person, so it’s not always easy to tell who says what. The voices themselves are not distinct enough. These are all intellectually gifted people perpetually on the edge of a breakdown.

I found the perpetual shifts confusing: just as I was warming to one particular voice, I had to acquaint myself with a new one. I also found the monologues of Levan at times a little too self-referential, too didactic. For example:

My composure is an act, a ploy. My professional mask. The questions asked by my patients might sound abnormal, but are deeply human and only someone hiding behind the mask of composure can ward them off… I have erected a lofty wall around myself, which means not only that it’s impenetrable for others, but that my essence can’t get out either, being confined within, unable to splash in the stormy waves of what’s called Life…

A contrast to the ‘splashing’ in emotional and stormy waves in Ferrante’s book, obviously. There was something a little arid about The Brueghel Moon, which didn’t quite allow me to fully engage .I’m not sure if it’s the translation or the lack of contextual knowledge on my part. Nevertheless, this was an interesting depiction of a country and period in recent history about which I know very little.

daysabandonFerrante’s book has the upper hand when it comes to reader engagement: by focusing on just one narrator, one side of the story, we have a coherent, undiluted dramatic monologue. And what a monologue it is! It sweeps the reader (and all else before it) away in a relentless turmoil and maelstrom of emotions. This is bold, brassy, uncensored description of wallowing in self-pity, anger, desire for revenge, confusion and loss of self-esteem. And it’s all described in Technicolor, not in a genteel, quiet way. This way of handling emotions is not that unfamiliar to me coming from a Latin culture: we are noisy and expressive and shameless. Think of Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or All About My Mother – or indeed pretty much any Almodovar film. Think of the impassioned gesticulation of Camilleri’s characters in his Montalbano novels.

Yet the narrative is tightly controlled. It all starts in a matter-of-fact way. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Olga is thirty-eight, tidy, neat, precise, the kind of woman who always puts in commas and avoids the melodramatics of her family back in Naples. She is married to Mario, lives in Turin and has two young children, a girl and a boy. So Olga’s descent into a messy hell of bereavement is all the more shocking.

The author knows exactly what she is doing, however, how much to reveal and how she wants us to view her main character, even though the language and thoughts seem to flow so naturally and uncensored. Olga behaves erratically, sometimes descending into farcical situations (the shards in the pasta sauce) or tragicomedy (being locked inside the house, unable to open the door, with a dying dog, a child with a high temperature, and no telephone connection).

Her  internal monologue appears to be captured in a literal transcription, with no filter, admitting even her most bizarre, unsayable thoughts: what if she just left her children in the park? what if she were to use her neighbour as a sexual prop? I could not help but feel sorry for her, deeply empathetic to her plight, yet also faintly repulsed and wanting to shake her out of her stupor. Olga has given up her own ambitions and career for marriage and motherhood, and now is furious at the double betrayal: by societal expectations, but also by biology. Her chilling condemnation of maternal instinct is miles away from the cosy pictures we get to see elsewhere.

I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping; a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves, leaving on me the odor and taste of their gastric juices. Nursing, how repulsive, an animal function.

Ultimately, both of the main protagonists of these novels are self-centred, self-absorbed, but not really self-aware. That’s why I suspect they are quite credible descriptions of the despair of abandonment, even if they manifest themselves in different ways. I would certainly pick the Ferrante book over the other, partly because I can relate better to a female character, but also because on this occasion I prefer my emotions out in the open.


29 thoughts on “The Fiction of Abandonment”

  1. My brother, who roams far and wide, has raved to me about how beautiful and interesting Georgia is so I feel I should read the Chiladze but I wonder after reading your reply to londonchoirgirl. He also loves Romania and has been back several times.

  2. Another great review confirming why Ferrante is already an author I want to explore… given your thoughts on Chiladaze you make reading the two for comparison very tempting.

    1. Actually, the reason I was reading both of them (shh, it’s secret, don’t tell) is because the novel I am currently working on (well, thinking about, I haven’t started yet) is about a more or less abandoned expat wife. Except of course it all turns murderous in my hands…

      1. My lips are sealed but my ears pricked… do you blog about your writing? is this your first novel?

  3. It’s a shame about the lack of differentiation between the voices in the Chiladze novel as the set-up sounded quite juicy. Ah well…

    I loved the control in the opening to Ferrante’s book, quietly devastating in its own way. I really like what you say about your conflicted feelings towards Olga, how you couldn’t help empathising with her plight while wanting to give her a good shake at the same time.

    1. There is always that rumble of Soviet intervention and interference in the background too in the Georgian novel – although perhaps I’d have like to see more of it.
      I suppose Olga is expressing what many women feel and some even do in the case of a painful divorce. I was talking to a parenting expert the other day and she was saying how often she sees cases of manipulation, neglect, selfishness and childish behaviour from the parents when they divorce, without much thought being given on how it might affect the children. So she’s not that much of an outlier – but the thing about Ferrante is that she dares to name what many of us barely dare to even think.

  4. Marina Sofia – Kudos to you for finding and trying these different kinds of books. It sounds as though the whole issue of abandonment and what it can really mean is explored in some depth in both cases. What I find fascinating is the different perspective these two authors have, and how they present their stories. And I ought to read the Chiladze, even though the other tempts me a bit more; I know nothing really about Georgian writing and writers…

    1. I couldn’t resist the Georgian angle myself – I had an Armenian and a Georgian friend in my class when I was small and this ‘small nation at the mercy of a giant’ mentality was very interesting.

  5. I used to have Georgian friends and remember that I was so surprised that I found them much more Mediterranean than Eastern. In any case not very Russian – at least not before the vodka bottle was fetched.
    I never read a Georgian novel though.

    1. I did feel like abandoning it at times, but then there would be one passage that lifted it up again… plus I still have a feeling of ‘duty’ about finishing books (it’s a disease, it’s OCD, but I’m getting better…).

  6. I hadn’t come across a Georgian book yet either, so I’ve added this one to my reading list for now, despite your mixed feelings about it. I have to say, the quote from the author that “the function of literature is to intensify mystery, not solve it” is almost enough to deter me just by itself. I’m okay with a certain amount of ambiguity, but if a book does nothing but offer up “mystery” without any insight, I’m not sure I see the point.

      1. Thanks for the suggestions! It helps to have access to a university library. It looks like my library not only has a copy of Data Tutashkhia, it has two copies!

    1. Must be the old English Literature student in me, always looking for patterns and themes! Thank you for your kind words, Cleo – and I do recommend the Ferrante novel, if you get a chance to read it.

  7. What an intriguing comparative review. I own a copy of the Elena Ferrante, which I have been trying and failing to get to for a couple of years now. How does that happen? Thanks to your review, I think it’s official bumped back up the list.

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