Walter Benjamin had wanted to write a book woven entirely out of quotations.
One afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator.
I was too good he said.
He wanted me at all costs to see him as he said he was: a good for nothing, incapable of true feelings, mediocre, adrift even in his profession.
He also had the manners of a gentleman who cultivates his melancholy soul while the old world collapses around him.
“I don’t give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife? Fuck you! What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me? What words should I use for what you’re doing with that woman! Let’s talk about it! Do you lick her cunt? Do you stick it in her ass? Do you do all the things you never did with me? Tell me! Because I see you! With these eyes I see everything you do together, I see it a hundred thousand times, I see it night and day, eyes open and eyes closed!”
I began to change. In the course of a month I lost the habit of putting on makeup carefully, I went from using a refined language, attentive to the feelings of others, to a sarcastic way of expressing myself, punctuated by coarse laughter. Slowly, in spite of my resistance, I also gave in to obscenity.
[I] watched TV. But there was no program that could make me forget myself.
Once he fucked me, now he fucks someone else, what claim do I have? Time passes, one goes, another arrives.
But in the end he had shown himself to be a contemptible man, incapable of keeping faith with the commitments he had made. We don’t know anything about people, even those with whom we share everything.
He desired the past, the girlhood that I had already given him and that he now felt nostalgia for.
I spent the night and the following days in reflection. [One day I noticed the solitary man who lives downstairs out in the garden.]
So I stood silently watching him from the fifth floor, thin but broad in the shoulders, his hair gray and thick. I felt an increasing hostility toward him that became more tenacious the more unreasonable I felt it to be. What were his secrets of a man alone, a male obsession with sex, perhaps, the late-life cult of the cock. Certainly he, too, saw no farther than his ever-weaker squirt of sperm, was content only when he could verify that he could still get it up, like the dying leaves of a dried-up plant that’s given water. Rough with the women’s bodies he happened to encounter, hurried, dirty, certainly his only objective was to score points, as in a rifle range, to sink into a red pussy as into a fixed thought surrounded by concentric circles. Better if the patch of hair is young and shiny, ah the virtue of a firm ass. So he thought, such were the thoughts I attributed to him, I was shaken by vivid electric shocks of rage.
The preceding very short story was drawn from the passages I had saved and two that I found on the Web in Elena Ferrante’s novel Days of Abandonment. It isn’t a book, of course, as Walter Benjamin imagined, but it does make some degree of sense. Rather it’s more like a cento, a poem constructed from the poems that others have written.
It was for me nothing more than an exercise to see if I could do it. It is also one of the virtues of saving memorable passages from the books you read in a commonplace book. I read Ferrante’s novel seven years ago and had no trouble remembering it, unlike most of the books I’ve read that long ago. It is not a book anyone who has read ever forgets
It is also representative of all of the books Ferrante writes, as James Wood illustrates in his essay in discussing her fiction. He begins by noting she “is one of Italy’s best-known least-known contemporary writers.”
As if in reply, Ferrante comments in Fragments, a short Kindle book, on her reading and writing: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” And further on, “Who really cares about the person who wrote it? What’s essential is the finished work.”