The Days of Abandonment: Back Story in Bed

Pain on page one

In Ferrante’s second paragraph, she puts our protagonist in bed—a double bed—desolate. Most craft books warn beginning writers: don’t start your story with a character in bed. However, so much has happened to this poor woman by the book’s seventh sentence that she deserves a rest. She can’t sleep, but only obsesses about her husband. She can’t figure out why he’s left. “I knew him well, I was aware the he was a man of quiet feelings, the house and our family rituals were indispensable to him.We talked about everything, we still liked to hug and kiss each other, sometimes he was so funny he could make me laugh until I cried.” She’s baffled: “It seemed to me impossible that he should truly want to leave.” She’s sympathetic: “When I recalled that he hadn’t taken any of the things that were important to him, and had even neglected to say goodbye to the children, I felt certain it wasn’t serious. He was going through one of those moments that you read about in books, when a character reacts in an unexpectedly extreme way to the normal discontents of living.” Hmm. Does she really know him as well as she thinks she does? She sees him as a character, just as we do. She’s a character too, after all, but by naming him as such, she (the protagonist guided by Ferrante) adds another layer of detachment to her crisis and moves closer to the reader. We feel her physically.

Transition to back story

Then in paragraph three, she confides: “After all, it had  happened before: the time and the details came to mind as I tossed and turned in the bed.” This is a masterful transition to back story for many reasons. Ferrante moves from the present to the past keeping the woman in place—in bed— for four pages. During this time the protagonist remembers what happened that other time her husband left, then muses over their relationship with a realtor, Gina, that they’d engaged to buy their house and her teenage daughter, Carla. With the back story, the protagonist can leave the bed in her mind and take us with her: she gives us a taste of Turin, the city to which they’d moved five years ago—metallic, green, yellow, red, leaves, stripped by the wind, foggy air, fresh sparkling breeze. She paints a picture of Mario (her husband is named on page three) with Carla, realizing “it wasn’t the mother I had to worry about but the daughter.” The girl has a “swaying body, restless eyes.” Though this is still back story, it’s sensuous, fully fleshed in our protagonist’s mind as if in the present. We’re told that the marital crisis of the past was resolved and that her husband “returned to being the man he had always been.” By now we’re not sure that is such a good recommendation, if, in fact, he was a man who, as she’s revealed, broke off relations with her for no apparent reason only six months after they had been together, because “there had come upon him a sudden absence of sense,” and then used that same excuse when he became infatuated with the the realtor and her daughter.

Transition to present story

The protagonist breaks her reverie, gets out of bed for a cup of chamomile tea. From her window, she sees the musician Carrano, her downstairs neighbor, “coming up the path,his head bowed, carrying over his shoulders the giant case…” He “disappeared beneath the trees in the little square.” She goes back to bed, believing everything will return to normal. We’re at the end of page six, all the major characters have been introduced, we have a sense of place and time, sensuous detail we can touch, taste, and see, full-bodied characters, an informative and vivid back story—just enough. We’d like to get in bed, too, and believe in normal, but we know that can’t be—or why would this story exist? The tension is palpable. We’re not sleeping tonight. We have to turn the page.

Lesson for writers

Create a “vivid, continuous dream”

Use sensory language to create scenes in the present, past and future. Bring your reader into the character’s consciousness and create the vivid, continuous dream that John Gardner talks about in his artful book The Art of Fiction. He’s not referring to a dream in the character’s mind, though the character may be dreaming. He says that “fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.”  The pull of place—in the above example the bed, a comfortable setting we all know and understand—and sensory language—casts a spell. Olga’s husband’s sudden “absence of sense” is replaced in our minds and its opposite heightened by familiar and vivid sensations. Even when she breaks her reverie, Olga’s desire for camomile tea steeps the transition from back story to present story in sensory detail.


The Days of Abandonment: First Paragraph

Entering the story of “The Days of Abandonment,” author Elena Ferrante drops us right into the protagonist’s pain, and does so with a detachment that sets up the woman’s emotional state. “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.”

Masterful control of narrative

Let’s examine this first sentence from the hand of an author who is in complete control of her narrative and kind to her readers, even though she is about to take us into the depths of the narrator’s despair. With calm clarity, Ferrante places us in time in this domestic drama: “One April afternoon, right after lunch…” Nothing could be more ordinary. The repeated “after” propels us forward. This is a story about what’s coming next. We can’t hold onto the past any more than the narrator can, though she tries in vain to do so. She gives us the reason for what will be the narrator’s unraveling: “my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Already we sense narrator’s out-of-body response to the news: “He did it while we were clearing the table”—as if the crisis were just another dish to wash. We learn later how much she has given up to be wife and mother and how little self-identity she still claimed, even before her husband abandoned her.

Punctuation matters

Punctuation plays a role. The semicolon separates her husband from the children and the dog, just as his leaving splits their family life. The children and dog remain in her care, though the children’s “quarreling” anticipates it won’t be easy to be the single parent and the dog’s “growling” suggests he may play an role other than silent pet, and he does.

Lessons for writers

Point the way in the first sentence

When I read masterful opening sentences such as these, I wonder how they evolved. Did the author write them first? Did she know where she was going and how well they’d lead her there? Did she go back to the beginning with each draft, honing these sentences to direct the final manuscript? In the novels I’ve written, there are many attempts at first paragraphs which set up the same story from radically different entry points. Rewriting the first sentence helps me understand the story—a pointer showing where the story wants to go.

Drop details bit by bit

In Ferrante’s first two sentences, the major characters are introduced, except for the “other woman” and the narrator’s new love interest, both of whom will be mentioned by page five. But this novel is mainly about the dissolution of a family, the abandonment of a marriage covenant. Why does the dog appear here? Because he will play a major role in the narrator’s descent into hell and her redemption. Do we need to know this as readers starting out? No. But novel writing is a bit like Hansel and Gretel’s dropping of bread crumbs to mark the trail. Ferrante’s crumbs keep us turning pages, yes, but also introduce bit by bit the ordinary and terribly extraordinary daily details of abandonment.

Make characters complex: Give flaws to protagonists, redeem antagonists

Read Ferrante’s next two lines: “He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments 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.” Wouldn’t it be so much easier for the abandoned wife if she could hate her husband with better reason than that he left her? How much simpler it would be if he was cruel to the children or beat her. How more likely we could hate him if he just walked out, didn’t “talk for a long time” and reproached her unfairly. How much easier for us and for the narrator to despise a bully than a coward.

Use vivid detail, vivid metaphor

The first paragraph consists of six sentences. Here are the final two: “He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were uging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.”

How could we not read on? She’s turned to stone and we don’t even know her name. In fact, she’s so lacking in her own personal sense of identity that we don’t find out her name—Olga—until pages into the story, long after the name of the “other woman” is mentioned. But the “turned to stone” tells us that Olga isn’t taking this calmly in the course of her day, as the narrative tone suggests.

Thread tension: create friction between opposites, against expectations

The tension established between what seems to be and the true depths of emotion keeps tension on the page.  The dropping in, little by little, of information tucked among sensory language—”dog growling, radiator (the heat will be echoed later in Olga’s August entrapment in the apartment), extravagant gesture of his right hand, childish frown, sort of whispering”—keeps us reading. We can see, hear, and feel the scene. The “turned to stone” anticipates how bad it will be for our protagonist, who is left not in a romantic upheaval—on the bed! under the train!—but “beside the sink.” For this women, there are dishes to do, even though her marriage has fallen apart. Ferrante shows us well that when things go wrong it’s harder to bear real life if there is no escaping from it.

In my next post, I’ll examine how Ferrante masterfully brings in the necessary back story—never an easy task, always a pitfall for a writer.