Elena Ferrante's narrator, Olga, whose husband has left her, is too wrapped up in her own misery to remember, really, that other people exist. But there is one figure from her Neapolitan childhood she can't forget: a neighbour, a bustling matriarch of the old school with large skirts and a clutch of nurtured offspring. She was jovial, gossipy; she distributed sweets and kindnesses. She also had a silent husband, who followed obediently in her train until - one day - he rebelled, and ran off with another woman. And then the weeping began, and the breast-beating, and the wailing. She would be seen shuffling painfully down the street, a handkerchief wound round nervous, wringing fingers, her eyes hollow and skin white. The whole neighbourhood prayed for her. Little Olga would hide under the table where her mother and company were sewing and talking, talking and sewing: the poverella, they would sigh; this is what happens to an abandoned woman, a woman a man has chosen not to love. The warning was drummed into her along with the woman's moans: be careful, the morality tale ran, or you'll end up like the poverella, dried out and shrunken. The poverella, for her part, tried to poison herself, and failed; but not long afterwards her corpse was found washed up near Capo Miseno. There is no living without the husband.
LRB 21 September 2006 | PDF Download